“Concentrated attention is the collection of units of power on a chosen point of intention.” James Arthur Ray
What are you paying attention to?
Are you present in the moment, or are you worrying about tomorrow? Maybe you’re chewing on a mistake you made yesterday — or 10 years ago.
Do you do a little bit of many — often, unimportant — things instead of a few important things?
When you fail to concentrate, your attention wanders, and you squander your energy. You spend the day feeling scattered and end it wondering where your time went. You feel dissatisfied and frustrated because you aren’t getting the results you need.
The remedy: Better concentration and focus.
Concentration + Focus = Productivity
Have you ever been so engrossed in a book or movie that you lost track of everything around you? Concentration is like that. It’s focused attention on what you are doing without allowing distractions or interruptions to sidetrack you.
William James stated, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.”
Concentration is a skill that can be learned and enhanced. The payoffs of learning how to concentrate are many. It puts more time in your life, you complete tasks more efficiently and with fewer errors, and it raises your feeling of satisfaction in a job well-done, which improves your self-esteem and self-confidence.
Improving your ability to pay attention and concentrate is the key to entering flow states where work is easy and effortless.
Open the Doorway into Flow States
Flow occurs when what you are doing appears effortless. You seem to move into a different dimension where time stands still. You are completely present to the moment in a mindful state. You don’t worry about what you’re doing, and you are not concerned about results. You are lost in the moment.
It’s like playing an intense game of chess or a computer game. You seem to become one with the activity to the exclusion of everything else. Time has no meaning, and hours can pass without your awareness. Everything does, indeed, flow. Work becomes effortless.
Athletes often experience flow. Have you ever seen a top quarterback step back into the pocket and stand there calmly looking for a receiver as chaos breaks out all around him? He completely ignores the 300-pound men barreling toward him and scans the field. It seems as if he steps out of time.
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates — meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened — and that includes creative performance.”¹
Flow Requires Present Awareness
The Buddhists say we suffer from monkey mind. Like monkeys swinging through the trees, jumping from limb to limb, our minds jump from thought to thought. We’re here, there, everywhere, in the past, in the future, but rarely in the present.
Notice the quality of light around you. It’s diffuse — scattered fairly equally throughout the room. You can read by this light, but there is no real power in it.
If, however, you focus light into a single, tight beam, narrower than the circumference of a pencil, you have light so concentrated it can cut metal. This is a laser — concentrated light.
What happens when you create laser-like concentration and focus?
Your energy flows into the task. It is easier to accomplish more, and you accomplish it faster. You are more powerfully productive with less effort. That power only exists in the present moment,
The present is the only time when you can act; it is the point of power.
Have you ever rock climbed or mountain climbed? You absolutely must focus on what is directly in front of you. The rock face is all there is. You are completely in the present moment, securing your hold and looking for the next one to take. Any distraction, any interruption can be fatal.
That’s laser-like concentration and focus.
The energy exerted in climbing isn’t just physical; it’s also mental.
While you’re not climbing Denali at your desk, concentrated focus for any amount time depletes your brain’s capacity to keep going. It needs a break to recover.
According to Neurologist Jody Willis:
“Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next, across gaps between the cells called synapses. These message carriers are necessary to keep one’s calm, focused attention and maintenance of a new memory. Neurotransmitters are in limited supply at each synapse and can deplete after as little as 10 minutes of continuing the same type of learning activity….Brain breaks, by switching the type of mental activity, shift brain communication to networks with fresh supplies of neurotransmitters. This intermission allows the brain’s chemicals to replenish within the resting network.”²
She suggests that you take a brain break every 30 minutes by leaving your desk, walking around a bit, stretching, doing breathing exercises, and so on. The Pomodoro technique is built around this.
Overcome Obstacles for Greater Concentration and Focus
1. Tame your monkey mind
The Buddhists say we suffer from monkey mind.
If you suffer from monkey mind and find it hard to concentrate, start small.
Focus on a single task for only 5 minutes. Set a timer and totally focus on a single task without distractions or interruptions. Ignore email and social media pings, ringing phones, or daydreaming.
Try it now.
How was that? Did you find your mind wandering off?
If you’re like most people, it was hard to corral your thoughts for the task even for 5 minutes.
According to Diana Raab, Ph.D., “The monkey mind insists on being heard, and sometimes it takes a lot of self-control to shut it down. It is also the part of your brain that becomes easily distracted, so if you want to get anything done in life, your challenge will be to shut down the monkey mind.”³
When monkey mind interrupts your concentration with a reminder to do something important, just jot it down and return to your 5 minutes. You also can just ignore the temptation and stay focused. Once you can fully focus for 5 minutes, increase the time in 5-minute intervals until you can focus for 25 or 30 minutes. That’s when you need a brain break.
2. Stop multitasking
Research from Stanford University has shown that multitasking is really serial tasking. Your attention switches from one task to another so quickly that you believe you are multitasking when you aren’t. Because your focus is switching on and off, each task will take longer than if you focus and complete one task at a time.⁴
Your laser-like focus jumps between or among tasks without the ability to make significant headway on any of them. Like diffuse light with little power in it, your concentration is diluted.
3. Minimize distractions
If something breaks your concentration, know that it could take up to 20 minutes to regain it.
Distractions can come from your environment or your head. There’s that monkey mind again!
It’s hard to settle down and focus when your brain keeps pricking you with things it wants you to remember.
Did you make the appointment with the dog groomer?
Remember to replace the batteries in the emergency flashlight.
When is Aunt Clara’s birthday?
And on and on and on.
It’s tempting to immediately stop what you’re doing and handle these not-so-subtle nagging messages.
The easiest way to shut them up is to jot a note to handle it later; just don’t it interrupt your concentration so much that you lose focus.
Environment distractions come from things both within and outside your control.
The room is too cold, warm it up before starting.
The neighbors are noisy. Use ear buds, but listen to orchestral music. It’s harder to concentrate on the written word when listening to music with lyrics.
Whatever is distracting you, eliminate or mitigate it before you start to work.
4. Manage Interruptions
“Stop letting other people hijack your day.” Frank Sonnenberg
No matter how good your concentration skills unless you are a hermit in a cave, people will interrupt you. The phone will ring, your email notice will ping, someone wants an answer NOW!
Since it can take up to 20 minutes to regain your concentration after an interruption, here are some tips.
How to avoid them
- If you work at home, set office hours to let your family and friends know you can’t be disturbed.
- If you work in an organization, close your door (if you have one) or leave your office. Go to an empty cube, office, conference room, local coffee shop, and so on.
- Turn off phone and email notifications and respond to them when you’re ready to take a brain break. Use your out-of-office responder to let people know when you’ll get back to them.
How to handle them
- If someone drops in, tell them you’re on a deadline and will get back to them. Make sure you do; otherwise, they’ll be back and be even more persistent.
- Decide if you have to handle it and accept that your concentration will suffer.
- Use wrap-up phrases, such as, “Let’s wrap this up,” “If there’s nothing else, I need to get back to this,” and “Let’s continue this later when I have more time.”
Concentration + Focus = Productivity
“The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” Robert Greene
If you start to apply concentration and focus to all aspects of your work, imagine how much faster you will get things done and how much more satisfaction you will feel at the end of the day.
It only takes 5 minutes to begin to build you attention muscle.
- “Flow States and Creativity” by Steven Kotler, Psychology Today
- “Using Brain Breaks to Restore Students’ Focus” by Jody Willis, Edutopia
- “Calming the Monkey Mind” by Diana Raab, Ph.D., Psychology Today
- Mackworth, N.H. (1948). The breakdown of vigilance during prolonged visual search. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 1:6–21