“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.
Kevin H says
Great post. The key is to stay focused. I find meditation helps focus the mind in general. Then when it is time to perform a particular task you’ll have that baseline you’ve developed through meditation to fall back on.
Zoltán Cserei says
You know this is probably the best blog post I’ve read for a very long time.
I don’t play the piano, but the drums. And I can get by with a good number of songs, however.. when I sit down to practice rudiments, to fine-tune my double stroke roll, to learn a new jazz pattern.. I hit the drums a few times, than I jump back to the things I already know and I’m playing those, because they seem easier. Concentrating on practice is ESSENTIAL and VITAL.
THANK YOU. (I’m afraid I can’t use bigger typefaces for saying that)
THANK YOU :D
A suggestion that I have is to have something similar to a golf pre-shot routine, where you go through certain physical motions in succession. You do this every time before a shot in exactly the same manner.
After a while, as soon as you start your routine, your brain knows what is coming and automatically gets “into the zone”. So if you need to focus on some work, then practice having a certain work related pre-shot routine as well.
Close the door, set the keyboard in a particular way, sit up in your chair a particular way, stretch in a certain way, tell yourself something. Whatever it is, make sure it is identical each time. Before you know it, just by closing the door and starting the first couple of the other gestures will trigger your brain to get ready to get down to business.
Works for me….you can give it a try. :)
Random Hajile says
Making a conscious effort to concentrate to train concentration seems so obvious now that I read it, yet I never thought of it myself. Thank you for this excellent post!
Also, I’d like to point out that the theory of us using only 5, 10 or 15% of our brain capacity is an urban legend, which finds its origin in the discovery that we use only part of our brain to think. However, our brain houses a wide diversity of cognitive facilities and connections, ranging from motor skills to audio/visual cortexes to lingual facilities, etc. etc. It turns out we do utilize our brain to full capacity. ;-)
As for ‘geniuses’: that’s the weirdest interpretation I’ve seen as of yet, but thank you for widening my scope nonetheless!
My guitar teacher and his concert partner used to tell each other jokes while playing in rehearsals.
Once he tried that on me:
“What is sweet and swings through the jungle? — Tarzipan.” My fingers were instantly a jungle…
Sue Portman says
This is so relevant to my current situation! I’ve not had a holiday in a very long time, and my resultant mental weariness makes concentrating enormously difficult. A break next week should make all the difference.
In the meantime, I’m going to tackle on of the major distractions in my life – all the rubbish I let build up around me! Piles of paperwork, much of it irrelevant and out-of-date. Makes finding important stuff so much harder, and constantly stops me in my tracks.
Clear the rubbish, clear my mind! Purge!
Excellent observations, thank you.
Mark Shead says
@Random Hajile – I was aware that the “we only use 5% of our brains” is considered inaccurate, however you are the first person I’ve known who believes we use our brain’s full capacity.
I disagree based on the following: No matter what I’m thinking about there always seems to be “headroom” space I’m not using or the ability to focus more deeply. Based on this, I don’t ever feel like I am giving anything my full 100% concentration. So while I may be using well over 5% of my brain it seems like I always have room for improvement.
I do see that is would be possible to give something 50% of your concentration and have the rest taken up by distractions. So while you may be using you entire brain, it isn’t focused. From this standpoint we may be saying the same thing. However, I still think most people have capabilities that go beyond what they use–even when accounting for distractions.
As for geniuses I think there are different types, but some people’s brilliance comes from not skipping over what other people fail to notice. Einstein’s theory of relativity is a good example of this.
@JunglePlayer – Telling jokes is a good idea!
@Mark Shead-Think bigger! Sure, most people may only use 10% of our CONSCIOUS minds. And anyone can always learn more and “fill” more of this capacity. But this is only the beta state of mind! Lean to access and control the deeper subconscious mind, and you are accessing another level of mind.
How? Look into meditation, hypnosis, prayer, etc. Their are many ways to access this part of your mind. Find what works for you.
Same thing happens to me at work. Sometimes I can’t stand the music that plays at very low volume, but sometimes I do not care about anything around me and do my job. But, usualy,noise is a productivity killer
Great article. Sometimes I long for those time when there was a lot less tech to drive us all to distraction. However, then I would have to give up my iPhone… uh, no thanks. ;)
Seriously, this is one of the best articles I’ve seen on tuning out the distractions. One thing I found helpful was practicing mediation. Try it sometime – thinking of NOTHING. It’s really difficult, but a matter of training as well. Good practice for those of us with overactive imaginations and multi-tasking tendencies!
Very interesting and equally inspiring article.
Diet also plays an important part in the ability to concentrate and focus on getting things done. Key to this is the 5 ‘meals’ routine, which caters for the much-needed in-between snacking. Just a cracker or 2 or a small tub of yoghurt can make a huge difference.
Whilst it is a valuable skill to be able to block out distractions, I find I sometimes become too detached and block others out anyway…anytime. I need to develop controlling my mind to quit and rest (,”)
I find when I’m playing through a piece that while i’m trying to focus on the notes in a passage, my mind starts to wander about the most random things like its looking through my memory files and throwing things at me that I haven’t thought about in years