8 Things Everybody Ought to Know About Concentrating
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8 Things Everybody Ought to Know About Concentrating
“Music helps me concentrate,” Mike said to me glancing briefly over his shoulder.
Mike was in his room writing a paper for his U.S. History class. On
his desk next to his computer sat crunched Red Bulls, empty Gatorade
bottles, some extra pocket change and scattered pieces of paper. In the
pocket of his sweat pants rested a blaring iPod with a chord that
dangled near the floor, almost touching against his Adidas sandals. On
his computer sat even more stray objects than his surrounding
environment. There must have been twenty browser tabs open. The tabs
included political blog news, random Wikipedia entries, Facebook
profiles and a Myspace page blasting more music at him. Two
notifications with sound popped-up simultaneously in the top-right
corner of his screen. One was an email; the other was a tweet. Behind
his dozens of browser windows sat a pending music download and a handful
of blinking IM’s.
Mike made a shift about every thirty seconds between all of the
above. He’d write a little bit for his history paper, check his pending
download, reply to his IM’s, and then start all over.
Do you know a person like this? I do. Those were my concentration
habits at one point in my life. Yet, I made a series of decisions that
resulted in a 180 degree turn. This book is about how to make that 180
degree turn. And this chapter centers on understanding a core component
for getting focused: short-term focus (or concentration). We’ll first
outline what science teaches us about concentration, and then we’ll dive
into how you can concentrate when you feel overwhelmed through 8 steps.
The Science Behind Concentration
In the above account, Mike’s obviously stuck in a routine that many
of us may have found ourselves in, yet in the moment we feel it’s almost
an impossible routine to get out of. Many fall into this pattern
because constantly shifting attention and multitasking eases the pain of
doing something you hate in the first place. We mitigate essays and
projects with blasts of dopamine delivered through tweets, music and
gossip.What science tells us, though, is that not only does
multitasking make our work 50% less valuable; it takes 50% longer to
finish. Plus, it’s physiologically impossible for the brain to multitask.
When we constantly multitask to get things done, we’re not
multitasking, we’re rapidly shifting our attention. And this rapid
shifting kills the mind, it waters its effectiveness down significantly.
When we follow Mike’s pattern above, the mind shifts through three
Phase 1: Blood Rush Alert
When Mike decides to start writing his History essay, blood rushes to
his anterior prefrontal cortex. Within this part of the brain, sits a
neurological switchboard. The switchboard alerts the brain that it’s
about to shift concentration.
Phase 2: Find and Execute
The alert carries an electrical charge that’s composed of two parts: first, a search query (which is needed to find the correct neurons for executing the task of writing), and second, a command
(which tells the appropriate neuron what to do). This process propels
Mike into a mental state of writing for his History essay. Your mind
literally puts a writing cap on.
Phase 3: Disengagement
While in this state, Mike then hears an email notification. His mind
rapidly disengages his current writing state, and then sends blood-flow
back to Phase 1, which then leads him to phase 2, and then when he gets
distracted again, he’ll find himself at phase 3.
The process repeats itself sequentially. It doesn’t work
simultaneously (i.e. multitasking). The mind shifts rapidly through this
phase at a rate of one-tenth of a second. This tells us two important
things: it reinforces the case that we must only focus on one thing at a
time, and second, it’s critical to master selective attention, which
we’ll explore below.
Concentration drives intelligence
Research surfaced recently that revealed the true drivers of
intelligence. They asked, “Is intelligence simply the ability to
assimilate information and recall upon it whenever needed?” Is
intelligence really a measure of memory? If not, than what makes a
person intelligent? Amazingly, they found that intelligence is not
founded on one’s memory. Instead, intelligence emanates from one’s
ability to control their selective attention. It’s their ability to
control the three phases above, and where they route their blood-flow to
within the prefrontal cortex.
As you improve in the ability to strategically allocate your
attention, your brain also improves. In fact, it rewires itself. As you
exercise concentration and selective attention, your mind rewires itself
to support your new habits. You get better and better at concentrating
when you concentrate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that as you
age, your mind’s flexibility slows down slightly. Meaning, you can’t
rapidly jump out of habits and processes as well as you could in your
earlier days. Yet, by practicing the small steps and exercises today
within your mind, you can establish solid mental faculties for your
older years. By practicing brain exercises through mental games you can
significantly sharpen your mind. For brain exercises, I highly recommend
Lumosity’s brain training games. They’re fun, effective and you can
sign up for free. Click here and sign up for a free account. (free brain game training)
Now that you know a bit about the science and background of your
mind, we’ll explore 8 things that will help you build short-term focus
8 Things Everybody Ought to Know About Concentrating
1. You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped getting distracted
The phrase above is self-explanatory. Yet, it’s amazing how most
people look for some crazy, obtuse solution for the reason why they
can’t concentrate. They reason, “I just have ADD. I can’t concentrate.”
In reality, their situation likens itself to Mike’s situation above.
In the late 80′s, two researchers asked themselves a chicken-egg
question. (“What came first the chicken or the egg?”). Their version
centers on distraction and boredom. They asked themselves, “What came
first, distraction or boredom.” What they found is rather subtle, yet
it’s profoundly significant. They found that distraction leads to
boredom (not the other way around). This displays that we must cut out
distraction in order to get focused; or else, we’ll get bored.
2. Just do one important thing per day
Scientists also found that we can only focus on one thing at once.
Nobody does that. We’ve always got something going on in the background
of whatever we’re doing. We’ve always got two-dozen tasks on our to-do
list. On top of this, we’ve got a handful of projects that we try and
When you’ve got a mountain of paperwork on your desk, the best thing
to do is clear it all off. Pick it all up and place it in a drawer. Do
anything required to get it out of your sight. After this, kick your
feet up and daydream. Yes, I’m serious. Daydream and ask yourself the
following question: “What’s the most important thing I can do right
now?” Once you’ve identified the item that will actually make a
difference, do it.
Try and make it a goal to do just one critical thing per day. This
habit proves much more effective than living the routine everyone else
lives: doing many insignificant things a day. They live on fooling
themselves into thinking they’ve added value.
The quote below by John Wooden summarizes this quite nicely. Recall
upon this daily if you’re having a difficult time breaking away from the
“Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” – John Wooden
3. Chunk into three’s
Most of the time your one important thing that you can do per day
takes more than just one action. Oftentimes it takes a series of smaller
steps to accomplish. For this reason, it’s very helpful to chunk
activities into sets of three. If you set out to accomplish one
important item without a plan, you’ll be just as ineffective as the
crack-berry work-a-holic running around the office making copies.
Outline your three-step to-do list using an offline to-do planner
(which we outline in another chapter); or if you’re working online, use a
three-item FocusList to keep you focused on the task at hand. Click here for a simple, effective, downloadable To-Do List.
4. Questions that kill procrastination
The brain processes meaning before detail. This is where
procrastination stems from. Your boss, professor or co-worker tells you
that the task on your desk is important, but your brain doesn’t yet
agree. If you push forth anyways, and embark on the task before
understanding its meaning, you’ll end up frustrating yourself and
wasting time because you may have to do it all over.
For this reason, whenever you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself the following questions:
Question one: Does this really need to be done?
- If you’re in the business world, term it as, “Will this increase revenue, and/or reduce cost?”
- If you’re in school, ask “Will this impact my grade?” Note: In
school, it’s not necessarily about preparing you for the real-world,
it’s about assimilating information, regurgitating it on a test, and
then hopefully remembering some of it in the future, which gives you
more context for the real world. This is why, the question isn’t, “Will
this prepare me for the real world?”
Whatever your environment, if you can’t come up with a compelling
reason for doing something, ask why the task needs to be done. If it’s
not your choice, and it’s your boss’ choice, have him or her step into
your office and explain the situation. Tell them, “So, I’ve been sitting
here trying to figure out how to best approach this project, yet I
everytime I advance further, I keep coming back to why this is
meaningful in the first place. Can you help me understand the big
picture and value this actually adds to our business?”
The result will be one of four things:
- The person will realize that this is just busy work. Thus, you won’t have to do it,
- The person will try and convince you that it’s important. In this
case, assign yourself an insanely fast deadline to finish the project,
and finish it. This type of boss values people that look like they’ve
done something; he or she doesn’t actually care about its effectiveness,
thus they won’t care about results.
- The person will come up with a compelling reason for why it’s
important, and thus you’ll be able to finish the project with grace and
effectiveness because you understand its meaning and purpose.
- The person will get angry at you for questioning the process. This
indicates that you’re at a bureaucratic organization that devalues
innovation and purpose. If you’re OK with this, enjoy a work-life of
hell. If you’re not OK with this, sprint to the exit as quickly as
Question two: Can I delegate this?
If you find yourself with a task that has meaning (with or without a
lie from a boss), and you don’t want to do it, delegate it. Doing
something you hate is a lose-lose. It’s bad for you, as well as your
organization because you’ll likely turn in sub-par work.
5. Be Smart With Your Time
The Pareto principle is founded on a theory that 80% of effectiveness
is driven by 20% of our activity (or causes). I argue that it’s more
like 99%:1%. It’s amazing how many insignificant tasks we’re constantly
filling our lives with. Don’t make it your goal to involve yourself with
20% of meaningful items during the day. It gets too confusing, and your
untrained mind will still end up taking-on too much. As state above,
just do one important task per day. Say no to everything else–even your
boss. Be humble, but be logical.
There’s three types of people in corporations:
Type 1: Busy People
This is the person who constantly stresses themselves out by running
around with paper, working on vacations and constantly checking email.
They look like work-a-holics, but they get very little work done. They
end up burning themselves out. They can even end up lashing out at
What ends up happening is that others perceive them as being able to
get the most done, thus people assign more work to them. The work
results in being half-assed because the busy person doesn’t have the
appropriate time needed for the task. People end up giving the most work
to those who are least effective. This is why busy people and
work-a-holics are bad for organizations. They eventually end up hurting
Type 2: Lazy People
Lazy people are those that put the blame on their external
environment for a lot of things. In the back of their minds sits hope
that they’ll one day succeed and hit that million-dollar home-run. Yet
in the meantime, they fill their lives with activities that release
Activities such as T.V., potato chips, video games, researching
whether or not Tupac faked his death and conspiring over whether our
government is run by free masons. I was this person once. These were my
habits. I occupied my time with message-boards, reading hours of sports
articles, and more. I wanted to achieve my dreams, but my mind craved
dopamine derived from reading sports blogs. Getting out of this state
and into the state below is what this book is about.
Type 3: A Sage
A Sage is one that doesn’t involve themselves in dopamine-driven
activities; instead, he or she is very selective about what they do.
They have a habit of asking themselves questions that most people are
too busy to ask. They pre-occupy themselves with the unspoken, yet
meaningful assumptions that others fail to address. Sages ask questions
about the meaning behind any activity that they embark on. They view
turning down work as a logical decision, not an emotional one. They even
say no to their bosses in a strategic way. In order to become a Sage,
you must become indispensable to your organization, which is
accomplished through practicing Wu Wei (which we will cover soon in the
chapter on Flow). Of course, when it comes to business, nobody is
indispensable, even the CEO and Founder can be replaced (e.g. Yahoo’s
CEO/Founder, Jerry Yang). By becoming indispensable, I mean you must be
economically indispensable. Meaning, to the economy, you must be
indispensable. In other words, you, yourself, can generate monetary
value wherever you go–even if you work for yourself. The most empowering
feeling is knowing you can land a job at any time, or just make money
for yourself whenever you want to.
A true sign of being indispensable is not a pat on the ass from a
boss. It’s not a bonus or a raise. A true sign of being indispensable
comes from making money on your own and getting job offers when you’re
not looking for a job.
In summary, in order to be a Sage, you must earn it. You must earn it
by being economically indispensable, and we’ll learn shortly that this
falls into place naturally.
6. Mind Maps
Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s critical to allow the mind
to disentangle itself by mapping out your thoughts on paper.
There’s two types of maps: (i) PS Map, and (ii) Fear Map
I. PS Map:
A PS Map is short for a problem-solution mind map.
This becomes a helpful tool when you’re trying to get something done,
yet your mind keeps wandering towards a problem you think you have. A PS
Map is also critical for when you feel restless–when your mind won’t
stop racing. You tend to pace around the house contemplating a problem.
Whenever you’re in this state, pull out a piece of paper and at the top
write: “Problem.” Then map out every single detail and nature of the
problem. Halfway down, on the same piece of paper, write out “Solution”
And then map out possible solutions to this problem. This simple
exercise slows down the mind, puts things into perspective and makes the
solution shockingly clear.
II. A Fear Map
Sometimes, thoughts and ideas creep into our mind that are
intrinsically negative in nature. These thoughts generate fear. In this
situation, it’s best to outline the consequences of your fear. Through
outlining the results of your fear, you can oftentimes find how
insignificant the fear really is. And even in the case of where the fear
still seems significant, at least you know what the worst thing could
happen is. Oftentimes you’ll find that the worst thing that could
happen, really isn’t that bad.
A fear map forces you to apply simple logic to the source of your fear. It’s founded on ‘If X, then Y.
On paper map out the following formula “if x, then y.” Where “x” is the fear, and “y” is your estimate of the fear’s result.
Through mapping out your thoughts, you can calm the racing mind, which will free your mind to focus on the task at hand.
7. Blame something
Other times, sitting down to concentrate is as simple as blaming a
simple object for your inability to concentrate. As we discussed above,
lazy people are those that blame almost everything on their environment.
You don’t want to do this, as it’s not a long-term, sustainable
solution. However, in instances where you can’t get excited to actually
pump blood to your prefrontal cortex (phase 1 of concentrating), a
simple object can help you out. Such an object would be coffee, a drink,
a Bonsai tree or a walk. You can reward your mind for concentrating by
saying, “OK, mind, here’s the deal–it’s hard to concentrate on this
right now, but I’ll pick up a bonsai tree, which will create a more
compelling environment to concentrate.” You’ll find that this
object-based motivator actually works.
Researchers found that concentration is not a gift. It’s not about
intelligence. It’s not about being a prodigy with a gifted memory. It’s
not about possessing the ability to recall an insane amount of facts
(That’s what Google’s for). Researchers found that concentration is
driven by interest, and interest is driven by attitude. If your attitude
towards a specific project swells with interest, intrigue and passion,
concentration is astonishingly easy.
A core component of concentrating is building up a repertoire of
purpose-driven habits that enables you to seamlessly step into “flow.”
It’s my thesis that “flow” is the combination of mastering short-term
focus and long-term focus. This book is about building this repertoire
through goals, habits, exercises, philosophies and practices which will
result in you becoming a more focused person.
As we covered, the key to proper concentration is creating your own purpose-driven habits that enable you to step into “flow.”
It’s my thesis that “flow” is the mastery of both short-term focus
and long-term focus. In this chapter, we’ve outlined the science behind
short-term focus, and the 8 actions you can do to improve
Remember – intelligence comes from focused concentration. Beware of
the distractions around you. We’re all human and prone to laziness or
becoming an inefficient work-a-holic, but we can choose to be
strategically lazy, and thus, becoming effective.