“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
- Meditate for 10 minutes
- Go for a run
- 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.
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.