I noticed that I have more and more serious problems keeping focused, and despite my efforts to fix it the problem is just getting worse over time.

When I'm in a research-related discussion with someone, my mind easily wanders, and I won't be able to recall the last thing other person was saying so I have to politely ask them to repeat it. Usually this is because I'm still thinking about the last idea they mentioned instead of continuing to listen to them talk, but sometimes it's just as if my mind just turned off for the duration of a sentence of two.

At least when I'm talking to one person, I can always ask them to repeat what they said or ask them to slow down. But when it's a group discussion or a lecture/talk, this is not possible. When I was an undergraduate and attended lectures regularly, I didn't have this problem.

Am I alone with this problem, or do others encounter it too?

What strategies can one use to improve concentration and comprehension? How can I train myself to focus better?

I am very concerned about this problem as it affects my academic work and performance.

  • 2
    You could ask for an example, if you haven't thought of that, depending on your subject. It's not the same as repeating.
    – Compass
    Jan 29, 2015 at 18:18
  • 1
    @Compass Agreed, although it is possible to sound silly this way, e.g. mathoverflow.net/a/62749/1682 :-) Jan 29, 2015 at 18:44
  • @TrevorWilson I'm not a math guy =.=
    – Compass
    Jan 29, 2015 at 18:47
  • 1
    When talking with just one person, I ask them to give me time to process what they've said. If you're just zoning out, it might be worth leaving off the conversation for a bit.
    – Jessica B
    Jan 29, 2015 at 20:35
  • 1
    The question in the topic can generate some useful answers but the situation as you describe it seems to point more towards a possible medical issue. I'd highly recommend you discuss this with your GP/doctor. Perhaps you're simply struggling to pay attention to discussions you find boring but you'd want to rule out things like an attention disorder or microsleeps first.
    – Lilienthal
    Jan 29, 2015 at 21:30

6 Answers 6


This is a common issue I have when attending a talk or discussing on some intense topic with a collaborator. Since English is not my first language, I also happen to spend some time mentally translating it to my internal language (which is a mix of many by now).

Personally, some mental homework and meditation has helped me focus. Looking at the abstract and author bio (if available) before the talk helps. Experience gained from attending more and more talks has also helped.


I think it helps to ask as many questions as you can reasonably get away with asking, about whatever parts of the talk you are able to formulate questions about. As well as helping you understand the thing itself that you are asking about, it slows down the talk (which might be appreciated by others as well as by yourself) and also may help to keep you engaged.

(Of course, the number of questions that you can reasonably get away with asking may depend on the speaker, the type of talk, and the audience.)


I find that writing - note taking - helps me greatly. If I'm just listening then my mind wanders (problems of middle-age: one's mind is not as flexible as once it was!)


You should first attend to any lifestyle factor that may be disrupting your ability to focus and maintain short-term attention.

Most important is sleep. Make sure you have regular, consistent sleep of sufficient quality and quantity. This means going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up the same time each day. Avoid alcohol and caffeine after 6pm. Get some exercise or activity (20 min. walk) each day.

Second is to avoid "multi-tasking". Stop doing two, three, or four things at once when you study, read, or attend class. TURN YOUR PHONE OFF. Be in a completely quite place. No other screens or activity on around you. If you are working on your computer, turn off your email and your messaging apps. Don't look at them for hours.

Finally, start writing notes BY HAND when you attend lectures and group discussion, and you should aim to catch ALL important comments and points. If you put this level of attention into written notes, then it's hard to allow space for your mind to wander.

  • Sleep is vital. Avoiding excessive interruptions is also. I find that there is a fixed number of times I can be interrupted before I just lose the ability to focus at all. If that happens by noon, the rest of the day is a loss. Then I have to take a nap, but still might not be really capable until the next day. A week of that and I can barely tie my shoes on the weekend. Thank God for clogs.
    – user28174
    Apr 6, 2016 at 0:35

What you describe sounds remarkably like burnout (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnout_%28psychology%29) - the effort and amount of material and time involved after undergrad are often greater than during undergrad. It may not be possible, but downshifting or taking a break for focusing on other avenues could also help - if it is burnout "pushing through" can exacerbate the situation (you note that it seems to be getting worse).

If it is not possible to take an actual break or temporarily reduce workload/hours, it might help to enforce personal time to focus on other tasks (for instance reading a book for pleasure, going on a hike over a weekend, playing a video game, volunteering at a local charity, etc.).

  • 2
    Sounds to me more like normal life. Burnout is, I believe, more like when you don't even care that you're not concentrating.
    – Jessica B
    Jan 29, 2015 at 20:29
  • Thank you for your answer. I wish I could blame it on burnout, but I cannot. This happens even when I am not overworked. Also, I am not new to this type of work (as a new graduate student would be), but for obvious reasons I tried to omit personal details.
    – Imba
    Jan 29, 2015 at 21:31

Snap a rubber band on your wrist. If it is a lecture, take notes. You could use the program Lumosity to improve your brain's attention span, memory, etc. Ask questions, but only good ones... Don't annoy people, or they will hate you forever. Not really, but still.

  • Zen Masters hit people with sticks in meditation. They might slap you if you ask a stupid question, like one about Zen, or Buddhism. Enlightenment is right out.
    – user28174
    Apr 6, 2016 at 0:37

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