Main attentional control techniques
First things first, minimise unwanted distractions. Whilst recent research by Clough and colleagues has found that working environments do not affect mentally tough people, for those who are still learning a new skill, reducing distractions can initially help them to learn to focus. Once proficient these distractions are less likely to be noticed. Educationalists will be familiar with the need to encourage students to create a quiet space at home to enable them to study but, this is not always possible in a busy school, college, or university where other people are likely to be the main distraction. In this instance a growing trend
is for people to wear headphones (with no music blaring from them). This sends a visible cue to others not to disturb you whilst you work.
Enabling young people to become self-aware whilst practicing attentional control techniques is important because we don't always know what it feels like to concentrate. Some commentators describe this as a flow state or the awareness of being fully engaged in the task, almost as if the task and the person are merged together. Typically when learning a new skill we are aware of everything around us, (and within us) and that we are not very good at what we are doing. We may feel uncomfortable, even anxious at the thought of failing. The more we practice and move around the learning cycle, the more we get into a flow state and become proficient at the task.
You will notice that the exercises presented are both cognitive and physical tasks. Number or word grids can highlight awareness in the ability to focus on cognitive tasks whilst the stork stand or waste paper basketball exercises aid in gaining greater awareness of hand-eye coordination or balance required to focus on a task.
The number grid
The number grid is a ten by ten grid containing numbers from zero to ninety-nine. The task is to mark off the numbers consecutively from zero to ninety-nine in ninety seconds. When given to groups of people it is clear that the person who reaches the highest number in that time is the one who is able to concentrate.
The basic idea with a stroop test is to identify words that describe a colour, written in their own colour amongst words describing colours that are written in different colours. There are different versions of these available including a version on the Nintendo DS Brain Training game. Once again this is a timed exercise and those that are able to concentrate are able to focus on the task.
Both of these exercises require people to focus on the target word or number against a backdrop of distractions, these being other numbers or words and the pressure of lack of time. When given the opportunity to practice with different number and stroop grids people become more proficient at these tasks and typically describe the “numbers or words
jumping out at me”. They are able to identify this sensation as their flow state with these particular tasks and are asked to consider other situations when they have experienced this and also when this skill may be advantageous to them.
Many games such as card games and chess are excellent tools to develop focus. Although the idea of the lunchtime chess club may not be appealing to some students, the sessions provide an ideal backdrop against which to “gate out” distractions and focus on beating your opponent. In addition to the complexity of the game itself, your opponents threatening glare, the shuffle of chairs, mobile phones ringing, coughing etc are distractions to be overcome and when brought into the conscious awareness of young people can help to improve their game and enhance their ability to focus in other situations.
One of the most successful (and enjoyable) training tools for both young people and adults is the use of bop it. The player is required to follow oral instructions to “pull it, twist it, flick it, spin it or bop it” using the corresponding attachments on the machine. There is also a musical beat playing in the background and the player only has a limited time to complete the task before the next instructions is quickly issued. Those that score higher in this game are those that are able to concentrate well. When using these toys within a training session there are usually eight bop it toys in play at any give moment which creates a greater level of complexity to the game. This time the player has to hear their own bop it whilst all the others are also in play. This is analogous to any classroom or work situation where one has to ignore the distractions and focus on their own task.
The use of this toy in training is also a lesson in practice. Trainers are typically adept at using the game because they have had to practice it to demonstrate it and can walk through the group playing the game with very little difficulty in hearing their own toy above the others. This is pointed out to the group as evidence that practice can make it easier to concentrate on a task.
Other complex games such as computer games usually provide ample opportunity to focus on a task at the expense of attending to other more complex stimuli. Again the key here is to encourage young people to develop self-awareness about their own ability to focus.
The stork stand
This is a yoga exercise that requires the participant to stand clear of any objects such as chairs, desks, or other people and to begin standing on one leg whilst the arms are raised perpendicular to the body. The easy version (which is recommended for those who are unfamiliar with the task) is to focus on an object straight ahead and if this exercise is being undertaken in a group, create an element of competition by asking who is going to stay in this position for the longest. The harder version is to ask participants to close their eyes whilst undertaking the task. Those who are more competitive will persevere with this task even if they are tired because they are determined to win. This makes it an appealing exercise as the motivation to win is likely to encourage a greater commitment to the task.
Waste paper (zen) basketball
Most classrooms and offices have bins and paper and an easy way to practice attentional control is to roll up pieces of paper into compact balls and practice throwing them into a bin. Again as a group exercise an element of competition and also performance anxiety (and thus an opportunity to control anxiety) is inherent in the exercise as participants watch each other attempting hit their target. This is a simple yet affective exercise and one that can also develop a greater level of hand-eye coordination.
The lives of our young people are dominated by instant access to information that many an eminent scientist would have taken months or even years to access a hundred years earlier. The requirement to focus on a target or task at the expense of other distractions is probably more important now than at any other point in history. Positive early experiences may enable a young person to become more adept at this self regulatory behaviour but, neuroscience and epigenetics have also taught us that we can develop this quality by practicing simple and practical techniques. In doing so we are improving our mental toughness and our ability to achieve excellence in any area of our lives we choose to develop.