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How I regained the ability to concentrate

Between running an international business and bringing up two children and three step-children, life was busy. Days flew past, full of back-to-back meetings, calls, endless emails, client/partner/office visits and so on. Many of you will recognise that exhausting pace and wonder, as I did, how on earth to get space to think or plan.

The sad news is that this just gets worse. The pressure to build a persona on social media, scan endless podcasts and newsfeeds, contribute to various forums – on top of the “day job” just grows and grows. Do not, under any circumstance, think that “it will get quieter in summer/next year/when the new system arrives… etc. etc”. It won’t. And apart from the sense of running faster and faster to keep up, you know the thing that worried me most? I lost the ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes. Life was so full of noise and interaction and decisions that the ability to stand back and really think about anything had slipped away from me. Not suddenly, but over years. I struggled to focus long enough to read a chapter of a book or complete a task – without scanning everything else and jotting down notes on things that entered my head.

I’m pleased to say that I look back now and can say that I’ve resolved this. I have regained the ability to concentrate when I need to or want to. Let me share how – and please don’t think this was a structured clearly-thought out plan: it wasn’t – it was a load of trial and error moves that finally gave me a handful of tools and techniques to help me concentrate deeply again.

For me step one was to take on board David Allen's Getting Things Done® - a structured approach to getting all the noise and action in your head into one clear system. Suddenly the clarity on the volume of things I was doing and which actually mattered became clear. My adaptation included an immediate 3D assessment of any incoming idea/task/email etc – based on a) can I Decline it – i.e. did it matter if I didn’t do it? (and bang went all those surveys of last night’s hotels stay write ups) b) can I Delegate it? Not just to someone who I work with, but could I automate or outsource it? That was when I started using email filters and diverts and virtual assistants. The final option, if you can’t decline it or delegate it - is you’re going to have to Do - i.e. do it now or put it in a specific pile (e.g. to call, to read, to buy) or book time in your calendar to do it.

The second step was for me to slow down and clear my mind – and for that I started to use the brilliant Headspace app from Andy Puddicombe. Within a few days, I was starting to do a daily meditation – just for 10 minutes – but with startling results. Somehow in those 10 minutes, my brain sorted stuff out and filed it all away, leaving me with a clean sheet to work on whatever I wanted to – in a calm and clear way. Fabulous! On top of that I started to use the Ananda app – an app that plays tones and sounds to remove the noise of the environment you’re in. Very useful in the office/train/airport when you need 30 minutes of focus time.

Another key element for me was the use of Mind Maps – something I had used for many years, and by now was using to help concentrate and create new ideas and better ways of doing things. I tend to dump ideas in to a Mind Map in an unstructured way, then drag the various items around to give form and structure to whatever it is I’ve been thinking about.

The final element is a bit weird but has given me some great outcomes – and that’s a technique to access both the creative and the rational part of your brain. This sometimes get referred to as the left brain and right brain – and also builds on ideas from the Chimp Paradox (an intriguing read that will explain a lot about yourself!). The aim here is to let the creative part come up with answers before the rational part suppresses them for being flawed, or might not work, or could look silly… etc. For me, I do this as I fall asleep/wake up. I just think of the question as I start to fall asleep at night – not stressing about it or trying to find an answer – just putting it out there. What I find then happens is that the dreamy mind starts to come up with answers through the night – and usually very good ones! Despite rarely remembering dreams, I somehow always remember the answers to the challenge I went to sleep on. I suggest do only work on one question and do relax about it – and see what happens.

In summary, my big turnaround in concentration came from:

1. Getting visibility and control of what was coming on to my to-do list through a structured approach

2. Emptying my mind to allow it to create order and space, using meditation and mindfulness

3. Mind Mapping to let ideas flow and get shaped

4. Directing challenges to the creative aspect of the brain to find creative answers

I hope some of these ideas might prove useful – and let me know if you’d like to know more about any of them and my experiences – I’d be pleased to share.

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