How I retrained my brain

As the world clamours for our attention, it’s hard to stay focused. Katie Scott explains how she restored clarity by learning how to retrain her brain

With seventeen tabs open on my computer, my phone shouting alerts at me, and one ear cocked for what was happening beyond my closed door, I was getting nowhere with my article. To concentrate, I have had to retrain my brain.

This has been an exercise in recognising that how my brain works has changed, including a dramatic shift in my concentration span. It was a brain retrain prompted by the realisation that I needed to adapt how I work to get the best from myself.

This isn’t simply because of the distractions we all face. If needs be, I can shut everything off. But I have noted – after many years of multitasking, and listening to six voices at once (one being my internal and constant checklist) – that my brain flits incessantly. I have had to teach myself how to concentrate, but also rethink how I approach my working day, and even retrain my brain to think about work differently.

First was the recognition that, before 8am, my brain crawls rather than trots. I once interviewed the founder of a creative agency, who urged his employees to think about their bodies’ rhythms. He asked them to note their energy levels throughout the day: when they preferred to do certain tasks and when they struggled to concentrate. It was a huge insight into the ebb and flow of the mind.

Working against your circadian rhythm, notes the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, ‘can cause sleep disorders, and may lead to other chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.’ This is an issue for people who work in shifts or across time zones; but it’s also relevant to those of us who can be found typing in a lamp-lit corner as the moon sails across the sky.

We need to work with our bodies’ natural clocks, but recognise that our myriad everyday tasks require different levels of attention and skill. When I’m feeling less than alert, I can browse emails, but not delve for ideas for a feature or carry out an in-depth interview with a neuroscientist. However, all the while, I am processing. It’s retrained my brain to work very differently.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow/, Daniel Kahneman describes the brain as two characters: ‘The intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can.’

We should, Kahneman suggests, harness the different attributes of these two systems to work smart: ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are. System 2 articulates judgments and makes choices, but it often endorses or rationalises ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1.’ Our attention is focused by System 2, but its abilities are limited, so we need System 1 too. And we need to recognise that we think fast and slow at the same time.

It was the fast decision-making – the constant humming of my brain – that was preventing the slow thinking. I felt constantly on edge because there were so many things flying about my head that I couldn’t concentrate on just one. I wasn’t giving myself time to ponder and problem-solve. Imaging and analysis is key to my work as a creative, but I need oversight and clarity in other aspects of my life too.

Author David Allen defines this ‘ambient angst’ in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity: ‘There’s a sense that somehow there’s probably something we should be doing that we’re not, which creates a tension for which there is no resolution and from which there is no rest.’ He likens our memory to that of a computer: ‘The conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term memory space. And as with [a computer’s memory], there’s only so much stuff you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level.’

This is a reflection on a society in which, he explains, the boundaries of our work are ‘disintegrating’ and the burden on our brains is huge: ‘Most of us have, in the past seventy-two hours, received more change-producing, project-creating and priority-shifting inputs than our parents did in a month, maybe even in a year.’

So I made a list. I see your eyes rolling. But this wasn’t scribbles on the back of an envelope. It was a brain dump of what David Allen terms ‘open loops’: things that need doing that haven’t been addressed. That can be something as minor as replacing a light bulb or something as major as writing a first novel.

Identifying and capturing all of these open loops is a gargantuan task, but it feels good. I use, which allows me to add tags to tasks, and to differentiate between personal and work items. The list is ever-changing; I add and subtract items daily. But it has quietened the feeling that something needs doing and the consequent fumbling to figure out what.

The exercise also forced me to think about outcomes. I looked at what each task would require, how long it would take, and why I was doing it. From this emerged priorities.

My working day is often impacted by factors beyond my control, from recurring coughs to the minutiae of maintaining a home. But retraining my brain has lulled some of the noise in my head. I still get distracted. I still forget things. But I can concentrate better and, consequently, feel less tired and irritable. I am also at peace with the fact that sometimes my brain needs me to turn off the computer and be still. These moments of slow contemplation are just as valuable – if not more so – than the moments when my thoughts are flying frenetically.

How to hone your concentration

  • Spend a few minutes each day noting when you felt alert and worked efficiently, when you dipped, when you found things challenging, when you ate and when you slept. Over a few weeks, you’ll see patterns forming. For women, there can be a correlation with your cycle. Work with that, not against it.
    Learn to recognise when your productivity dips, and when you are
  • overreacting, or indeed underreacting. Step away and do something that will help you relax and clear your head. ‘Your ability to generate power,’ David Allen states, ‘is directly proportional to your ability to relax.’
  • Try task management apps to find one that you like, then enter every ‘open loop’ you can think of. To deal with them, Allen recommends, ‘You must first identify and capture all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way; clarify what, exactly, they mean to you; and then make a decision about how to move on them.’

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