Ins and Outs of Concentration

As I sit here at my desk, bouncing up and down on my new exercise ball desk chair, talking with a friend in IM, reading email, reading online articles, and commenting on Twitter, I run across this article in the New York Times about how the brain is incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at once:


So I start to wonder just how different people like me are.

Last night, my husband was borrowing my Rebounder (an enhanced exercise trampoline) and watching TV. I came up to ask him a question, and he stopped bouncing. I said he didn’t have to, and he said if he didn’t stop, he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on what I was saying.

A friend on Twitter mentioned how his wife has learned she has to make him stop everything if she wants to be heard.

And then there’s me.

Why am I doing all the above instead of working on my next short story like I wanted to? I have it open.

The answer, I’ve learned, is that I forgot to turn on my music. My brain needs at least two complex things to concentrate on at once or else it scatters and doesn’t focus on anything.

I can keep track of dinnertime conversation better if I’m also doing a word search. If I just try to listen, at some point my attention will drift and I won’t realize it until too late.

But when I play music, my mind hooks into that, and my focus improves significantly. Now I did grow up with music around me at all times, and I had my own tape recorder on which I played radio programs and audio books until I could recite the whole thing…special voices included…but there have been times when silence won the day and hyper-focused me.

Now I keep reading down to find that they have considered people with attention-deficit problems. They are beaming pulses of light directing into the brain to calm and focus them.

What’s odd to me is that the article is about avoiding distractions and the negative aspects of distraction. But isn’t this therapy a contradiction? I’d think light pulses into the brain would be the quintessential distraction. I see that as equivalent to my need for music, and start to wonder if I should keep a colored strobe light on my desk?

I also wonder how they would work on people like my husband and friend who can only focus on one thing at a time. Sure, they’d be focused, but exploring a flashing laser beam isn’t exactly the definition of success in relaxation or work ;).

I remember this time when I wrenched my neck so severely that I had to be driven to the mass transit because I couldn’t turn my head to check for traffic. They put me on two Vicodin and told me it would knock me out.

It didn’t.

So I went to work. (I am a card-carrying workaholic after all.)

Those two days were the worst ever. I felt like I was slogging through molasses, like someone had replaced the air with thick honey that clung to me and impeded my every thought.

For all of that, I was productive in a limited way. I could only work on one thing at a time. It felt so ridiculously slow, and I wasn’t prepping for the next in the back of my mind either.

My co-workers’ reaction?

Relief :p. Apparently they found me easier to track/handle when I was drugged out of my gourd.

So…multitasker or singletasker? And do you have to distract yourself to concentrate, or plug in earplugs and block out the world?

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9 Responses to Ins and Outs of Concentration

  1. Tamara Morning says:

    I think I fall somewhere in the middle. Sort of. I *have* to have several projects going on at the same time, just to give myself a break from being hyper-focused on one thing. But only one of those projects is my *main* project. Right now, I’m checking email, blogs, and attempting to get bits of writing done on my main writing project for the month. Music sometimes helps me focus, and sometimes not. Haven’t quite figured out why…

  2. Margaret says:

    I suppose the multitasking question falls then on whether you’re thinking about the other projects in the back of your mind :). It’s hard to identify the triggers and working patterns sometimes, I know.

  3. E. Hartshorn says:

    Have to distract myself to concentrate? I defy anyone with an elementary school-age kid and a toddler to *not* have distractions!

  4. jjmcgaffey says:

    I can’t have music going while I’m reading (which includes writing) – I can only concentrate on one complex thing at a time. On the other hand, I can listen to a lecture much better if I’m doing something else – handwork, that requires concentration but not…um, verbal concentration? My music generally has words and I want to hear them. Instrumental music goes into the background so far I literally don’t hear it unless I lose concentration on what I’m actually doing. But I can absorb considerably more from a con panel if I have some knitting/braiding/stitching/whatever in hand…

  5. Margaret says:

    Well, Erin, I said _I_ have to distract myself to concentrate. The article says the reverse. But you’ve got an interesting side point there. I can’t remember if that was true before I had kids. People say kids steal brain cells, and maybe they do, but maybe they also push us into a multitasking life that some are not suited for.

    That’s interesting, Jenn. I can relate in the sense that when I was in college, to really get the lecture, I had to hand write down everything the prof said. My handwriting was cramped, illegible, and tended to mix in Spanish words at random (very confusing when those words matched English ones with completely different meanings (like hay for there are). I guess I should have tried cross-stitch instead :). But those lecture notes? I never had to reread them. They were stuck in my head.

  6. ellsea says:

    I'd describe myself as a serial single-tasker – I will faff about doing not much of anything with twitter and emails & blog-reading, and be totally absorbed in it, but I have to shut everything off to get into a 'serious' task. I might well be building up for the next one in the back of my mind (probably explains some of the pressure I put on myself to complete/finish asap), but I need total focus on what I'm doing to achieve it. Instrumental music on headphones is the best way of acheiving that 'in-the-zone' focus.

  7. Margaret says:

    Hmm, makes me wonder then, with the prevelance of music across both types, whether music is somehow not involving the same aspect of the brain (with the exception of some people and music with lyrics).

    Though I will say the word multitasking is actually confusing because it doesn’t mean literally working on multiple things at the same time as that isn’t physically possible with the bodies we have, but rather working with multiple active projects at the same moment, able to keep track of where you are/were as you jump between them, creating the illusion of advancing on all simultaneously.

  8. Mama Rose says:

    John Tierny, science columnist for the New York Times wrote a column about the article you read. People asked questions and the first followup column’s first question was about music aiding concentration. Here’s a link:

    It’s an interesting concept. The main thing I noticed is that when I try to focus, be mindful, whatever you call it, I just end up noticing how little I actually am paying attention, which means I’m not paying attention, I’m thinking about whether I’m paying attention. Seems like a kind of Catch-22 situation.

  9. Margaret says:

    Thanks for the link. Interesting comments there. But very true about the catch-22. Maybe that’s part of why I have to distract myself…from the reality of focusing so I can focus on the task at hand.

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