Why do we sometimes have such trouble concentrating? The ability to focus is a skill – it is not innate.
Here are 11 ways to strengthen concentration, even under difficult circumstances:
1. Connect emotionally to the task. Tightrope walkers and lion tamers have no trouble concentrating. That is because their lives are at stake. But it’s easy for the mind to wander when it lacks passion for what we are doing. Of course, life’s realities often require us to focus on tasks we don’t like. In those cases, ask yourself, “What aspect of this task do I care about most deeply?”
2. Chart your energy level throughout the day. Most of us have certain times of day when we are clearheaded and energetic. Use those times for tasks that require the most concentration.
3. Remove items that regularly break your focus – family photos, magazines, and any material that is not relevant to your task; even the icon on your computer that alerts you to email.
4. Train yourself not to give in to distractions. When someone enters the room, or when a door slams, consciously keep your concentration on what is in front of you. When someone talks to you, don’t let your mind wander. Listen as if you were going to be required to repeat what is said back to the speaker.
5. Decide how long you intend to work, and what you plan to accomplish. Set strict time limits to complete subtasks. Ask your spouse or a co-worker to monitor your progress, and to apply gentle pressure when necessary.
6. Remember the big picture – but focus on the task at hand. If you keep mulling over the large, long-term consequences of your actions, your mind will shut down to keep you from becoming overwhelmed.
7. Use caffeine and sugar sparingly. True, they stimulate concentration, but their effects last only 30 to 60 minutes. The more caffeine or sugar you consume, the more you will eventually need in order to achieve the desired effects. Instead, try five minutes of light exercise, which will perk you up with no side effects.
8. Meditate. It strengthens your ability to control your thoughts. Try focusing solely on your breath going in and out. Start with five minutes per day. Build up to 20 minutes. When your mind wanders, observe the distracting thought rather than trying to force it out of your mind. After a few minutes, refocus your attention.
9. Take breaks. You should be able to concentrate on one task for about 40 minutes. Then take a five to ten minute break. Periodically shift your sitting position at your desk. This helps keep you alert by promoting circulation and sending more oxygen to your brain.
10. Ask yourself where the block is. If you are chronically unable to concentrate on a specific task, perhaps something about what you have taken on is not right for you. In that case, consider whether you are being fair to yourself by forcing yourself to continue with it.
11. Reward yourself for completing particularly difficult tasks.