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Keep losing focus when doing math

  1. Aug 30, 2016 #1
    I keep finding myself losing focus in the middle of doing even basic maths. I sometimes know exactly how something should be done, but make stupid mistakes doing it because I can't fully concentrate.

    I used to have an obsession with numbers (as a kid) and was great at mental maths. Now, I'm just meh, because 'careless mistakes' slip in.

    Just now, I had to calculate the sum of three sets of two brackets, each with three terms [something like (x+2y-z)(-x+y-z)+(-2x+y+z)(x-y+z)...]

    I did each set of brackets one at a time, but the first two I expanded wrong. I kept forgetting things and so on.

    I also found that when I once accidentally overdosed on caffeine, I got the highest score in a practice paper for a test I needed to do than I had ever got...

    Does anyone else have this problem, or has anyone solved it? Please give me any tips you have.

    - A newbie

    (Also, I know sleep is important. I haven't had quite enough at the moment, but I really struggle even with an average of say 7.5 hours :/)
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2016 #2


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    The best tip I can give is to write out every single step, even the obvious ones, if you struggle with that problem. In fact, this is what I do on test to make sure I don't make any mistakes. At home however, I skip many 'trivial' steps as writing them down is very time consuming. However, when I make a mistake in the obvious steps, and I arrive at the end of the exercise and I notice I'm wrong, I waste a lot of time finding my mistake, certainly when I made the mistake at the beginning of the exercise.
  4. Aug 30, 2016 #3
    That's a good idea. Forcing myself to slow down and pretend to explain it to a baby in my head as I go along works for tests :-) It's not complicated concepts though, it's just losing track of numbers or whatever...

    Thanks for the reply.
  5. Aug 30, 2016 #4


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    Does it only happen when you do math, or at other times, too?
  6. Aug 30, 2016 #5
    Mainly math, as math often involves 'small-scale manipulation' of details. I guess I forget stuff or make the odd error at other times, too, but that happens quite rarely and only when I'm very sleep-deprived...
  7. Aug 30, 2016 #6


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    Staff: Mentor

    Then you could either consider these 'small-scale manipulations' as warm-ups or you might think about, why you are allowed to do the operations and what might stick behind them. And there are several things behind them, although not obvious.

    E.g. in the example you mentioned, you probably use the distributive law and re-arrange the terms according to the various variables. Why?
    What does it mean for two expressions to be equal? Those questions are either not of your interest and thus, you will have to do it as boring stuff, the faster the better, like a date at the dentist, or they will lead you beyond school math and show you the entrance of a real colorful world.
  8. Aug 30, 2016 #7
    Interesting, I'll try thinking a bit more...
  9. Sep 1, 2016 #8
    Another approach might be to test out if lack of sleep/exercise/proper nutrition is a significant factor in your focus and concentration. For example, do a one-month experiment where you normalize and optimize your sleep schedule (to 8 hours or maybe even 8.5 hrs every night--also, make sure to go to sleep around the same consistent time every night) and try to stay disciplined for this month and get some light exercise (3-4 days each week during this 'test' month) and healthy foods (also try to cut out some unhealthy foods from your diet as well). Test yourself on a specific number of problems in an area of math you are more or less comfortable with but still feel you can't concentrate in & make mistakes in too often--write down in a dedicated personal notebook the number of times you lost concentration & also the amount of times you made a mistake each test session (try to do as many test sessions every week with at least 20-30 different problems as you can--more data = more accuracy). Then, when you get to the end of this experimental month, do a basic statistical analysis of the results--do the numbers reflect that you made less mistakes as the weeks passed? Did you make more mistakes? Did you make roughly the same amount of mistakes?--on that point, it would also be good to have a 'control' metric from which to measure from once you get better sleep/good light exercise routine/better nutrition during the test month, so you might want to take a month with your regular routine/habits in place now and simply record the number of mistakes and the amount of times you lose focus as you notice them during math practice.

    Depending on your results, you may find significant improvement (which you could also partially attribute to the fact that you're simply practicing the math a lot--but this shouldn't matter too much if your main problem is a lack of concentration which leads to mistakes). You might find that changing your habits for just that month in an effort to test something about yourself truly helped you--and if that's the case, the numbers of mistakes/moments of loss of concentration as the test month passed would perhaps reflect this--you might see it reflected in your recorded data.

    Just to be clear, I don't mean to imply you practice unhealthy habits which may be affecting your concentration (such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and lack of proper sleep), but just that these are--in my experience--the most common issues which alter mental performance in a negative fashion, and in fact I found personally that when I decided to take a month (and just a month so that I wouldn't be turned off by the notion of completely changing around how I lived from that point indefinitely--breaking bad habits is quite a difficult prospect in the long run) to do these things, I felt much better by the end of the month, and I decided to do my best to maintain that healthier lifestyle in various ways (though I didn't record results of performance in the way I suggested above, I just had a journal and wrote down how I felt about my day each night).

    (you may wish to modify or change this experimental approach based on your own intuitions or thoughts when considering it, and that's fine as long as you try your best to remain consistent and accurate--and also try to look for flaws in this approach so that you might be able to find ways around them)

    After doing all of that, if you experience the same problems and even the data you recorded reflects this, then you might consider going to your doctor with some (circumstantial) confidence that you may have some sort of attention deficit disorder which affects your ability to concentrate (at least when trying to focus your thoughts on small numerical details continuously), and have your doctor recommend to you what you should do if he/she determines that to be the case.

    Hope that helps.
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