“Stop! You aren’t thinking about what you are doing. You can’t do this unless you give it 100% of your focus.”
My piano teacher went on to tell me about how her mentor had stopped her in the middle of playing a piece because she got distracted by a bird on the outside of the window. Taci King was a very kind woman, but she made it clear that I wasn’t going to get any better unless I learned to control my mind and concentrate on the task at hand and at that moment, the task at hand was playing a particular piece of music.
This lesson has stuck in my mind more than any other from the two years I studied with her in high-school. I remember it every time I’m trying to do something and seem to be hitting a brick wall. I stop and ask myself, “Am I really thinking about what I’m doing?”
Thinking Hard or Hardly Thinking
I’ve heard that we only use 5% of our brains. If that is true, then most people only give 2% or 3% of their full capability to the task they are currently working on. Concentrating is hard. It is very hard and most people just don’t do it. It is easier to plod along doing nearly brain dead work because it feels like we are doing something–even if our efficiency on that task is abysmal. (Some of the more recent studies I’ve read suggest that we actually use more of our brain that people originally realized. However, I don’t know anyone who thinks we use our brain to its full capacity.)
In the book Talent Is Overrated, the author looks at a number of studies that show most people don’t get any better at what they do. Auditors fresh out of college with a few years of experience don’t perform (on average) any worse than the auditors with decades of experience. Years of experience doesn’t give older stockbrokers any additional accuracy in picking stocks. College admission officers with years of experience weren’t any better at picking the applicants who would be good students than their junior counterparts. Why is this?
Once people master the rudimentary skill of a task, they tend to go on autopilot. Obviously there are some people who don’t do this. Those people are the ones we call geniuses.
In many cases, being a genius isn’t a matter of being overly smart. It is a matter of mental discipline to pay attention and hold yourself to a higher standard than just what you know you can get by with. Geniuses are the ones that pay attention to what they are doing and give the task at hand 100% of their mental effort.
Results don’t happen right away, but over time, people who pay attention pull far out in front of the people who are doing their work with the bare minimal mental effort necessary.
When Taci told me I wasn’t paying attention to the piano piece I was playing, the world was a very different place. I didn’t have a cell phone. The Internet was primarily being used by researchers and if you wanted to email someone, you had to log into the same BBS system they were using (or use something called FIDOnet that I never really figured out). If you wanted news, you read a newspaper. If you wanted to know if a movie was any good, you’d either watch a review on TV or read it in a magazine.
Instant messaging, Twitter, the ding of an incoming email and Blackberries just didn’t exist, so the amount of distraction was much lower than today. If you are trying to concentrate on something important now…well good luck. It is going to take a lot of effort.
There are two sides to maintaining your concentration. One is to minimize distractions. For example, you can:
- Close your door.
- Unplug the phone
- Turn off your email “gong”
- Get up to work before everyone else
- Keep distractions out of your office
- Turn on an ambient sound cd to drown out distractions
All of those are good things, but unless you live a life completely disconnected from everything, they probably won’t cut it on their own. You are going to have to train yourself to concentrate and apply mental discipline in the face of distraction.
Training to Ignore Distractions
When cowboys used to capture wild mustangs, they would put them into a head chute with walls that let only their heads stick out. Then they would fill in all around them with grain. The nervous horses couldn’t thrash and hurt themselves. The cowboys would take umbrellas and open them in the horse’s face, they would shoot off guns, they would ride by with other horses and bring barking dogs nearby. While this was very un-“horse wisperer-ish,” it taught the horses to ignore all kinds of distractions.
You can do a lot to train yourself to ignore distractions just by making a conscious effort. Sit down in a busy mall and try to read a book. If you notice your mind starting to wander, reign yourself back in and focus on concentrating.
I’m not suggesting that you should try to work in a shopping mall when you need to concentrate. But if you can concentrate in a mall, your office will seem like a very tranquil setting.
There once was a basketball coach who wanted to improve his players’ accuracy. He installed a smaller ring inside of the basketball hoop. It was just slightly bigger than the ball, so to make a basket, the players had to shoot in a way that put the ball in the very dead center. In practice, their shooting was horrible, then it got gradually better, but it was still pretty bad. But, when the game came and they played on a regular basketball goal it seemed like all of their shots went in. The hoops seemed huge compared to what they were used to using.
Five years after Taci told me I need to concentrate better, I was preparing a piano piece for a master class in college. I knew the piece, but I wasn’t sure I could give it 100% of my focus in the actual performance. I walked out of the small practice room and went out into the music department lobby where I found some students chatting. I told them I needed help and wondered if they could cram into the small room with the grand piano. They agreed. As I played through the piece a few times, they just continued their conversation, laughing and joking. The alarm on one of their watches went off. Someone dropped a book on the floor, but the whole time I was focusing entirely on the piece of music.
Later that day, I performed the piece flawlessly and with 100% of my concentration on the task at hand. I still struggle with concentrating and giving my current project 100% of my focus, but I always remember that piano lesson where I wasn’t focused and years later the performance where I was.