The Key to Concentration

I had a long talk with a Thinking Lab member the other day. He was concerned about his power of concentration, which wasn’t all he wanted. He often got distracted and tired when he worked for a couple of hours. So I gave him my spiel on concentration, and thought I would write it up for you.

The key to concentrated thinking is to take your mental and physical needs seriously–plan your work to meet those needs so you can concentrate for the duration.

The process is similar to planning a 2-hour drive. If you wanted to make the best time possible, you would do two things: minimize stops, and minimize wrong turns. You would gas up the car and put air in the tires beforehand. You would bring the address, directions, and/or a GPS and your favorite traffic app so you could get there easily. You would ensure that your body was fed and watered and not needing any other maintenance before you started. With this preparation, and all your mental and physical needs met, you’d zip to your destination effectively.

When you’re performing a difficult mental task requiring concentration–perhaps writing, coding, or planning–the needs are less obvious and more complex. But once you identify your needs, the planning is just as straightforward.

There are two things you can do to help yourself to concentrate better: reduce distractions and increase the depth of activated information on topic. You probably think you know all you need to know about reducing distractions, so I’ll explain the issue of “depth of activated information” first, which concerns where thoughts come from.

At any given time, new and old thoughts are occurring to you. The thoughts are a product of two sources of information: what you’re paying attention to right now, and any background information that is currently activated.

Every time you pay attention to something, related information is triggered. So, for example, when I look at my calendar in the morning I see a few notes, perhaps “TLab 8pm.” This reminds me that I am giving a Thinking Lab class at 8:00 p.m., that I need to make sure the email reminders went out, and that I need to schedule some time during the day to review my notes.

The need for an email reminder and the need to review my notes triggered because I’ve given hundreds of teleclasses, and my procedures are well-learned.

On the other hand, the specific topic of the class may not be triggered by reading the calendar notation. If I’ve been busy with other projects, this particular class may be off my mind. If, when I check my calendar, I don’t remember the topic. I need to re-read the announcement to refresh my recollection. Only then, after I remember the topic, can I figure out how much time I need for the final preparation that day.

At any given time, only a small fraction of the information stored in your brain is activated and ready to provide answers to questions and make new connections. That’s why it’s common to get an “I don’t know,” from your subconscious, even for something that you “really do know.” It’s just not accessible at the moment. But if you pay attention to something related, it will eventually get triggered.

Information is triggered into awareness by association. What you’re paying attention to triggers associated ideas.

Here’s the kicker: these ideas then stay activated for a while, gradually reducing their activation level until you go to sleep. When you’re asleep, it seems the memory buffers are cleared.

There are some qualifications: more important ideas are triggered more strongly, and last longer. Ideas that are triggered repeatedly will last longer. One very important topic can stay activated through the sleep cycle, so you wake up thinking about it the next morning. And if you are immersed in a context for days, it stays activated.

But as a rule, when you wake up, nothing much is on your mind. Then, from that time forward, any information that is activated accumulates. More and more issues get “on” your mind. The particular thoughts that occur to you are primarily the result of what you’ve been paying attention to in the last few minutes, secondarily the result of what you paid attention to in the last hour or so, and to some extent the result of what you’ve paid attention to since you woke up.

If you spend your early morning time reading email and surfing the internet, a thousand different pieces of information will be activated, with no particular relationship to one another. If you then try to do concentrated work, you will be building on quicksand. Only the thin top layer of activated information will be relevant to your writing or coding or strategizing.

If, on the other hand, you spend your early morning time focused on that one key project, perhaps re-reading notes from the previous day, thinking about it, and working on it continuously for a couple of hours–all of the information you activate will be related to that project in some way. When you get distracted by your own thoughts, those thoughts will be “on topic” (and likely creative).

This is what I mean by depth of activation. You determine whether you will be distractible later in the day by how you aim your attention in the morning. If you systematically choose to focus on the task that needs concentration, you activate relevant information and set up a virtuous cycle, in which every thought that comes to you is related to the topic at hand. Tactics such as “thinking on paper” can help, by letting you dig deeper and deeper into the topic.

If, on the other hand, you put off any work that needs deep concentration until after you have read your email and attended two meetings, you are doomed. Doomed. The chances are, something in that inbox or meeting will be important enough that it will distract you for the rest of your workday.

This gets us back to the issue of distractions. Everybody knows that they should minimize distractions. But I think most people don’t realize why they need to minimize them. It is not just that you lose time. It is not just that you might never get back to the important task. It is that you are sabotaging the rest of the day.

Distractions activate additional distracting information–which will continue to distract you until your next nap or bedtime. They set up a vicious cycle. Even if you go back to work, you will not have that same deep activation on topic. You will have multiple internal distractions plaguing you.

This is why I recommend that if you need to concentrate, you strategically plan your day to meet your mental needs. If you need to do highly concentrated work, schedule it for a block in the morning, and protect it from all types of distractions–external and internal. Don’t even dream of checking email before you start that concentrated work block.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to concentrate later in the day. Often, you can concentrate for a short time, say 25 minutes, if you can eliminate external distractions and use “thinking on paper.” For example, I spent a solid 25 minutes on this newsletter yesterday in the late afternoon. I mulled over what I wanted to say and why it was important. This warmed up the context, put the issue “on my mind” when I woke up this morning, and gave me something to read to get the writing going.

But concentrating for more than 25 minutes in the afternoon is difficult, unless everything happens to go your way. If you plan to concentrate in the afternoon, you need to plan significant buffer time to get your head into the right state for concentration. You may need a half an hour or more to clear out what’s already on your mind plus deliberately warm up the topic to concentrate on. This takes significant willpower. Since you’re usually tired later in the day, it’s often a losing proposition. It’s much more time-effective and energy-effective to plan your concentrated thinking time for when it’s easiest to do it.

To sum up, this tip can be taken on three levels.

At the simplest level, I am saying: Give your highest quality time to your most challenging mental work. That means: first thing in the morning.

At another level, I am saying: Deal with distractions using a strategic approach to prevent them, not willpower to put them aside. If you want to concentrate, make war on distractions.

At the highest level: Your mind functions by understandable cause and effect sequences. When it is not functioning “right,” such as you “can’t concentrate,” no magical wish will make it start functioning differently. You can’t wish yourself to your destination–you need to drive the car, and if it’s a 2-hour trip, you need to prepare for it properly. If you need to concentrate for a couple of hours, you need to take your mental needs seriously, and plan the trip accordingly.

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