I remember having a conversation with some friends once about superpowers. It was the typical “If you could choose one power, which would you choose?” conversation. The usual answers came up: being able to fly, becoming invisible, teleportation, and so on. Then my turn came to contribute and I said, “complete and utter concentration.” I was met with strange looks.

The idea of actual superpowers has never really interested me. I have always found the limits of genuine human capacity more fascinating—those outliers who are able to take normal abilities to unbelievable lengths.

Take, for example, elite marathon runners who are capable of maintaining incredible speeds for the full 26.2 miles. When you see normal people trying to match it, you quickly realize that what people like Eliud Kipchoge can do is in fact a superpower.

Elite concentration powers

Bill Gates is a famous example of what you can achieve with the power of concentration. By all accounts, he is the Eliud Kipchoge of undivided focus—and, like this elite athlete, he has a great amount of natural ability.

Gates’ roommate at Harvard, Sam Znaimer, recalls: “His habit was to do 36 hours or more at a stretch, collapse for 10 hours, then go out, get a pizza, and go back at it. And if that meant he was starting again at 3 in the morning, so be it.”

This is just one account of Gates’ insane ability to concentrate on specific tasks for long periods of time. The documentary Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates goes into it in great detail. There are Business Insider articles that marvel at it, others that encourage you to emulate him, and some that delve into his practice of taking “think weeks.” There’s no shortage of material on Bill Gates and concentration. 

The whole world wants to learn how to focus like Bill Gates. Netflix even made a documentary on it.

But they’re all treating Gates’ superpower as something that is easy to grasp for the rest of us. Eliud Kipchoge’s training schedule is freely available and yet very few of us would be able to follow it. Likewise, you can try matching Bill Gates for reading, take “think weeks,” and so on, but chances are you’ll just give up. You’re essentially trying to run a marathon against someone who is naturally gifted and also trains obsessively.

So let’s forget about Bill Gates, take a step back, and think about concentration itself.

Approaches to improve your concentration

There have been many approaches to improving concentration, many scientific studies, many individual tips and tricks. Honestly, it’s a slog.

When I began researching for this post, I started reading various articles and then changed tack, thinking a TEDx video would be an easy way in. I came across one called “How to Get Your Brain to Focus.” I was intrigued. I began to watch it. I got about six minutes in and then I realized it was an utter waste of time. 

I had nothing against the general idea, which was to reduce distractions against the backdrop of our digitally invasive world, something that’s definitely in vogue when it comes to the topic of concentration. I also recognize that this is entirely true. Technology and social media is undoubtedly designed to hijack our attention with tiny dopamine rushes, resulting in lower levels of concentration.

My problem was his approach, choosing to answer this reality with cheap gimmicks. He undertook a “month of boredom,” where he did entirely mundane and unproductive tasks with the only possible purpose of generating more engaging material for his TED talk.

On the first day, he read the iTunes terms and conditions. On the fourth day, he rang Air Canada just to be put on hold. On day 19, he counted all the 0s in π. It reminded me of a 21st-century version of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which the eponymous character spends years listening to the river, but without any literary, cultural or spiritual merit.

I made it all the way through the video, but the ending fell flat for me. It was all too neat. It fit too snugly into our desire to improve concentration without putting in the work.

And then I realized all the other articles I’d read were just as gimmicky in their own way. The points of the Bill Gates articles are to inspire awe, not to help us perform like the Microsoft founder does. They fill you with that fleeting sensation of determination that quickly fades into nothing. 

It all comes down to one simple truth: improving your concentration is a lifestyle change, not something that can be hacked.

The problem of the quick fix

We’re all looking for that quick fix. We all gravitate toward the top ten tips and tricks to concentrate better and stuff. In fact, some of the articles genuinely are called that (more or less).

This is absolutely the wrong way to look at it. We all know that to concentrate better, you simply need to concentrate more. Just like we all know that to lose weight, you need to eat less. Having that knowledge does very little to stop me from raiding the fridge six times a day between meals.

So instead of concentrating on what you should do, I decided to focus more on what makes you behave in a certain way: the underlying factors that influence concentration. That meant looking for more scientific information, which (without academic credentials) is much harder to find. I did manage to find a short article that was interesting, though. According to it:

“Two general factors influence people’s level of concentration: exogenous factors such as time pressure and intellectual challenge (an increase in task difficulty has to be compensated for to maintain a desired level of performance) and endogenous factors such as motivation and trait capacity for attentional engagement (some can engage more fully in their task). Concentration varies from high to low, depending on these factors.”

The exogenous factors

There were a number of points here that I found extremely interesting. The first two were:

  1. Time pressure is a factor. 
  2. Intellectual challenge is key.

The first is so true for me. In fact, the deadline for this article is the same day I’m writing it, and so far I’ve written it all in one sitting. It’s been on my to-do list for weeks.

The intellectual challenge aspect, however, I find needs more qualification. Surely it’s got as much to do with intellectual novelty as challenge, since even highly intellectual tasks can become boring if you spend too long on them. This must also be tied to personal interest in the task; I’m more likely to remain focused for longer on literary tasks than scientific ones, being woefully inept at anything in the latter area.

The endogenous factors

Then there are the endogenous factors, which I understand as the ones that are inherent. You can have all the time pressure and intellectual challenges you want and you won’t focus like Bill Gates. These are the aspects that set him apart from the rest.

However, these skills can also be learned and improved. They’re the factors that the guy in the TEDx video seemed to be trying to train, but he was doing it in isolation from the exogenous factors. It did nothing to address the underlying issues of why we can’t concentrate.

My own background

I only started to read into how you can improve your concentration as a subject for this article. But it’s something I’ve been experimenting with on an ad hoc basis for years now. My recent reading has been extremely informative and has given shape to concepts I’ve been developing over time. Because, naturally speaking, I’m the anti-Bill Gates. I’m lazy. Impressively so. It’s just the way I am.

But to be a functioning member of society, you need to put a cap on your laziness and begin to develop some good habits. I started doing this around 2014, the same year I had that superpower conversation, and it’s been a slow, steady road to productivity since then. 

As a professional writer, I regularly produce thousands of words in one sitting. I am capable of maintaining high quality and generally keep my clients happy. I by no means claim to be the next Bill Gates of concentration, but compared to what I was like before, the change has been transformational.

Changing your lifestyle

My personal take on the matter tends to evolve over time in the specifics. But it’s always rooted in creating a new outlook. A new mindset. Whatever you want to call it, this is at the core. The tips and tricks you read in other articles, in my opinion, are byproducts of this mindset, not hacks to improve your concentration (and, by extension, productivity).

Without this serious basis—which I believe is something you can only discover for yourself—everything I say after this is just as frivolous as my poor friend in the TED talk. 

Recognize your capabilities

First, you need to understand where you’re coming from. You have to honestly recognize your capabilities and limitations, and respect your boredom. I’m extremely lazy, but I’m now capable of engaging in the “deep work” Bill Gates is so famous for. Even so, there’s no way I can do it for 30 hours in a row on the same topic.

Many of us can run as fast as Kipchoge, but for seconds rather than hours. With training we can drastically improve our endurance, but unless we’re born with the right genes, we’ll never be in the Olympics. 

Vary your intellectual challenges

Next, you need to vary your intellectual challenges, in both your personal and professional life. The people I know who have excellent concentration skills enjoy challenging themselves in general. The trick is to find something you’re interested in that has nothing to do with work, whether it’s learning an instrument, reading a book, engaging in physical exercise, doing a DIY project or anything else. 

Much has been said about the benefits of hobbies for your professional life, and I firmly believe that this is part of it. To use the scientific article’s vocabulary, by varying the exogenous factors and combining them with personal interests you can unwittingly strengthen the endogenous factors.

Personally, I think hobbies with a longer payoff are more valuable, as they involve periods of boredom to achieve results. My most recent “project” has been brewing beer at home. I only had access to dirty 20cl bottles, so when the time came to fill them, it took a full day of cleaning and filling. Boring. Repetitive. The best Saturday I’ve had in a while. 

While it may sound like I’ve just outlined two simple steps, I’ve done anything but that. What I’m describing requires constant work. It will involve frequent frustration, and you’re likely to fail more times than you succeed.

Your approach will also depend on your own personality. It will likely involve some or many of the tips and tricks from those other articles; you may practice mindfulness or take a “think week”; you might improve your sleeping patterns, do some daily “brain training” or banish technology after 9:30 p.m.

It doesn’t really matter what approach you take. It all comes down to one simple truth: improving your concentration is a lifestyle change, not something that can be hacked.

It’s not easy, but it can be done. And that’s exactly why it’s a superpower.