Have you been following the Olympics? Aren’t those athletes awe inspiring? The thing that strikes me the most, aside from the athletes’ outstanding physical strength is their extra-ordinary ability to focus their mind (especially under such stressful conditions).
Wouldn’t you love to be able to focus your mind on a task so completely, and effortlessly?
Here are 6 simple techniques you can use in your daily life to increase your concentration, and general task-related performance:
1. Practice shifting the direction, and width of your attention.
Different tasks demand a different type of attention, and the objective here is to create Attentional Flexibility (the ability to quickly shift from one type of attention to another).
The direction of your attention can be External or Internal, which means that your focus is either outside, or inside your body. The width, or span of your attention can be Narrow (focus on one single element), or Broad (focus on many elements). Think of the difference between a cyclist who focuses their whole attention on the back wheel of the bicycle in front versus the soccer player who is tuned in to the feel of grass, other players, wind, air temperature, body temperature, etc.
So when you are trying to focus on a particular task in your daily life, keep this distinction in mind (External/Internal, Narrow/Broad), and practice shifting from one to another.
2. Limit interruptions.
Recent research on multitasking is showing us that contrary to previous belief, human beings are not actually able to focus on more than one thing at a time. What we do instead is switch our attention back and forth from one task to another at the expense of our performance. One of the main things that you can do to increase your concentration is limit both external and internal distractions. So when trying to complete an important work project make sure that you are not stressed, hungry, tired, or upset (internal distractions), and turn off your phone, Facebook, email, and any other external distractions that pull your attention away from the task.
4 minute exercise for practicing Selective Focusing
For one full minute focus all of your attention on a particular sound like the clock ticking, or the TV in the other room, and block out all other stimuli. In the next minute focus your attention on the room around you, and everything in it while blocking out all other thoughts, and sensations. Next, focus your attention internally on your pulse, and block out all other distractions. For the last minute, shift your attention to the way your whole body feels inside (your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations).
3. Thought Stopping, and Centring.
This is one of the most important techniques athletes use to ensure that they don’t jeopardize their own performance. When a negative thought enters their mind before or during a competition (‘I can’t do it’), the athlete STOPS the negative thought, and replaces it with a positive thought that is both meaningful, and pertinent to the task (‘I can do it, I am ready’). Then the athlete centres her attention internally (deep breathing) to adjust her physical arousal. Once she is calm, she focuses her attention outside again, on a cue that is relevant, and specific. Once back in control, she executes the task.
Using the Thought Stopping, and Centring technique During Public Speaking
You are about to go up on stage and the thought comes to your mind, ‘I’m going to screw this up’. Stop the thought (visualize a stop sign in front of you) + Replace the thought with a positive one that is meaningful and related to the task (‘I am fully prepared for this and I have done this successfully in the past’) + Take a deep breath + Notice if your breathing is too fast/shallow, and adjust it (take slow deep breaths) + Move your attention to something specific that is outside of you (a certain person in the audience, the corner of the room, the podium etc.) + Once you feel back in control, begin.
4. Use pre-performance routines.
Athletes use all sorts of routines from the simple to the complex, and even ridiculous. Routines help increase focus, and concentration by keeping you from getting distracted by non task related thoughts. The familiarity and consistency of routines help put you at ease, and ensure consistent performance, and the superstitions that are often associated with these routines help give you a sense of control, and agency over the outcome of the performance.
My own favourite pre-public speaking routine is to sing and dance in my car on the way to the engagement. The sillier and louder – the better, in fact I want to make sure that other drivers can see the absurdity taking place in my car. By the time I reach my destination I am already used to being looked at, and judged. My body, and mind are relaxed, and my self-consciousness is reduced.
5. Be prepared.
When an athlete feels prepared for a competition, it is not only their physical abilities that are strong, but also their confidence. Preparation gives you the confidence to flow through the experience with limited distractions, and to reach optimal arousal (where your mind and body are at their best state for performing). So don’t underestimate the benefit of being thoroughly prepared for that exam or job interview – it will only do you good.
6. Take a mind-body class.
For optimal performance the mind, and the body need to be both aligned, and fit. Any opportunity to exercise this mind-body alignment will benefit your ability to perform. Classes like yoga, meditation and mindfulness teach you both proper form (how to calm the mind, and lower arousal), and give you an opportunity to practice these skills.
A.C.T. : Attention Control Training: How to Get Control of Your Mind Through Total Concentration by Robert Nideffer and Roger Sharpe.
Ideafit.com – Health and Fitness Association