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How to Improve Concentration

How to Improve Concentration

“I have an important project to work on.  Hang on, there’s a new text message on my phone.  Oh great, here’s an email from Steve.  He’s got tickets for Friday night.  Better check for directions on how to get there.  Now back to that article… I’m hungry. Let’s make a little snack.  Cereal or toast?  It’s sunny outside. I’ll go and put the dirty clothes in the washing machine–it’s a good day to dry them.  Oh, my phone is ringing, who could that be?”

A recent survey by the University of California estimated that the average person’s mind receives 35GB of information each day.  Thirty years ago we only received 15GB of information a day, half of what it is today.  We receive continual interruptions and have to process double the information that we used to, so it is not a surprise that our concentration spans are shrinking.  The Internet has made our ways of thinking very fragmented, jumping from website to website and having to process information but never to remember it.

The Downside of Multitasking

“What I have tried to do is actually eliminate multitasking, because when I try to do more than one thing at once, I end up reaching the end of the day and usually having none of them done,” says Tim Ferris, the author of the book The Four Hour Workweek.

When concentration is spread thinly, it is very counterproductive, causing both the amount and the quality of work to suffer.  Psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson discovered that workers who were regularly distracted by phone calls experienced a ten percent drop in their IQ.  Perhaps even more interesting, psychologist Richard Nisbett discovered that Chinese-American students with an IQ of 100 achieve the same academically as white American students with an IQ of 120.  Nisbett said, “this is a result of their more focused attitude when it comes to school work.”

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It is possible to train the brain to become more consistently focused, which will lead to consistent results over a period of time.  “Motivation is essential but not enough. You also need consistency in your motivation,” said Arsene Wenger, Manager of the Arsenal football club.

The benefits that a person can get from consistent focus are unimaginably great, including achievements, wealth, relationships, confidence and career.  If a person can cultivate a great focus then that person will begin to take control of their life and not live a life of reaction.  When you are clear in where you want to go, a whole new world of opportunities will open up to you.

Here are some simple habits that can help you improve your ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Meditation –

I thought I’d attempt scare away the weak of you with this first point!  If you aren’t willing to try meditation, I can assure you that aren’t reaching your potential in both your career and happiness.  Meditation is not a religious thing; it is just a tool to improve concentration.  Just ten minutes a day can reduce stress, increase happiness and improve concentration.

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Eat a whole foods diet –

If your body’s nutritional needs haven’t been met, then your body won’t allow your mind to concentrate.  Instead, the body is going to send messages to your brain telling you to go and seek out food.  Avoid stimulating foods and ingredients that you don’t recognize.  Instead focus on lots of fruit and vegetables plus clean carbohydrates like brown rice, potatoes, quinoa, oats and bananas.

Hardest, most important task first –

Pick this task to do first and get it out of the way.  Typically after midday people’s concentration starts to wane as they get tired.  Getting your most important and difficult task out of the way first will allow you to do the other, easier tasks after lunch, such as responding to emails and doing design work.

Turn off all distractions –

Make sure your phone is on silent and Outlook is closed.  Give your important work your undivided attention.  You will be amazed at how much you can get done.

Take breaks –

Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces consistent results over time.  The typical adult can’t sustain focus for any longer than forty minutes, although they can choose to re-focus on the same task.  The more you train yourself to focus the easier it will become to focus for longer and longer periods of time.  Initially take a quick toilet or water break ever forty minutes and then re-focus on the task.  A few days later take a break every fifty minutes and a few days later take a break every hour and then re-focus.  Keep expanding your focus comfort zone by gradually increasing it.  Set a countdown timer on your computer to beep after reaching a certain time so you know when to take a break.  If you don’t do this, then forty minutes will pass and you might start to check emails and websites without realizing it, and before you know, it your mind is lost in the information vortex of the Internet.

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Concentration music –

The best music to help stay focused when working on a task is music with a slow, regular rhythm that has no singing.  Type ‘concentration music’ into YouTube and you will find some great one hour long tracks to listen to when working on a task.  In concentration music, the chords typically change every eight seconds.  This slow chord change trains the brain to develop a longer period of focus.

Regular exercise –

A healthy body creates a healthy mind.  Daily exercise will get the heart pumping and the blood flowing around the body to the brain.  Exercise also produces endorphins which make a person “feel good.” When a person is feeling good they will find it easier to concentrate.  When the body is not happy, it will send signals to the brain which will reduce concentration.

Create habits –

A person only has a certain amount of “will power” available to them each day to spend on tasks.  Turning a task into a daily habit will stop the task requiring will power to do it.  Instead, the brain will accept the new behavior as a subconscious task.  Habits don’t require will power because they become automatic behaviors that the person does every day.  It typically takes thirty days to turn a new action into a habit.  Setup the beginning of your day to look something like this:

  • Wake up at x time
  • Breakfast
  • Meditate for 10 minutes
  • Go for a run
  • Shower
  • Start concentration music and timer, then begin work on hardest most important task
  • 40 minute toilet and drink break
  • Re-focus on hardest, most important task
  • 40 minute toilet and drink break
  • Re-focus to finish the hardest most important task for that day
  • Check email
  • Break for Lunch

You will get more done by lunch time than most people can do in a whole day.  The “after lunch” part of the day can be spent on easier tasks, like emails, design, organization and maintenance tasks where less concentration is required.

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A daily to-do list –

Before going to bed each night, list the tasks you want to do the following day.  Make sure you list the hardest, most important task first and then other subsequent tasks.  Having a clear focus of your goals for that day will make it a lot easier for you to concentrate.

Stay Hydrated –

Scientists from the University of Connecticut have found that even mild dehydration alters a person’s mood, energy levels and mental function.  Dehydrated young men experienced difficulty with mental tasks, memory and increased anxiety and tension.  During each forty minute break remember to pour yourself another big glass of water to help maintain concentration.

Best,

Robert King

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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