Monday, 14 November 2011

You're really stressing me out!

Researchers from the University of Hawaii, led by Professor Elaine Hatfield, discovered that second-hand stress can be passed from person to person in the workplace - and it seems to be contagious.

Washing your hands isn't going to deal with this sort of contagion, but recognising those personality types you work with that cause you stress may help.

"We call it 'people poisoning' and we describe the culprits as stress carriers," says Dr Chandra Patel, stress expert and author of The Complete Guide to Stress Management (Vermilion). "They induce stress in others without suffering it themselves."

Behavioural scientist Dr Robert Bramson has identified seven key personality types who cause difficulties and stress for those around them. Work out which category your tormentor fits into, the theory goes, and you can find coping strategies to reduce the stress they cause you.

1. Know-it-all experts ~ these can be divided into two types: those who might know what they are talking about and those who 'become' experts on the basis of very little information but present it with such authority that it's difficult not to feel overwhelmed by them.

2. Super-agreeables ~ they come across as good humoured and willing, but never deliver. They are exasperating because they agree everything in an effort to be liked, but constantly let you down.

3. Indecisive stallers ~ one of the most stress-inducing types, especially if you are dependent on their decision making to get your job done.

4. Pessimists ~ no matter what you say or how you present it, they always respond negatively and often respond with such conviction that it's difficult not to get hooked into their negative agenda.

5. Silent unresponsives ~ this type purposefully use silence to negatively control situations, undermining others, and it can be a form of passive aggression or a spiteful refusal to co-operate.

6. Hostile aggressives ~ basically these are the office bullies, who aim to get their own way by being hostile, using ridicule or sarcasm. Criticism tends to be personal and stress is induced by confusing, frustrating or even frightening you.

7. Complainers ~ constant whining while refusing to take steps to change those things they complain about is super stressful because they suck you in while ignoring helpful suggestions and wasting your time.

Whether it's your boss or a co-worker or someone who reports to you, identifying what it is about them that triggers a stressful response can help you see how to deal or avoid it.

It's also helpful to review your own behaviour, too and see what your default position is and how this might cause stress to those around you. None of us is infallible, all of us are human, but given how much time we spend at work - in the UK an average of 48 hours a week, way over the European standard - we owe it to each other to facilitate each other's and our own best use of time. Actively trying to reduce second-hand stress in the workplace helps us all concentrate and work better, more effectively and in less time.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Addicted to love... of Blackberrys, iPhones & other handheld devices!

Remember when someone called the Blackberry a Crackberry, apparently referencing its addictive properties? Emails, texts, Twitter & BBM are all great means of staying in touch - but do you ever feel that this virtual communication is dominating your life, getting in the way of what really matters - your real relationships with partners, family and friends?

Way back in 2005, a 19 year old from Paisley was treated for his addiction to electronic communication, which had cost him £4,500 in a year of sending around 100 texts a day, his job when he was sending up to 500 emails a day, and his relationship when his girlfriend could no longer cope with the barrage of messages.

And also in 2005, a study from Hewlett Packard expressed alarm that 62% of British adults appeared addicted to their email - even checking messages during meetings, after working hours and on holiday - behaviour we now mostly consider as normal!

Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield and co-author of Mind Hacks, identified what it is that makes this so addictive. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says. "This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, we reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward."

Now you understand the psychology and how you've been snookered into this addictive behaviour, it might make it easier to resist. Not least because if you are trying to get something done - a book read, a movie watched, an essay written, homework done - these constant interruptions seriously restrict your ability to concentrate and, in the long term, add to your personal stress.

I have worked with teenagers who tell me that they just can't turn off their phones, day or night, for fear of missing out. And when I see someone texting during a movie I just think - why can't you allow yourself some time out, some uninterrupted "me" time, for just 90 minutes? Or couples in restaurants not talking to each other but checking their messages or Twitter alerts, unable to drag themselves away from the demands of this insatiable device, and I wonder how it was that the idle thoughts of someone you don't actually know became more important than those of the person you're with?

In 2008 it was reported that Madonna and her then husband Guy Ritchie slept with their Blackberrys under their pillows. She apparently said, "It's not unromantic - it's practical." Six months later the marriage was over.

There's no doubt that it's brilliant to be able to have such immediate communication when we need it, but sometimes it's important to literally switch off from the virtual world and re-engage with the real world, before we lose sight of what really matters.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


A boiled egg with dippy toast fingers may not be your choice for breakfast, but its combination of protein and carbohydrate will set you up well for the day.

But if your idea of breakfast is a black coffee and a cigarette or a latte and muffin, en route to work, you could be doing your body and your brain a serious disservice.

"The body's natural reaction to low blood sugar is to compensate by increasing adrenalin output," says psychologist and director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP) Sally Goddard Blythe. "Such a biochemical combination can affect attention, concentration and impulse control. In the long term, sharp swings in blood sugar levels increase irritability, fatigue and bouts of hyperactivity."

Do you really need more stress in your life, detrimental to your body, your brain and - somewhat inevitably - relationships with those around you, from your family to your work colleagues?

Slow release carbohydrates, combined with some protein to further reduce insulin surges, provide the fuel you need to start the day. Not only that, you are less likely to get a desperate urge for a sugar hit mid morning, when grabbing a full fat latte and muffin 'snack' could earn you a quarter of your daily calorific intake.

So what to choose to break your overnight fast and get your day off to a good start? A boiled egg and wholegrain toast is an excellent choice. But porridge oats, with skimmed milk and fruit is another choice. Oatcakes and cheese, perhaps? A bagel and avocado? Skimmed, live yoghurt with apricots? My personal choice is a helping of rolled oats, sunflower seeds (high in zinc), a handful of nuts (walnuts for omega-3, brazil nuts for selenium, almonds for magnesium) for protein and blueberries (lots of vitamin C and antioxidant anthocyanin) with some skimmed milk.

And if breakfast is important for grown-ups, imagine how much more important it is for children whose smaller, growing bodies and higher energy needs demand regular, nutritious meals.

So if all else fails, as you rush for the door thinking breakfast is a luxury you don't have time for, at least grab yourself that ultimate in fast food - a banana. Your body and brain will thank you for it.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Don't try harder, try differently

If at first you don't succeed try, try and try again, goes the old adage - but doing the same old thing often yields the same old results and what is really needed is to try differently.

The same goes for concentration. Can you improve concentration by trying harder, or is trying differently what you need to do?

Often what we have to do doesn't really interest us; we find it boring and when we're bored our minds wander and we lack concentration. So on those occasions, what can we do differently? The answer lies in finding a way to create interest by sticking with it long enough to create context and points of reference that relates to something that will tweak our imagination and stimulate us to take the next step.

What we also know is that trying differently can create a change in the way the brain functions, and this could actually make it easier to concentrate. Even allowing for all the variables - personality, temperament, intelligence, age, etc. - you can change your brain's function by the way you behave, and your behaviour by the way your brain functions. "That's what learning is," says Professor Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Anything that changes behaviour changes the brain."

The suggestion here is that if you want to improve your concentration, try differently: change what you do and how you do it. Think about taking a different approach, one that allows your brain to engage, respond and make connections in a different way - the difference could just be turning off external distractions, focusing for five minutes longer than you usually give yourself, or not multi-tasking - but whatever the difference, see what a difference it could make to your ability to concentrate.

So don't try harder, try differently.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Is being a stress junkie affecting your concentration?

The link between stress and concentration is an interesting one, and it’s worth taking a moment or two to understand what happens in your body and brain to prevent concentration when you’re stressed.

Confronted by circumstances we see as threatening in some way, our brain short-circuits conscious thought to 'red alert' mode. This automatic response is created by the amygdala, an almond shaped gland located deep within the mid-brain – and is a great response when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, but not so useful when you discover your tax return has exceeded its return-by date.

We talk about something being gut-wrenching for a reason. The gut is also affected by the 'fight or flight' hormones generated in response to the amygdala’s red alert because, God knows, you’re not going to have time to eat when running for your life. Besides, you are going to need the blood supply concentrated in your legs rather than your stomach in order to get away fast, and your heart will need to pound to get it there. Plus which, your breathing rate rises to get that additional oxygen you’re going to need into your lungs. All of which is happening rather unnecessarily while you are sitting at your desk with those stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol flooding your body and compounding your panic further. Know the feeling?

Not only that, but when we get into long-term patterns of stress, it somehow re-sets our stress thermostat and it takes less to set off our red alert reaction. And, because we also have amazing powers of adaptation, we adapt to these constant, over-elevated levels of stress hormones as far as we can. It begins to feel 'normal' to be functioning in a constant state of stress. In fact, we can become almost addicted to it and seek to recreate the apparent comfort this known state creates, by which time we fit the label: stress junkie.

And while functioning in this way, sleep becomes difficult because those same stress hormones that can power your legs are also designed to keep you wide awake and running away from danger, not chilling out and drifting off happily into the land of Nod. Lack of sleep is itself very stressful. Result: more stress.

Now imagine functioning at full stressed throttle like this for days, weeks, months on end and its effect on your body and mind becomes clear. If you did the same to a high performance car, the phrase 'burn out' might come to mind. Long term stress just isn't sustainable without detriment to health. Great for acute situations where you may need to concentrate your physical and mental prowess to react to danger, stress is hopeless for sustained concentration or for enabling you to focus without the internal distraction of red alert warning signals going off.

Now it becomes clear why concentration, which is aided by a calm, collected mind, becomes tricky when we are stressed. So if you want to concentrate better and benefit from that, look at how to reduce the stress in your life.

Having identified the situation, what can you do? If you’ve been functioning in stress mode for a period of time, it’s hard initially to switch it off. Your body has got used to the feeling, so you may have to be quite deliberate in creating time to readjust, and consciously build in down time, either through non-competitive exercise, meditation or some other physical therapy that helps release you from the physical sensations of stress.

Once you begin to release the body from its grip, it becomes easier to release the mind from stress, improving its ability to concentrate. It may take time, but consciously doing so will pay dividends in terms of physical and mental wellbeing - and concentration.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Revising for exams

As the weather improves, for many young people exams loom. In the UK, GCSEs, AS levels and A levels are a big reality check for most 16 to 18 year olds over the summer, and many face the prospect with apprehension, knowing that the one word they are going to hear a lot of over the coming weeks is REVISION. But what's the best way to revise?

First of all, understanding that revision really means to revise what is (or should be) already known is helpful, and to understand what this might mean for different subjects. Fact-led subjects like the sciences, history and geography, demand just that - facts remembered that can be drawn on to answer the questions that come up in exams. Other subjects require ongoing knowledge, like maths or languages, which is where practicing these skills is helpful. Identifying what each subject is going to need in terms of revision can be a helpful first step.

Then there is the mapping out of a revision timetable that most students find invaluable. Some are able to do this on their own, but for most - and teenagers in particular - this sort of organisation is a learnt skill and requires help, as many can feel overwhelmed.

* Map out what needs to be done, creating a revision timetable with realistic daily goals leading up to the exams, allowing enough time to avoid feeling stressed too close to the actual exams.

* Make sure the notes, past papers, books and other sources from which to revise, are available to revise from. Check with teachers and make sure everything needed is in hand.

* Utilise natural learning styles. Auditory learners find that reading or saying things out loud, recording these and playing them back to listen to, may help things stick. Visual learners find taking notes or making diagrams a useful way to remember as they revise.

* Allow enough uninterrupted time during a revision period to reach a point of concentration where information is actually retained and transferred from working memory into long term memory, from where it can be retrieved when taking the actual exam. Without this process occurring, the possibility of actually remembering what has been revised is limited. This means revision periods of 20-30 minutes minimum, building on this to stay concentrated for up to 90 minute before taking a break (although for most teenagers, this will take practice!).

* Take time to wind down before sleep, however. The brain works best when well-slept, and chronic tiredness just exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed.

* Cut out distractions - all of them! - during each allocated revision period. This means turning off mobile phones, instant messaging, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, and making revision a primary and exclusive focus. After every interruption, it takes at least 5 minutes to concentrate fully again. Much better to focus exclusively for an hour, then take a 15 minute break, than work for 3 hours with constant interruptions that prevent the brain from retaining information.

* Schools and colleges often run revision sessions which can be a good way of concentrating on subjects that need extra focus.

* Regular exercise in between daily revision sessions - just taking a walk, going for a run, swimming, playing football - are all excellent ways to relieve physical and mental tension, and also increases the brain's ability to work well.

* Eat well - the brain thrives on complex carbohydrates to keep it going, and lots of fluids to stay well hydrated, but avoid highly caffeinated drinks (like Red Bull) that can hype the body up and increase feelings of stress.

For parents, this can be a difficult time as they watch their moody teenager avoid ways of getting down to the revision that they feel is necessary. Wallpaper parenting, as I call it - being around but not too interventionist - can help. Create a calm atmosphere that is conducive to study, keep meals regular, help devise a revision timetable, encourage some time out and bedtime at a reasonable hour, but avoid increasing stress by being heavy handed.

It can be a tricky time, especially as the teenage years often coincide with a general lack of confidence about life, which can be exacerbated by exam stress, but learning how to revise and work independently in preparation is a useful lesson for later studies at college or university.

Schools and colleges are very keen to help their students to do their best, so if in doubt about what you can do to support your child, check in with them about what might be helpful.

Further information on how to concentrate from The Art of Concentration, published by Rodale priced £9.99

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Long hours culture

Research published today suggests that those who regularly work more than 11 hours a day put themselves at increased risk of heart disease. In fact, their risk of heart attack goes up by a whopping 67%, according to a study from University College London which has been tracking the health of 7,000 civil servants since 1985.

This suggests a working week of 55 hours, rather than the 40 hour week one might suppose. Apart from the obvious question about what it was that civil servants found to do for 11 hours a day, it also begs the question as to how effective anyone can be when working such long hours. It's a well-established fact that working long hours is bad for both concentration and productivity, as well as health.

But the UK has the longest working week in Europe. The average hours worked by full timers in the UK is 43.5 a week, in France it's 38.2 hours a week and in Germany it's 39.9. And - get this - their productivity rates are higher, even though they work shorter hours. The European directive is for a maximum of 48 hours a week, and 1 in 8 British workers does more than this.

And a report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2009 showed that those workers clocking up more than 55 hours a week have poorer mental skills, including short-term memory and ability to recall words, than those working fewer than 41 hours. Researchers concluded that the extreme tiredness and stress engendered by the long hours culture was as bad for the health as smoking, a known risk factor not just for heart disease but also for dementia.

In Japan they call it karoshi and in China they call it guolaosi, but there is no word in English for working yourself to death. But time and time again, it has been shown that not only is working long hours counter-productive in terms of effectiveness, it should now come with a Government health warning.

It's not a happy scenario, but it does provide useful ammunition when countering the demands of the pervasive long hours culture and the blight of presenteeism which is often an attempt to cover-up poor performance.

As Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School says, work smarter not longer - you'll concentrate better and get more done.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Concentration and memory

I'm often asked about the link between concentration and memory, and it got me thinking.

Certainly, if you concentrate you can improve your memory. Lack of attention to what you are doing makes it difficult to remember doing it. That's one of the downsides of multitasking.

When you multi-task you rely on working memory, the memory you need to look up and dial a phone number, for example. It works well for that, but if you want to remember something you did today for another time, you need to concentrate well enough to allow the transfer of information from working memory to long term memory, from which you can retrieve it later.

This is really all memory training is, but it takes practice.

In 2008, health psychologist David Moxon from Anglia Ruskin University carried out a behavioural study that showed our attention span was now five minutes and seven seconds, compared to 12 minutes a decade previously. Not only that, the research suggested that this lack of attention and "five minute memory span" was costing Brits £1.6 billion worth of damage a year from domestic accidents - burnt out kitchens, lost keys, and over-run baths amongst them!

The same research showed that the 1,000 participants cited stress (18%) and "decision overload" (17%) as the main reasons for poor short-term memory and flagging attention span. But it's not age-related: the over-50s out-performed the younger age groups.

The good news is that your concentration levels, attention span, and memory can all be improved. As a result of this research, Moxon put together a series of exercises, a daily memory workout, reproduced here:

9 am
Memorise one friend's phone number from your mobile phone each day -- this will help expand your memory's capacity.

12 noon
Instead of reading the newspaper over your lunchtime break, complete a Sudoku or crossword puzzle -- this requires you to maintain concentration and will increase your attention span.

4 pm
Make a tea round for at least six of your colleagues without making a note of the details -- this requires you to hold multiple details in your mind.

6 pm
Write a shopping list but don't refer to it when you're in the supermarket -- you'll find that you remember more and more items each trip as your memory improves.

8 pm
Write a diary each night listing five key positive things that occurred during the day -- recall of events is key to keeping the mind fit and healthy.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The benefits of chess

How can you play chess if you're blind? I asked Ray Charles when I interviewed him in Paris in 2000, knowing his reputation not only as a musician and singer but also as a chess player of great skill.

"Aw, well, honey," he replied in that wonderful voice like wood smoke over maple syrup. "I ain't no Spassky or Fischer - but being blind has nothing to do with playing chess. It has nothing to do with sight. It has to do with memory and strategy and where the pieces are on the board. I can just touch the board and see where the horse is, where the bishop is, or the pawns. There's no luck in the game. None. That's why I like it. And that's the great thing about chess: everyone starts with the same amount of pieces. You either out think your opponent or he out thinks you."

They surely do, but some are better able to manipulate those carved wooden pieces than others. And like many skills, chess can be learnt and practiced and improved, yielding unexpected benefits in concentration, logical thinking, spatial awareness and socialisation, as research has shown.

There is something rather romantic about a game that features kings and queens, bishops, knights, castles and pawns. Sixteen pieces in all, two players, specific moves and 64 spaces in which to execute them. The rules are there, the limitations are set, but within these a combination of logic, memory and imagination create possibilities and outcomes that are infinite although the ultimate aim is the same: to checkmate the king.

Personally it's a game I struggle with. I am neither as ruthless or strategic as I need to be. I can only plan about three moves ahead and my ability to anticipate my opponent is poor. Both my children learnt to play before they were five, and before preconceived ideas about chess being anything other than fun got in the way of their ability to plan whole games and play with lethal efficiency. They were soon able to run rings around me, and pronounced me an unfit opponent, preferring to try to outwit each other.

It is also a game that provides intellectual challenge and development in surprising places - prisons, refugee camps, schools for the excluded. You can play this game as an equal even if the odds of life have been stacked against you. You can develop skills in chess and apply them elsewhere. You can compete, and win, even if you're blind, as Ray Charles discovered. He learnt in hospital when he took himself off heroin, cold turkey, and he played for the rest of his life.

And even if I play poorly I love it for its opportunity and challenge. I love chess purely for the idea of it, for the possibilities it evokes, and its ubiquity as it turns up time and time again in fiction and in fact as a metaphor for life.

Monday, 28 February 2011

10 Top Tips for Concentration

A quick reminder of what you can do to improve your concentration ... achieve more ... and reduce stress ...

1. Turn off all the external distractions you can – music, mobile phone, email alerts – and close the door to your work room, giving off a signal that interruptions are currently unwelcome.

2. Don’t multi-task. Except for very mundane tasks, when you try to do too much at once your concentration and hence your brain’s ability to transfer information from working memory to stored memory, which you can retrieve later, is impaired. Learning French verbs while chatting on MSN might appear to get the job done, but you’ll remember little tomorrow.

3. Eat breakfast – the brain needs fuel, especially after a night’s sleep. For best results choose porridge for its slow-release energy, or combine protein with carbohydrate to stabilise blood sugar levels.

4. Drink more water. Your brain is 80% water and relies on good hydration for its neurological transmissions.

5. Learning new activities that link and challenge your mental ability is particularly effective in generating new brain cells – what the scientists call neurogenesis – and helping concentration. And these new cells will also help energise old brain cells, by firing them up and making new connections, so it’s doubly effective.

6. Get enough sleep. When we are tired we rely on stress hormones to keep us going – great in the short term, but detrimental to concentration in the long term.

7. Listen more actively – we hear with our ears, but listen with our brains –listening more purposefully helps concentration.

8. Omega-3 EPA is good for brain function, so supplement if necessary because it’s hard to get enough from modern diets even if you eat oily fish regularly.

9. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate on something – whether it’s the book you’re reading or the flat-pack you’re trying to assemble – allow yourself enough time to engage with what you’re doing in order to aid your concentration.

10. Physical exercise is good for the brain for two reasons – one, it helps us relax and a relaxed brain concentrates better and two, physical exercise itself produces a hormone that actively supports brain cell activity.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Brain waves

Talking to a friend today, I was reminded of how useful it is to recognise and tap into different "brain waves". If we do this, learning to identify and utilise the different capacity of the brain's waves, we could not only achieve more, but achieve more easily.

There are four main types of brain waves: Alpha, Beta, Delta and Theta, and a fifth - Gamma - that also deserves a mention. Brain waves work a bit like the gears on a car engine, shifting brain activity up and down according to what we are trying to do. Delta (seen only in deep sleep) is a bit like first gear, Theta (light, dreaming sleep and drowsiness) the second, Alpha third, and Beta fourth - with Gamma for a high performance fifth gear.

As with driving, skillful use of gear change can get the best performance out of a car. When we are driving a complex route, we operate mainly in Beta, dipping in and out of the more relaxed state of Alpha - which is good for creative time-out and a bit of restorative daydreaming. Just as there is no benefit to driving in only one gear, we need to create balance and opportunity to match the right level of brain wave for what we are trying to do.

Gamma brain waves are those that resonate at a higher frequency than Beta - typically at 40 Hz and above - and these have become more easily identified since the introduction of digital electroencephalography (EEG) as analog EEG was restricted to around 30 HZ. So although Gamma waves have always existed, they were previously not recognised on monitoring equipment. They are associated with a state of hyper-alertness, perception and integration of sensory input, usually seen in those who train for peak performance in a physical or intellectual capacity, as they are evidence of extreme levels of concentration and focus. But for the rest of us, a good example is when time seems to "slow down" during a car or other accident, for example. This is the brain entering a phase of Gamma waves where our survival may be dependent on the fastest of information processing and reaction times.

For many of us, life is just one long round of Beta wave activity, which is tiring and, in the end, counter-productive as it's impossible to deliver continuously well when utilising only one wakeful state (if you drove a car continuously in fourth gear, you'd wreck the engine). Certainly, consciously working towards more balance between Beta and Alpha waves means a more creative way of concentrating, problem solving and working. Balancing between the two, and dipping into Gamma wave activity occasionally, could serve us even better. Along with lots of Theta and Delta waves at night!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Daydream believer

Einstein did it. Mozart did it. But will you make the time to daydream and see what it might yield?

Writing a book on the art of concentration became extremely focused on the pursuit of those constructive activities that produced tangible results. Where the aim was to replace distraction with focus, procrastination with achievable outcomes. But when I looked at what might also free up the brain to improve they way we live and work and concentrate, another theme crept up on me: that of checking out to check in. Freeing up the mind to make its own unique connections. To allow the opportunity for the unfettered creativity that it is capable of. That "Eureka" moment.

Sure, there was still a need to remove those distractions that the habit of multi-tasking can produce, but this could create the space not only to concentrate on executing some task or hit some deadline, but also to merely stand and stare. To be in the moment. To allow the mind to wander and wonder. And see what might percolate through... what genius solutions might be lurking behind some of the restrictions of our results-driven way of being.

I began to see that by concentrating better in order to get things done, there might be more time to daydream! And that this might be constructive and beneficial.

Why do our minds drift off anyway? Modern brain-scanning techniques show that when this happens, the temporal lobes of the brain are actually busy processing long-term memories, like some automatic data-storage facility.

Daydreaming allows the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in problem-solving, to do its work. "Mind wandering is actually a very involved task," says psychologist Jonathan Schooler, who is researching this at UC Santa Barbara. "You leave the here and now and focus on more remote concerns that nevertheless might be more important. We've been focusing on the downside of this [daydreaming] but we need to think about the upside."

It also allows us to envisage the next step in an idea or plan. To play it out, visualise it and see what it might look like. Making it more real and more possible. Every big idea starts with a "What if..." thought, but you need the head space to consider and develop it. To allow the creativity the subconscious mind is capable of.

Archimedes was taking a bath when he finally solved the seemingly intractable problem of measuring the volume of objects with precision. Einstein's theory of relativity began with a daydream on a sunbeam, which led to the realisation that the earth was curved...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Learn to breathe easier with Resperate

When we are stressed, anxious, frightened or angry, our breathing pattern speeds up and becomes quite shallow, using only the upper part of our lungs. In the short term, it's a useful part of our 'fight or flight' response, helping us deal with whatever it is that's disturbing us. In the longer term, it can become an habitual but unhelpful way of breathing, because instead of our mind telling our body that we need to cope with an emergency, the way we are breathing actually conveys to the mind that we have a continuous reason to feel anxious, panicked, etc.

Understanding this can be a useful first step toward using the way we breathe to consciously help regulate how we feel - both emotionally and physically. But it's not always easy to learn to do this, which is where Resperate can help.

Designed primarily to help those with high blood pressure to lower it, the Resperate device works by providing feedback on how you are breathing. It measures your breath rate while playing classical music, then slows it down to encourage a slower pace. It acts as a breathing coach, and used several times a day can help restore a calmer way of breathing. You can actually see how well you are doing, even before you begin to feel it.

With regard to the lowering of blood pressure, nine peer-reviewed medical publications listed on the Resperate site, along with more anecdotal reviews from doctors and users, provide testament to its effectiveness.

I was told about Resperate by a uniquely qualified Ericksonian psychotherapist, Annette Poizner (, who was telling me how I could improve my lung energy - and why it was important!

For me, if you are (as one professional once put it) a 'managed type A personality' it can be very useful to have some physical evidence that your mindfulness, meditation or other practice, is effective. Like anything else, it demands some commitment, but it's really no hardship to sit quietly and take some time out - whether the result you want is to lower your blood pressure or calm your thoughts.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Foods for concentration

I'm often asked what foods help improve concentration and what 'superfoods' should we be eating and what supplements should we be taking...

So here goes.

Basically your brain needs glucose as fuel to function, which the body sources from carbohydrate, and doesn't much care what sort except that it be regular and continuous.

However, if you rely on simple carbohydrates like a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps, to the exclusion of much else, then you get a carbohydrate surge which induces an insulin surge, which can then cause the sort of mood swings that make concentration difficult. Or you get a headache. Or an energy slump. All of which is much more noticeable in children. Complex carbohydrates - oatmeal, wholegrains, bananas, pulses and beans, nuts, brown rice - are a better option, as they also contains lots of other beneficial nutrients.

So to keep the brain concentrating, complex carbohydrates and adequate hydration (because the brain is 90% water and is happiest well-watered) is a good place to start.

After complex carbohydrates and water, here are my other recommendations.

Eggs, for example, which contain the micronutrient choline (an essential precursor for acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in the brain) in the yolks, and also found in soybeans, lentils, oats, sesame seeds and other sources. One of the benefits of combining protein like an egg, with complex carbohydrate like wholegrain bread, is that this also helps manage insulin surges.

You've heard it before, but antioxidants help mop up free radicals, the damaging by-product of cellular activity in our bodies. Fresh fruit and vegetables - lots of them, the more brightly coloured the higher they are in antioxidants. So this is why blueberries, pomegranates, sweet potato, beetroot, spinach, etc. sometimes get dubbed 'superfoods' because they are high in antioxidants. Aim for a rainbow diet. And green tea, also high in antioxidants - my daily favourite is Mighty Leaf's green tea with jasmine.

And because I also believe in a little of what you fancy doing you good... I'm pleased to report that dark chocolate is high in antioxidants. My treat is Green & Blacks organic dark chocolate with ginger... who knew something so delicious could also be good for you.

Essential fatty acids
From oily fish, with the recommendation that you eat at least two portions a week. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are just that, essential and you can't manufacture them yourself. What you're aiming for is omega-3 EPA and omega-3 DHA. Forget omega-6, from vegetable sources, the majority of Western diets are supersaturated with omega-6 already, and it competes with omega-3 for absorption.

This is the most widely consumed pharmacologically active substance in the world - trimethylxanthine, to give it its chemical name - but in small doses can give you a short-term kick helping your brain to focus. However, it will also stimulate your central nervous system and in excess will affect your sleep patterns, give you a racing heart and possibly palpitations, and it's addictive. Make caffeine your friend and not your enemy. Drink freshly brewed coffee and limit it to a couple of cups a day at the most, and avoid drinks like Red Bull like the plague.

I'm not big on supplements, which should always be used to supplement a good diet rather than compensate for a poor one. Eating a balanced and varied diet, with lots of the above, should help ensure all the nutrients and micronutrients you ordinarily need, and forestall the necessity for masses of supplements. However, there are times when supplementation might be a useful option. Omega-3 EFAs are one nutrient that can be hard to get enough of even from a good diet, but choose your omega-3 supplements with care because there are lots out there that actually deliver very little active ingredient. Vitamin B can sometimes be a little deficient, especially as we age and our ability to absorb it from our diet deteriorates. Dietary iron is sometimes deficient in women of reproductive age, giving rise to sub-clinical iron deficiency anaemia which can cause symptoms of fatigue, muddled thinking and forgetfulness - and short-term supplementation to improve haemoglobin levels can be helpful.

And your most important meal of the day? Breakfast. You've heard that before, too - but there's no doubt about it, you'll concentrate better if you eat breakfast.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Rediscover your inner sloth

Back in 1931, economist John Maynard Keynes looked past the economic pessimism of the day to a time of abundance, when we would be freed from the relentless demands of work, and able to "pluck the hour virtuously and well". And in 1966, Japanese sociologist Ikutaro Shimizu talked about the "coming of the leisure age".

What happened?

Instead of finding time to stand and stare, in spite of all our labour-saving devices, we have created ways to become busier and busier with less and less leisure time. Now, on top of work, there is no reason to ever stop... No reason not to shop online at midnight, answer emails in the bath, text as we watch a movie, upload our Facebook status when at dinner with friends...

Instead of creating time for leisure, we are abusing time. When you find yourself booking a "speed yoga" session, it's time to pause for thought.

Last week someone told me that if he turns off his email alert/phone/computer in order to concentrate, he feels disconnected (literally) and vulnerable. It no longer feels normal to him to focus unimpeded on one piece of work at a time. What could he do?

If this is how you feel, it's time to take some time to stand and stare. You know no one ever died wishing they'd spent more time at the office.

Embrace life in the slow lane: how to take your foot off the gas

* leave holes in your diary rather than filling every moment with activity, easing the pressure on your time
* set aside some time every day when you turn OFF all electronic connectivity - it's amazing how much more you can get done without interruptions, creating more time to...
* find one activity that is difficult to hurry - t'ai chi, doing the crossword or sudoku, gardening, listening to a whole album of music while doing nothing else - and do it regularly
* eat your meals sitting down at a table at least once a day, without TV, radio or other interruptions
* monitor the speed at which you are doing something - typing, driving, reading, talking - and slow it down

"When it comes to slowing down, it is best to start small," says Carl Honore , author of In Praise of Slow. "Cook a meal from scratch. Take a walk with a friend. Read the newspaper without switching on the TV. Add massage to your lovemaking. Or simply take a few minutes to sit still in a quiet place."

Saturday, 22 January 2011

You can't hurry marmalade...

You can't hurry marmalade... like love, mama said, you just have to wait... (it don't come easy, it's a game of give and take) and like the song says, you have to trust the process. The same goes for marmalade...

First, you have to wait for the briefest of seasons - from mid to late January - when the Seville oranges are available, and if you miss it you have to wait another year... it's about the only fruit that can't be found all year round.

I particularly like the ritual of making marmalade when the days are bleak and spring still feels unlikely, a gap between Christmas excess and January abstemiousness, filling my home with the scent of warm citrus and evoking summer when outside the skies are the colour of old saucepans.

I make my marmalade by boiling the oranges whole for a couple of hours. Then when they're cool they are much easier to handle - scooping out the flesh and pips, finely cutting the softened peel, reserving the original water in which to add all the ingredients and bring it to the boil.

It takes time, methodical time, and it's a process that can't be hurried. From sourcing the seasonal oranges, to checking the recipe, bringing out my preserving pan, boiling the fruit, sharpening my knife, working my way through each of the oranges... Then bringing it all gently to its boiling point - 220 degrees F, 105 degrees C - and maintaining that fast, rolling boil until it works its alchemy and reaches the point at which it sets.

I only make marmalade once a year, so the process hasn't become routine and I have to remind myself of each step, especially what it looks like when it reaches that setting point. I like the way I have to concentrate, watching as the syrup in which the now translucent slices of rind are bubbling, until it changes colour and tempo and shows me it's done.

You can't hurry it, that moment of magic when the combination of oranges, water and sugar becomes marmalade. Just give it time, no matter how long it takes...

Just like love.

Monday, 17 January 2011

How better posture improves concentration

What your posture has to do with your ability to concentrate may not be immediately obvious, but if you have a sedentary job, you may want to consider how you sit when you work.

You may also want to think about sitting on an exercise ball, or add a wobble cushion to your chair, while you work. Experts think that the micro-movements your body needs to make to adjust will do more than just improve your core muscles and posture, it can also make you concentrate better.


When you sit on an exercise ball, you are constantly making tiny, subconscious physical movements to maintain your balance. “Movement awakens and activates many of our mental capacities,” says neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, who has studied the relationship between movement and learning. “Movement integrates and anchors new information and experience into our neural networks.”

It’s this subconscious mental activity that lies at the core of the science behind the benefit of the exercise balls, which has seen some schools in America replace their hard chairs with them. “The tiny movements kids make while balancing stimulates their brains and helps them focus,” says Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard University professor and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Apparently some children with attention disorders have a ‘sleepy cortex’, and exercise combats that mental disengagement. “Just by using their core muscles more, they’re flipping (their cortex) on,” says Ratey. “This causes the prefrontal cortex to get turned on, which does a lot of things, including inhibiting impulses.”

So if you thought that sitting in front of a desk for any length of time just caused poor breathing patterns, restricted circulation, muscular strain and repetitive strain injuries (RSI) – think again. Swapping your chair for a posture ball, or sitting on a wobble cushion, could make all the difference to your concentration levels as well as your aching back.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Plato's concern

‎When was the last time you heard a parent complain about their child reading too much?

400 years BC, this was a concern for Plato. He was as worried about the impact of reading and writing on the brain as we are now about digital technologies.

"For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties..."

There is no halting progress but all these new-fangled inventions, from the printed book to the iPhone have their up and down sides. The key is making the most of them without losing sight of the necessity for balance.

Any new technology is a good servant but a bad master, so it's worth teaching ourselves and our children the use of the metaphorical "off" button, too and the benefits of concentrating on one thing at a time rather than perpetual multi-tasking.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A little something I concentrated on earlier...

Ruby the Musical Star, seen here on display at the Royal Opera House shop, London is the follow-up book to Ruby the Ballet Star both written by me, and illustrated by Anne Holt.

Both books tell the story of an indomitable guinea pig called Ruby who refuses to be put off from her aim and who learns that if at first you want to succeed, you have to concentrate on what you what to achieve, and find a way to do it...

Ruby is neither physically nor constitutionally blessed to immediately excel at either ballet dancing, or playing in the orchestra.

In the former she finds practice (10,000 hours anyone?) the route to success. In the latter, she finds that perseverance in finding the right instrument leads her to the triangle, an essential instrument for the playing of Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major - otherwise known as the Triangle Concerto. Such an instrument suits her perfectly, in spite of her short arms and long whiskers, and all is well. Ruby achieves her aim of playing in an orchestra and is a lesson to us all...