Wednesday, 25 January 2012

How to concentrate for longer

It seems the modern world is designed to de-focus and distract us from whatever we are trying to do.  E-mail pops into our inbox every few minutes, or the phone rings.  Thoughtful people don’t call, but text, so the phone is never far away.  Of course a text is far too interesting not to read, even if it’s only the bank or when the shopping will be delivered.  So we are distracted anyway.

I see mothers walking their children and talking on the phone.  We can’t get out for a refreshing walk without staying in contact. 
We are now so used to constant interruptions and distractions that if there are no emails, no texts, or no phone calls, we double check our email, or go online for diversion.

Welcome to the digital age – designed to make our lives easy.   Now three screens is the norm, and our attention span is short and getting shorter. 
Concentrating on what we are doing is hard work.  Focusing requires discipline.  The brain wanders easily and often.  Thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time.  Try sitting still for 5 minutes and thinking about just one thing; a candle, a diamond or a flower.  Notice how many times your mind wanders.  Each time it wanders bring it back to the thing you are focusing on.  Notice how it wanders off again.  And again.  You will lose count how many times you have to bring it back to the task in hand, in just 5 minutes.

Focusing may be difficult, but it is also very necessary to produce anything worthwhile.
20 minutes seems to be the generally accepted length of time that a healthy adult can focus on something, although it will be longer if you are comfortable and proficient in the work.  So difficult things, problem solving, things you are learning for the first time or trying to master are more difficult to focus on for long periods of time.

So if you are unfocussed and distracted, you are not alone.  But crucially you are not as productive as you could be, which means you won’t achieve as much as you would like. 
So what’s to be done?  How can distractions be cut down and concentration improved?  Here are 7 ideas:
  1. Turn off email (yes, I know, but do it anyway)
  2. Take time to get become more proficient in your field
  3. Put your phone in a drawer for a couple of hours (you can pick up messages later)
  4. Be clear about the purpose of your task (this takes a bit of pre-planning, but increases your productivity)
  5. Use a stop watch.  Start the timer when you start work, and stop it when you get distracted.  Note how long you spent concentrating, and then little by little try to increase your concentration time.
  6. Get out of the office and work in the library, park or zoo
  7. Reward yourself for 1,000 words written, half the job done, or the phone call made.  Your reward could be a 10 minute break in the fresh air, or picking up flowers on the way home depending on how difficult the task was, and how long it’s been on your “to do” list.
One final thought on this vexing matter of improving concentration.  If we accept that good quality, focused work is difficult, we may want to be a little pickier about what we tackle.  Saying “no” to some, not doing others, or simply checking out how useful they are could save time for something more important.  And when you are sure you should be doing something, you will find concentrating a great deal easier anyway. 

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