5 tips to maximize mental focus and create reliable recall
They were so bored. The sweltering Californian weather didn't help, spilling dappled sunlight directly into the classroom; the kind of day created solely for prolonged beach time.
These college students were clearly distracted and unwilling to listen. The speaker, a visiting professor and perceptive man, could see the students weren't meeting his efforts to engage them; many hadn't been prepared to concentrate from the start. Suddenly and seamlessly, he switched mid-sentence from delivering his lecture in perfect English to speaking classical Arabic. And what happened?
Now the students were galvanized, all eyes exclusively on the speaker, the sunshine and beach dreams a million light years away as the mind-focussing power of the completely unexpected worked its magic. He reverted back to English and said:
"Now if you can just do me the honour of focussing your minds on words you can understand as much as you did on words you couldn't, we can still make this a worthwhile experience." Apparently he had their rapt attention for the rest of the lecture (1).
How improving concentration and memory will improve your life
Concentration is vital if you want to achieve anything. How and on what you focus determines what kind of life you have. Any great piece of music, painting, tennis stroke, surgical procedure, book, hoop shot, building, movie, or computer programming can only come about through the transforming power of deep and prolonged concentration.
And you can only commit something to memory once you've concentrated on it properly.
When you focus on learning or performing, concentration needs to be singular. As the old saying has it: "If you chase two rabbits, you catch neither."
To learn anything you need to:
A, Concentrate on and commit to memory what you were focussing on.
B, Use this new knowledge at the right time by recalling it from your memory.
In a world of ever increasing distractions, those who can alternate at will between 'bigger picture thinking' and laser beam 'micro-concentration' will always have the edge. Let these tips help you concentrate and remember better.
1) Clear your mind
You need to concentrate and remember. But to do this you need to ensure that your mind and body have no other pressing needs. Imagine someone who hadn't eaten for a week trying to focus on learning a new maths equation. The drive for food would wipe away concentration on anything other than...food.
Look after yourself and you'll be better able to focus on what you need to. By purposefully meeting your 'lower needs' (lower but vital), you'll free up the spare capacity in your mind to concentrate better.
If you're hungry, eat before getting down to work; if you're restless, get rid of it by exercising before concentrating; if you're tired, then rest; if you're attention-starved, chat to a friend for an hour. If what you really need is to talk to someone or have a nutritious meal or catch up on sleep, then these needs will eat into your capacity to concentrate or remember. Once these needs are met, you'll have a clean start and a clearer mind.
2) Throw out the mental trash
You only have so much concentration to give. If it's 'stolen' by pointless TV, aimless surfing, or endless gossip, then:
- Your capacity to extend concentration may become impaired (just as taste for nutritious food can be spoiled by a diet of junk).
- You'll have less time to concentrate on what you need to.
Purposely cultivate quiet, distraction-free time. It's easy to get addicted to checking Twitter feeds, email, and texts. But we used to survive without this constant communication. If concentration is a glass panel, then all these devices can splitter and scatter it to the point of uselessness if we're not careful. Get used to less of those distractions (for example, discipline yourself to check emails only at certain times) so you can get more single concentration back into your life.
3) Get into the concentration zone fast
Ever watched a cat focus intently on a mouse hole or seen a truly great athlete forget everything around them except the serve or penalty shot? The future, past, all else evaporates when you concentrate this powerfully. The word 'concentration' may sound like it needs effort, but when you focus so intently that you get into the 'zone', then time flies by and you surprise yourself by what you can learn and achieve. And it feels easy.
To max up your powers of concentration, you can purposefully get yourself in the zone with this exercise:
Close your eyes and imagine seeing someone you admire for their world-beating powers of concentration. This could be someone you know or a great artist, performer, or athlete. Really see their level of immense concentration. Now imagine being them for a few seconds, really feeling what it's like to focus so intently. Now imagine focussing that intensely on what it is you need to do or learn. Still with your eyes closed, get the feeling that even an earthquake would barely distract you. Imagine holding the entire universe in your mind and then shrinking it down very rapidly so that now the whole universe just exists at one point and that point is what you are concentrating on. All else drifts away.
Get a taste of this exercise by clicking on the free audio session below.
And to improve memory...
4) Always remember: "That girl is such a minx!"
When I was at college, there was a beautiful girl from Belarus. A friend of mine fell head-over-heels in lust with her and would repeatedly say: "That girl is such a minx!" Later I learned that the capital of Belarus is, of course, Minsk. The Belarus girl was a minx from Minsk. Now you can always know that too; but what about those ancient Greeks?
You may recall the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates (not personally of course : ) ), but who preceded who? Okay, imagine these three ancient chaps wearing togas and chatting (philosophically) in a luxurious spa. And that's your answer:
- Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) who taught...
- Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) who taught...
- Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)...who, even though he came last, was great (so great he taught Alexander the Great!).
Who were the three astronauts to first fly to the moon? It's as simple as ABC (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins).
Memorizing through association supercharges how much you can recall. It's called mnemonics (and if there's a mnemonic for that word let me know). The weirder and more vividly you can visualize what it is you'll remember, the stronger the memory will be.
Sure, that's how we can commit to memory, but what about recalling it from the little old gray cells?
5) Control your state for ultimate concentration
It's much easier to recall something if you are in a similar state of mind as you were when actually learning it. This is known as state-bound recall.
If I am very relaxed when I'm learning something but very tense when trying to recall it, then there is a mismatch; different states, you see. If I learn some information about, say, a colleague during a time when I am very angry, I am more likely to remember those facts next time I'm really angry.
If I revise for tests with the TV on but sit the test in total silence, I may have to imagine the TV show that was on (in the background) before I can recall the test answers. This would act as a prompt to help my recall. The TV show has nothing to do with the content of what I'm recalling, but it creates the context.
When trying to recall information you've learned, take a few seconds to re-evoke in your mind the way you were feeling, even your physical surroundings, when you were actually learning it - this will improve your rate of recall no end.
As with the mnemonic system, once you've done this a few times the memory becomes so strong that you'll no longer need to use these strategies. I now know instantly, for example, that Minsk is the capital of Belarus without having to recall a college pal's infatuation.
True concentration can accomplish just about everything you can think or dream of. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, famously said: "Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."
Read these tips through, concentrate on them, and put them into practice. You'll find what you can learn, achieve, and recall will magnify and 'burn' a bright light in your life.