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To concentrate or to... {answer the phone}...

I sat down to write our monthly newsletter a few days ago, and as I was doing so I began to think about the topic of concentration. Why is it so easy to focus on some occasions, while at other times it seems to require a huge mental effort?

As I was starting to put words on the paper, my cell phone rang as a client called me to make an appointment. While I was talking to her, one of my friends sent me a message on Skype which I started typing a response to, then I switched to my calendar to check my availability for my client. I hung up the phone then noticed that I had received emails that looked interesting so I opened them and read them, and then finished responding to my friend on Skype. After that I returned to my very blank document that was supposed to be the newsletter for this month, and wondered what it was that I had wanted to say. While I was racking my brain for the interesting information I had intended to write for you, my friend came back with her answer, and my email notification came up again, so of course I had to respond.... whew! Is it any wonder that my article was not taking shape?

John Medina, the author of Brain Rules (Pear Press) points out that it is actually a myth that we can multi-task... and that includes women! We believe that we are quite capable of sending a text message on our cell phones as well as driving at the same time, but the truth is that when we’re focussed on our text message, we are actually not paying any attention to the road at all.

Our brain has multiple resources available to it for processing different types of information, such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (touch and feel) information. The trouble is that there is one small portion of the brain that is responsible for directing these various resources. When we have to concentrate on conflicting information of the same type, such as the visual information I have to process while I’m driving as well as the visual information relating to the text message I’m reading, what the brain is really doing is switching my attention from one to the other. It’s happening so rapidly that I think that I’m focussed on both my driving as well as the text message, but the reality is that I’m really only concentrating on one thing at a time.

The problem is that every time we switch our attention we have to go back and remember what it was that we were doing. Our short-term memory can only hold a limited amount of information "on-line” for processing, so every time I switch between the newsletter, the phone, email and the Skype messages to and from my friend, I have to "reload” the information in my short-term memory so that I can start processing it again. This is obviously inefficient, and slows down my processing ability.

In the office we are bombarded with distractions all the time: the cell phone, the land line, colleagues who "just want a word”, emails, reports to be written, calculations to be completed... Is it any wonder that we sometimes get home and wonder whether we had achieved anything even though the day was constantly busy?

The trick is to switch off! If you have something important to get done, then turn off the cell phone, put the "Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, switch your land line to voice mail, and turn off those distracting notifications telling you that email has arrived. If you are someone who works in an open plan office, then try plugging in your headphones and listening to music so that the auditory distractions of other people’s conversations and phones ringing will be muffled by the music you’re playing, which will ideally be classical music or music without any words (heavy rock is definitely out!) We highly recommend some of the Majors for Minors CD’s for helping in getting the attention focussed. Click here if you would like more information on which CD’s you should select.

If you find that you are battling to focus, then move! Get up and take a walk around the office, and if you can get outside, then do. A short brisk walk will get your brain reactivated, and you will feel much more awake and alert. This is far preferable to going to get another cup of coffee.

For the kids doing homework, minimise the distractions. The cell phone and TV should be off, and if they’re doing research on the internet, close down programmes such as Skype and email.

We’ve included some other tips for you on how to improve your concentration and focus.

Click here to download

Happy concentrating!

Annette and the team

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