Its the toughest thing to do, by trying. And you don't even notice it, when you are. Concentrating. When the latter happens, you're in the zone.
Try 60 seconds at a stretch, non-stop on anything. Its difficult. Not impossible. It also means you're trying. While you are trying, several other thoughts flash through.....strangling your boss, that new smartphone at the store, the good looking guy / lady at the coffee shop.......!
The mind naturally multi-plexes. Think about how the smartphone has become the next thing on the "always on" exercise of living. After your hearbeat and breathing, the phone fills in pretty much all the gaps in the day. (Lets assume for this article, we're all rich and can afford a phone). The term multi-tasking is better described as multi-plexing. The mind uses the vacant slots to fit in other things.
The best visible examples of concentration around are babies of a certain age, dogs while you hold some food in your hand meant for them. No distractions. They don't even realize its happening.
I discovered the 60 seconds conundrum while doing some mind-training exercises. Never mind why I was doing it. I thought it was because of age, slipping mental faculties etc. Then I asked around, observed and spoke to some docs and they told me its the norm. Everyone's flighty (oooh, the marketeer's wet dream!).
The exercises in meditation and such are attempts to train concentration, since it is hard to contrive. Meditation includes regulating breathing that has an impact on the vagal tone, which is good for well being. The vagal tone (as in vagus nerve) is an index of high / low achieved when breathing. A higher number indicates better state of being. Breathing exercises are a common part of the meditation game. I didn't make this all up, its a subject of serious study.
What if you aren't into this meditation thing? After all, you can't be with the Meditation Master (Eminem?!) all the time. How the hell do common folks manage? We aren't the "guru" types, even if unctuous reportees at work suggest it is the case.
One approach I've been experimenting with is "The Observer" state of mind. Train your mind at the task of looking at your state of mind. This entails asking yourself, every few minutes, existential questions like:
"Why am I doing this?"
"Why am I feeling irritated?"
"Why do I hate those orange colored trousers that idiot across the road is wearing?" (make up your own).
There's a Mind #1 - spontaneous you and the Mind #2 - The Observer.
You will rapidly realize that the focus of the mind isn't different from the stylus on the vinyl record playing on the turn table. For the younger generation, this is the "double-tap" on the new icon. The stylus skips sections very fast. Channel surfing on TV will seem like a slo-mo compared to this.
Can you do something about it? Sometimes, yes. Most times, no. If you could do something about it, write down your "Guru Memoirs" already and discuss your tryst with God.
I've thought about how to use it. Its really handy in managing emotional states. Let me present a scenario :
Visiting Aunt at Home
Minute 1 of monologue : "..oooh! Pras. You've grow up, and I knew you when you were still in school....."
Minute 13 of monologue : ".....and you know, you always used to tear up my favorite scarf....:
At this point, visions of gruesome torture are already flitting through your mind. Racist thoughts (she's from some community) and parochialism will abound (all people from that town are jerks..). You get the drift?
Switch the stylus to something you feel passionate about - maybe about Sachin Tendulkar retiring from the game or should Sylvester Stallone opt for character roles. The current grief vanishes and you may even smile at the visitor.
I've found the jumping stylus is an effective way of handling strong feelings - especially negative ones. The mind will readily accept a new thought to compete with old one, and given enough competition the now 1/10th market share of the negative feeling has a low impact. You might even feel cheerful.
On the other hand, the same negative feeling thing can help Concentration. Its the reason why we get on a roll so easily when feeling lousy. We can focus totally on being depressing, nasty, evil etc. Now if we channeled this to the work at hand, it can be a winning formula. Think of Silva in "Skyfall". Pure hatred and anger can help build concentration on an activity. Of course, you could loose track of the larger picture. Its what allows Bond to sneak the knife in his back, a cool headed Silva would have remembered he'd have done the same.
Try it. It might work. If it doesn't then think about how you'll torture me for this advice. It'll take your mind of yet another of your failures...(oops, I didn't mean to be so nasty!).
The Concentration Paradox.