The ability to concentrate deeply on a task is of great benefit for anyone who needs to get a job done, but also for those who want or need to shut down the outside world in order to relax or gather some strength between challenges.
If it is important that you absorb information quickly or that you do a task efficiently and without mistakes you want to be able to concentrate, to focus your attention and your energy on one specific thing.
Step 1 – Improve The Basics
Stress of any kind is a major influence on our ability to concentrate, so the main aim when it comes to improving our concentration is to take away some of the stresses that prevent it.
Some easy to control factors are:
- Sleep – make sure you get enough (not too little, but neither too much)
- Breaks – allow yourself short breaks between tasks where you sit and think of nothing, at least not of the task you just finished or the one you are about to start
- Balance – in your leisure time, establish activities that are of different dynamics and energy than your main work. Balance a stressful work environment with activities that are calming and a quiet, very structured and repetitive workplace with playful and adventurous endeavours.
- Nourishment – Nutritious food, a healthy amount of water at room temperature and exercise are essential to supply body and brain with the energy to concentrate, so are fresh air and natural light
Additionally you might consider, if possible, what time of the day you do the tasks that require your focus. Some people work best in the early morning, some prefer late nights and sometimes that may change too. Observe yourself, listen within and get familiar with your own needs and strengths.
Be careful with the consumption of coffein as a stimulant. It may give you a quick kick, but eventually causes dehydration, which your brain won’t like as it needs a healthy fluid balance in order to concentrate.
Step 2 – Have A Break
Some people have a tendency to push themselves hard and to go without a break until the job is finished. Sitting back and taking a nice deep breath is regarded as the reward that comes at the end of the task (if it comes at all).
However, having regular and refreshing breaks is essential in order to enable concentrated working. If you keep on pushing, the effect will be contrariwise: you will be too exhausted to keep going and over time your body and mind will develop unconscious strategies to avoid being under such stress again. Procrastination anyone?
So give yourself a regular break, where you intentionally and mindfully relax. This means that you are not filling it with an activity that again requires your attention, like reading or watching TV. Instead, literally smell the roses, sit down to listen to some music, do a breathing exercise or take a short walk in fresh air.
Take your breaks before you feel the signs of exhaustion. That way your break can provide more recovery quality and you will reload quicker than when you are already running on empty. Remind yourself with a timer that you set on 45-60 minutes and allow at least 5 minutes to reload your energy.
Step 3 – Create A Supportive Environment
The environment we live or work in has also a big impact on our ability to concentrate. Feng Shui is an ancient art and science that deals with the mutual effect of Chi (energy) and environment and gives suggestions how to improve the flow of energy in internal and external spaces.
But you don’t have to be an expert in Feng Shui to create space that supports your concentration. Here are some simple to implement ideas:
Phone/Mobile – turn it off! It’s that simple
Sign -Let the people around you know that you don’t want to be interrupted with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign. And shut your door!
Declutter – put away everything from your desk that is not related to your work and that has the potential to take away your attention from your task. A clean desk leads to a focused mind.
Move -create some space for movement. Ideally, have a mat handy for a quick Yoga posture, a breathing exercise or some stretches.
Reduce – remove every picture or furniture that you don’t need in your room and keep it clean and tidy. As with your desk, the less there is to take your attention away, the easier it is to concentrate.
Music – turn it off if it distracts you or try whether some nice background music is supporting your concentration. If you prefer to have some background sounds, choose from a CD or put your own collection together.
If you work for a company, you might have to ask permission to change things around. However, if you explain to your employer that you would like to make a few (appropriate!) changes in order to increase your concentration – and therefore your performance – it is very like that your boss will happily agree.
Step 4 – Find Your Stressors
After finding out what supports your concentration, have a look what may trouble you. There are some factors that you won’t be able to influence. You’ll simply have to find a way to live with them. However, there are a few measures you can take to deal with potential stress factors.
There are quite a few factors that – once recognised – can be eliminated. They are again very individual. What bothers one, another may not even take notice of.
Noises -from traffic, people in the streets, loud music, voices, machinery or similar can easily distract us and disturb our concentration. Train yourself to get accustomed to external noises without losing focus. Alternatively, try earplugs. You may feel funny to do so in the beginning, but you will soon get over it.
Other People – Colleagues, children or other family members can become real concentration killers, for example if you don’t have your own office where you can shut the door. If possible try to have the house for yourself during the times when you really need to concentrate, find a bit of room in a part of the house that is not so much frequented, try to arrange something with a friend or simply go back to earplugs.
Odours – Even odours can derange us. These are hard to avoid and to make it worse they are very powerful. You can try to fight them with your own set of fragrances from incense sticks or burning your favourite oils. Go for the woody essential oils, like Bergamotte, Cypress or Sandalwood. Their fragrance does not only more easily overpower annoying odours, they are also supportive for your concentration.
Other Stressors – If you start to focus on things that catch your attention, you might be surprised how little things can suddenly be annoying, like a shrill colour, the busy-ness of a picture, a pattern, a dripping appliance, a sound that can’t be located…Many of those can be eliminated, once we have finally become aware what the problem is.
Internal factors, like a merry-go-round of thoughts in our head, worries, high expectations or critical self-talk can easily throw us off balance.
It is hard to concentrate if your thoughts easily wonder off or you constantly worry about things, even more so when you start to feel guilty about not being able to concentrate. A downward spiral into a place where concentration feels impossible seems inevitable.
A simple exercise may help to break the viscous cycle: Write your thoughts down.
- When you find your thoughts spinning in your head and you just can´t turn them off, get yourself a piece of paper, a pen and a stop watch that you set on a 3-5 minute countdown.
- Start to write down everything that comes into your mind without stopping until your set time is over or your paper is full.
- Imagine that by writing your thoughts down, they actually get sucked out of your head onto the paper – a bit like Dumbledore does it with his wand in the Harry Potter books.
- Put your paper aside and notice how your head feels lighter
This exercise has a few positive effects:
- You allow your thoughts to come up and be heard
- You pay attention to the things that bother you, which is part of becoming more aligned with yourself
- You can more easily let go of the thoughts, because you have written them down, hence your unconscious mind recognises that they won´t be forgotten and will therefore allow you to calm down
Step 5 – Train Yourself
Our ability to concentrate can decrease over time, if we are exposed to many or continuing stresses for a while. The good news is, it can also be improved if we train ourselves to do so.
If you choose to train yourself, remember to have fun with it. This will ensure that you’ll have better results than if you’d look at the exercises as another thing you don’t want to do. If you don’t want to do them, don’t do them!
However if you would like to train yourself to improve your concentration, here are a few ideas to get you going.
- Grab a watch with a second hand.
- For two minutes, observe the second hand as if there was nothing else important in the world
- If you loose track because your thoughts wandered off, start again for two minutes
Once you have mastered level 1, lift the bar:
- Put the watch on your TV or very close, while there is an interesting movie or program going on.
- Only watch the second hand and don’t allow the TV to take your attention away
Now we’re talking!
- While watching the second hand for two minutes, continue to recite the following number pattern:
2 4 6 8 10 8 6 4 2 4 6
As soon as you find yourself drifting off, start again. Keep going for at least two minutes.
Colouring in Mandalas is a fun way to improve your concentration.
- Find yourself one that you like and that has lots of little different segments to colour in
- Decide on a pattern how you are going to colour it in. Stick to that pattern
- Start colouring in, using either one colour first until you coloured every pattern with that one colour before moving on to the next or complete one set of segments in different colours, then the next. Choose the option that is more challenging in terms of concentration
- Find yourself a puzzle where you have a number of given words that you are supposed to find in a field of letters (up, down, diagonal, forwards, backwards, upside down…)
- Create your own puzzle:
- Make a few copies of a paragraph of text from a newsletter or magazine with around 1000 words. Hint: up to here you have around 1700 words in this article)
- Choose a letter that usually appears quite often, like A or E or N
- Circle each letter of your choice in the text of one of the copies and count them
- Check again with another copy. Do you have the same number?
Memory is a great game that is also particularly good for children to help them improve their concentration.
Choose a memory game with pictures that are appealing to you or make your own.
- Place all the cards face down either in an ordered structure of rows and lines or randomly all over the place
- There is always a pair of the same picture that you have to find by turning two and remembering where they are
- If you turn two that are the same, you may take them and have another go, otherwise it’s the next player’s turn
- Keep going until all cards have been taken
- Then go again.
You will find that once you have played the game three times in a row, it gets more and more challenging to remember where a card is placed.
Have a break after three games.
Step 6 – Monitor Your Progress
Like with every exercise that you do, it is a good idea to monitor your progress.
Get yourself a little notebook where you put down your main stress factors/concentration killers, what you did to eliminate or reduce them or how you chose to cope with them. After a while check in how your concentration has changed as a result of your efforts, what worked and what didn’t.
Remember to give yourself a little reward when you notice some improvement!
Step 7 – Establish Cross References Through Anchoring
This is a technique from NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming. With it you can program yourself to better concentration – literally by ‘pressing a button’.
- Decide where you want to set your ‘anchor’, preferably at a place that is easy to access, but won’t be touched by others than yourself; knuckle valleys are ideal.
- Remember a time when you were extremely focused and concentrated, when nothing could take away your attention. Let the image of this specific event become bright in colours, intensive with sounds and most importantly, connect to the feeling of being totally focused and concentrated.
- When you find yourself at the peak of intensity for being concentrated, press your anchor for a few seconds, just as long as you are at the peak. Let go when the intensity drops.
- Repeat with another event where you felt totally focused, absolutely concentrated.
- Now think of something different, like what you had for lunch yesterday
- Then test your anchor by pressing your knuckle or wherever you set your anchor. Do you feel how you suddenly start to recall the state of being totally concentrated?
- ‘Stack’ your anchor. Whenever you are in a deep state of concentration, press your anchor to intensify it. That way your anchor is getting stronger over time.