FOCUSING IN ON CONCENTRATION
Concentration is defined as the ability to focus one's attention. The power to control attention is necessary for living an intentional, productive life. School, work, sports, and relationships are just a few areas of life that demand focused attention, not to mention everyday tasks like cooking and driving. Concentration plays a big role in deliberate practice and developing skills. While the ability to focus is highly valued in many domains, there is often a lack of formal education on how to do it. This article will introduce some of the basic concepts of attention to help nurture and develop concentration skills.
The quality of concentration is influenced by two primary factors: attentional focus and attention span. In other words, what we choose to pay attention to and how long we can hold attention on that subject determine your ability to concentrate.
The focus of attention can wander continuously throughout the day, and attentional demands may vary depending on the situation. In order to understand the types of focus required for different stimuli, we can picture a grid with four quadrants. Label one axis external/internal and the other narrow/broad yielding four attentional “channels”: narrow external, broad external, narrow internal, broad internal. To facilitate the explanation, we will use the example of driving a car.
- Narrow external focus implies focusing on a target, object, or person, such as the car in front of you.
- Broad external focus includes a group of objects or people, or the bigger picture, such as several cars in traffic.
- Narrow internal focus comprises thoughts, images, or feelings, such as the feeling of your hand gripping the wheel or your foot on the pedal.
- Broad internal focus involves planning and thinking through decisions, such as when you will make a left turn, and the actions you will need to perform for that to happen.
Considering the different types of focus, we can see that it is necessary to shift attention, or change channels, frequently during cognitively demanding tasks like driving a car. It is vital to attend to the correct information at the correct time to avoid getting into a car crash. The same holds true when performing in sports, work, school, or other domains.
Learning to direct focus to the correct place is essential for performance. Since attention is something habitual and often automatic, we must train the ability to direct our attention. In order to do this, we can create cues, signals, and triggers that direct our attention to specific places. Again using the example of driving a car, imagine sitting stopped at a red traffic signal, and then it turns green (narrow external focus). This cue will activate a series of thoughts and behaviors–check both directions for oncoming cars and pedestrians (broad external), stabilize hands on the driver's wheel and step on the gas pedal (narrow internal), and prepare for the upcoming roundabout (broad internal). This action may be fairly automatic for the experienced driver, but for the novice driver, it requires great effort to perform this sequence of actions in succession and attend to the correct things. The same idea can be applied to other performance domains–a musician responding to a musical cue, and an athlete changing their position based on a teammate or an opponent's movement. It's important in these cases to identify the essential cues and practice the response repeatedly until attention shifts naturally. This will increase the chances that the response is accurate and appropriately timed.
Attention span refers to the ability to remain focused and hold attention on relevant stimuli for a required length of time without being distracted. One reason people break their concentration is mental fatigue. Fatigue is normal, and it is why people can struggle to stay focused on long exams or at the end of a long, demanding day. Athletes may seem fatigued during “boring” activities at practice, or when they're mentally drained at the end of a match or competition. However, in a situation where the activity is highly engaging and participants are highly motivated, it is unlikely that such diversions would occur. In other words, when the situation is challenging (but not too challenging) and exciting, people tend to stay focused for longer and perform better. Another problem in maintaining focus for long periods is the case of focusing on irrelevant material. Even when the task is highly engaging, distractions can occur. In this case, techniques such as self-talk serve as autonomously created thought cues to help attend to information important for immediate performance. Furthermore, the ability to keep distractions out can be trained by manipulating the length of activities and simulating realistic performance distractions.
Meditation is a popular practice that positively influences concentration, whereby a person practices focusing their attention on a specific stimulus for a sustained period of time. During this practice, a person can choose to attend to stimuli such as the breath, feelings in the body, or other things. The practice of meditation relies on returning attention to the specified focus of the practice. The idea is to observe oneself shifting attention nonjudgmentally, and gently return the focus. This practice of keeping attention shifting as a fluid process, and not forceful, allows the subject to change channels intentionally and control the frequency.
Mental imagery and visualization can also be used to enhance attention control. Imagery requires the person to construct a holistic experience to focus, create vivid details with all the senses, recognize cues for attentional shifts, use all four attentional channels, and incorporate appropriate thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Mental imagery is essentially mental practice for what could actually happen in the real world. The driving example, given earlier, is an example of how images can be represented and employed to help improve concentration. The more evocative the image, the more powerful it will be to reinforce desirable attentional patterns for performance.
In conclusion, concentration refers to the ability to focus and control attention. The subject and duration of attention are the primary variables that determine quality of concentration, and ultimately performance. Taking the time to learn and distinguish situational cues can be helpful in determining which stimuli to attend to. Keeping tasks fun and engaging, varying the time spent on those activities, and ignoring distractions, are key to keeping sustained focus. Meditation and mental imagery are two popular techniques that can be used to train the mind to cope with attentional demands and improve concentration. The ability to concentrate, in turn, contributes to the quality of deliberate practice and the quest for peak performance.