When you can´t concentrate
This article is meant for the moments when your work requires you to pay focused attention, and you struggle to do so. What can you do at such moments – and what in the long run – to concentrate more easily?
When you think about concentration as your ability to focus without getting distracted, the definition itself suggests three elements you can try to influence:
- Eliminate potential distractors
- Enhance your focus on the current task
- Improve your general ability to focus
So let´s go through all three of them and list some ideas on what you could do to improve your concentration.
Eliminate potential distractors
Distractors are the things that “steal” your attention away from the task you want to concentrate on. I wrote the word “steal” with quotation marks, because in fact, we quite like surrounding ourselves with distractors, so we might often have a more active role in the theft than “being robbed” suggests.
Thus, the first thing you can do when you have a task demanding your full concentration is to lower the number of distractors that surround you:
- Choose a place where you can concentrate:
somewhere you feel comfortable but at the same time not overwhelmed by stimuli. For the most demanding tasks, negotiate for a quiet setting, whether that is the extra room in your office building, a day of home office, or an external place you can use.
- Tidy up your desk,
or at least put the files somewhere where you cannot see them, and keep it like that.
- Tidy up your screen,
shut down the programmes you do not need and close the files you are not using right now.
- Switch off music, radio, TV or any other media,
or select music that does not distract you but helps you concentrate.
- Reduce distraction from other people,
Reconsider whether it is really necessary to check your e-mails as often as you do. Disable any notifications that pop up on your screen. Switch off your phone ringing tone if you can. Ask your colleagues not to distract you during a particular time, offering them another time spot when you will be available. This can be done as a one-off, or established as a habit (no distraction between 10 to 12, please).
- Name any other big distractors
of yours and minimize them.
You cannot escape the fact that things may be happening around you: an ambulance passes by, a postman rings, a bird flies in front of your window. Allow for some stimuli around you, and decide that even if they catch your attention for a short moment, they are not going to distract your focus.
Enhance your focus on the current task
- Refresh yourself.
When your concentration goes down, take a short break. A useful break will include some movement (stretch, or stand up and have a small walk, even if it’s just within the office or flat), a break for your eyes (look away from the screen and towards something in the distance), oxygen for your brain (go out, or onto a balcony, and air the room) and time off for your mind (think of something relaxing and unrelated to your task).
If you have an opportunity, find a few spare minutes to practise a relaxation technique, such as autogenic training. But if you can´t, try watching your breath for a couple of minutes and try to consciously ease the tension in your muscles, for example: those in your shoulders, your chin, your hands.
- Minimize multitasking, focus on one task at a time.
Multitasking does not mean that you pay the same attention to several tasks. It only means that you divide your attention, or alternate it. And every time you switch your attention to something else, you might need approximately 20 minutes to regain full concentration. Although you might then speed up and catch up to complete your tasks, chances are this will put you under time pressure and make you more stressed. Reconsider how many things you really need to be doing at the same time, and what you could better do in stages.
If you suddenly, in the middle of a task, have an idea about another task or remember something unrelated, make a very brief note and put it aside, away from your current view, and come back to it later on.
- Increase your inner motivation to get the task done.
Find at least one reason why you want to do this task and why you want to do it now. For example: because once you get into it, you might actually like it? Because it contributes to a bigger thing you believe in? Might it give you experience useful in the future? Will it mean helping someone you care for in your team? Perhaps the sooner you do it, the sooner you can move on to a task that is far more interesting to you? Or perhaps, by doing it now, you will lower your rush and stress tomorrow?.
Alternatively, promise yourself a reward for completing the task.
You can be motivated both by the anticipated feeling of achievement or by the chocolate bar you are going to get.
Improve your general ability to concentrate
- Respect your physiology.
The attention span of an adult person, (being the amount of uninterrupted time one can spend concentrated on a task), has been estimated to be around 20 minutes. After which, one needs to take a break, switch the activity or mental focus, or deliberately choose to refocus on the same task – but the moment of distraction is natural. When planning your tasks, schedule regular short breaks, as well as low-attention tasks between high-attention ones.
The ability to concentrate also has its peaks and troughs during the day, and the peak time is not the same for everybody. Some suggest it might depend on age, but individual differences are likely to exist, too. The easiest thing you can do is to observe your concentration for a few days in a row, until you find out at what time of the day it seems easiest for you to concentrate – and schedule your most demanding tasks for that time of day, whenever possible.
- Find peace with your working life.
If you have already been unhappy with your working life for a while, it is unlikely to resolve itself of its own accord. Take it into your own hands and try to influence it. If all attempts fail, consider a bigger change, such as a job change or even a career change, before it has an impact not only on your concentration but also on your overall well-being. But before quitting your job, you can try the following:
Check whether there are still ways to increase your motivation in your current job.
Try healing your work relationships, for example through using giraffe language.
Reconsider what to do and when, aka your task and time management.
- Take care of your general well-being.
Everything is interconnected in our body and mind, and so taking care of your overall physical, mental and emotional well-being will have a positive impact on many things, including your concentration.
Practice makes perfect, and you can gain a lot of concentration practice, for example, through yoga and meditation. You will find some tips, also for absolute beginners, below.
Concentration – Dharana
by Katarina Varsikova, viniyoga teacher
In Sanskrit, concentration is called dharana, and it belongs to the eight limbs of the art of yoga. To stay focused on whatever one is doing/thinking/tending to right now, is a great asset for us humans. Dharana can be built, practised, improved; it´s not a gift offered only to chosen ones; it is here for us all. The key is to stay alert. It’s a big challenge, to stay alert continuously, of course, but… small steps are possible.
A simple exercise: I am grating a carrot for a salad. Where is the mind wandering? At the not-yet-ready dish that will be served later? In the shop I visited earlier in the day, where I saw a nice pair of boots? At a conversation I had in the office? There are a hundred other places the mind can be instead of here and now. How about bringing it back? Having a real look at the carrot, its colour, the shape changing in the grater, the tiny orange pieces falling into the bowl. Or looking at your hands, and other things around you. The exercise doesn´t involve adoring the carrot or the tool or whatever, it´s enough to look and see. A simple reminder can help to discipline the mind; for example: “Hey, stay here now”. Say it to your rolling mind gently a couple of times a day. And…observe.
Asanas, yoga postures, build dharana, that´s one of the reasons a yogi does them. A quick check of the state of mind is when we take a posture that requires balance, such as tadasana:
Stand up, root your feet in the ground, breathe deeply, then lift one leg and prop it against the other calf or thigh or groin. Join the hands in front of the body and look: out of the window, or at a picture on the wall, or whatever offers itself at the moment. As long as the mind stays focused, the balance is there.
Don´t be angry if you lose it for a second. “Hey, stay here and now”, tell the mind lovingly. The balance is gained and regained, so is concentration.