Concentration is a state of mind. It’s a way of engaging with our work, regardless of what that work may be.
This state of mind is not neutral: Concentration can be either unpleasant or energizing. Good concentration can best be described by the concept of flow. Coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, flow describes a state of mind which is energized, focused and fully immersed in the process at hand. During flow, time moves by imperceptibly and you become completely engrossed in the work. Think of painters, who become so focused on their artwork that they often forget to eat, drink and sleep.
This article will show you easy ways you can create conditions that bring you into a state of good concentration and closer to a state of flow, which can have a transformative effect on your daily life. Read on to learn how to concentrate in five different ways to turn the task at hand into a more fulfilling activity.
1. Create the Right Environment for Concentration
It’s difficult to focus if you’ve got multiple little things competing for your attention. If you’ve got the TV playing, your cat pawing at your leg and a family member asking you to take out the garbage, it’s impossible to immerse yourself in your task and easy to waste time. And if you can’t immerse yourself into a task, flow will remain outside your reach.
The first step to concentrating well is to create a work environment free of distraction. This could be as elaborate as a sound-proof office or as simple as noise-cancelling headphones in a noisy place. You need a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
But the threat to your concentration isn’t only around you — it’s inside your laptop. With dozens of addictive websites sending you notifications, it’s easy to go from finishing your expense report to binge-watching YouTube videos.
Just as you’ve created a quiet place outside, you need to create a calm and quiet place within the borders of your screen. The easiest way to do this is with website blockers. These stop you from accessing specific sites during periods of time. A quick Google search will yield many great blockers, made for your browser of choice. Don’t forget to turn off notifications on your phone, or put your cell phone away from you.
A bit of quiet music in the background can help boost concentration, but some find even ambient music distracting. If you find that you can’t concentrate with music, but need a bit of noise, try white noise.
2. “Timebox” Your Work
Think to when you were last working under a tight deadline. You may have finished as much work in an hour as you usually do in a day. A deadline is a powerful thing.
But when there’s no pressure from a deadline, either because it’s too distant or it does not exist, it’s easy to get sidetracked.
You can recreate that same level of productivity and focus with a technique known as timeboxing. Timeboxing is where you set a time limit on completing a task. You’re essentially giving yourself a deadline, except you need to restrict the deadline to the next few hours or, at most, the next few days. This is your timebox.
For each timebox, you will allocate a specific activity. The more specific you can make the task, the easier it will be to allocate a sufficient timebox. For example, instead of “follow up with leads,” do “follow up with 10 leads.” Then, allocate time for this task and start the timer.
Another way of timeboxing is by using the Pomodoro Technique. Here, you focus on working for short bursts of 25 minutes, followed by short breaks, five minutes at most. In this method, you don’t need to specify the task you are going to complete. Instead, you aim to continue working for the duration of 25 minutes. Some research has suggested that longer periods of work, 52 minutes, followed by a 17-minute break is most effective. Try these and different combinations to see what works best.
You may find that once you get started, you don’t need to take a break. However, research has shown that regular breaks, especially from computer work, increases productivity and enhances cognitive performance. Just try to make sure that your breaks don’t involve screen time, like checking social media.
3. Have a To-Do List
You can’t arrive at your destination if you don’t know where you are going. The same applies when it comes to concentrating and achieving flow. Think of a to-do list as your concentration roadmap.
To-do lists not only help bring important tasks to the forefront, they also are a record-keeper for smaller tasks that may otherwise be gnawing on the back of your mind. These smaller tasks can have a negative effect on your ability to concentrate.
As Cal Newport, a computer-science professor and author of the book “Deep Work,” explains, incomplete work can wear down your concentration. This is due to the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency to remember incomplete tasks instead of completed ones. Keeping a to-do list is an effective way to ensure that tasks are completed and your mental energy ready to download onto more important and interesting work.
What’s more, to-do lists help declutter your mind. Create a to-do list in the morning, or prior to falling asleep, as an excellent way to de-stress.
4. Physical Exercise and Healthy Eating
Your mind and body are connected. A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind. Fittingly, physical exercise is a key way to improve your cognitive function and ability to concentrate.
Recent studies have shown that regular exercise can improve brain health, including the brain’s ability to focus on tasks. Exercise stimulates brain regions that release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF enhances neuronal connections so they are more effective.
To improve your concentration ability, you need to be serious about exercising regularly. To increase the production of BDNF, you need to be doing moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Moderate intensity means bringing your heart rate to 70 percent of its maximum rate, which is your age subtracted from 220. Jumping on a stationary bike or going for a swim are two excellent example exercises.
In addition to exercising, you also want to make sure you are eating properly. Eating too much junk food will sap at your energy levels, creating ups and downs which are not conducive to good concentration. Make sure your diet is full of vegetables and fruits, and opt for healthy snacks instead of soda and candy during your day.
Physical exercise and healthy eating are not only important for your concentration, they are important for long-term health. If you haven’t yet been motivated to improve an unhealthy lifestyle habit, perhaps the promise of sharper focus will push you to make changes.
The mind needs exercise as much as the body does. There isn’t a better workout for your mind than consistent meditation. Meditation has been shown to improve concentration across multiple studies by training the mind to block out distractions and focusing on a single element, usually the person’s breath. This focus training carries seamlessly over to everyday tasks and work.
A great way to start with meditation is through breathing exercises. By focusing on your breath when deep breathing, your mind is calmed and stress is reduced. With the mental fog of anxiety driven away, deep breathing almost instantly makes it easier to focus and concentrate.
Because of similar positive effects on mood and concentration, flow has been likened to a state of meditation. By training the mind with meditation, it makes it easier to slip into a state of flow next time you are focusing on a task.
As you incorporate these concentration-boosting techniques in your life, it’s helpful to track your concentration and see how it is improving over time. Spire shows you periods of time you’ve been focused, and shows them in the app as “streaks.” Concentration is active cognitive engagement; your respiration rate will be elevated and consistent. Spire is able to detect and qualify these breathing rates, and lets you see how often and how long you are concentrated over the day.
Concentration Is Near
Enjoying better concentration isn’t just about time management and being more productive. Concentrating more effectively and approaching a state of flow can help improve your enjoyment of the work. This means more work days where you are consistently absorbed in your work as opposed to multi-tasking and worrying. Work can thus become an enjoyable and fulfilling part of life. Put mind-wandering to rest once and for all by following the tips in this article.