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Create a Ready-to-Resume Plan When an Unavoidable Interruption Comes Up

If you are interrupted by something or someone unavoidable, take a few seconds to mentally note where you are in your current task, and how you'll return to that task. This can be as simple as noting that you were three-quarters of the way down the page you were reading, and that's where you'll return your gaze when you finish the interruption.

This ready-to-resume plan reduces attention residue that can disrupt the new task. How? It provides the closure the brain is looking for—even if the closure is only temporary. A sense of temporary completeness allows you to fully engage in the interrupting task, even while it allows you to return to the original task more easily later.


Take Frequent Brief Breaks

We already mentioned that the mental break part of the Pomodoro Technique is critically important. Too prolonged a focus doesn't give your brain time to offload the new material you're learning into long-term memory. Your studying becomes less effective. In addition, specific areas of the brain can tire when you use them for a long time. Although researchers still don't know why, it's thought that just as muscles will tire from exercise, so can the brain tire from use, so-called "cognitive exhaustion."

Short (5- to 10-minute) breaks involving complete mental relaxation—no internet, no texting, no reading, nothing at all—are the best for enhancing what you've just learned, because the new information can settle without interference. This means you're not being lazy if you want to take a short nap or just do nothing—instead, you're being efficient.

Breaks that involve something physical, like going for a walk or jog, or even just getting up for a cup of tea, are always a good idea. Part of the reason that breaks where you move around may be so valuable may simply be that you aren't thinking so much. Another reason is that movement and exercise themselves are helpful for the learning process—more on that later.


Music and Binaural Beats

Music seems to slow down learning for most students, especially in math. You may feel better studying to music, and feel you can study longer. But that's because when you're listening to music, part of your attention is following the tune so you aren't working as hard as you could be. Music can also lead to multitasking as you switch between work and fiddling with your playlist. If you are getting good grades or evaluations for what you're learning, you're probably fine to listen to music. But if your feedback isn't what you'd like, or you're struggling to make headway with the material, we'd suggest backing away from music. There are hints, however, that those with attentional disorders may benefit from studying to music.

Incidentally, there is a music-related phenomenon called "binaural beats." By wearing stereo headphones, the right and left ears can be supplied with two slightly different frequency tones—for example, 300 Hz and 320 Hz. Surprisingly, a person hears not only the original two tones, but also a third frequency—the difference between those two frequencies. In this case, the difference would be 20 Hz—called the "beat" frequency.

Researchers first became aware of binaural beats when they were investigating how the brain locates sounds. Beginning in the 1970s, people began to explore possible changes in consciousness produced when the beats might shift, or entrain, brain activity toward the beat frequency. Most uses of binaural beats today are by regular people who download audio materials from various online sources to help them focus, remember, relax, or meditate. Since the beats can have a bland, monotonous sound, they are often embedded in music or pink noise. You can explore studying to binaural beats, but be aware that the observed positive effects, at least in the baseline studies, are modest. And despite their claims, online sources for binaural beats can be of questionable legitimacy. Finally, research suggests that the effect of binaural beats on focus might be canceled by the effects of the music they might be embedded in.


Meditation and Yoga

Meditation has been suggested as a method for building focus. Overall, there are two general types of meditation—focused types, such as mantra meditation, and open monitoring types, such as mindfulness. Mantra-type meditation may provide more direct practice in building focus, although effects generally become apparent after weeks or months. Open monitoringtype meditation may help cognition indirectly, by improving mood. A challenge is that many past studies on meditation didn't follow proper scientific procedures, so more research is needed.

There are some preliminary indications that yoga may have positive effects on cognition and may improve the connections of the diffuse mode. (More on the diffuse mode in the next chapter.) But research on the effects of yoga is at an even more preliminary stage than meditation, so it's hard to draw firm conclusions.

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In this chapter, we've covered how to focus on what you're learning. But sometimes focusing just isn't enough. What do you do when you get stuck? Read on!
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