How to improve focus/concentration for UPSC Civil Service Preparation?

how to improve focus or concentration on studies upsc

Generally, students would calculate how much time they had spent in studying, but they wouldn’t think about how well they have studied. If you are a UPSC aspirant (fresher or veteran), you should know how to improve your focus or concentration because “you cannot cut a tree without sharpening the axe”.

Here is the formula that I have taken from the book – “Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World” by Cal New port:

Work Accomplished = Time Spent X Intensity of Focus

You can spend as much time as you want in doing a task. However, you would get better results only with adequate focus with respect to the time taken in doing the task.

There are two approaches that people use to accomplish a task:

  1. Deep Work
  2. Shallow Work

This topic of “How to improve focus/concentration for UPSC Civil Service Preparation?” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is Deep Work?

  • Deep work is the complete concentration/focus on the task without getting distracted.
  • The best example would be a Monk. They meditate without getting distracted.
  • With deep work, you can get high-quality results with less amount of time.

What is Shallow Work?

  • Shallow work is the act of getting distracted or a lack of focus (partial/complete) while trying to accomplish a task.
  • For example, whenever you are trying to read something (ex- Laxmikanth), your phone would suddenly vibrate. Then you’d take up the phone to check the notifications. Then you will check Facebook and other social media. Thus you would completely get distracted from your main task. Due to this, you cannot study with the utmost quality.
  • With shallow work, it takes a long amount of time to achieve a result but with poor quality.

The problem is that most of us (except for toppers) would study with the shallow work approach. But only with deep work approach, one can get good results (better understanding & retention of information).

Deep work is a very rare skill. But those who master this skill will get better rewards (you can get into the toppers list).

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Famous people who used deep work approach

Let us see some famous people who used a deep work approach to become successful.

Bill Gates: In the 1970s, Bill Gates had completed the coding for BASIC software in just 8 weeks. During those 8 weeks, his complete focus would be on coding without getting distracted or talking to anyone. Many a time, he would fell asleep on his keyboard itself due to the tiredness from continuous coding. The code that was produced as a result (BASIC software) with this deep work approach became a base program of a billion-dollar company, that is, Microsoft.

J.K.Rowling: In order to complete the harry potter book, J.K.Rowling left her house and stayed in a hotel to give a complete focus in her work. At first, she only did it as an experiment. But with successful results, she decided to continue with this approach.

Thus many successful people we see today became successful with this deep work approach as they give their complete focus on the task = they get the best results.

But nowadays, it is very difficult to accomplish a task with a deep work approach. Because with the advent of smartphones, distraction became a common thing. So whatever we do, we can only do it with a shallow work approach = we cannot become successful.

What is the importance of Deep Work?

1) Myeline tissue in the brain:

Consider a person who is going to the gym regularly but doing only basic or non-intensive workouts or constantly checking his phone or talking to others rather than doing workouts. There comes a time when he needs to lift a heavyweight (ex- competition) but he could not do it because he won’t have the required amount of muscle/strength to lift the weight due to lack of focus during his training.

Likewise, if you constantly check for status updates and notifications in your phone while studying, your brain would get adapt to this. But later on, when you absolutely need to concentrate while studying/revising (ex- 1 month prior to exam), you cannot do that.

It is because our brain is like a muscle. Our brain neurons have a particular tissue called Myeline. Whenever we work with the utmost focus, myeline tissue would develop in our neurons. With the formation of this tissue, we can study with even more focus later on and get high-quality output.

So whenever you are studying something even simple concepts, try to give your complete focus on them and it should become your habit. Gradually, the myelin tissue would develop in your brain neurons and in a result your focus would get 100% later on. Thus you would learn even the difficult chapters in any book within a matter of minutes. But the same work would take more than a day for those persons who do shallow work.

2) Attention Residue:

Whenever you are trying to study a chapter in a book (ex- history), you would get bored and want to check emails or social media in order to free your mind or you might want to read a chapter in another book (ex- geography). However, this approach would fail you because studying something without full focus will lead to less retention of information that you’ve read.

Example – A scientist formed two groups. One group was asked to solve puzzles. The other group was asked to do other small works in-between solving puzzles. The scientist had found that the first group was able to complete the work really fast with better quality. However, the second group completed the work very slowly and with less quality.

So whenever you are studying something, give complete focus on the topic you are reading. Don’t skip to another topic without completely studying the topic at hand.

How to do deep work / improve focus?

1. Routine Approach

Many successful people have developed routines or good habits which let them give 100% focus on the task in hand.

Success cannot come overnight, you need to do small actions daily in order to accomplish the goal. Likewise, focus cannot be improved overnight, it needs to be improved day-by-day. This can only be achieved by creating routines or habits.

Creating weekly and daily timetable for studying would enable you to stick to the routine and improve your focus.

2. Monastic Approach

The monastic approach follows the principle adopted by monks who practice meditation somewhere alone leaving behind whatever distractions in their life. This approach can also be used in studies.

Example – If you see most UPSC toppers, they would have knowingly or unknowingly used this monastic approach in order to achieve their goal. Most would seclude themselves in a room in order to keep away the worldly distractions.

If you think the Monastic approach is too extreme, you can try mild approaches like Bimodal and Rhythmic approaches.

3. Bimodal Approach

Carl Jung was a swiss psychiatrist who is known for his productive personality. What he did was, he bought a new small house near his existing house. He named the new house a “Retreat House”. Like a monk who is always in monk mode, Carl would get into monk mode whenever he enters into the retreat house. Whenever he goes to that house, he would go with a task in hand. He would return to his home only after he completed that task.

Like Carl Jung, you can also choose a place as a retreat. It doesn’t need to be a new house, but a room or a particular place in your existing house (ex- your table) is enough. You should not come out of your retreat room/place unless you have completed a task (ex – Completing a chapter in the Indian Economy). You should never do any other activities (like watching movies) in your retreat place.

4. Rhythmic Approach

In this approach, you should allocate a particular time to do deep work and you can do shallow work in the remaining time. But you should never do any other work during the deep work time.

You can choose morning time (5.00 AM – 10.00 AM) to do the deep work as your will power would be higher in the morning time only. You can do shallow work in the evening time.

You need to practice it daily until it becomes a habit for you to do the deep work during the allocated deep work period.

5. Using study techniques

Even if you leave all the distractions in your life, going to your retreat place and sit down to study, you could never focus without an actual interest in the topic or subject you read. You might lose interest because you may have concerns like “what if I forget this topic a month later?”, “why this topic is so boring?”, “what if I don’t get into the list?”, etc. But you could overcome this problem by using the study techniques like mindmapping or memory palace. Trust me, it will drastically improve your interest in the subject and in result, your focus. It will also improve your memory. Click here to learn the study techniques.

6. Shutdown

Whenever you complete a task, you need to take rest so that your brain would recover and become more productive. During the rest period, you should never think about the task that you were doing during your deep work time.

You can take shutdown time in-between the tasks and after completing all tasks. Example – If you are studying a topic for an hour, you can take rest for 10 minutes and then go for the next task. Also, you can allot a particular time (ex- 6.00 pm), after which you should not do any deep work and use that time to give rest to your brain by doing other activities like entertainment, sleep, etc.

7. Other minor approaches

  • Sit straight or upright while studying.
  • Don’t lie on your bed while studying as you will feel sleepy.
  • Good study environment – Read in a well-lit room and keep your study desk or place clean.

Final Thoughts

By following these strategies, you could substantially improve your focus while studying. However, you could get better at it only with practice. Always remember the 21/90 rule – “It takes 21 days to create a habit. It takes 90 days to create a lifestyle.

If you know some other effective techniques to improve the focus, please leave it in the comments.

Key takeaways from this article

  • Difference between deep work and shallow work.
  • Importance of doing deep work – Myeline Tissue & Attention Residue.
  • Techniques to improve the deep work/Focus:
    1. Creating routines/timetables.
    2. Monastic Approach – Secluding Yourself and be always in Monk Mode.
    3. Bimodal Approach – Retreat place to enter into Monk Mode.
    4. Rhythmic Approach – Allot specific time to enter into Monk Mode.
    5. Study Techniques – Increases your interest = Improve focus.
    6. Shutdown- Give rest to your brain after deep work, Allot a specific time for that.
    7. Other minor approaches.


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