Friday, 30 April 2010

Is negative thinking a habit you could learn to break?

Seeing the negative is our brain's default mode, born of a primal need to identify dangers in life and protect ourselves from them; rooted in the brain's limbic system and close to our emotional processing centre. Powerful stuff.

All well and good when you have to be wary of marauding sabre-toothed tigers, but less useful when you are trying to get a piece of work done at your desk, manifesting itself in the form of negative thinking.

You know the scenario: you start doing something that's a little outside your comfort zone, it's making you a tad anxious, and then that self-sabotaging thought pops into your head: it's too difficult; I can't do it. Or worse: I'm useless; it's all hopeless. And you want to give up. Go home. Retreat under the duvet.

Suddenly you're into a spiral of negative thought processes every bit as distracting as the tinny baseline coming from a teenager's iPod headphones.

That internal critic can sabotage your efforts better than anyone else you know - if you let it.

The good news is that because negative thinking can become a habit, just like biting your nails, it's a habit you can - and should - break.

Identifying cycles of negative thought is a first step - do you recognise any of these?

- Equating how you feel with your sense of self: I feel stupid so I must be stupid. It's just not true. You may have made a mistake (see below) but it doesn't make you stupid.

- Making mistakes: a mistake is just something you do that gets you a result you don't want. No more than that. But there's no need to make the same mistake more than once. It's an opportunity to learn.

- All or nothing thinking: one small mistake, and you're a complete failure? No, you just made a mistake (see above).

- Awful-ising: always anticipating an awful outcome means that you are constantly preparing for the worst. How many times does the worst happen? Not that often. Save your emotional energy for when it does, but don't waste time anticipating something that might never happen.

- Personalisation: assuming that anything that goes wrong is your responsbility. It's not your fault! Sometimes, stuff just happens.

Negative thinking is an all too easy habit to get into. Recognise it, park it, and get on with whatever it is you want to do...

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Walking workouts for body and brain

I have just re-instigated my walking plan - wearing MBT trainers to make it even more effective - now the weather is nice, there's no excuse. I'm aiming to do it daily to see how far it improves my concentration, mood and bottom!

It takes me exactly 30 minutes to do the circuit I've devised around my home, which also takes in a series of slight inclines, and walking at a speed that makes me slightly out of breath. Sometimes I walk first thing in the morning, sometimes at lunchtime, sometimes in the evening - fitting it in to my schedule couldn't be easier.

What's more, wearing my MBT trainers - Masai Barefoot Technology - ups my exercise quota. I first wrote about these trainers in the Sunday Times' Style magazine in 2003 and have been an advocate ever since.

Independent research studies show that when you walk in these for 30 minutes, it's the equivalent of 90 minutes exercise because the instability provided by the patented sole technology is proven to increase muscle activity - one study showed activity in the thigh and buttock muscles increased by an average 37%!

And during that 30 minutes I find my mind settling and focusing. Tension reduces, my shoulders unhunch, my breathing deepens, ideas are formed, plans are made. It's a great way to, literally, think things through.

I once joined a gym. I can't remember ever going. Not a good way to exercise, then.

So like Demi Moore in her new film The Joneses I'm going to wear my MBTs, and take a walk.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Could selective ignorance be a route to better concentration?

Selective ignorance – or, the low-information diet – is a term coined by Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week – and could be a helpful strategy in improving concentration levels.

It’s a simple concept: reduce the amount of time you spend grazing on information – online, TV, radio, newspapers, Tweets, you name it you've probably done it – because you won’t benefit from it, and it may even be completely counter-productive to what you are trying to achieve.

“Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence,” says Ferriss. “I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watched today and tell me that is wasn’t at least two of the four.”

Culturally, we have become information junkies. It’s akin to that adolescent fear of not being “in the know” whatever the “know” might be. We find it hard to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that” for fear of being seen as outside the loop, so we try and input everything and anything that may put us ahead of the game.

But the aim, says Ferriss, is to focus on output, not input, and it is this that leads to success. He talks about attention management being as important as time management, and says, “The only option is selective ignorance – one of the few common traits among top performers.”

Certainly something worth considering - but please read this blog first!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Ballet lessons in concentration

Yesterday I went to watch members of the Royal Ballet take a class with legendary Cuban teacher Loipa Arauja and, in particular, to see a spectacular young Colombian dancer, Fernando Rodriguez Montano - appearing in the dynamic cameo role as the Jester in the current production of Cinderella at the Royal Opera House.

Around 20 of the world's top dancers - and both Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo were also taking a class there, showing that however great you are you still have to practice - spent an hour and a half working their bodies under instruction.

Total. Focus. Concentration. Control.

Yes, the dancers are used to the steps but not necessarily the sequencing relentlessly demanded by their teacher, so they really focus. I saw them watching her closely, their eyes following every tiny movement, counting the beats, making minimal gestures with their hands as they mentally rehearsed what their bodies would in a moment be required to do with precision and grace and energy.

And Loipa Araujo was focused too, not missing a beat, gently elevating a rib cage here, relaxing a shoulder there, realigning an arm, and repeating and repeating until the movement becomes second nature. With bodies like these you can't take risks, and the dancers know that their craft lies in the sort of dedication that has them practicing day after day after day.

Speaking to Fernando later - at just 25, he has been with the Royal Ballet for five years and his personal saga is a story in itself - he confirms that concentration is key.

"For those 90 minutes I focus 100%, and I am constantly monitoring my body, perfecting or extending some subtlety of movement, following my teacher's instructions."

Watching the class in action - a beautiful privilege in itself - was also like watching a masterclass in concentration. It is what keeps those dancers at the top of their game and, literally, on their toes.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Do meetings make you lose concentration?

Or even the will to live?

I can't remember many work meetings which weren't a waste of time... or when I didn't lose concentration. Not a unique experience, I discover, thanks to Phil Daoust's Guardian article which sums it all up pretty well, and shows that meetings are not the intellectually stimulating, creative event they are cracked up to be...

"No successful decision has ever been made in a meeting," said one contributor.

"Ninety percent of the time, in today's corporate world, calling a meeting is an abuse of power," said another.

So how can you make sure they work better? Check out the link below.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Do you know your BDNF from your elbow?

We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, but research has shown that physical exercise is also good for brains. Yes, getting physical raises the level of feel-good hormones called endorphins but it also raises levels of BDNF – brain-derived neurotropic factor to the uninitiated.

“I cannot over-estimate how important regular exercise is in improving the function of the brain,” says John Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “Exercise stimulates our grey matter to produce Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

This Miracle-Gro is BDNF. When we take physical exercise, our working muscles send chemicals into the bloodstream, including a protein known as IGF-1. Once in the brain, this stimulates the production of BDNF which helps new brain cells, and their connections, to grow.

In addition, levels of other neurotransmitters are increased after the sort of exercise session that will raise your pulse and cause a bit of a sweat (tiddlywinks players don’t qualify) for at least 20 minutes.

“Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine – all of these are elevated after exercise,” says Ratey. “So having a workout will help improve focus, help keep you calm and reduce impulsivity." He goes as far as to describe the effect of exercise as being like a natural dose of Prozac or Ritalin – but with out the deleterious side effects.

Ratey's gold standard, which needs to be built up to gradually, is: one hour of moderate exercise (power walking or jogging) four days a week; a shorter (45 minute burst) of intense activity (squash or running) twice a week, combined with strength training and balance drills.

What's more, the positive effect of exercise continues long after your daily session. So whatever your age, if this isn’t a good enough reason to get exercising – what is??!

Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, Quercus publishing, 2008

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Can you train your brain to concentrate?

So… brain training won’t help improve brain function in terms of general reasoning, memory, planning or visuospatial abilities, according to a new study which followed 11,430 people over six weeks – but would brain training help your concentration?

Certainly, with practice, participants in the study got better at what they were doing – proving something that every neuroscientist, top musician or sportsperson knows – if you practice, you will improve.

The same goes for concentration. Practice concentrating, using brain training games if you like: but if you want to improve your concentration, practicing really helps.

Concentration is the X factor that makes improvement of other skills possible - so train your brain to concentrate!

Monday, 19 April 2010

"We did not stay concentrated..."

"We did not stay concentrated and we were punished for that in the end," said Arsenal football manager Arsene Wenger, after the north London team were beaten by Wigan Athletic 3:2.

The team were easily ahead - Walcott scored at 41 minutes, Silvestre at 48 minutes - and were still leading at the 80th minute, but then they took their eye off the ball, literally.

Wigan's Watson scored at the 80th minute, Bramble at the 89th and N'Zogbia at the 90th. Within 10 unfocussed minutes, Arsenal finally lost all hope of this Premier League title race.

"At top-level competition you have to be focused for 90 minutes or you will lose games. I believe the goals we conceded were very poor. Unlucky, but poor.

"In football you have to keep focused for 90 minutes, especially against a team that has nothing to lose and is fighting to stay in like Wigan were... We did not stay concentrated and we were punished for that in the end."

Are pregnancy brain lapses a myth?

Hmmm... so being pregnant can affect your concentration? Says who?

According to a report carried out by Professor Christensen at the Australian National University, and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, this is a myth. "Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries," she says.

Personally, I found early motherhood focused my brain like nothing else... with only 90 minutes max between naps to get things done, I really concentrated!

So no excuses then and it seems that this myth, like eating for two, must bite the dust.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Does caffeine help you concentrate?

New research from Johns Hopkins University and published in Nature Neuroscience has looked at the benefits of caffeine to memory 

Trimethylxanthine, or caffeine, is the most widely consumed pharmacologically active substance in the world, and occurs naturally in tea, coffee, cocoa and chocolate products and is added to soft drinks and a variety of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

What methylxanthines do is to disable an enzyme (phosphodieterase) that would otherwise destroy another substance, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which works to activate the neurotransmitters in the brain. So once the cAMP is given free rein, the brake on your brain is lifted and it’s all systems go.

So that's the science - but does caffeine help you concentrate?

Without the phosphodieterase brake, caffeine also stimulates the central nervous system: your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood circulation will all increase so it does have a temporary effect on how you feel, and can increase feelings of alertness which, in turn, can make concentration easier - but only in the short term.

This is the effect exploited in drinks like Red Bull, which contains a whopping 80 milligrams of caffeine per can.

But be warned, an excess of caffeine can make you feel jittery and sick, and because it takes around seven hours to leave your system, can interfere with your sleep, too.

In one experiment when a large dose of caffeine was given to a spider, instead of her web being a beautiful spiral, it was a random mess.

So enjoy your caffeinated drinks in moderation, but don’t expect it to compensate for any poor habits - like overwork, inadequate sleep, poor diet - that can impede concentration.

And if you want an alternative kick-start to caffeine, try a large dose of vitamin C - which also blocks phosphodieterase, and elevates levels of cAMP in the brain to similar effect! - but without the caffeine effect.

For more on the Johns Hopkins study

Overcoming urban stress

Featured in the Daily Express...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The brain is a wonderful organ...

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office.

Robert Frost

Frost may have meant this ironically, but how many of us feel unfocussed, creatively blocked, or restricted by our working environment?

If you wake up full of the joys of spring, but find that sitting at your desk soon has you distracted and unable to concentrate, you may have to reflect on why... and take steps to rectify the situation.

Because we spend so much time at work, it's important to find a way to create meaning and engagement, either through the individual work we do or in association with our colleagues, and this helps to maintain concentration. Actively seek to reduce external distractions like switching off your email alert, set goals (try the Five Minute Rule), make sure you stay hydrated, and if you don't have a pleasant view even a photo or picture of a beautiful rural landscape will help.

Someone estimated that we spend two thirds of our lifetime at work... so we may as well make it count.

Mindball - an exercise in concentration

The more relaxed you are, the better those brain waves work...

Each Mindball player wears a headband that provides EEG (electroencephalogram) feedback by measuring the electrical frequencies of the brain.

Certain frequencies of signal are associated with different mental activities--for example, gamma waves with a frequency above 26 Hz are associated with higher mental activities such as problem solving.

To win at Mindball, however, you need to produce theta waves (4-8 Hz) which are associated with drowsiness and alpha waves (8-12 Hz) which are associated with being relaxed. So the more relaxed you are, the better you're going to be at this game.

The benefit of these sorts of games is that they give you tangible evidence of what you can achieve. The trick is to register what you are doing and feeling, so you can work towards regaining this ability at will, even when you're not receiving the sort of feedback that a game like Mindball provides.

Knowing you are capable of this sort of concentration is very reassuring, and is relevant to many areas of life, from school to work, exercise to relaxation.

Even winning the game!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Meditation helps depression

Transcendental meditation, the technique of achieving a state of "restful alertness" popularised by The Beatles 40 years ago, may be an effective treatment for depression in older people, scientists have found.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Art of Concentration

Introduction - Why concentration matters
Chapter One - How the brain develops
Chapter Two - What inhibits brain function & concentration?
Chapter Three - What else is stopping you?
Chapter Four - Your concentration profile
Chapter Six - Learning to concentrate
Chapter Seven - Pay attention! Children & concentration
Chapter Eight - Techniques to improve concentration
Chapter Nine - Specific exercises to improve concentration
Chapter Ten - What else can you do?
Useful websites

Published April 2nd 2010... available now from