Lost in Distraction

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    You submitted the following rating and review. And this may even be more important than just improving our levels of concentration. Constant, high levels of circulating stress hormones have an inflammatory and detrimental affect on brain cells, suggests the psychiatrist Edward Bullmore , who has written about the link between inflammation and depression in his latest book, The Inflamed Mind. Depression, along with anxiety, is a known factor in knocking out concentration.

    Put simply, better concentration makes life easier and less stressful and we will be more productive. To make this change means reflecting on what we are doing to sabotage personal concentration, and then implementing steps towards behavioural change that will improve our chances of concentrating better. This means deliberately reducing distractions and being more self-disciplined about our use of social media, which are increasingly urgent for the sake of our cognitive and mental health.

    It takes about three weeks for a repeating behaviour to form a habit , says Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Getting into a new habit will not happen overnight and adaptation can be incremental. Start by switching off smartphone alerts, or taking social media apps off your phone, then switching off the device for increasingly long periods.

    Practise concentration by finding things to do that specifically engage you for a period of time to the exclusion of everything else. What is noticeable is that you cannot just go from a state of distraction to one of concentration, in the same way that most of us cannot fall asleep the minute our head hits the pillow. It takes a bit of time and, with practice, becomes easier to accomplish.

    This is a simple way of learning to concentrate better. It goes like this: whenever you feel like quitting — just do five more — five more minutes, five more exercises, five more pages — which will extend your focus. The rule pushes you just beyond the point of frustration and helps build mental concentration.

    Sitting still would seem an easy thing to achieve. But it is harder than it sounds. It is akin to meditation, which can be a useful way to improve concentration. In this case, however, just get in to a comfortable, supported position and sit still and do nothing for five minutes. Use it as a pause between activities.

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    Switching off from both external and internal distractions does not come easily. Learning how to be more mindful, practising mindfulness or meditation, can all help facilitate greater concentration, not least because feeling calmer restores equilibrium and focus. Most of us breathe poorly: we tend to over-breathe, taking three or four breaths using only the upper part of our lung capacity, when one good breath using the lungs more completely would serve us better.

    This shallow breathing is very tiring, not only because we expend unnecessary muscular energy, but because we reduce our oxygen intake per breath. In its extreme form, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which can trigger panic attacks. In all mindfulness or meditation practice, breathing is key. Consciously relax your neck and drop your shoulders, rest your arms by your sides with your palms turned upwards. Breathe long and gently through your nose, into your belly until you see it gently rise, for a slow count of five. Pause, and hold that breath for a count of five, then gently exhale through your mouth for another count of five.

    While doing this, try to clear your mind of all other thoughts, or if this is difficult close your eyes and visualise a pebble dropping into a pool of water and gently sinking down. You can also use this breathing technique at any time you feel tense or stressed, or as the basis of any meditation. We all need to take time out, so set a timer to signal a break, or use an app such as Calm.

    Or you can just play a favourite music track, knowing that it will give you a set amount of time in which to press pause and do nothing. Another effective technique for boosting concentration is counting backwards. Counting backwards in sevens from 1, might sound like an exercise in exasperation, but it does require you to concentrate very hard: try it. It requires persistence and the use of different skills, which for some may include visualising the numbers as you count.

    Similarly, spelling words backwards is a good way to focus: start with words that are easy: dog, box, cup, and then build up to longer words — including nouns and more abstract words — such as cushion, blonde, effort, number — increasing the length and complexity of the word.

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    Again, this is an exercise that can be built on. Another way to focus is to sit in a comfortable position and find a spot on the wall to stare at. This works best when you have no conscious association with it to distract you — so, a black spot about two inches in diameter at eye level works well. Focus all your attention on this for around three minutes to start with you can set a timer if this helps and let any thoughts that arise drift away, constantly returning your focus to the spot.

    Anyone familiar with meditation will recognise this technique. If it helps to notice your breath, slow and steady this too, but always make your visual focus on the spot the priority. Practiced regularly, this can become so familiar it creates a resource on which to draw, enabling you to consciously refocus at will, even without the visual prompt.

    An old-fashioned clock face with hands and a second hand is needed for this. Starting with the second hand at the 12, focus intently on its progress around the clock face without allowing any distracting thoughts to intervene.