Three Types of Obstacles to Concentration

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When we played 20 Questions as a family, the first question was always, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" If you are trying to identify an object, it falls into one of those categories. 

When you are mentally stopped, unable to concentrate, you should ask an analogous question: Is the problem physical, emotional, or cognitive? All three need to be checked. 

First, it's important to identify physical issues that can interfere with concentration. If you are feeling tired or achy or extremely tense, the pain and fatigue interfere with your concentration. You may not feel up to mental work. You may need to deal with the physical problem before you can continue. Or you may need to slow down the work to accommodate your current level of energy or concentration.

Strong emotions also interfere with your concentration, but more importantly, they alert you to issues that need to be considered. An emotion is based on all of your past conclusions and experiences. When it interrupts work, it's because it appears to be important to consider right now. That may or may not be true, but you cannot determine that until you introspect the emotion and examine the conclusion that gave rise to it.

Finally, the cognitive obstacle to concentration is a problem with the goal. If you are unclear on your goal — if it's confused, vague, or floating — work will grind to a halt until you sort out what you need to do. It is your goal that organizes your thoughts and allows you to guide thinking step by step from problem to solution. If you are vague on your goal, you will go in many directions with no particular results.

In 20 Questions when we asked, "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?," we always got an unambiguous answer. When you're at work, you may be stopped by all three mental blocks. You can have all three problems at the same time. If so, it helps to realize that, too. 

I recommend dealing with the physical problem first and the emotional problem second. If you plunge in and try to solve the cognitive problem before either of the other two, you may lack the clear mind you need to solve it. 

Breathing, stretching, exercise, and rest address the physical blocks. 

Introspective techniques address the emotional blocks, and help you understand the alert and decide what to do with it.  

And the cognitive block? Slowing down your thinking to ask, “What is my goal" is the start. Other tactics such as "Thinking on Paper" and "Complaining" can help if the goal is not obvious.

The next time you have trouble concentrating, pull out this handy trio from your memory banks, just as you would at the start of 20 Questions. Ask yourself: Is the problem physical, emotional or cognitive? The answer you get will help you get back on track.

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