What To Do When You Can’t Concentrate

Contemporary political ideologies are confounding things

I’ve been back in the states for about two weeks now. I stayed in Korea just long enough to adjust to the time zone, and when I returned the jet lag hit me pretty hard. For me, jet lag crashes my concentration  and gives me  short-term ADD.

Fortunately, during my tenure as content producer for this fine site, I’ve studied these topics in-depth and know a few ways to counter this pain-in-the-ass side effect of being a member of the hillbilly jetset.*

I know plenty of people struggle with maintaining concentration and focus (unrelated to jet lag), so I thought I’d share a few of my favorite methods for improving concentration.

Do one thing. When you can’t concentrate, you may be overestimating what you can do. When I overestimate, I tend to jump from one low-value task to another. My solution? Pick one high-value task to work on and ignore everything else.

Do something else. When you really can’t concentrate, putting in more time is like attacking a bear with a fork. You might do a little damage, but you’re going to get your ass kicked.

Minimize distractions. Close all those extra windows and tabs. Hide the cell phone. Turn off the little wireless switch on the side of the laptop. All this eliminates the potential for distraction.

Write down everything. By writing down every single task you think you need to do, you can eliminate a fair amount of mental chatter. In GTD-speak, this is a mind sweep. In Happenchance-speak, it’s a brain purge. Whatever you call it, it works.  Don’t think that you need to do everything on the list. As with alcohol, sometimes you’ve just got to get the poison out.

Track your time. The real benefit of tracking your time isn’t knowing what you’re spending your time on.  Rather, it’s being accountable to yourself for how you spend your time. Time tracking encourages you to work on what you told yourself you’d work on.  For example, if I spend an hour on Reddit, I know I’ll have to write that on my list (oh, the horror!).

Use the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working on one task in short 25-minute bursts. Between each burst (tomato, in Pomodoro parlance), take a break. After 4 tomatoes, take a longer break. When you start a new tomato, you can change tasks.

Take a walk. Fresh air and exercise can do wonders for your mental state. Plus, research shows that walking improves concentration.

Add some focus music. This won’t work for everybody, but some types of music help me focus.. Glenn Gould playing Bach.  Baroque stuff. Philip Glass. STS9 and some electronic music works pretty well, too. So do Monk and Coltrane. Basically, any kind of instrumental music; I find lyrics distracting.

Get far, far away from the internet and go outside (I’m not oblivious to the irony of this last point). But leave a comment first.

Over to you. What do you do when you can’t focus? Have any tricks to add that aren’t on the list?

*Hillbilly jet set: When I lived in Korea, I met more West Virginians (per capita) than people from any other US state. Why? Ambitious hillbillies go where the work is. This used to be Ohio and Michigan. Now it’s South Korea.

Photo credit: helga

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Emilie Wapnick March 2, 2011, 3:34 am

    Nice list, Seth! I also like the “go nuts for 5 minutes” approach. Just work on one thing very intensely for only 5 min and after that, you can stop (but you usually won’t want to). Usually 5 min is enough to get you going and break the resistance. Some might say that you can induce a flow state this way.

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:09 pm

    Yeah, the 5-minute trick is a good one for getting unstuck. Inertia works both ways, making it hard to get started but also making it easy to continue. The ‘go nuts for 5 minutes’ creates just enough inertia to make inertia work for you.

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:11 pm

    Thanks Tom, glad the brain purge worked for you. The gulf between what we think we need to do and what we actually need to do is usually wide. Getting it down on paper is a great way to take a more objective look at things. Hope the Pomodoro Techniques works out for you.

  • Jane March 12, 2012, 5:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing, man. Do you have any tips for when you keep daydreaming about one particular thing? And, you shake it off but then a few minutes later, you’re thinking about the same thing you were? Ugh… I hate man vs man…

  • sethmbaker March 15, 2012, 7:16 pm

    No problem. Maybe that thing you daydream about is something worth pursuing (assuming it’s not negative).