Saturday, 22 May 2010

How does your mood affect your concentration?

Which came first: how you feel or the mood you're in? Does how you feel affect your mood or does your mood affect how you feel? Either way, there's no doubt that your mood can affect you, and your ability to concentrate.

"Moods are an internal measure of how we are," says Dr Liz Miller, author of Mood Mapping. "We do not express our moods directly. Instead we express them indirectly in the way we think, communicate, behave and see the world. To concentrate, you need to feel good as well as having enough energy. Although concentration may look relaxed on the outside, it is work. And if you are concentrating intensely, it is hard work! You need to have energy to concentrate, and it is easier if you are feeling positive.'

But can you consciously change your mood? Yes, says Miller, who developed the Mood Mapping technique.

"Moods can be managed, both in the immediate moment and in the longer term. And to begin, you need to understand five key inputs to mood, which are: your surroundings, your physical body, your relationships, you knowledge and your nature (personality type)."

Mood mapping is a technique that helps you first plot your mood and then work on it to get it right - if one of the five areas is out of balance, you're physically overtired or unwell, for example, you can see how this impacts on you, and improve it. It's a practical device that lets you see what it is that is influencing your mood, enables you to identify it, and then take those necessary steps that will help you manage your mood, and stop it ruling your life.

Makes sense to me!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Workplace stress is an insidious and increasing problem...

Recently tagged by UK mental health charity MIND as Britain's £26bn epidemic, workplace stress is an insidious and increasing problem... and the cost of putting on a happy face is not only costing individuals dear, but has a knock-on effect on workplace productivity.

Identify its early warning symptoms and try to avoid its worst effects before it affects your health.

Causes of work-related stress include:
* poor working conditions
* long working hours
* lack of job security
* too much responsibility
* difficult relationships with colleagues
Symptoms of work-related stress include:
* finding concentration hard
* irritability and mood swings
* feeling unmotivated
* feeling like you can't cope
Physical symptoms can include:
* excessive tiredness and sleep problems
* a raised heart rate
* digestive problems
* muscular tension - backaches and neckaches
* chronic headaches
Tips to help avoid work-place stress:
* take your lunch break every day
* tackle one task at a time
* be realistic about what you can accomplish
* raise unrealistic demands with your line manager/boss

Find out more from MIND

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Practice makes perfect..

Well, maybe not perfect, but any of us can reach a level of excellence and expertise through practice. It's opportunity not genetic inclination that creates excellence, that old 10,000 hours again...

Sure, a great footballer has exceptional perceptual awareness and complex spatial skills, but there's a very relevant argument that says this comes primarily from practice, not from genes.

Think about it. Learning to speak is a complicated process, but we all master it. In fact, the process of learning to speak actually creates the neural pathways in the brain that makes us expert at it. The same with learning to read. Or learning to walk. Jump. Hop. Extend this to any complex physical or mental task and it comes back to the same thing... repetition of doing something over and over again, call it practice is you like, makes it possible to do it better.

Takes this a stage further and practice, practice, practice - purposeful practice as the experts term it - and you actually change the anatomy of the brain. For example, taxi drivers learning "the knowledge" so that they can navigate the 659 square miles of the 33 boroughs of London, show a larger than averaged size hippocampus - the area of the brain which houses memory.

And this facility for change is life long. Neurogenesis - the creation of new brain cells and neural pathways, and neuroplasticity - the flexibility of the brain, is life long. We may be less inclined or motivated in some activities than others, but success or failure hinges more on our beliefs than our ability, it seems. The motivation to clock up the hours of practice is born in our brain, not our genes.

Read more about this, and see how you can apply it to the art of concentration, in Matthew Syed's book Bounce: How Champions are Made

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

How can full spectrum light help you concentrate better?

Remember how revitalised time spent in sunlight makes you feel? It lifts the mood and improves energy levels, helping you to feel more focused and motivated - but why?

Light directly influences our emotions because it reaches the brain through the eyes, and is transmitted to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is connected to almost every other part of the brain, and involved with the regulation of hormones involved in motivation and reward. As a consequence, light has an affect on our basic drives and biological functions.

Bright light also inhibits the secretion of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Low light and darkness stimulates the pineal gland to secrete melatonin, so necessary for a good night's sleep, but counter-productive during the day. Those who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) where seasonally low levels of light produces a form of depression, quite severe in some people, can find light therapy particularly effective.

The rest of us benefit greatly from exposure to good light levels, too. Twenty minutes walk a day in the sunshine which, even on an overcast day is between 5 and 20 times stronger than normal indoor lighting, is often advocated for improvement of mood and motivation, but what can you do if daily opportunities for adequate exposure to sunshine or bright daylight are limited?

Full spectrum lighting is the closest thing to natural sunlight, and used to treat those with SAD. But its benefits can also be utilised by the rest of us. Working with a full spectrum desk light can improve concentration, especially when long hours of desk work are necessary.

Many office workers have to put up with fluorescent lighting, which also flickers imperceptibly, making it very tiring to the eyes and, as a consequence, to the brain. Installing full spectrum lighting into work environments avoids this, and can improve productivity because of increased levels of wellbeing, motivation, concentration and a happier mood.

Which is why I work with a full spectrum desk light.

Living in the northern hemisphere, over the winter months and long dark days it's particularly beneficial, but provides a good source of light whenever I need it - although I do have to be sure not to use it for a couple of hours prior to bedtime. I need that melatonin as much as anybody, but at night, not when I'm trying to concentrate!

For more information on full spectrum lighting

Monday, 10 May 2010

What is active listening, and can it help you concentrate better?

We hear with our ears but we listen with our brains. How many times have you been 'listening' to someone - but not heard a word they said? You weren't concentrating!

Hearing is passive, while listening is an active process.

Top tips for improving listening skills include:

- Focus with your eyes on the person speaking
- Think about what they are saying
- If your attention wanders, consciously bring it back to what is being said
- Make mental notes of key points
- Make written notes - but don't attempt to write everything down
- Practise repeating back to yourself the gist of what has been said
- Make affirmative nods of the head, to acknowledge that you're listening

By concentrating solely on the speaker while you listen, whether they are there in person or even on the phone, will help encourage your active listening. This in turn will help you concentrate on what is being said, and make it easier to retain.

The more you do it, the easier active listening will become!

Friday, 7 May 2010

Right brain or left brain?

Are you right brain or left brain dominant?
Do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If you see her rotating clockwise, you are right brain dominant
- and vice versa.

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Most of us tend to be either left or right brain dominant: that is, we naturally tend to favour the use of one side of the brain to the other.

Decide whether you are left or right brain dominant by seeing which way the dancer rotates - clockwise, or anti-clockwise.

Now really concentrate your mind and see if you change your automatic preference for left or right brain dominance, and make the dancer rotate in the opposite direction!

If you want to know more about whether you are right or left brain dominant, try the test available at

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

"It is the time you have spent with your rose that makes your rose so important."

So said Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in his timeless book The Little Prince, and it is a reminder that we benefit not just from the outcome of our efforts but also from the process of them. 

It is an act of faith to tend a flower. The rewards are not immediate. We have to persevere and be patient. We have to continue to spend time on doing something that isn't immediately rewarding. Only when a flower blooms do we see the full extent of our investment.

It is sometimes an act of faith to concentrate on something that requires commitment and input before immediately yielding a result... and this applies to many things we do from learning a foreign language to a new physical activity.

What is true, however, is that by concentrating on what we do, we can make it relevant and important to us. And this supports the process.

Then the process becomes as rewarding as the goal, and the goal is the successful outcome of the process.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Could depression be affecting your concentration?

Poor concentration can sometimes be a symptom of depression. A low level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, often found in those suffering bouts of depression, affects neuro-connectivity and contributes to poor concentration.

Understandably, too, if you are preoccupied by negative or anxious thoughts, suffer poor sleep, lose your appetite and experience feelings of hopelessness, all of which are symptoms of depression, your concentration levels are bound to be affected.

Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his “black dog” and 1 in 4 of us will experience it, too.

Sometimes depression is reactive – you have good reason to feel low if a close relative has died, you have been physically unwell, or have lost your job. It would be unusual not to feel temporarily depressed following events like these. However, it is the creeping, insidious depressions that come about, often for no immediate or obvious reason, that can be tricky – but not impossible – to handle.

Be aware of the early symptoms, and that these can be aggravated by chronic sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, overwork and lack of exercise. Low-grade physical exhaustion can precede mental depression. It has become identified as a curse of the have-it-all, do-it-all generation.

Take note and take action, because mild to moderate depression responds well to various self-help measures.

- Up your daily exercise, even just 20 minutes brisk walking can help, because it helps elevates levels of feel-good brain chemicals

- Make sure you get a daily dose of daylight – 20 minutes exercise in the daylight can make a big difference

- Breathing – sounds obvious, but consciously breathing deeply and calmly reduces feelings of anxiety

- Eat regular, nutritious meals – a see-sawing blood sugar level aggravates feelings of anxiety

- Keep regular hours and don’t get so chronically overtired that all your compensatory “awake” hormones kick in to keep you going, and then keep you awake when you need to sleep

- Supplement with omega3 essential fatty acid EPA: a gram a day of pharmaceutical grade EPA has been shown to be as effective as 20mg a day of Prozac

- Take time out from your work routine to relax and clear your brain: if you find this difficult, learn to meditate

But if none of this works for you, see your doctor. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) shows good results, and modern drugs have their place, too. Above all, seek help if you need it.

See SANE's new campaign