Harnessing the Power of Deep Concentration

How to single-task and achieve full concentration on a task, so you can enjoy the benefits of single-tasking.

More frequently than I would like to admit, I have a lot of tasks to get done, and a smaller amount of time than I’d like which to do them. I sit down boot up the laptop (or whatever the tool du jour is), and get ready to go. Then it happens: freedom — sweet paralyzing freedom. I get to decide what to do next. But in the back of my mind, I’m not sure that my choice will match the real world urgency and importance. I’m worried I’ll make the wrong choice.

So what happens? I tense up and get equally nervous about each of the tasks, which means I end up 5 times as stressed and 20% (yes, that’s 1/5) as productive as I could be had I just devoted myself to one of them.

I think that’s probably familiar territory for many people. And it makes perfect sense, given our silly, silly brains. It’s a natural reaction to the combination of stress and scarcity. Our lizard brain turns on and pumps adrenaline through our veins, making is want to do the cognitive equivalent of running away from a predator — so we fail to commit to any single task and just throw small pieces of time and attention at each, in a scattershot (and ineffective) fashion.

To change how we act in situations like this, we need to look at another scarce resource that is easier to understand that time: money.

Time vs. Money

Time and money are both resources, and they’re both valuable. In fact, some people say that time is money. But the two resources are different in a very important way.

You can’t buy a $20 shirt and $20 pair of pants with the same $20 bill. Each of them costs $20, and there’s no way to magically condense that. We seem to accept that basic truth for money, but somehow think that we can skirt around it as it relates to time. But that’s just silly. If 2 projects each require about 2 hours of focused concentration, we can’t use the same 2 hours to do them both.

When you think about it, time is actually even more valuable than money, because it’s more scarce. Theoretically, you can increase how much money you have coming in each month, each year — and most of us do over time, as we progress in our careers. But you can’t do that with time. You’ve got what you’ve got each day, week, month, and year. The best you can do is hope to use it more wisely.

As with any resource, since you can’t somehow increase how much of it you have, the only choice you’re left with is to manage the hell out of what you do have.

The Concentration Equation

If time is the great equalizer, then concentration is the great multiplier. Take any time you allocate to a given task, and predict what the results will be given normal working circumstances. Now add in concentration. The more you are able to concentrate on the task at hand, and filter out noise (whether informational noise or sensory noise), the more you can multiply the output of the time spent on that task.

Keep in mind, the results multiplied aren’t necessarily quantity. In many cases, quality gets multiplied. That means a better quality of work, fewer mistakes, and a deeper analysis or higher tier of creative output.

So the real objective, then, of our efforts in becoming more productive and effective should be on two things:

  • increasing the amount of time we can spend per session on given tasks
  • increasing the intensity of concentration on the tasks

The way to do the former is proper time management. The way to do the latter is to do two things:

  1. Make single-tasking a habit
  2. Improve your power of concentration, and yield it during each session of work

(Briefly) The Drawbacks of Multi-Tasking

By now, I think there is enough work out there discouraging us from multi-tasking. But not only do I see many people still doing it. I also feel the pull to do it myself. And that’s a real problem for a few reasons.

First of all, there is a well-established pile of evidence that multitasking is actually counterproductive.

…the power of multitasking is a myth. Human beings are, essentially, single-core processors. We can’t effectively check our email, listen to someone asking us for feedback on a project, and take notes simultaneously. We can do it, sure, but everything suffers. Juggling tasks divides your attention, increases the time spent refocusing on important tasks (making you less productive), often gives people the impression that you aren’t completely focused on them (because you’re not), and robs you of a powerful focus you could be directing towards a single important task.

Secondly, multitasking is also harmful to your physical and mental health, largely because it fatigues your faculties, and reduces your ability to make effective decisions.

Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.

So let’s just agree on this: as the old adage says, if something is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. And let’s add that if it’s worth doing right, it’s worth doing with undivided effort and attention.

Single-Tasking and a Better ROI on Time

It is all well and good to understand that we ought to be doing one thing at a time as much as possible. But it is quite another thing to actually only do one thing at a time. If you don’t believe me, try it — especially when you have a bunch of seemingly urgent and important stuff tugging at your mind. Even at times when we think we’re only doing one thing at a time — if we really pay attention — we find that our mind has proceeded to do something else as well. When we drive to work, wash the dishes, or even exercise — things that seem to demand a decent amount of attention — we are usually also thinking through the various things that are pulling at us.

The trick to single-tasking, then, is to learn how to concentrate fully on what you are doing. When you can do that, you can begin to multiply the value of your time. Going back to the time/money analogy, concentration is like a discount coupon at a store. 5 minutes of super-concentrated work buys you more and better results than 5 minutes of semi-distracted time — in the same way, that $20 buys you more with a deep discount coupon.

A Concentration Ritual

The verb “concentrate” refers to an act of gathering together something in a way where much more of it now resides in a single place than previously. This is true for populations of people concentrated in urban areas, or juice — concentrated in one small can. The same is true of your attention, and looking at it in this way can help. Just use your imagination a little. Form a small, but effective ritual to get yourself to concentrate better.

Rituals are powerful things, they can be quite effective at poking the mind into a different mode than it normally operates in. So it makes sense to set up a ritual to help you get into a mode of deeper concentration. Ultimately, you can fool around with different variations on this ritual, so long as you find that it works. Use it when you need to devote some time to a task, and you want to get the most return on your investment of that time. It should go without saying that this should be done in an environment when you’ve prevented any external distractions as much as you can (i.e., you’ve turned the TV and radio off). I have found that I can do this while listening to music — though the music ideally should not have lyrics, as they can distract you.

  1. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in, hold it, then breathe out.
  2. Open your eyes, and then say something like this:
    “I commit to spending {however many minutes or hours} on this task, and fully offering up the power of my mind to the task during that time.
  3. Begin working.

That’s the ritual to get going, and that’s not very difficult, but you’d be surprised how often that can really help you to do one of two things: (a) just get you into a mode where you’re willing to wholeheartedly work on a task — rather than half-heartedly (and distractedly) do so and (b)act as a check on whether you believe you should be wholeheartedly working on the task now. If as you begin the ritual, you feel doubt or are “not into it” — perhaps that’s because you feel something else is more pressing. Don’t ignore that urge — explore it, and either acquiesce to it, or reason with yourself that it’s no longer worth paying attention to, and drop it.

Tips for Maintaining Concentration

For the most part, the challenge of concentration is not really getting to concentrate in the first place, but rather, maintaining it for any desired amount of time. I have found a few things to be helpful in this respect. They may seem a bit weird and heady, but concentration is a weird and heady thing, so stay with me.

Anchor your mind to your task by imagining a literal connection to the objects you’re working with.
I write and read a lot, so the actual objects I’m working with are either a computer, phone, or piece of paper text. My mind is very prone to wander when I am engaged with these things, so I have taken to imagining a rope or string that ties my head to the computer or text to help keep me anchored. Yes, it sounds weird, but it totally works. As I type these words, I am imagining a rope jutting out of the area between my eyes and to the computer screen where I’m watching the words appear as I type. The longer you can keep this connection, the more effective your concentration remains.

When you feel tired or uneasy (and you will) take a breath and/or close your eyes and stretch briefly — but keep imagining the anchor.
Concentration for any worthwhile period of time requires exertion — mental exertion — and it is taxing. You will feel some fatigue, and depending on how your body is situated, you may feel stiffness or soreness in your body. If it’s beginning to overtake your concentration, give in and move a little. Accompany the stretching with a deep breath (or a few). But keep imagining the rope tying you to your work. That rope should remain taught and keep you attentive to your work. It’s a reminder of the commitment you made to your task — until it’s done, or until your committed time is up.

Be patient when developing this practice
As with any mental practice, be patient with yourself as you develop it. It is not easy — which is why there aren’t a lot of people doing outstanding focused work all of the time. Your mind — if it is at all like mine — will resist efforts to tie it down (especially when you’re invoking imagery of something tying it down like I’m suggesting). But after you are able to spend a few sessions where you’re tied to your task in full concentration, and you feel the joy of having poured yourself into something for a time, the force of habit will creep in. At that point, momentum is on your side, and the habit will become easier to maintain.

Ultimately, when it comes to work done, the equation remains the same. The quality of your output will always be a function of the time you spent, multiplied by the quality of concentrated effort during that time. You can throw more time at something, but you’ll never improve the result as quickly and dramatically as when you improve the quality of concentration. So go forth and offer up as a much-concentrated effort on your important work as you can.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +393,714 people.

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