Increase Your Power to Concentrate

I’m a big believer in the power of concentration. That’s one reason I’ve worked hard to increase my ability to go deeply into a task and stick with it for many hours without a break.

Over the years, I discovered I get much more done in four hours of unbroken effort than in four single hours or even two separate sessions of two hours each. Partly, this results from expending less time and effort in starting up and winding down each session. But perhaps even more, it results from steadily digging deeper into the task and into my ability to assess, understand, and complete it.

Overall, increased power to concentrate yields better productivity and higher levels of success.

But it didn’t come easy.

In looking for ways to increase my power to concentrate, I found remarkably little help. Most of the information and advice purportedly on “how to concentrate better” was generic and peripheral, leaning heavily on homilies like “get lots of sleep,” “eat nutritiously,” “take walks in nature,” and “meditate.”

None of that is useless, of course. But you can do lots of that and afterwards concentrate no better than you did before.

As time went by, however, I found several techniques that will help you concentrate longer and more deeply than you ever have before. They include:

Develop Rewards for Concentration

You not only have to want more power to concentrate, you have to pay for it. But since you’re paying yourself, it needn’t always involve money.

For example, when I was first developing my power to concentrate longer and more deeply, I set up a system of rewards: the longer I concentrated without a break, the more I allowed myself to do certain things that gave me pleasure – mostly tasks and hobbies I enjoyed that had nothing to do with advancing my career or earning money.

Then, whenever I felt an impulse to quit concentrating, I would think of the reward I was “earning” and would quite often resolve to carry on a little longer. My system made it more rewarding to continue concentrating than to take a break for a snack, a conversation, a distraction, or a rest.

Over a period of months, I stretched my power to concentrate from 20 or 30 minutes at a time to several hours without a break.

Create An Environment for Concentration

Another trick that helped me enhance my power to concentrate was setting up a workspace in which concentration became easier. My home office had no TV, no sofa, no artwork on the walls. It was a quiet room with a door I could close, a desk and chair, and all the materials and equipment I needed to do my work.

I also put up a sign outside my door: “Concentrating. Please do not disturb.”

Over a period of months, my spouse and children got acclimated to my unavailability at certain times. I was always there in case of emergency, of course. But I was not open for a quick question, an idle moment’s conversation, or a request to help with something routine or unimportant.

Creating an environment for concentration was more difficult when I worked in other people’s offices, studios, or crowded third-party locations. But to the extent I could, there too I built barriers – signs, closed doors when possible, facing away from adjacent walkways so passersby did not divert my attention, and so forth – that aided my isolation.

Develop Triggers for Concentration

Perhaps the simplest and most powerful technique I discovered was triggers for concentration. I learned the mind can be trained, akin to a very smart dog, to associate specific routines, events, and locations with particular mental activities.

Think of Mr. Rogers, who famously put on his cardigan sweater and sneakers to begin his conversation with his audience, and removed them when it was over.

You get some of this when you build an environment for concentration, because the mind quickly learns to get ready to concentrate whenever you enter that special environment, and to resume everyday operations again whenever you leave.

Additional triggers can increase the efficacy of this mental shift. For example, every time you want to concentrate, you can:

  • Put on some article of clothing,
  • Turn on some piece of equipment, perhaps a light, a computer, a white noise machine, or anything else, and/or
  • Take a moment to complete some ritual you enjoy, such as a breathing exercise, brief meditation, or saying a prayer or a meaningful catchphrase.

For greatest effectiveness, you should set up other triggers that tell your brain when you’re ready to stop concentrating.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate at the sound of a bell, you can learn to concentrate longer and more deeply when you consistently expose yourself to whatever triggers you decide to establish.

Practice “Intense Focus”

Meditation is often suggested as a way to increase your power to concentrate. But simply clearing your mind will not be a helpful meditation. It’s far better to practice what some call “focused meditation.”

The idea is simply to pay attention to just one thing: your breathing, the sounds around you, the movement of tree branches outside your window, or almost anything. Intensely focusing on just one thing is an exercise that translates directly to longer and deeper concentration on any aspect of your work or your life.

At first, distractions may creep into your intense focus after just a few minutes. But with practice, you’ll learn to maintain intense focus for very long periods of time, and you’ll soon be able to aim that intense focus toward any task, project, or goal you’re trying to accomplish.

Learn to Reject Distracting Thoughts

Another valuable skill to help you concentrate longer and more deeply is the ability to reject distracting stimuli, including both external interruptions and your own internal thoughts.

Scientists have discovered that, with practice, almost everyone can learn to more easily and thoroughly reject various kinds of distractions. Each person tends to favor their own methods of rejection, which can include:

  • Suppression – simply refusing to acknowledge the distraction and returning to the original object of your intense focus
  • Flooding – “drowning out” unwanted distractions that are attracting your attention by welcoming or initiating thoughts and examination of objects that are similar to the original object of your intense focus, or
  • Substitution – reacting to the unwanted distraction by consciously redirecting your focus onto something else, something very similar to the original object of your intense focus.

These five techniques for increasing your power to concentrate may not come naturally to you. But with practice, they become easier and may eventually feel like second nature.

They provide specific, practical, proven tools that will greatly boost your power to concentrate, and thereby help you expand your productivity and heighten your success.

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