12 Ways to Improve Concentration

The ability to focus is a habit of mind.

Posted Feb 22, 2011

When you were a child, like all children, you were told numerous times, "Pay attention!" Now, if you are old enough to have reached senior status, you may have that problem again. Aging processes make many seniors as inattentive as they were as children. Few people have the temerity to tell a senior to "pay attention," so you may have to be your own task master.

The implied assumption in all this is that people learn to focus and have to be reminded often in order to master the ability to concentrate. Over the years, people can improve their ability to concentrate. The ability to focus is a habit of mind, one that must be acquired through years of being reminded and of doing it. If this habit has deteriorated, it is not too hard to re-learn it.

Of course, with today's school children, it is a different matter. Any experienced teacher will tell you that kids' attention spans are terrible and much shorter than was typical a generation ago. The problem, presumably, is our new age of multitasking, where the constant flitting from texting to phone calls to web browsing to video games and the like is making our kids scatterbrained.

Everybody from first-grade school teachers to Ph.D. candidates knows that to learn and remember things, you need to pay attention. The trick is how to make yourself more attentive and focused. A great book on this topic has been written by Winifred Galagher called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

What does one do to improve their ability to concentrate? It takes the discipline of frequent self-reminding. You learn to focus by making yourself do it — again and again — until it becomes a habit, a way of thinking. Here are some specific tips:

1. Value attentiveness. Realize that you create your personal reality by what you pay attention to. All of us get much less out of life than we could, because we are not paying attention.

2. Live in the now. An expert on this philosophy, Eckhart Tolle, says, "The clock's hands move, but it is always now." Grab the present intensely. You cannot know the future and you cannot re-do the past. You can correct for past weaknesses and mistakes and reduce their likelihood in the future, but it has to be done in the now.

3. Be more aware. Consciously attend to what you are doing, why, and how. Be aware of how you feel. Emotions affect the ability to focus. If how you feel interferes with your concentration, change how you feel. It IS a choice.

4. Notice the little things. Develop an eye for detail. See the forest, but also see the trees (and the leaves, bark, insects, birds, squirrels, and everything else there). Notice the small pleasures of life. This teaches you how to focus and makes you happier. Target things that are fun and provide positive reinforcement.

5. Set goals, and monitor your progress. Keep track of how you are getting goals achieved and what adjustments need to be made along the way.

6. Identify your "targets of attention." Think of what you are experiencing as targets for attentiveness and take mental aim at them. Targets should be interesting or have a clear value. If these attributes are not apparent, you must consciously enable them. Make tough choices about your targets of attention. Attend to those things that serve your own best interests. Choose challenging targets of attention, ones that push you to the edge of your competence.

7. Shut out distractions. Don't be sidetracked by interruptions or mind wandering. In memory tournaments, contestants wear ear plugs. Germans are said to wear glasses with side blinders. Some contestants face a blank wall.

8. Don't multitask. This is the archenemy of attentiveness and profoundly interferes with the ability to learn — and especially to remember. Multitasking creates a superficial way of thinking that also imperils the ability to think deeply in intellectually demanding situations.

9. Fight boredom. Make your targets of attention more engaging by creating competition or making them into some sort of game. Enliven dull work by thinking of it in novel ways. Find ways to change the pace of your attention. Don't let it become a drill.

10. Make emotion work for you. Develop a passion for what you experience, as that will rivet your attention. Both negative and positive emotions work. The kiss of death for learning is to be bored and detached from what you are trying to learn. Ask any school teacher how big a problem that is for so many students.

11. Practice attentiveness. Acquiring good concentration ability isn't much different from developing a good golf swing. You have to practice. Psychologist Ellen Langer suggests staring at your finger, for example. Attentiveness is cultivated from the more you notice: the dirt, distribution of hair, pattern of skin folds, shape of the knuckles, and features of the nail (shape, color of quick, ridges, etc.). Do similar exercises with any object you encounter. You will find that daily life experiences become more engaging. You will get more out of life.

12. Learn how to meditate. See how long you can sustain focus on your breathing and keep out all intruding thoughts. Notice all things associated with the breathing, but nothing else. Hear the sound of the moving air with each breath. Feel the pulse in your neck. If you don't feel it, crook your neck or lie down to feel it in your back or hear it by turning your ear to a pillow. Notice the rhythm and the gradual slowing. Feel your clothes shifting position and the tension flowing out of your muscles, first in the jaw, then in the back and legs. Not only does meditation teach your brain how to concentrate, it also lowers blood pressure and contributes to peace of mind.