What is more self-defeating than a command to “Concentrate!” Even when you say it to yourself. Concentration has never been a highly cultivated skill, but these days, in our interruption culture, it’s even more difficult. The National Center for Biotechnology Information finds that our average attention span is down to about 8 seconds (from 12 seconds fifteen years ago.)
Eight seconds! That’s a problem. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written about Time Bandits and the damage they inflict. But just as big a story about Time Bandits is this: We are our own worst thieves of our precious time. We steal from ourselves. What could be more perverse?
Even (especially?) when we most want to concentrate on the job at hand, we experience what I call Mental Leakage. The mind goes elsewhere, to some other subject. Maybe something more entertaining. More distressing. More visible or audible. If we are unaccustomed to concentrating, that means we are accustomed to mind-wandering, so we give in to a habit honed by years of accidental “practice.”
I said “we,” not “you” for a good reason. Even though I invented the term and created the solutions for Time Banditry, I have not entirely immunized myself against the pull of old habits. I am as prone to fragmented focus as you. That’s why over the years I have developed and perfected a series of techniques to permit Focal Locking, which is the solution to Mental Leakage.
It was a harrowing personal situation that prompted me to do so. I tell the whole story in my book, but let me sketch it for you briefly here.
I’d been scuba diving and got a dangerous case of “the bends.” While I was experienced and knew better than to rise to the surface too quickly, I was aiding an inexperienced diver who didn’t know the danger. I was taken to the emergency room where the doctor told me what I already guessed – the condition was potentially fatal, but a stint in a decompression chamber would cure me.
I knew the chamber was barely big enough for me to fit inside, so I didn’t relish such claustrophobic treatment, but I was okay until the doctor told me how long I’d be confined: Nine hours. From my book:
If you have ever received frightening news, maybe you recognize my first emotion. It was simple. “I cannot do this.” No more claustrophobic than the ordinary person, I still couldn’t imagine being confined to a barely see-through coffin for much longer than I could hold my breath. Nine hours!!! That is a whole working day, with nothing to do but think, in a situation where all thoughts are terrifying. I would panic. I would suffocate. If I screamed would they hear me? Help me? All those thoughts raced through my mind as if it had joined my body in torturing me.
Obviously I survived, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I survived because I drew on almost everything I had ever learned in my whole life about making my mind do what I wanted it to: not think about my confinement and instead carry me to blissful places where panic couldn’t intrude. Yoga, breathing techniques, mantras, psychotherapeutic techniques – I used them all.
My point is, you can exercise control of your mind. You can prevent Mental Leakage when you must. You just have to develop new techniques to replace your old habits, and they are all there in my book. Different techniques work better for some people. You have to choose the ones that suit your challenges, your personality.
But let me offer you one of the most powerful solutions here – actually a series of steps. It is called meditative relaxation, wherein you focus on your breath, both inhalations and exhalations, keeping your eyes closed. Focus deeply on a mantra that enables you to escape to a seascape, landscape, or the cosmos, just for ten seconds. On the exhalation of your breath, to yourself, utter the word, “Calm.”
Do this three times. As you begin to feel Calm take effect, return to the task that requires your focused attention and say to yourself, “If I can Time Lock, I can Focal Lock.” I can bear down on the task at hand. I can enter into my Time Lock for its full length, complete this task, and then undo the Focal Lock and focus on other matters.
Happy Focal Locking. And if it’s a little rocky at first, don’t worry – you’re learning a new skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life – at work and in other parts of your life. And here’s the really good news: I bet you don’t have to do it for nine hours!