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A scientist's guide to life: How to concentrate

A scientist's guide to life: How to concentrate

Published: 15th February, 2021 at 00:00
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This month, we tackle… oh, hang on, wait a minute, I just need to let the dog out, now what was it again? Psychologist Dr Nick Perham from Cardiff Metropolitan University explains how to concentrate

Distraction isn’t all bad.

If we get distracted at work, it’s not great for productivity, but distraction has a positive side. If we were always so focused that we never got distracted, we’d miss potential changes, such as threats, in our environment. Imagine if you were concentrating so hard on a book that you didn’t hear a fire alarm going off. Distraction is vital for survival.

Illustration: Alexander Naughton
Illustration: Alexander Naughton

Silence is best.

Of course, there are plenty of times when you do need to concentrate and noise becomes a problem. For example, we’ve found that people do worse on tasks such as mental arithmetic when there’s background noise to disturb them.

Some sounds are more distracting than others.

Complex noises that are acoustically varied are more distracting than less varied sounds. We found that office noise with speech is more distracting than office noise without speech. Similarly, music with lyrics is more distracting than instrumental music.


  1. Silence is best, or a gentle background hum. ‘Coffee shop noise’ is great!
  2. Switch off notifications on your phone so you can concentrate on the task at hand.
  3. Exercise your working memory to improve your ability to focus.

But some people say music helps them to concentrate?

They may say this, but our research doesn’t always back it up. If you ask people to predict how well they’ll do on a task while listening to music that they like, versus listening to music that they don’t like, they tend to overestimate how well they subsequently do. Liked and disliked music tend to impair performance equally.

Try working in a coffee shop.

Unless someone smashes a cup or makes some other sudden noise, the gentle background hum can feel like a pleasant backdrop for work. Similarly, noise-cancelling headphones seem to work because they screen out loud and unexpected sounds.

Has lockdown impaired our concentration?

Maybe. For people with busy households, there may be more distractions when working from home, but it’s too soon to say if there is any long-term effect on concentration. It could just be that we are still adjusting to new ways of working in different environments.

Read more from A Scientist’s Guide to Life:

Learn to concentrate better.

There’s an enormous amount of variation in people’s ability to concentrate. Those with better working memory – the ability to store and manipulate information short term – seem to do best, but we can all improve by practising certain tasks that involve working memory. For example, try to remember and recall a list of, say, five numbers in order. Then the next week, try to remember six in order, then seven, and so on.

Turn off those notifications.

If you want to concentrate for a long time, don’t make life unnecessarily hard. Turn off those notifications on your phone, or switch the phone off. Have a coffee. Take regular breaks, and let’s hope that you’re concentrating on something interesting. It’s easy for the mind to wander when the subject matter is boring!



Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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