Your Attention, Please!

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Your Attention, Please! by Neil Thornton

Can’t get enough of Neil’s GRE wisdom? Few can. Fortunately, you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.


The GRE is a loooong test. Sure, it’s broken up into 20 and 30 minute chunks, but you’re going to be sitting in front of that computer for more than 4 hours. Honestly, that’s too much time for any of us to focus effectively.

When was the last time you focused on one thing for 4 hours? I mean, besides Netflix or your Xbox? Has your ability to pay attention gotten better or worse lately? If email is a part of your life, if you have Facebook or Twitter, if you watch cable news (if you’re a human being who lives in the modern world) then chances are, your ability to concentrate on one task is nowhere near what it could be. Recent studies show that our attention span has dwindled to about 8 seconds before our minds start to wander.

At its best, a lack of focus can be annoying, such as when friends constantly check their phones during face-to-face conversations. At its worst, a short attention span can be fatal—say, if you text while driving. For the GRE, if you can’t focus on your homework you won’t learn the skills you’ll need for the test, and if you can’t focus on test day you’ll be all over the place, thinking about everything other than the question in front of you.

Good news: You can do something about it. Right now, you might be able to stand 5 minutes of GRE work before feeling compelled to check your phone or run to the fridge, but you can extend that time with practice.

Your ability to focus is best described as a muscle you can exercise. Like strength and physical endurance, you can build it up over time. How? Turn off your phone. Close all the other windows on your desktop, and read on:

Learn and practice mindfulness.

Use that evil phone for some good. Download any one of the popular meditation apps (Headspace, 10% Happier, Calm, Buddhify) and learn the techniques of mindful meditation. A fascinating recent study showed that students who learned techniques of mindfulness dramatically improved their GRE scores.

Mindful meditation is simple to explain, but hard to master. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Sit somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. When your mind wanders and you get lost in thought, notice it and bring your attention back to your breath. That’s all. The first few times I tried meditation I spent the whole time bored, uncomfortable, and completely lost in thought, but gradually I got better. I still get lost in thought all the time, but I’m more aware of it and it’s easier to bring myself back.

Find opportunities to practice mindfulness throughout the day. Whenever you’re performing a task of any kind (eating, cleaning, walking, brushing your teeth), try to focus acutely on the sights, sounds, and sensations of what you’re doing. Suppose you’re doing the dishes: listen to the sound of the water, the feel of the dishes in your hands, the smell of the soap, and the weight of your feet on the ground. When your mind wanders (and it will) gently bring your attention back to what you were doing.

By being mindful, you’re building two muscles. First you’re building the ability to focus on one (boring) thing for longer and longer periods. And, perhaps more importantly, you’re building the muscle of noticing when your mind is wandering and then pulling your attention back to the task at hand.

Ultimately, translate this to your GRE practice. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Open a GRE book and get out your scratch paper. Get to work and focus on the task at hand. When your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring your focus back to what you were doing. You’ll find over time that it’ll be easier and easier to pay attention to what you’re doing in the present moment, and much easier to notice when your mind is wandering and bring your attention back. I hope you can see how useful these skills will be on test day.

Read a book.

When was the last time you got lost in a good book? It’s amazing how quickly you can lose your endurance for reading, but it’s wonderful how easily it can come back. Over the recent holidays I picked up a novel I’d been wanting to read and was shocked to find that I could barely focus. I’m usually an avid reader, but I’d spent the last few months addicted to social media and email, reading nothing but tweets off my phone. Therefore, I found myself constantly distracted and checking my phone while trying to get through the first chapter. Eventually, I learned to leave the phone in the other room while reading, found myself absorbed in the plot, and within days regained the ability to read for longer and longer chunks of time. (I should note that while I was reading this novel, I was also studying to re-take the GMAT, and I attribute a big part of my high score to the focus and reading skills I re-acquired simply by reading a fun book.)

So pick out a book (yes, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or anything by Neil Gaiman or Stephen King) and get to reading. You may struggle at first, but keep persisting.

Consider other factors.

If you’re normally a good student and hard worker, but you’re finding yourself too easily distracted, ask yourself what else might be going on:

Are you getting enough sleep? Try setting a bedtime alarm and wean yourself off screens (phone, computer, TV) for at least an hour before going to bed and after you wake up. (That screen-free hour is a great time to read a book or do some GRE work).

Are you getting enough exercise? Many studies show that regular exercise can lead to amazing benefits on focus and learning. You know what you like to do (running, yoga, Crossfit, whatever) so get out and do it.

How’s your diet? Can you eat better meals and cut down on sugar to maintain more consistent energy throughout the day?

Are you multitasking? Stop it.

Give yourself a break.

Even with a perfect diet, daily exercise, regular meditation, and a zen-like stress-free existence, your attention span may be limited to about 25 minutes. That’s about average and perfectly fine. It’s okay to take a break while you’re studying. Get up for 5 minutes and do something physical or social. Then get back to work.

On test day, I encourage you to take mental breaks. A few mindful breaths in the middle of a tough section can work wonders to eliminate stress and re-energize your focus.

Good luck with your future studies! ?


Find Neil’s musings helpful? We all do. Don’t forget that you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.


Neil Thornton Instructor HeadshotWhen not onstage telling jokes, Neil Thornton loves teaching you to beat the GRE and GMAT. Since 1991, he’s coached thousands of students through the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and SAT, and trained instructors all over the United States. He scored 780 on the GMAT, a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE, and a 99th-percentile score on the LSAT. Check out Neil’s upcoming GRE course offerings here or join him for a free online study session twice monthly in Mondays with Neil.

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