Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Breathe life back into concentration...

Although we do it automatically, breathing is something that we can also consciously control, making it one of the simplest methods of regaining physical and mental focus... and an aid to concentration.

Plus it's the single most useful tool we have for stress management, and immediately available to us all.

So how we breathe is very important.

But most of us breathe poorly: we tend to over-breathe, taking three or four breaths using only the upper part of our lung capacity, when one good breath using all would serve us better. This shallow breathing is very tiring, not only because we expend unnecessary energy to do so, but because we reduce our oxygen intake per breath. In its extreme form, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which can lead to panic attacks.

Breathing isn't just about taking oxygen in either, it's also about getting rid of carbon dioxide from our bodies. Shallow breathing alters the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the blood making it more acidic, and over time our muscles feel chronically tired and weakened from this acidic effect. Tired muscles also overcompensate by tensing up, increasing physical tension overall, which makes us feel emotionally tense and stressed.

Shallow breathing is also part of our 'fight or flight' response, causing the secretion of stress hormones. So in the same way that shallow breathing actually makes us more stressed than we might otherwise feel, so breathing more calmly will de-stress us, because the very act of consciously regulating our breathing sends a message from the body to the brain that everything is now OK, the emergency is over, and it can stop pumping out all that unnecessary adrenalin and cortisol!

Poor breathing patterns can set up their own vicious circle, for sure - and affect us both physically and emotionally. But the great news is that one simple change, how you breathe, can make one huge difference to how you feel.

Try the following exercise to get you started
  • lie comfortably on the floor, knees bent, chin tucked in - what Alexander Technique teachers call the 'constructive rest position' - or sit upright in a chair, legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor
  • consciously relax your neck and drop your shoulders, rest your arms by your sides with your palms turned upwards
  • breathe long and gently through your nose, into your belly until you see it gently rise, for a slow count of 5
  • pause, and hold that breath for a count of 5, then gently exhale through your mouth for another count of 5
  • while doing this, try to clear your mind of all other thoughts, or if this is difficult close your eyes and visualise a pebble dropping into a pool of water and gently sinking down
  • repeat this breathing cycle 10 times, then see how your regular breathing adjusts
  • you can also use this breathing technique at any time you feel tense or stressed, or as the basis of any meditation practice
Bear in mind that poor posture always cramps our breathing, while tension in the muscle with which we breathe, the diaphragm - the sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdominal cavity - will also create tension around the aorta, the main artery carrying blood through the centre of our bodies. Tension around the aorta can also elevate blood pressure.

So there are just too many good reasons why you should take a look at your breathing and change it for the better.

Many physical activities also help improve breathing techniques - singing, swimming, T'ai Chi, yoga, walking meditations, playing a musical (wind) instrument, for example - but improving your breathing will immediately improve your overall health and wellbeing, your mental focus... and your concentration!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Slow reading...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, our ability to concentrate long enough to read for much more than a minute (according to one professor's assessment of her students) is being eroded by our hyperactive online habits. So how can we regain the ability to concentrate on reading again? Slow reading is being advocated as the answer.

Thinking about this, I'm reminded of one 15 year old I coached who was aghast at having to read a whole book - Charles Dicken's Great Expectations - and was overwhelmed by the thought of this half term project set by his English teacher. This was someone who had never before read a book for pleasure, and I wasn't sure that reading Dickens was going to persuade him to do so either. We discussed how he might approach it and what goals he could set himself in order to achieve the task. He suggested a chapter a day, but the book had very short chapters - and 59 of them - so a chapter a day was only going to mean seven chapters over the week. Added to which, given the shortness of each, a chapter a day wouldn't allow him enough time to engage with the story, get into the language (which he wasn't used to) or start to enjoy the process of reading, which I felt was going to be key to his success.

Could you manage 30 minutes a day, reading? I asked. Without interruptions? Looking doubtful, he agreed he would try. I explained that he had to give himself a chance and however boring he found it initially, he had to try and persevere so that he could start to engage with it. 30 minutes is only the same length of time as an episode of EastEnders (a BBC TV programme he enjoyed) I said, and although he still wasn't entirely convinced, he agreed to give it a try.

When I saw him next I asked how it had gone. "I finished the whole book!" he told me, obviously really pleased with his achievement. I congratulated him and asked him if he had enjoyed the story. He pulled a bit of a face and said he thought he probably wouldn't choose to read another Dickens, but overall it had been OK and - here I was delighted - what else could he read? *

It wasn't just about the books, although my view is that reading opens up a whole new world you possibly couldn't access any other way, but it also allows people to practice their concentration skills in a meaningful and pleasurable way. For this young man, reading Great Expectations showed him that he was capable of concentrating when he chose, and he could apply this skill elsewhere to things that didn't immediately grab his attention - it was just a matter of practice.

Lesson learnt.

* I gave him a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, which he really enjoyed.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Take a walk... and boost your brain...

What goes on inside your brain when you exercise? That question has preoccupied a growing number of scientists in recent years, as well as many of us who exercise. In the late 1990s, Dr. Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute in San Diego elegantly proved that human and animal brains produce new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis) and that exercise increases neurogenesis. The brains of mice and rats that were allowed to run on wheels pulsed with vigorous, newly born neurons, and those animals then breezed through mazes and other tests of rodent I.Q., showing that neurogenesis improves thinking.

Friday, 9 July 2010

New rules for office gossip…

Gossip can be a lot of fun and is often a feature of office politics - so it’s tempting to indulge - as long as it doesn’t backfire, because it can also make or break reputations. Plus it can seriously undermine your concentration at work!

Recent news of US company Bridgewater Associates' boss Ray Dalio issuing a ban on office gossip has given rise to speculation about the nature of office gossip, and whether a ban is either useful or enforceable.

If you’re the boss, and you want to keep gossip at a minimum, make sure your workforce is kept informed of events and changes. Insecurity at work ups the gossip quota – much of which can be unhelpful to office stability – as people speculate and speculation somehow becomes fact, however inaccurate, like a game of Chinese whispers.

What we also know is that office gossip – whether face-to-face at the water cooler, whispered at a desk, or via email, SMS and MSN – is distracting and time-wasting and can be extremely detrimental to both personal and workplace productivity.

Without being a goody-two-shoes, if you want to get ahead at work the cardinal rules for office gossip are:

1. Set boundaries – don’t share personal confidences you might later regret if they are used against you

2. Be discreet – getting a reputation as the office gossip will imply that you are not to be trusted

3. Keep any gossip upbeat – you don’t want to be seen as the office moaner

4. Never commit to paper, email or text something that could fall into the wrong hands and work against you

5. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you by slagging off your boss or anyone who might be responsible for any future promotion or reference

And if you’re going to be gossiped about, make sure it’s positive gossip that will enhance your reputation as a trusted, productive co-worker everyone wants to be associated with!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Concentrating on daydreaming...

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness. But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream - much more active than when we focus on routine tasks," says Professor Kalina Christoff, psychologist at the University of British Columbia.


Saturday, 3 July 2010

Concentrating at work… eight top tips to help you.

Many of us work in environments that aren’t particularly conducive to concentration – even those of us fortunate enough to work from home! – with lots of interruptions and activity that make distraction all too possible.

We can be distracted by external stimulation, like noise in particular, or internally by the “chattering monkeys” of our mind - so what can we do to help improve our concentration levels in the workplace?

8 Top Tips

  • eat breakfast: your brain can’t run on empty and if you don’t eat your stress hormones will kick in to sustain you and these will make you feel jittery and distracted, as will that cup of coffee you drink to help compensate for an empty stomach!

  • utilise your circadian rhythms: high alertness occurs around 2 to 3 hours after you wake, so start your day with your most important task - you should then be able to concentrate for 90 minutes before you need a break (although this may take practise if you are unused to it!)

  • make a list: prioritise your tasks, and use different times - like immediately after lunch -for tasks that require less concentration

  • avoid what external stimuli you can: put your phone on silent, turn off your email alert, close down internet pages you’re not using, and sit with your back to as much activity as you can if you work in an open plan office

  • avoid multi-tasking: focus on one thing at a time because, as cognitive scientist David Meyer says, “Multi-tasking is always going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

  • take a break: research by psychologist Marc Berman in 2009 showed that 20 minutes spent in a rural environment (the local park will do) will help what has been identified by Professor Stephen Kaplan as “attention restoration” - even looking at a picture of a beautiful rural scene has been shown to help - and get you back on track

  • stay hydrated: regular drinks of water really help the brain stay alert and this makes concentration easier

  • use music: if your workplace allows this, or if you can wear headphones, music while you work can help block out other noise and promote the sort of brain activity that is conducive to concentration - if it’s the right music. Baroque music has been found to be beneficial, so bring on the Bach!