Readers Digest, April 2010. Article by Harriet Griffey wrote:
The Art of Concentration
Your ability to concentrate has 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 works 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: another study at the University of Michigan last year found that subjects who had walked through the city (or even 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 Centre in Tuscon, Arizona, believes that the stress hormone cortisol is a fact 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 actually simulate the growth of new brain cells.
What's Stopping You From Concentrating?
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 more of a deliberate, learned application.
One way of training yourself to focus is the Stop! method. Whenever you feel a stray thought encroaching on your concentration, say "Stop!" to bring your attention back quickly.
How many times have you had two weeks to write up a report but left t until the last minute? Experts have identified the reasons we do it: poor time management, fear of failing, or simply finding the tast boring. If this is your problem, you can find some useful pointers at procrastinus.com.
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.
You may think you're good at doing several things at once but it could just mean that you're 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.
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's happened before is bound to happen again, or confusing the task (and its success or failure) with your own identity.
Learning to identify negative thoughts can help you recognise 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 everything else, there are ways to engage our interest.
FAMILIARITY VS NOVELTY
While something that's too familiar may be boring, something that's just too far out of our experience is just unmanageable. Pitch your tasks at the edge of your competence - familiar enough that you can get a handle on them, but challenging enough to gain your interest.
Just about every adult I've 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.
Think about something you're 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 one episode of a TV soap isn't very interesting because you don't know the characters, but stick with it and you'll get a context with which to connect. In giving information meaning like this, you'll also start to engage your long-term memory as well as your short-term, which involves different parts of the brain.
Sam Horn, author of Conzentrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention
(St Martins Griffin), identifies the 'Five More Rule'. If you're tempted to give up on a task, just do five more - read five more pages, finish five more maths problems, work five more minutes. Just as athletes build stamina by pushing themselves past the point of exhaustion, you can stretch your attention span too.
What Works Best for you?
Most people have one of three styles of processing information, which will give you the clues as to the best way of working to help concentration:
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.
You prefer to take in information through sound. Written information may 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 it down.
- Make up jingles and mnemonics as a memory aid.
You concentrate best through a hands-on approach. You need to experience something to focus on it and probably have good spatial abilities. If this is you:
- 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.
LARK OR OWL?
- Skim-read before reading in detail.
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 and slower, only really getting going in the afternoon and then carrying on into the night. Whichever you are, it makes sense to perform tasks that require concentration at times of the day that work best for you.
Techniques for Concentrating
Warming up to your task increases your chances of success. Rather than crashing into bed late the night before, then rushing out of the door in ten minutes flat to arrive late 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.
Start with the task you know requires the most concentration. You should be able to focus on this for up to 90 minutes, after which you'll benefit from a break. Allowing enough time for a task is important, because it can take your brain up to 20 minutes to "reboot" each time you have a break off and come back.When you've completed all you can, review what you've done, work out where you'll pick up again and make a note of the next steps you need to take.
Approaching work in an organised 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 aren't making physical notes.
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
If you know where you're going with a project, you're much more likely to stay focused. If you have a big task to do, start by breaking it down into sections or stages.
A study by IT company Hewlett-Packard found that 62 percent of British adults were addicted to email, checking messages during meetings, after hours, even on holiday. It's been argued that there's a lot in common between these email users and gambling addicts - they get a reward only sometimes, but the chance of getting a reward keeps them going back.
- Allocate time to answer emails, but don't interrupt another job to do so. If you have an email alert noise, switch it off.
- When you do read an email, deal with it immediately - answer, file or delete.
- Unless you need a reply, put "FYI only - no reply necessary" at the end of your email and encourage others to do the same
- When you get unsolicited information you neither need nor want and there;s an 'unsubscribe' option, use it
"I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture in my head," says championship golfer Jack Nicklaus. You too many 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 when working but maybe listening to music or doing a crossword puzzle. What did it feel like> Try visualising that same sensation.
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're listening. You should be able to repeat back in your own words the gist of what's said.
Oddly, which ear you use can also be a factor. We naturally tend to favour one or the other when, say, using the phone, but theres evidence that the right ear us better for concentrating because it connects directly to the left brain, the side that processes language. Right-ear-dominant people do seem to find learning easier.
Fatigue is the enemy of concentration. Moreover, some leisure activities can actively promote you ability to focus. In the 1970s Mihaly Csikzentmigalyi 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 athletes 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 percent of the time, those who engaged in hobbies 34 percent and those who watched TV 13 percent. So not only can relaxation give you important downtime but it can also help you learn to concentrate better.
LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE
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's time for sleep. Avoid fluorescent light, which is tiring on the eyes because it flickers.