Want to Learn to Focus?
Concentration means paying attention to what you want to, when you want to, for as long as you want to. It’s a fundamental skill that improves everything you do in life, because really paying attention to what you’re doing automatically makes you better at it.
Concentration is also one of the basic building blocks of a good meditation practice. In this popular series of articles, Michael W. Taft teaches you the how and why of paying attention—the secrets of concentration.
People feel scattered and distracted, and imagine that they should have concentration power from the get-go. But that’s like imagining that you can be an Olympic weightlifter with no practice. Concentration takes practice, but it is worth it. Weightlifting doesn’t just make you strong for lifting weights, it makes your body strong for everything you do the rest of the day.
Concentration practice, too, strengthens your ability to focus for everything you do in your life. It effectively increases your intelligence, because you can bring more of your mental powers (i.e. attention and working memory) to each task.
All the articles listed here will show you how to do the practice of concentration, especially in the context of meditation.
One of the fastest ways to learn to concentrate is by learning to listen. Learning to listen means learning to actually pay attention to—to concentrate on—what other people are saying. Listening to their words as if listening to a favorite song, with your mind focused on what they are saying and what it means. Concentrated listening is also called “active listening” or “deep listening.” Deep listening gives greatly increased concentration, enjoyment of music as well as other humans, and—perhaps most importantly—a profoundly positive shift in the quality of relationships.
Listening with concentration can be called active listening because we are not just passively allowing speech to enter our ears, but instead are bringing as much of our listening capacity into the act as possible. Our ears become hungry for the words they are listening to, and chew the words as finely as possible before digesting them.
My favorite method for helping to make any topic easier to handle is a little technique I call the Hammer. The Hammer technique works by breaking things down into little pieces, like a sledge hammer. It operates on the same principle the Romans used to take over the world: divide and conquer. That’s how the Hammer works. You take a large, complicated, daunting task and break it up into chunks that are easy to handle on their own. You can do this either mentally, or by creating a detailed lists on a piece of paper. Each small piece can even be broken down into its own group of much smaller pieces. Once you have taken the task and reduced it to a bunch of bite-sized chunks, it will be easy for you to chew and digest it. Almost any subject or job can be handled effectively using the Hammer technique.
You may be wondering why you should make the effort to concentrate. “What’s in it for me?” Simply put, there is nothing your brain can do that it can’t do better with increased concentration. Concentration is like a gear train that applies the horsepower of the brain to the task at hand. Conversely, if you can’t concentrate it’s difficult to use what brain power you possess. Concentration is to the mind as muscle strength is to the body. Without it, you can’t do anything. The more of it you have, the more possibilities open up for you in every aspect of life.
Being able to concentrate is fundamental to being able to think. And thinking is at the root of virtually all human endeavor. If reading a book is pleasurable, then reading a book with twice the concentration is much more pleasurable. And this goes for other things, too.
The more you can concentrate on something, the more you can enjoy it. Being distracted makes it harder to enjoy anything very much. It’s like drilling for water by making a thousand one-foot-deep holes. You never get to quench your thirst because you never actually get down to the water. But drill a single thousand-foot-deep hole and you will hit an aquifer. Then you can drink sweet water to your heart’s content.
You must get used to being OK with silence. Making a friend of silence will go a long way towards building your concentration and enhancing your meditation practice. It’s not that you can’t meditate or do focused work with sounds going on around you, but just eliminate the ones you can. It will make things a lot easier.
Like all of these concentration-building habits, don’t jump into it all at once. Drastically changing your routine will just cause you discomfort. Instead, little by little, reduce the number of hours per day that you have intentional background sound turned on. If you usually have music or a talk show on ten hours a day, try reducing it to eight. Try waiting a half an hour before turning on the television in the morning. This silent period will give your mind a chance to get concentrated first thing, which will help you to feel clear and concentrated all day long.
In our culture we think that concentration is difficult, effortful, tense, and no fun at all. Something that you have to work very hard to do against your will. Psychological research into what concentration is really like, however, paints a very different picture.
Hungarian scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looked at people in a state of high concentration, and he found that they were calm, relaxed, open, and felt very good. They wanted to continue concentrating as long as they could, and they wanted to return to it as often as possible. Even if the activity had no external meaning (like a puzzle or a game), it was worth doing for its own sake. If the state went deeper, time seemed to slow down or stop, and all sense of self disappeared, with only the sense of the activity remaining.
This state was so pleasant, relaxed, and fulfilling that Csikszentmihalyi named it “flow,” and dedicated decades of research into the concentrated state. Flow means becoming concentrated to the point of absorption in the activity. Where everything else falls away, and all that’s left is awareness of the activity.
People talk a lot about multitasking, but multitasking is bad for concentration. It actually trains you to be less attentive, which means you will be effectively less intelligent. Each decision you make will have the benefit of less and less brainpower to inform it.
By reducing distractions in your environment, on the other hand, you will slowly train yourself to concentrate your attention—deeply and fully—on one thing at a time. Focused attention is a learnable skill, and one that can grow much stronger than most people realize. With strong concentration power, effective intelligence grows, because the raw number of neurons you can use on a project is larger. And there is no better way to build concentration than by the practice of meditation.
So in daily life, try as much as possible to limit distractions. Turn off every input that you can turn off. Allow your attention to rest on one task at a time. Not only will you do a much better job, you will also feel less anxious.
If you cannot focus on one thing at a time, or cannot maintain attention on one thing for as long as you want to, that is distraction. Distraction dilutes brain power, frazzles the nerves, and results in non-optimum outcomes. You end up stressed out and spun around, and don’t even have the satisfaction of a job well done. We supposedly live in a multitasking world, but multitasking is just multi-failing. In this article, you will learn five easy ways of undoing distraction.
Picture yourself concentrating. Make a face of concentrating right now. If you’re like most people, you will make a face of scowling effort. Brows knitted, mouth pursed, almost as if you’re trying to lift an enormous weight. The message here is plain to read in our body language: we think that concentration is hard. That it takes tremendous effort. And that the more strenuous effort we put into it, the better our concentration will be.
The trouble is that this cultural belief about concentration is completely wrong-headed. Concentration is actually incredibly easy and relaxing. Concentration can feel as light as a feather.
Are you having trouble staying focused on your tax return? Is texting so fascinating that you can’t keep your eyes on the road? Concentration can be difficult for all of us, but it doesn’t actually have to be so hard. With just a few simple tricks and hacks, you can drastically improve your concentration. This post contains five hacks I have found that make a huge difference.
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. This post will show you how to do that.
Our society provides a number of ways to relax, but they aren’t all that good for concentrating, either. Beer, wine, booze, painkillers, muscle relaxants—all these substances will reliably make you feel much more chilled out. Unfortunately, they also create an unfocused, befuddled state of mind. Hence the injunction: do not operate heavy machinery. While they do help you to relax, they are not conducive to good concentration.
Fortunately, there is one simple thing you can do that is guaranteed to calm you down, as well as help you to concentrate: breathe deeply and slowly. It’s really that easy.
Slow down your breathing. Make it as deep and full as possible. Notice if your stomach is going in and out, which is a reliable sign of a deep breath. Another is a feeling of outward expansion in your kidney areas. The whole lower abdomen should feel like it’s filling and emptying as you breathe. You may want to sigh. The kind that requires you taking a deep breath first.
As you take these calming breaths, feel your entire body relaxing.
All of us have had the experience of doing too many things at once. Of driving while listening to the radio, eating a burrito, and talking to a friend all at once. While it’s amazing that human beings can juggle so many things at once—a testament to our versatility—it’s also a fantastic way to end up with salsa in your lap, or even to get into an accident.
Other situations may not be quite as dangerous, but still there are drawbacks to splitting your attention. Imagine college students, say, trying to win at a video game, drink alcohol, listen to music, talk to several friends, eat a pizza, and flirt with potential sex partners at the same time. While that can be fun, they will probably fail or do poorly at most of them. Simultaneously doing a good job at so many activities is hard. And the old adage that anything worth doing is worth doing well is still as true as it ever was.
The antidote to doing too many things at once, is, of course, to only do one thing at a time. That’s the most basic definition of concentration: doing one thing at a time.
Doing one thing at a time is probably the most basic habit of concentration, and one of the most powerful. It is the easiest thing you can do to create a massive increase in your ability to concentrate.
Does anyone you know not have a problem with too many distractions? Here in the Bay Area at least, it seems to be an epidemic—many people report feeling frazzled from the pressures of too much technology. In Part One of Undoing Distraction, we looked at a few of the basics of reclaiming a hold on your attention, but the frantic world of smartphones and social media presents an entirely new set of challenges to concentration. These technologies are the result of a long Darwinian arms race among competitors for the best way to capture attention. Brighter screens, higher resolution, faster processors, and a vast, teeming ecosystem of apps has given rise to generations of extra-powerful distraction devices. In this article, we look at specific ways to handle undoing these concentration challenges more gracefully.
I remember the first time I fell in love. I wrote her name in my notebook over and over, repeating the name as if the sound itself were savory. I pictured her face in my mind, and imagined the things we would do together. My lover was so easy to concentrate on that it became difficult to think about anything else; it was hard to get anything done. Other people noticed my dreamy distraction and nodded, “He’s in love.”
It’s a fascinating fact: concentrating on something you love is easy. Things you love exert a powerful magnetism on the mind, pulling it to attention over and over. So much of the time, people struggle to focus, and yet here is an example where paying attention seems to happen of its own accord, powerfully and yet effortlessly, like a force of nature.
Try it right now. It doesn’t have to be something you “love” love. Think about your favorite, say, food. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Imagine the delicious aroma. Think about how it tastes, even how it feels on your tongue, its texture. Think about where you like to eat it best, who cooks it the best. Remember some of your favorite moments eating the dish. Mmmmmm.
That wasn’t too hard, was it? Most of us cannot wait for the moment we can turn our mind toward something we love, and let go of ourselves into total concentration on it. A sort of flow state with our love object, whether its the latest episode of Mad Men or a good crossword puzzle.
The reason for this is that it feels good—very good—to think about something you love. As the mind with agreeable thoughts, the system floods with chemicals that induce pleasure (such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, nerve growth factor, and so on). This creates a positive feedback loop that encourages you to keep thinking about the thing you love. Virtually every other thought feels like an annoying distraction, because it doesn’t contribute to the cascade of pleasure you receive from concentrating on your love object.
You can use that almost magical quality of love to enhance your concentration power. Here’s how.
These fifteen articles contain the basic secrets of concentration. I hope you enjoy them and that they help you begin your path to learning to concentrate.
photo by mwt