When TV newscaster Diane Sawyer was asked the secret to her success, she said, "I think the one lesson I've learned is there is no substitute for paying attention."
Are you thinking, "I agree, but HOW do we improve our ability to focus and maintain attention -- no matter what?"
These five FOCUS tips can help you concentrate better -- whether you're working in a busy office, studying at school, sitting in a meeting, or trying to finish a project.
F = Five More Rule
There are two kinds of people -- those who have learned how to work through frustration, and those who wish they had. From now on, if you're in the middle of a task and tempted to give up -- just do FIVE MORE.
Read FIVE MORE pages. Finish FIVE MORE math problems. Work FIVE MORE minutes.
Just as athletes build physical stamina by pushing past the point of exhaustion, you can build mental stamina by pushing past the point of frustration.
Just as runners get their second wind by not giving up when their body initially protests, you can get your "second mind" by not giving up when your willpower initially protests. Continuing to concentrate when your brain is tired is the key to S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G your attention span and building mental endurance.
O = One Think At a Time
Samuel Goldwyn said, "If I look confused, it's because I'm thinking." Feeling scatter-brained? Overcome perpetual preoccupation with the Godfather Plan -- make your mind a deal it can't refuse. Yes, the mind takes bribes. Instead of telling it NOT to worry about another, lesser priority (which will cause your mind to think about the very thing it's not supposed to think about!), assign it a single task with start-stop time parameters.
For example, "I will think about how to pay off that credit card debt when I get home tonight and have a chance to add up my bills. For now, for the next thirty minutes from 1-1:30 pm, I will give my complete focus to practicing this presentation so I am eloquent and articulate when pitching this proposal to our VIP clients."
Still can't get other concerns out of your head? Write them down on your to-do list so you're free to forget them. Recording worrisome obligations means you don't have to use your brain as a "reminder" bulletin board, which means you can give your undivided attention to your top priority task.
C = Conquer Procrastination
Don't feel like concentrating? Are you putting off a task or project you're supposed to be working on? That's a form of procrastination. R. D. Clyde said, "It's amazing how long it takes to complete something we're not working on."
Next time you're about to postpone a responsibility ask yourself, "Do I have to do this? Do I want it done so it's not on my mind? Will it be any easier later?" Those three questions can give you the incentive to mentally apply yourself because they bring you face to face with the fact this task isn't going away, and delaying will only add to your guilt and make this onerous task occupy more of your mind and time.
U = Use Your Hands as Blinkers
Picture your mind as a camera and your eyes as its aperture. Most of the time, our eyes are "taking it all in" and our brain is in "wide-angle focus." We can actually think about many things at once and operate quite efficiently this way (e.g., imagine driving down a crowded highway while talking to a friend, fiddling with the radio, keeping an eye on the cars beside you, and watching for your exit sign.)
What if you want to switch to telephoto focus? What if you have to prepare for a test and you need 100% concentration? Cup your hands around your eyes so you have "tunnel vision" and are looking solely at your text book. Placing your hands on the side of your face blocks out surroundings so they are literally "out of sight, out of mind." Think about the importance of those words.
Want even better news? Does the name Pavlov r-r-r-ring a bell? If you cup your hands around your eyes every time you want to switch from wide-angle to telephoto focus, that physical ritual becomes a Pavlovian trigger.
Remember? Pavlov rang the bell, fed the dog, rang the bell and fed the dog, until the dog started salivating as soon as he heard the sound of the bell. Similarly, using your hands as blinkers every time you want to narrow your focus teaches your brain to switch to "one track" mind and concentrate on your command.
S = See As If For the First or Last Time
Want to know how to be "here and now" and fully present instead of mindlessly rushing here, there, and everywhere? Frederick Franck said, "When the eye wakes up to see again, it suddenly stops taking anything for granted." Evelyn Underhill said, "For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day."
I constantly relearn this lesson. One time I was giving my sons their nightly back rub. Although I was sitting right next to them, I might as well have been in the next country because I was thinking of the early morning flight I needed to take the next day and wondering if I had packed my hand-outs, if my ticket was in my purse, etc.
Suddenly, my unfocused eyes fell upon my sons and I truly SAW Tom and Andrew as if I was looking at them for the first time. I was immediately flooded with a sense of gratitude for these two healthy, thriving boys. I felt so blessed to have been gifted with such wonderful sons. In an instant, I went from being absent-minded to being filled with a sense of awe and appreciation for their presence in my life.
Next time your mind is a million miles away, simply look around you and really SEE your surroundings. Study that exquisite flower in the vase. Get up close to the picture on the wall and marvel at the artist's craftmanship.
Lean in and really look at a loved one you tend to take for granted. This will "Velveteen Rabbit" your world and make it come alive in your mind's eye.
What people have said about concentration
• "I used to think the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body, and then I realized, 'What is telling me that?'" - Emo Phillips
• "I'm getting so absent-minded and forgetful. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence, I . . . " - Milton Berle
• "Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen, even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind." Leonardo da Vinci
• "Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are." - Jose Ortega y Gasset
• I would go without shirt or shoe sooner than lose for a minute the two separate sides of my head." - Rudyard Kipling
• "It's not that I don't want to listen to people. I very much want to listen to people. I jut can't hear them over my talking." - Paula Poundstone