The Ability to Concentrate Is Learnable
Caught up in the maelstrom of the second cascade of digitalization, most companies still have mixed emotions when they look ahead to the future. In the hope of being at least adequately prepared to set out on this path, they are increasing their efforts to make their organizations more agile and the dynamics of their business more robust. Future-oriented work and organization principles such as agility, ambidexterity, and Design Thinking are high on everyone’s list. Often lacking, however, is consideration of the people themselves and the obstacle courses they must run every day. Adapting to new concepts and having to deal with a torrential flood of data and information can very quickly turn the everyday working situation into a horrific challenge. A factor like concentration, which may at first glance to be trivial, once again becomes a focal point. We would like to use Sarah as an example to illustrate how you can enhance your ability to concentrate, which will enable you to complete your tasks more effectively.
Monday morning. Sarah is sitting at her computer and taking a sip of her freshly brewed coffee. She is diligently going through her emails and structuring her day. Besides regular business, her inbox contains emails with interesting newspaper articles and blog entries on the intranet. Her thoughts wander. “Didn’t I want to go to Lisbon with Louisa last year? I wonder if the weather is good there right now (...).” She looks out the window.
Everyone has experienced them: the cyclical high and low points in our productivity over the course of a workday. Just like the ebb and high tides of the oceans, we have moments of high mental acuity and those in which we only scratch the surface because we lack the concentration and stamina to delve mentally into the depths. Sometimes we complete our work with lightning speed while on other days we cannot see the forest for the trees. We should not try to complete highly complex tasks or those requiring important decisions from us when our brains are not fully “revved up.” According to researchers who measure employee performance worldwide, we reach the zenith of our productivity about 11 a.m. After 4 p.m., it declines further with every passing hour. And Fridays are frequently our most unproductive days. If you are also familiar with the “Thank God it’s Friday” feeling, you belong to the overwhelming majority of humankind that begins to count down from five on Monday morning and looks ahead with yearning to Friday afternoon. The problem here: the completely normal week, marked as it is by information, even more information, and the minor and major distractions of everyday life. The situation is made even worse by our tendency to be distracted by every type of stimulus in the world around us. Especially welcome – the new message in WhatsApp, the latest Twitter feed, or the new Instagram picture from a friend. In this social media age, we can count ourselves lucky if 5 minutes pass without our cellphones starting to blink. If we look at the bare numbers, the excesses of our addiction become even more obvious. The extrapolation of our daily use behavior over an average lifetime reveals that we spend 5 years and 4 months of our lives surfing on the commonly used social media channels. As meaningful and profitable as the use of social media can be, they often rob us of our strength and attention as well.
Concentration? What is that exactly? And why is it so difficult?
Concentration means orienting all our psychological activities, especially the deliberate sharpening of focus, to our specific goal. Like holding a magnifying glass in the sun over a piece of paper that eventually catches on fire. This presumes that we can distinguish between what is irrelevant and what is relevant and can block out what is unimportant. There’s the rub, however. If we just didn’t have all these disruptions, internally and externally. The interplay between focus and attention is such a complex process because it is not localized in a specific area of the brain. On the contrary, concentration slowly builds up like a network, alternating between tension and relaxation, memory and perception. The first level of attention is our short-term memory. We have to get past this threshold. We receive millions of impressions from our sense organs in a constant and subconscious flow. Our brain has an important filter function to prevent us from being overwhelmed by all these impressions. Information is stored only as long as we need it. We remember the number we have drawn in the waiting room until it is called, then it vanishes into the void. The challenge for us is to separate the important from the unimportant information and to store relevant information in our long-term memories. This is precisely the point where focus and intense concentration are decisive.
Concentration arises in the thalamus, which processes all the sensory impressions. It is supported by the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter produced in the depths of the brain, helps to direct selective attention to specific activities and to push other sensory information away from the conscious level. The hormone noradrenaline steers alertness. So concentration is hard work that demands high-level performance and a lot of energy from the brain. Everything that causes us to lose our balance psychologically disrupts our concentration. Research results show that a medium level of tension offers the greatest ability to perform, i.e., neither too relaxed nor too tense. This can be compared with the mental condition of being “in the zone,” a special type of intrinsic motivation. This is when neither too much nor too little is demanded of us and we lose ourselves completely in a task. The work seems easy and we achieve excellent results, giving us a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction.
Typical barriers to concentration that are certainly familiar to you:
- Interruptions: Distractions are lurking everywhere, from the ringing telephone to conversations in open-plan offices to a chaotic desk. As exciting as telling others what happened to us last weekend might be, we often forget that this costs time and energy that we in fact urgently need for our demanding work.
- Lack of practical knowledge and learned inattentiveness: It is called the ability to concentrate. In other words, we can learn as well as forget how to concentrate. If we do not train our ability to concentrate constantly, it deteriorates. Just how important it is to never stop learning has recently been revealed in scientific findings in the field of neuroplasticity. When we acquire the habit of allowing the roller-coaster of our musings free rein or of not following through with our thoughts, our attention span suffers.
- Low tolerance for frustration: Let’s be honest – whenever things do not go the way we imagined, we have a tendency to throw in the towel quickly and to turn our attention elsewhere.
- Lack of motivation because of lack of interest: Only those things that truly interest us – either because we identify with them or relate them to something of significance – arouse and hold our attention. If we have a hard time seeing the sense in something, we drop it or do it only half-heartedly as ordered by the powers that be.
- Procrastination: Either because we love the kick that comes from doing something at the very last minute or from fear of pressure to perform – we humans are subject to a frequently observed disease that might be called “postponitis”. The diagnosis is indisputable. The day starts full of motivation, priorities, and to-do lists, but then: “Look, a grain of dust.” And the typical cleanliness freak lets himself be distracted and starts wiping away. Or we draw up interminable lists instead of actually doing what is on them. We start by accessing an internet site. Our motivation drains away. People who put things off enjoy the immediate reward more than the long-term success. The yearning for and the temptation of the immediate gratification motivate their actions. The controller here is the neuronal reward system in the brain that is decisively guided by the nucleus accumbens.
- Overburdened: Too many pots on the burners are likely to set off the smoke alarm. We are working on one challenge, but thinking about another project at the same time. It is difficult for us to find a clear focus. At the end of the day, neither of the two projects is completed as desired, and things begin to scorch.
- Ongoing professional and personal strain and emotional problems, too little sleep, alcohol consumption, health problems, etc., can impair our concentration. Separations, deaths, debts, stress with our partners, or life-threatening medical procedures grab our attention and cause us to lose our balance.
- Negative mindset: If we have mentally given notice, if we no longer enjoy our work, or if we do not believe in our ability to handle the assigned tasks, we have a correspondingly difficult time focusing. Other stress factors – such as time pressure, performance pressure or critical junctures in our professional lives, when attorneys’ clients are facing the threat of a prison sentence, when physicians are taking care of dying patients, or when a consultant has a client who is about to go bankrupt – also block our ability to concentrate.
The opportunity costs are immense. An average knowledge worker loses 2.2 hours every day because of distractions and the time that must be spent returning to the subject at hand after the distraction. Time – and this will not be new to anyone – is money, and we all know that it is distinctly finite in both our personal lives and in the corporate context. Instant Messenger, emails, the web and social media, ringing telephones, and other distractions cost the USA about $588 million a year. All of these services have their benefits when we make the right use of them and know when it is better to turn them off. There is so much content available today that it knocks us over, and we have increasing difficulty in separating the wheat from the chaff. If, in the future, we want to keep pace with machines, however, we must be able to generate results that are difficult to imitate and that make us indispensable. As important as the right skills are, we also need focus and perseverance.
What specific actions can you take to enhance your concentration?
To start, it is important not to be too judgmental about myself. If Buddhist monks must spend their entire lives working to devote themselves fully and completely to a single aspect and to flourish within it, why should we be able to succeed in doing the same in short order through the use of force? Damning yourself has rarely led to an improvement in the ability to concentrate. It is much more promising to determine the root cause. What is the source of the distraction? Knowing what the obstacles to concentration are helps us to come up with focused strategies for action and is frequently the first step on the road to improvement. Moreover, your ability to concentrate will always be dependent on your physical and mental condition on any given day. On some days, the chemical make-up of the blood is just the way it should be, and we could take care of even Herculean tasks with ease. On other days, we read an email three times and are still apparently unable to understand it. Reading helps to foster concentration. Children who start reading at an early age find it easier to concentrate later in life. If we are still struggling, we can motivate ourselves with rewards. Nothing, however, triggers these waves of motivation in us as much as the inner drive to understand something thoroughly and completely. Motivation can kick off the reward system that in turn mitigates the effort involved in learning. With an iron will and practice in the matter at hand, we can set off a cascade of success.
Useful tips for heightening the ability to concentrate
- Flight and offline modes – Eliminate all the technical sources of interruptions! 24/7 and always on stand symbolically for a generation that has almost lost the ability to just turn off for a time, to do things successively one at a time, and occasionally to simply close their eyes and listen to their own breathing.
- Find out what kind of concentration type you are. Do you like listening to music while you are working? If so, do you prefer classical music or minimal electro? A study conducted by Simone Ritter (Radbound University) examined various kinds of music and their influence on work results in comparison to working in quiet. The examinations revealed that our favorite music evokes certain abilities such as problem-solving or ways of thinking and can set our cognitive flows into motion.
- Develop a positive mindset in the sense of “It’s okay to make mistakes or to let myself be distracted at times. I can do it. Now I will consider what I need to take care of this task and complete it.” Define intermediate steps and praise yourself for completing them successfully. After all, every step on the home stretch is the right one.
- If the task at hand does not interest you and your motivation is zero – ask yourself why this is the case. What goal are you pursuing with your completion of the task? Find a reward that appeals to you. A new blazer from Zalando, or perhaps new white sneakers? Try to concentrate on the task for 10 minutes. If you are still unable to make any progress, is there perhaps someone around who might help you with it?
- Are you overwhelmed? Then take stock. What is important and urgent if you are to achieve your goals for the day? Set aside everything that does not fall into this category. Start with the most important task in the sense of eat the frog. Work one step at a time. Is your boss overloading you with work? If you are finding it difficult to prioritize, no problem! Your boss can do that for you.
- Make sure you take enough breaks. It is only natural for concentration to begin to diminish after about 20 minutes. A change of location during the break might be a sensible idea. If we stare too long at one and the same object, this monotony can severely limit our ability to concentrate. A few minutes in the fresh air can work miracles.
- Sleep. Researchers have determined that sleep is an outstanding method for heightening the brain’s general ability to perform. Contents can be stored and recalled more effectively when there are intense phases of deep sleep. This also has a positive effect on the ability to concentrate.
- Meditation: A 20-minute meditation period every day for 4 days is sufficient to enhance significantly cognitive skills such as the attention span or the ability to concentrate. The neuroplasticity of the brain shows visible and long-lasting changes in certain brain areas when you regularly meditate. In addition to the noticeable improvement in body and mind, it also has positive effects on our moods; we are more serene and in our element. Meditation also means finding our way back to the center. We feel less anxiety because we can control our emotions more effectively and feel fitter.
- nen und fühlen uns fitter.
Sarah looks back at her computer and opens a new email. Her assignment is clear – create an important presentation by “EOB today”. Sarah understands her habits and knows that she will need total concentration to complete this task. She changes her cellphone to flight mode as a precaution. Before she starts, Sarah writes down a priority list and subdivides her task into three smaller separate steps. Suddenly, the task no longer appears so overwhelming. She puts on her headphones and selects her favorite songs from the genre indie-pop. She is especially productive when listening to this music. Because Sarah knows herself so well, she is aware that she needs regular “creative breaks.” The walk to the coffee-maker can genuinely work miracles. The small breaks are good for her. She is in a great mood, and the work is going well. So well that she is able to turn in the presentation in the early afternoon, well in advance of her deadline. The little tips and tricks from the article she read last week are starting to bear fruit.