How do you concentrate?

For most people, this question probably means, “Do you listen to music while working?” or “Do you go somewhere to get away from it all?” But there’s more to learning how to concentrate than just this.

I remember reading that the average person’s attention span is now less than that of a goldfish. Nine seconds. We can get better and it just takes a little preparation and practice.

I came across this quote today attributed to Alexander Graham Bell.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

If you want to really concentrate on something, it takes discipline and a goal. You have to want something more than the other things trying to distract you. Let’s talk about conscious and desired concentration. The kind of concentration needed to design software, or build a model rocket, or paint, or write. This is where a goal is important. I’m not talking about some five year goal or even a daily goal. I’m talking about a goal to finish that small feature requiring a new class and a few method in your source code or that small page and a half each day that will eventually add up to a complete book. These are the goals that lead to intense concentration abilities. And I do mean intense.

Working with your mind can be just as exhausting as physical labor. And just like you can improve your physical stamina with regular exercise or activity, you can also improve your ability to concentrate. It takes effort and a desire the be better than a goldfish. Listen to the full episode or read the full transcript below for my suggestions for improving your concentration.

Transcript

For most people, this question probably means, “Do you listen to music while working?” or “Do you go somewhere to get away from it all?” But there’s more to learning how to concentrate than just this. More than I can likely explain in just this podcast episode.

I remember reading that the average person’s attention span is now less than that of a goldfish. Nine seconds. What does nine seconds sound like?

[pause for 9 seconds]

Congratulations. The fact that you’re still listening means you’re more capable of sticking with something longer than most people. We can get better and it just takes a little preparation and practice. I’ll describe how I understand concentration and what I do to improve.

I came across this quote today attributed to Alexander Graham Bell.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

If you want to really concentrate on something, it takes discipline and a goal. You have to want something more than the other things trying to distract you. Without a goal, the best you can hope for is just being aware of your environment and the worst is complete lack or awareness.

But if you think about it, in order to be completely unaware of things takes a certain amount of concentration. Let’s take a sleepwalker for example. Young kids are a great example. They can appear to be wide awake and even ask questions. The questions may not make any sense and your answers will usually be completely ignored. A short while later, the child can go right back to sleep as if nothing had ever happened.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a lot of concentration to me. So let’s talk about conscious and desired concentration. The kind of concentration needed to design software, or build a model rocket, or paint, or write. This is where a goal is important. I’m not talking about some five year goal or even a daily goal. I’m talking about a goal to finish that small feature requiring a new class and a few method in your source code or that small page and a half each day that will eventually add up to a complete book. These are the goals that lead to intense concentration abilities. And I do mean intense. Working with your mind can be just as exhausting as physical labor. And just like you can improve your physical stamina with regular exercise or activity, you can also improve your ability to concentrate.

It takes effort and a desire the be better than a goldfish. I’m going to skip the sponsor slot today so you can better appreciate one of the biggest losses of concentration. I’m talking about interruptions.

It’s funny but as I’m writing this, my wife just started telling me about something outside and I quickly replied that I’m concentrating and went back to writing this episode. In case you didn’t realize it, I do write out each episode ahead of time and I’ve gotten good at recording the episodes without making it seem like I’m reading.

A good way to improve your concentration is to set goals for yourself that slowly require more time to complete. Use a real timer for this just like how you might set an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Trust the timer and resist the urge to constantly check the time. Maybe you can even turn the clock display off for your computer, remove your watch, and put your phone out of reach. I don’t even wear a watch anymore.

Then when the timer goes off, take a break. Keep the break short but long enough that your mind can relax a bit. Tell yourself that all those other things can wait until your break.

And definitely remove any other forms of distraction. Do you have popups enabled on your computer? Do you get a little distraction for every email, every text message, every new friend request? Turn these things off the next time you use your computer or the next time you use your phone. Not now. But at the next opportunity. This goes back to the idea of a break. When you’re concentrating, guard your focus. The other stuff can wait.

I listen a lot to other podcasts and one of my favorite is Entrepreneur On Fire by John Lee Dumas and he likes to mention that the word focus stands for “follow one course until success”. This is usually used to describe a longer goal but you can use it for your moments of intense concentration too.

Remember your goal, trust your timer, remove unnecessary distractions, make progress, take a break, and repeat.

I think I’ll need to continue this topic again next week. There’s still more I can explain. But I’ll end by describing one of the original goals of this entire podcast. I want to produce short and focused episodes that you can relate to that will help you learn how to program. I keep the length of each episode as short as possible. That’s because I’m trying to stay within your attention span, but it’s also because I’m trying to stay within my attention span. You see, when I read to you what I’ve written, it might take me 8 minutes, or 12. But it takes me at least an hour to write 10 minutes of audio.

In order for you to become an effective and professional computer programmer, you’re going to need to build up your attention span to a full hour or more. It takes practice but do you really want to compete with fish?