Concentration Burnout

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Contact me on Twitter.

We all know the benefits of concentration and focus. Leo Babauta explained everything about focus in his book “focus”. I recommend that you read the free version at

Focus and distraction-free environment produce amazing results in a short time.

As with all things, too much focus and concentration for long periods of time can do more harm than good and significantly hinder your progress.

Fortunately, you can fight fire with fire and reverse unwanted effects.

Burnout anatomy

I’m not tired to repeat that humans are not robots. Computers can do twice as much work in twice as much time. Or ten times as much work in ten times as much time.

Many language learners forget that humans don’t crunch new knowledge like computers do. For humans, twice as much time may result in twice as much work — or, for language, twice as many new words. But ten times as much time spent studying doesn’t result in ten times as many new words, but much, much less. So much study, however focused it is, doesn’t do anything but harm.

So what exactly is concentration burnout? Human brain, or wetware, as William Gibson called it, works best for short periods of time. Concentration is taxing as it is, and concentrating heavily for several hours straight results in concentration burnout: brain fatigue locks up clear thinking, and brain needs much time to rest.

Though it isn’t an accurate analogy, think of the brain as of a muscle. You can overload muscles for some time, but after that you have to pay with acute pain and an extensive period of underperformance.

Besides, memory doesn’t work like a computer hard drive either: it doesn’t retain everything we put in. Memory leaks, and we forget. Memory has a limited working capacity as well: if you load it up to the top, you have to wait some time for everything to sink in. So overstudy doesn’t result in many new words memorized as well, so why torture our mind?

Sliding focus

However, we are lucky to know a few simple precautions which allow to focus on studies for several hours straight and avoid concentration burnout and brain fatigue altogether.

We’ve heard the saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Ironically, it contains a way to solve all our problems.

Concentration burnout is the result of continuos strain on brain and memory, or “work”. What’s the best way to avoid it? Slice taxing periods of focus with dedicated time for the brain to rest, or periods of “play”.

Basically, we split work into bite-sized chunks, which are assimilated by the brain during the sessions of rest in between. It’s that simple, and it works.

Your mileage may vary, but my experience and accounts from several fellow language learners on forums suggest that the optimal time for a session of “work” is 20 to 40 minutes, and the length of the session of “play” in between is 5 to 10 minutes.

It’s your mission to make the periods of “play” as different from the “work” sessions as possible, and you’ll ace them if you move. Involve physical activity, it benefits brain function. Wash some dishes and wipe the dust away from the highest shelves, do a couple of pushups, go for a short walk around the house or at least open the window and deeply breathe with some fresh air. Anything will do, as long as you’re not studying.

For those of you who exceed four or five hours of consecutive study, try implementing one more feat: as you go along, make study sessions shorter and extend the sessions of rest. Say, you’re in your tenth “work” session. Instead of 20 minutes, make it 15, and stretch the rest session afterwards to 15 minutes. After that, work only for 10 minutes, and then rest for 20 minutes.

Sum up

Split your solid several-hours-long study sessions into shorter, 20 to 40 minute long “work” sessions with 5 to 10 minute long “play” sessions in between, where you let your mind rest and preferably engage in some physical activity.

Remember, that people are not robots yet, and even this method can’t stretch you biological limits. After ten or so of such 20 minute sessions stop studying and call it a day: your mind needs rest.

If you have something to say, share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments!

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