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from THE HINDU group of publications

Monday, November 12, 2001



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Focus right and sharp

Porus P. Munshi

The ability to concentrate is considered to be one of the most important factors contributing to success in any field of human endeavour. One of the most common complaints encountered by coaches, guides and counsellors is the problem of poor concentratio n affecting performance. But what is this thing called concentration and how does it work?

Concentration is the process of controlling attention so that all thoughts and senses are focused totally on the selected object or activity to the exclusion of all else. Good concentration is simply keeping attention fixed on the right thing at the righ t time.

Attention is the key to concentration. When lapses in concentration occur, it is because attention shifts to different objects or topics. At any given moment, an infinite variety of things can compete for your attention the phone can ring, a colleague c an drop into the office, you could be emotionally upset about something, you may have to go to the toilet, anything can shift your attention. But thats not too bad, provided youre able to refocus and bring your attention back to where it belongs. In the course of this article, well examine how this can be done.

The components of concentration

Psychologist Robert Nideffer says (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 1976; 34) that attention can be divided into Broad and Narrow foci. A broad focus involves attending to a number of cues and stimuli and a narrow focus involves locking the mind on to a single stimulus by filtering out the rest.

In addition to Nideffers Broad-Narrow axis, attention also has an Internal-External dimension. At any given moment, your attention can either be directed towards an external object/activity such as reading this line from your newspaper or monitor, or int ernally towards your own feelings, thoughts and reactions.

In effect, at any given moment your attention can be in any of four quadrants External Narrow (EN), Internal Narrow (IN), Internal Broad (IB) or External Broad (EB).

To understand how each dimension operates, British sports psychologist Peter Terry suggests the following exercise in his book, The Winning Mind.

Select a magazine photo or a book with a picture. Sit comfortably and place the magazine on your lap, holding it upright with your hands. Now either record the following or have a friend read it out aloud to you:

Study the picture closely. Notice the size, shape, colour, and texture. Mentally list out all the features that you can see while your eyes play about it noticing every detail. Take one facet or detail that interests you, and focus on that. Look at it ca refully noticing every detail as if youll have to reproduce it later from memory.

Now while still looking at the picture, shift your attention to the feelings in your legs. How do they feel? How do your feet feel? Continue looking at the picture. Can you feel the weight of the magazine on your thighs? Can you feel the magazine in your fingers as you hold it? Hold it tighter and can you feel the pressure?

Now while still looking at the picture, recall an event in which you were successful. Can you picture the event? Try to recall the steps that led to the success. Recall the feelings that success produced within you. How did you feel? Who was there with y ou that day?

Now while continuing to look at the picture, allow yourself to become aware of your surroundings. Become aware of the other objects in your field of vision, become aware of the sounds and smells around you try to be aware of everything at once.

Now focus once more on the picture, noticing the details youd focused on earlier. Look closely at the facet that interested you. Try to see if youd missed anything the previous time.

Now put the magazine down and slowly return to full awareness of your surroundings.

If you did the exercise properly youll have experienced how shifts in concentration occur even while looking at a single object. In step1, your attention was in the EN quadrant. In step 2, it moved to the IN quad. In step 3, it was in the IB quad, in ste p 4, it was in the EB quad and in step 5, it was back in the EN quad.

In any given activity, one kind of focus holds the key to success. For instance, if you are a software programmer seeking bugs or a sharpshooter in the army, EN could be your main area of focus. If you are a commando going through enemy territory, EB cou ld be your main area of focus. If you are a poet composing, IN or IB could be your ideal concentration quadrant.

We dont operate exclusively in any one quad, of course. For instance, if youre making a presentation, you could shift from EN focusing on the presentation, to EB noting audience reactions, to IN checking how your voice sounds or how you come across, to I B recalling prior presentation experiences and what worked or didnt work then. And, from there, back to EN.

While youve gone through all the quads, the preferred mode in an activity like a presentation would be External. If you spend too much time in the Internal half, youll encounter a loss in concentration.

On the other hand, a poet, composer or programmer will need to spend more time in the Internal mode than in the External. If he goes too much into the External, hell lose concentration.

To improve concentration in any activity, you have to first delineate which mode you primarily have to be in Internal or External, and within that, in which quadrant. Note that in both modes, Internal and External, the Narrow dimension is usually more co nducive to concentration than the Broad dimension. Too much time spent in the Broad dimensions can lead to distractions in the EB quad and to daydreaming in the IB quad.

Some activities need a constant shift of attention from one quadrant to another at regular periods. To illustrate, lets examine how a good batsmans attention constantly shifts from one quad to another: When a batsman comes in to bat, his attention is usu ally in the IN quad. As he takes his mark, it shifts to the EN quad. Then he straightens up and examines the field-placings, his attention has shifted to the EB quad. As the bowler walks back for his run-up, the batsman looks down and taps his bat on the ground, hes bringing his attention to the Narrow dimension and at the moment is in the IN quadrant, composing himself. As the bowler begins the run-up, his attention is now in the EN quad, focused exclusively on the bowler and the ball.

The moment he plays his stroke, his attention now shifts to the EB quad as he watches the ball, judges the fielders approach and his chances for a run. Then, when the ball is dead, he goes into the IB mode replaying the shot in his head and thinking abou t how he could have placed or hit it differently. From there, its back to the crease and back to the same sequence all over again.

For the batsman, any shift in concentration, any time spent in an inappropriate quad, and he could get out. He has to be in the right quad at the right time at the right place.

Fortunately, not all our activities are as demanding. We dont usually need such high levels of quadrant specific concentration. Its usually enough if we just stay most of the time in the appropriate mode, Internal or External. For instance, while writing this article, I have to stay primarily in the Internal mode, only surfacing now into the External mode to look up some reference or re-read or test what Ive written. If I find myself spending more time in the External mode, I know Ive become distracted and that its time to shift back to the Internal one. However, while checking the finished article and correcting for mistakes or flow, I alternate between External Narrow for mistakes and Internal Broad to check the flow of the writing.

How to refocus

We all know people who have awesome powers of concentration and often we both admire and envy them for that. The ability to concentrate, however, is not so much in-born as acquired. Every one of us encounters breaks in concentration. The difference is th at some people have learnt how to refocus after such breaks. Further, over a period of time, theyre also able to extend, through practice, the time spent in absolute concentration. It becomes a circle: the better you are able to refocus after an interrup tion, the more time you spend in absolute concentration and the more time you spend in absolute concentration, the more resistant you become to interruptions. One of the first steps to refocusing is to consider your gaze to be a searchlight. We usually t end to focus on things directly in front of us. If you find that your searchlight has wandered off and is illuminating some other area in your environment, bring it back to where it belongs. This is especially useful when you need to concentrate in the N arrow focus.

But its not enough to just bring your searchlight directly in front of you. As we saw in the earlier exercise, you could be looking at an object and yet let your attention wander off to different areas. One way to handle this is to practise recognising w hat quadrant you are in at any moment. For instance, right now, try to figure out which quadrant you are in while reading this line. Thats right, you were in the External Narrow while reading the line. Youd also have noticed that as you tried to figure o ut the answer to the above question you went into the Internal Broad quad and returned again to the External Narrow. In a very short time, if you practise recognising concentration quads, youll find that not only will you be able to instantly recognise t he quad you are in, youll also be able to choose which quad you want to spend time in and stay there without difficulty. And even if your attention wanders, youll be able to refocus instantly.

Another way to improve concentration is to use a stopwatch. Sit comfortably with a stopwatch in your hand and look at an object directly in front of you. Start the stopwatch and keep your attention focused on that object alone. The moment you find that y our attention or gaze has wandered, stop the watch. Youll have to be very honest with yourself. Dont be surprised if you find that you havent logged more than 10-15 seconds initially. Gradually try to work this up to a full minute. As you work your way u p the time scale, youll find your concentration improving in all areas of your life.

A variation of this exercise is to close your eyes and picture an object on a contrasting background. Hold that image, seeing every detail in it. For instance, if youre visualising a cricket ball, try to see every detail the stitching along the seam, th e twine used, the stamp of the manufacturer, the scuffed areas. Try to see as much detail as possible. Again work up to a full minute. If youre able to hold it there for a whole minute, you wont need to read this article again. You'll have people envying you for your awesome powers of concentration.

The author is a Chennai-based HR consultant. He can be reached at

Illustration by J.A. Premkumar

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