How to Train Your Concentration

June 22, 2016

In his most recent book Deep Work, Cal Newport hypothesises that the most useful skill that people can develop in order to gain the most traction toward their goals, is that of concentration. It’s this ability, Newport argues, which is going to help us develop the key skills and abilities that will help push us forward in terms of advancing our careers.

My understanding is that most of us want to be successful. I know at least I do. And so this advice, which I keep seeing cropping up again and again, is something I’ve grown rather obsessed with throughout the course of this year.

I thought I’d made a breakthrough back in February, when, gathering in the deep winter of my native UK, I isolated myself from the world thanks to a 10-day silent meditation course. As the days rolled on, and my only stimulus available was that of my own inner-chatter and the guidance of the meditation teacher, I finally began to recognise, after many years, what that state of deep concentration actually looks like.

Quiet. Still. Automatic.

Of course I only reached that inner state a couple of times, but it was insightful enough, I remember, to make me think I’d suddenly hit upon a ‘super power’ that was going to propel me forward as soon as I made my escape back.

 

But that wasn’t the case. And pretty soon after being tipped back out again into a ‘real world’ of business, projects, life and catastrophe, what I remembered of that deep state of concentration became something reminiscent of a faint dream.

Ever since I’ve been pining after it, looking to establish some kind of routine that unsheathes me from the myriad distractions of life and posits me neatly into a state of ‘flow’ where I can go about working ardently toward whatever goal takes my fancy.

Having already made an exodus from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter a while ago, I recognised that the space that would have otherwise been dedicated to them, was simply filled instead by other mediums. YouTube, Quora and Reddit. Those were the things that filled the time that I’d otherwise hoped to get back and exercise for greater good.

Not to be too harsh on myself, I understand that harnessing one’s concentration is a battle for almost everyone.

Biologically, as Carl Sagan points out in his wonderful book Cosmos, we are all simply organisms driven by impulses; “deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like the brain of a crocodile”. It’s these impulses that marketer Seth Godin also recognises as a hindrance, as anyone having read Purple Cow, and familiar with the term “lizard-brain” will surely be aware of.

If only we could tame these impulses, then we’d be okay right?

Training our concentration, as you can see, is so difficult because it involves overriding our genetic programming.

When we’re not thinking about checking in with friends via our phones or social media, we’re thinking about what thing to cook later when we get home. Unchain from those devices and try and silence the daydreams however and the battle still goes on.

And what most scuppers our concentration despite shutting out the most obvious distractions? Sex.

But that can also be a great motivator, if harnessed correctly, to help us concentrate in the first place.

To paraphrase Bill Bryson who looks to Sherwin B. Nuland in A Short History of Nearly Everything; “empires fall, ids explode, great symphonies are written, and behind all of it is a single instinct that demands satisfaction.”

A lot of our reasons for wanting to concentrate in the first place? To get good at things, to look better and to gain more status? More sexual attention.

Perhaps that’s slightly an exaggerated point but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. Concentration, even if it is fuelled by the desire for sex, still helps us get an awful lot of good things done.

It brings innovation into the world, cures diseases, solves grand problems that lead to human progress. Helps raise our potential happiness.

So, the first step to help us concentrate is, I hope to suggest, understanding our motives and knowing why it is that we want to concentrate in the first place.

From there we can do the usual things that help.

Like shutting out our temptation to browse the Internet through ingenious software applications.

Like turning off our phones, putting a single-track on repeat and moving to an adequate space from which to practice.

Like meditating with regularity to understand the nature of the mind while drawing in our expectations and breaking down our systems and processes into small, manageable steps.

Like keeping lists so we know exactly what actions to deeply concentrate on.

Like shoring up that extra hour in the day for concentration through waking up early.

Like simply making a start.