March 16, 2015

Improving your concentration by practicing

Being able to concentrate and to keep concentrating is necessary when you are doing an important or difficult task. Doing such a task requires that you fully focus on that task and are not distracted or start mind wandering. When your mind wanders when you are doing a difficult task you must divide your attention between the task and the mind wandering. This means you are doing two things at the same time; you are multitasking. Research has shown that we are rather bad at multitasking. When we are mind wandering when doing a challenging task our performance will suffer. Such tasks require that we keep our focus on the task.

In many situations we are engaged in more or less challenging tasks. Thus we need the ability to concentrate. Before we get into this a little deeper, let me acknowledge that mind wandering can be useful at other times. When we are doing simple tasks or when we are doing nothing there is room for mind wandering. This mind wandering helps us to find creative ideas and to solve everyday problems we encounter. It also helps us to give meaning to our lives and to formulate long term goals. You can read more about the usefulness of mind wandering in this article.

Let's get back to concentration. Is this something which we simply have or don't have or can we develop it? As is the case with many (if not all) useful abilities and characteristics concentration is indeed developable. A rather expensive and laborious way to do this is to have neuroscientists train your concentration through neurofeedback while you are lying in an fMRI machine (read more about that, here).

Fortunately, there are also easier ways to do it. Examples are techniques used in mindfulness meditation training programs. Mindfulness meditation (MM) is a way to develop greater awareness about your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a moment-to moment, non-judgmental way. An example of a simple exercise is to focus your attention on your breathing for several minutes. While doing this exercise the next steps are repeatedly taken (source).

First you focus your attention on your breathing. Then, at a certain moment, your attention will start to drift off, without you noticing at first. Then, you will notice that your attention has drifted off. Then, you will notice your response to this mind wandering. Next, you refocus your attention on your breathing. Then, your attention is again focused on your breathing and these steps can repeat. Any time you notice that your mind has wandered you calmly and non-judgmentally acknowledge that and you refocus your attention on your breathing. Thus, you repeatedly go through the following cycle:


As you see, this is in fact a simple way to train your concentration. As is always the case with effective practice you keep repeating, you are aware of what is not going right, and you keep trying without negative judgments. If you practice like this you will improve. Gradually, you will be able to keep your attention focused longer on your breathing. People who have done these types of exercises for several weeks tend to show psychological changes, physiological changes, and anatomic changes in the brain (read this for more details).

When you practice you'll improve. This is even true for your concentration.

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