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Put your concentration to the test

Put your concentration to the test

To multitask, or not to multitask: that is the question. We live in an age of endless distractions, but is it a good idea to try to keep up with all the chaos that we tend to find ourselves in? 
Lifestyle insight
Reading time: 6 minutes

How good is your concentration?

To multitask, or not to multitask: that is the question. We live in an age of endless distractions, but is it a good idea to try to keep up with all the chaos that we tend to find ourselves in? 

So you think you can focus?

Are you one of those people who will confidently type up a report for work while having a conversation? And tackle a complicated dinner recipe while concentrating on the TV news? Or does the idea of multitasking make you want to run and hide? Then why not put your concentration to the test…

Read the following excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and think about what may be happening in this scene of the play – if you haven’t already seen it!

To Be or Not to Be
Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

How did you go?

Did you make it through the whole excerpt? (Be honest!) How many times did you stop for a text message, e-mail, or other distraction? Would you say that you were concentrating?

Our brain has two attention systems. First, there’s the system that automatically tunes in to new noises, movements or stimuli. Second, there’s the system that holds attention to complete a task. And these two systems are in competition with one another.1a As you can probably imagine, this competition is as fierce as ever in today’s age of digital distractions.

By multitasking, you’re essentially giving in to distractions – you’re switching your focused attention system from one task to another, and back again, over and over. You might be able to do it, but it slows you down.2a This is why learning to concentrate on one task helps you to achieve more – it makes you more efficient and productive.

Want to have another go with something a little different?

So maybe Shakespeare isn’t your strong suit – and perhaps you’ll do better with another concentration challenge. So here are two more tasks to test yourself with:

The Stroop test

This is a test of concentration and mental flexibility. Try it here3

Want to train your brain to concentrate? Here are some exercise ideas that will help
1.    Take a book or magazine, count the number of words in a paragraph, then two paragraphs, moving through a page. Use only your eyes to count the words.5a, 6a
2.    Count backwards – one number at a time, or change it up by skipping by threes (100, 97, 94…) for more intense training.5b, 6b Too easy?  Then try reciting the alphabet backwards.7a
3.    Don’t think about anything for 5 minutes.6c

Brain exercises like these will improve your concentration. If that’s your aim, try to do them every day.

What difference can stronger concentration make?

Need some inspiration for developing your concentration? Check out the story of David Blaine, a performance artist who takes concentration to an extreme level. He uses concentration to perform stunts that most people would regard as impossible. The lesson that Blaine teaches us is that we all have the capacity to improve our concentration. It takes discipline, but it is possible. See his incredible story here.8

The upshot? Concentration exercises are great for everyone, even if your goals are much humbler than those of Blaine. You might just want to get through an hour of work within a solid hour, rather than letting it take 2 hours due to distractions and the temptation to multitask. If so, give concentration exercises a go. And maybe look at other ways to improve your cognitive health – there are lots of things you can do to help your brain be at its best.  Plus you may experience other benefits – for example, it’s thought that rewiring your brain by meditating helps with brain functions related to memory and learning.9a, 9b, 10a, 10b When you see the benefits of improving your concentration, and overall brain health, you might decide to set your concentration goals higher!

References

1.    Williams C. Mind expanding: how to hack your attention span. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26294-mind-expanding-how-to-hack-your-attention-span Accessed September 2018.
2.    Napier NK. The myth of multitasking. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking Accessed September 2018.
3.    SharpBrains. The Stroop test: great brain teaser to challenge your mental vitality and flexibility. https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2006/10/05/brain-exercise-the-stroop-test Accessed September 2018.
4.    SharpBrains. Classic attention test. https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2006/09/28/attention-and-working-memory Accessed September 2018.
5.    Operation Meditation. 7 easy, no-nonsense concentration exercises. Available at: http://operationmeditation.com/discover/7-easy-no-nonsense-concentration-exercises Accessed September 2018.
6.    Naaz S. Available at: https://www.stylecraze.com/articles/simple-concentration-exercises/#gref Accessed September 2018.
7.    Sicinski A. How to improve concentration and boost your productivity. Available at: https://blog.iqmatrix.com/improve-concentration Accessed September 2018.
8.    Blaine D. The power of mental concentration. Available at: https://ed.ted.com/on/3EGX0HH4 Accessed September 2018.
9.    Hasenkamp W,  Barsalou LW.  Front Hum Neurosci 2012;6:38.
10.    Chiesa A, et al. Clin Psychol Rev 2011;31(3):449-464.

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