by Michael W. Taft
“Yeah when you call my name
I salivate like a Pavlov dog…” — Rolling Stones
Concentration is natural, but many of us struggle to concentrate better at work, in school, in relationships, and in life. There are ways to make concentration much easier, that don’t involve simply getting better at concentrating. One is learning to remove distraction, another is learning to relax, a third and very powerful method is to create a system of rewards for yourself. Connecting rewards with concentrating not only works, but it can make concentrating a lot more fun.
Most people are familiar with the famous experiment first conducted by the Russian scientist Pavlov. The doctor would always ring a bell before feeding his test dogs. Eventually even in the absence of food, the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell. They had been conditioned to associate the bell with something really positive. Pavlov won a Nobel prize for this discovery, and it showed a way to make it easier to learn anything. By associating something positive (like food) with some behavior (like concentrating), you can teach yourself to do it better and enjoy it more.
You can create a system of rewards like this to help yourself develop better concentration. If you condition yourself to associate a concentrated state with something pleasurable, then it will make it easier for you to focus. Your body and subconscious mind will actually help push you into concentration, instead of always trying to distract you. This has been scientifically proven to work in literally thousands of experiments, and you will find it effective in your own life very quickly.
1. Give yourself a treat.
To follow in Pavlov’s footsteps, you might experiment with using food as a positive reinforcement for concentrating. Start out by promising to give yourself some small treat that you love if you complete some task that takes concentration. For example, you might promise yourself a piece of chocolate after you balance your checkbook, or some special snack after you finish studying math. It’s like giving the dog a treat after it does its trick.
As simple as this sounds, using a food reward can be a very effective strategy. You will quickly discover that you actually begin to look forward to your concentration task, because it has become associated in your mind with getting something you like. In other words, you have been conditioned to concentrate, at least a little bit. This especially works well if you apply it to some activity that you have to do every day in the same way, like the math example above. It takes time for your system to get trained with the reward game, and if you repeat the signals the same way each time, it’s makes it easier for the training to take place.
Of course, food is not the only way to reward yourself, although it is very powerful since it works with the subconscious urges. You can use almost anything you like as a reward for concentration. Watch a movie, relax in a warm tub, go out with friends—get creative and give yourself a healthy reward for your effort.
Try to make sure that you match the reward to the effort. Don’t give yourself a night on the town for reading a single page. This can lead to actually getting less done, or—in the case of food—gaining a lot of weight. Give yourself small rewards for completing small concentration tasks, and big rewards for completing major ones.
2. Keep a record.
You can make this easier by setting up a system where you check off a box for each concentration task you achieve. For example, you could check a box (or make and x, or whatever) every time you finish ten minutes of uninterrupted concentration. When you complete a certain number, then you give yourself a large reward. Five checkmarks might earn you a five extra minutes in the shower in the morning; fifty a dinner out, a movie, or other special, fun activity.
Also, keep the record you have of these completed concentration tasks; whether using sheets of paper or a spreadsheet. Just looking at how many you’ve achieved over the weeks and months is a powerful motivator when you’re feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated.
In the long run a system of rewards like this needs to be carefully adjusted. As your ability to concentrate grows (and it will if you follow the suggestions in this book), you need to increase the amount of work necessary to get the reward. A child gets an “A” in school for being able to spell, but a college student must be able to write an entire paper to get the same “A.” It works the same way with concentration. Watch how you are developing, and make sure that you are matching the reward to the amount of effort put into the work. Otherwise the reward system will stop having such a positive effect on the growth of your concentration.
3. Up the Ante.
If you like this sort of thing, there are several ways to make it even more powerful. Probably most people will not want to go to these extremes, but if you’re willing to make the effort (and possibly seem a little weird to others) they are proven to work.
One is to intensify your rewards system by adding negative reinforcement. That is, you not only get a reward for concentrating, you could add some sort of “punishment” when you fail at a concentration task. While this may bring up images of people whipping themselves on the back, the simplest way to implement this is to simply be very strict about not giving yourself rewards unless your concentration has been very high. If you’re attention was somewhat scattered or you weaved off track a bit, you then do not give yourself the reward.
To amp it up even higher, you can go beyond simply withholding rewards and get into actual punishments. A simple mechanism is to establish a “concentration bank.” Every time your concentration on a specific task slips, you have to pay cash into the bank. When enough cash has accumulated, you have to give the money to a charity that you’re not in favor of. (The website stickK can help you with this.) You’re lack of concentration is not only costing you cash, it’s actually going to something that you don’t like—that’s a very strong motivation to concentrate, especially since you get rewards if you do.
You may get into the nerdy goodness of making spreadsheets to track your accomplishments and meting out punishments by making cash contributions to your least favorite political party. Or you may just stick with the simple expediency of giving yourself a little treat each time you do a bit of solid concentrating. Either way, you’re guaranteed to make much more progress, and probably have a lot more fun, by implementing a system of rewards into your concentration practice.
Read more of the Concentration Series.
 Read up on B.F. Skinner, Operant conditioning, and Behavioral Therapy