When the mind insists on wandering, what are some good ways to help it settle down and focus? How can a person achieve deep concentration? How can a person train himself to concentrate better, aside from sheer discipline?
People often say they can’t listen to audio lectures in their car because their mind wanders too much.
My reply: Baloney! You can do it, if you choose to train yourself.
When I began listening to lectures in my car many years ago, I found that I couldn’t maintain concentration. My mind was simply used to wandering when I would drive. So I chose to cultivate different habits. When I’d notice that my mind was off-track, I’d rewind the tape back to some point I remembered, remind myself to stay focused, then continue listening. I had to do that repeatedly, so often that it probably took me four hours to listen to first hour of lecture. However, after a few lectures, I was able to concentrate well. Since then, I’ve enjoyed so many lectures from The Teaching Company and the Ayn Rand Bookstore, as well as books from Audible. That education has been invaluable for me.
The lesson to draw from that story is simple yet revolutionary: you can train your mind to develop new skills and habits.
Jut as with athletic training, your mental training must be effective. You will accomplish nothing by passively accepting the goings-on of your noodle as “just the way I am.” You will do yourself damage by attempting to bully your mind into doing its supposed duty. Instead, you must seek to understand the nature of the problem. You must ask yourself: Why do I find it difficult to concentrate deeply? If you can identify the problem, then a solution will likely suggest itself.
Consider, for example:
- Do you really dislike the work that you’re doing? Perhaps you need to acknowledge that to yourself. Perhaps you need to identify why the work is important to your goals. Perhaps you need to change what you’re doing, e.g. change your career, quit school, or drop a hobby.
- Are you overwhelmed with work? Perhaps you’ve committed to too many projects, and you need to scale back. Perhaps you’re trying to do too much yourself, rather than delegating. Perhaps you need a system to manage your workflow, like GTD. Perhaps you need to prioritize your projectsmore clearly.
- Are you subject to interruptions that preclude concentration? Perhaps your co-workers pester you, but you need large blocks of uninterrupted time to work. Perhaps you interrupt your work by checking e-mails and blogs, not to mention Twitter, Facebook, and Cow Clicker. Perhaps you’ve gotten in the habit of seeking out those distractions when you encounter some difficulty. If so, shut down those applications, so that you check them only in scheduled breaks.Personally, I struggle with these kinds of productivity issues on a regular basis. I’m always trying to monitor what I’m doing — and tweak that so as to make my work time more productive. I’m not alone in that, I know! So I hope that you’ll post the tweaks you’ve found effective in the comments.
Update: I’m now answering questions on practical philosophy and the principles of living well in my internet radio show Philosophy in Action. The Q&A broadcasts every Sunday morning at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET. Each week, I select the most popular and interesting questions from the ongoing queue of questions. Please submit your questions, as well as vote and comment on questions that you find interesting!
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