Monday, January 12, 2015

Improving Concentration Improves Performance

There are times when it is just hard to get work done.  You want to read a book, but you can’t stop thinking about a comment a friend made earlier in the day.  You need to get something written, but there is a little voice in the back of your head trying to get you to check your email.  Think of how productive you could be if you could just focus on what you are doing rather than having your mind wander all over.

If you were trained to focus, would that actually make you more effective at thinking?

This question was explored in a paper in the May, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Michael Mrazek, Michael Franklin, Dawa Phillips, Benjamin Baird, and Jonathan Schooler.  These researchers explored the influence of mindfulness training on performance in a few thinking tasks.

Mindfulness training uses elements of meditation to help people become more aware of their thought patterns.  By doing exercises like concentrating on a taste or a smell, people learn to recognize the way that other thoughts can intrude on their current experience.  Along the way, this training helps people to learn to avoid actively suppressing thoughts, which can actually make people more likely to have the undesired thoughts. 

In this study, a sample of college students was randomly assigned either to a 2-week mindfulness training class or to a 2-week class on nutrition (which focused on healthy eating).  All participants were given a pre-test and a post-test.  They did a test of reading comprehension taken from the GRE.  They also did a test of working memory.  Working memory is the amount of information you can use in the moment to think.  The more that your mind wanders, the less working memory you have to focus on the task at hand.  During the tests, participants were also asked questions about their mind wandering.  At various points during the test, they were stopped and were asked whether they were concentrating fully on the test or whether they were having other thoughts unrelated to what they were supposed to work on. 

The participants given the nutrition class showed no reliable difference in their performance on either test from the beginning to the end of the study.  The number of mind-wandering thoughts did not change either.

The participants who were given the 2-week mindfulness training class improved on both the reading comprehension and working memory tests.  Their mind-wandering also decreased.  Statistical tests demonstrated that the improvement in test scores was related to the decrease in mind-wandering.

This research suggests that when it comes to smart thinking, you may be your own worst enemy.  The difficulties you have concentrating can have a huge impact on your ability to learn information and to solve new problems.  Your ability to focus is affected by many factors.  Your busy information environment (with repeated interruptions from cell phones, instant messages, and email) can draw your attention from what you are trying to accomplish. In addition, your own mind-wandering affects your thinking.

Mindfulness training like the class used in this study is one ingredient in a program to make you smarter.  This training helps you to learn more about your own thinking patterns, which ultimately helps you to sustain attention.  In addition, spend more time controlling your environment.  When you have hard work to do, shut off your email program and put your smart phone out of arm’s reach.  Start removing the mental distractions from your environment.

The less your mind wanders, the more effectively you will be able to think in the moment.