“To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” ~Bertrand Russell
Some of the most difficult things we have to face in our lives demand complete concentration; without it, these tasks don’t come to fruition.
I’m trying to write a novel. I wasn’t naive enough to think it’d be easy but I greatly underestimated the things that it would demand: research, intense thought, planning, imagination, learning, patience, flexibility–the list goes on.
You don’t have to be writing a novel to understand that some things require absolute focus. Living life fully depends upon our ability to observe carefully, give attention where it’s needed, and concentrate on one task at a time to stay mindful.
The problem that I face every day as I try to write and plan my project is that I get easily distracted. If I’m not drinking gallons of tea or cleaning out my emails, I’m fighting to keep my mind focused on the task at hand.
Our minds like to wander. It’s only when we place our attention on a single or small group of tasks that we come to realize this. What’s even worse is that as soon as we realize, we start trying to bend our mind to our will and force our thoughts away–not a constructive approach.
I’ll give you an example you might be able to relate to.
You have paperwork to sort, an overwhelming email inbox to clear, but your mind suddenly, at this crucial moment, decides to remind you that there’s chocolate in the fridge. Maybe you try to file the thought away but it keeps bouncing back and shouting at you to ditch the email and go eat the chocolate, because chocolate is way better than emails and you know you want to.
The email can wait, right? Sure it can!
The meditation classes that I’ve attended in my life have taught me not to push these thoughts away, but not to give into them either. The trick is to simply observe and let the thoughts pass. Sometimes this is easier said than done but with practice, it is possible to still your mind. Then you can concentrate.
Here are some things I do to help me concentrate:
1. Procrastinate first.
Set a time limit of ten to fifteen minutes and doodle. Allow your mind a space to be chaotic. If you take time to clear your head, it will be easier to focus later.
2. Connect with your passion.
If you’re not enjoying something, you’re not going to give it your full attention.
When I’m struggling to write or develop my research themes, I stop and think very hard about why I’m doing this. My answer is usually something like: I love the idea I have; I love language; I love philosophy; and I’m excited beyond words about the potential of my project.
If you’re saying something similar, great! Reaffirming why you’re doing something keeps your focus on track.
3. Confront your demons.
Okay so maybe they’re more like nagging voices than demons, but the point is to stand up to them and say “Why are you bugging me?”
Most of the time those little nagging voices are reminding us of things that we haven’t done, could have done straight away, and still need to do. These things aren’t usually urgent but sometimes something important can crop up.
Our minds have a way of getting our attention if it’s really needed so if you have a noisy mind, it’s worth listening just in case you left the gas cooker on. If it’s not something you need to do now, make a mental note or jot it down on a post-it, and then tuck it away for later.
4. Use to-do lists.
I’m always writing these and I can achieve pretty much anything if I make one. Lists of tasks break down our chores into manageable chunks. This allows us to concentrate on one thing at a time instead of a huge mess of things. Chuck in a bit of prioritizing and time management and you’re on you’re way to becoming a concentration winner.
5. Get creative.
I find that I lose concentration if I get bored. I’ve recently invested in a dry-wipe whiteboard to combat this problem. How does it work? Spider diagrams.
I think out complex ideas by writing on them on the board and making mind-maps from them. Sometimes I’ll play free-association games, draw my ideas instead of writing them or create huge lists of questions to ask myself about what I’ve just written.
The point is to have fun because when you’re having fun, you’re concentrating on the task at hand.
6. Walk away.
If your concentration isn’t playing along then take a break. There are some people who can work while battling with their attention span, but to me, this is torture. If I can’t focus, I won’t drive myself into the ground over it. I leave my writing alone for a while, go for a short stroll, or play a game.
Sometimes a change of scenery and a bit of space is all that’s needed to get you back on track. When you return, see the project with new eyes, as if looking at it for the first time.
7. Learn to let go.
I used to worry about my writing all the time. I’d finish up a scene and then stress about how the metaphor I was using was flat or how my characters’ actions didn’t make sense. I’d worry about it for hours, meaning I didn’t take time to rest–meaning I wouldn’t want to work the next day. The best way to focus on the work later is to focus on not doing the work when it’s time to stop.
Learning to let go of work is about creating boundaries and sticking to them. Without them, our concentration fails because the task becomes laborious. Ever heard of leaving your work at work? That’s right…leave it there!
The more you practice concentrating, the easier it gets. I have no doubt that if I can learn to focus longer, my novel will take shape.
How do you help yourself concentrate when your mind wants to wander?