The Art of Concentration

The Art of Concentration

By Harriet Griffey

Reader’s Digest April 2012.

Ever struggle to keep your attention focused? These simple steps will not only help your mind better — they might just have a profound effect on your whole life.

YOUR ABILITY TO CONCENTRATE HAS A DRAMATIC IMPACT ON THE EFFICIENCY WITH WHICH YOU DO ANYTHING, even on the way you view and live your life. But, it’s a skill we seem to be losing. In the 21st century our 24/7 lifestyle enables — and expects —- us to multitask constantly, to try to achieve more and more. Yet a 2005 study at the London Institute of Psychiatry found that office workers distracted by emails and phone calls saw their IQ effectively drop by ten points, twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

Even our urban environment inhibits us. A study at the University of Michigan last year found that subjects who had walked through the city (or just looked at pictures of city scenes) scored lower in tests on attention and memory. In fact, this state of agitated distraction may even be physically harmful. Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa of the Alzheimer’s Research Center in Tucson, USA, believes that the stress hormone cortisol is a factor in brain degeneration.

But, the good news is that you can change this; the brain continues to be “plastic” all your life. You can decide to improve your concentration — and current research suggests that in so doing you can actually stimulate the growth of new cells.

WHAT’S STOPPING YOU FROM CONCENTRATING?

Distraction This can be both internal (such as the voice in your head or just daydreaming) and external: the phone, other people, noises in the street. Tests on monkeys show that consciously trying to focus on one thing and being distracted by something else actually involves different parts of the brain. The latter is a reflex while the former is a more of a deliberate learnt application.

Try this: One way of training yourself is the Stop! Method. Whenever you feel a stray thought encroaching on your concentration, say “Stop!” to bring your attention back quickly.

Procrastination How many times have you had two weeks to write a report, but left it until the last day? Experts have identified the reasons for it: poor time management, or simply finding the task boring. If this is you problem, you can find some useful pointers at www.procrastinus.com

Try this: Start each day with five minutes planning – make a list of what needs doing first and include only those things that need to be done that day. Note also the minor tasks such as making a phone call or paying a bill, so thoughts about them won’t distract you.

Multitasking You may think that you are good at doing several tasks at once, but it could mean that you are not doing any of them very well. Experiments show that by switching between tasks, you can end up concentrating on the process of concentrating, rather than the actual tasks themselves. Worse, this constant flipping carries a degree of stress and elevated levels of stress hormones can be harmful.

Negative thinking Our brains are programmed for this, born of a primal need to identify threats. But, it can be self-defeating if it prevents you from finishing a task. Unhelpful thoughts include the belief that any mistake will spell disaster, that something bad that has happened before is bound to happen again, or confusing the task (and its success or failure) with your own identity.

Try this: Learning to identify negative thoughts can help you recognize them for what they are and push them aside.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO CONCENTRATE? Most of us find it easy to concentrate on something we find really interesting. For anything else, there are ways to engage our interest.

Familiarity vs. Novelty While something that’s too familiar may be boring, something that’s unknown to you, new or too far out of our experience is unmanageable. Pitch your tasks at the edge of your competence — familiar enough that you can get a handle on them, but challenging enough to engage your interest.

Motivation: Just about every adult I have met who loves skiing tells me they hated it at first. What kept them going? It might be wanting to master the sport, being able to do it with their partner, enjoying the ambience, or competitiveness. Understanding what motivates you and what might motivate you for a specific task can improve your concentration. Consider breaking a task into short term goals and allow yourself rewards for meeting them.

Enthusiasm: Think about something you are enthusiastic about and ask yourself why. One key is context: nothing can be interesting without some information to give you a perspective. Watching the first five minutes of a TV soap is not very interesting because you don’t know the characters, but stick with it and you will get a context with which to connect. In giving information meaning like this, you will also start to engage your long-term memory as well as your short term, which involves different parts of the brain.

Try this: Sam Horn, author of Concentrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention (St. Martin’s Griffin), identifies the “Five More Rule”. IF you are tempted to give up on a task, just do five more — read five more pages, finish five more math problems, work five more minutes. Just athletes build stamina by pushing themselves past the point of exhaustion, you can stretch your attention span too.

Techniques for Concentrating:

PREPARE Warming up to your task increases your chances of success. Rather than crashing into bed late the night before, then rushing out the door in ten minutes flat to arrive at your workplace, get a good night’s sleep and rise early enough to have breakfast. Then take some exercise — even just walking for 20 minutes — before or on the way to work. Actively making “time out” between home and work creates an excellent space for thinking.

ORGANIZE Start with the task you know requires most concentration. You should be able to focus this for up to 90 minutes after which you will benefit from a break. Allowing enough time for the task is important because it can take your brain upto 20 minutes to “reboot” each time you break off and come back. When you have completed all you can, review what you have done, work out where you will pick up again and make a note of the next steps you need to take.

Approaching work in an organized way — taking notes, creating mnemonics, asking questions  — will also train your mind to receive information in an enquiring and engaged way for future tasks, even when you are not taking physical notes.

KNOW YOUR PURPOSE If you know where you are going with a project, you are much more likely to stay focused. If you have a big task to do, start by breaking it down into stages or sections.

REMOVE DISTRACTIONS A study by IT company Hewlett Packard found that 62$ of British adults were addicted to e-mails, checking messages during meetings, after hours, even on holidays. It’s been argued that there’s a lot in common between e-mail users and gambling addicts — they are a reward only sometimes, but the chance of getting a reward keeps them going back.

  • Allocate time to answer e-mails, but don’t interrupt another job to do so. If you have an e-mail alert noise, switch it off.
  • When you read an e-mail, deal with it immediately — answer, file or delete it.
  • Unless you need a reply, put “FYI only, no reply necessary” at the end of your e-mail and encourage others to do the same.
  • Unsubscribe to unsolicited mails.

VISUALIZE   “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a sharp in-focus picture in my head”, says championship golfer Jack Nicklaus. You too may find that envisaging your desired outcome helps you concentrate. Another strategy is to be consciously aware of times when you did really concentrate — not necessarily working but may be listening to music or doing a crossword puzzle. What did it feel like?

LISTEN Active listening is different from just hearing. When listening to someone look at them, make mental notes of the key points as you listen and make affirmative movements to acknowledge you are listening. You should be able to repeat back in your own words the gist of what is said.

Oddly, which ear you use can also be a factor. We naturally tend to favour one or the other ear, say, when using the phone, but there’s evidence that the right ear is better for concentrating because it connects directly to the human brain, the side that processes language. Right ear dominant people do seem to find learning easier.

RELAX Fatigue is the enemy of concentration. Moreover, some leisure activities can actively promote your ability to focus. In the 1970s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and education at the Claremont Graduate University in the US, made a study of what he called “flow” — “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” It’s what athlete’s call being “in the zone,” the holy grail of concentration. He found that it can be experienced when we relax, too: those who played sports and games experienced it 44% of the time, those who engaged in hobbies 34% and those who watched TV 13%. So not only can relaxation give you important downtime, but it can also help you to concentrate better.

LIGHT UP: Good lighting aids concentration and full spectrum light has been shown to be particularly helpful — it mimics daylight and inhibits the production of melatonin, a brain chemical that signals it is time to sleep.

WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU Most people have one of three styles of processing information, which will give you clues as to the best way of working to help concentration.

  • VISUAL: You find it easiest to concentrate on information presented visually, diagrams, illustrations, videos. You probably doodle when on the phone. If this is you:

*Use visual media where possible.

*Take notes, use headings, highlight text in different colours and draw diagrams.

*In a lecture, make sure you can see the speaker’s body language and facial expressions.

*When studying avoid visual distractions.

  • AUDITORY: You prefer to take in information through sound. Written information can hold little meaning until you hear it spoken, and you interpret tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances. You may be a good musician or mimic. If this is you:

*Use a tape recorder instead of notes.

*Read text aloud to yourself.

*Discuss your ideas with others.

*Dictate to someone while they write down.

*Make up jingles and mnemonics as a memory aid

  • TACTILE: You concentrate best through a hands-on approach. You need to experience something to focus on it and probably have good spatial abilities. It this is you:

*Stand up to work

*Move around while concentrating on new things; read books while on an exercise bike. Use models to work out ideas.

*Concentrate in bursts, taking frequent breaks.

*Skim read before reading in detail.

LARK OR OWL: We are all diurnal mammals(designed to function during the day as opposed to the night), but there’s a degree of variance thought to be genetic. “Larks” or “morning people” like to start early, then go to bed early too. “Owls” or “evening people” prefer to start the day later, only really getting going in the afternoon and then carrying on into night. Whichever you are, it makes sense to perform tasks that require concentration at the times of the day that work the best for you.

 

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