By Frank J. Rich
In a world so full of information and activity, is it any wonder that our greatest battle may be in fighting distraction? We know by experience that concentration is required if we are to accomplish our goals — personal and professional. But in spite of this, we are too easily turned away from the important things by the sheer force of distraction common to a busy life.
In the words of a Zen master, When walking, walk. When eating, eat.
Many organizations have found “quality” to be a defining ethic. A “quality approach” to all things, they have discovered, delivers the results they seek. Ask, “Is what I’m doing at the moment the best use of my time, and am I serving quality in my approach?” It is only in the concentration we give to our principles that our practice has any hope of reflecting them.
To accomplish such results, we must find the locus of concentration, the characteristic behavior that focuses our energies on one thing at a time, no more than what science reveals the brain can achieve.
Concentration may be divided in two — short-term concentration, that which is a focus on the moment — and long-term concentration, a focus on future moments. Both are important. Both are critical to achieving our goals. Both are critical to the fulfillment we seek. But few are good at both or even one. The reason? It is not something we honor, not something we encourage in our children, in our education of them, in each other. We are far more likely to judge results than the flawed process that produces them. Consequently, we have developed a kind of bicameralism over right principles. We know them, but have difficulty adhering to them, more content to judge the outcome as less than optimal. Our focus, it would seem, is misplaced.
The ability to pay close attention to things of the moment, undistracted is a skill that can produce twice the output of others. Perhaps, even more. And, the results are likely to be twice as good, as well. Why? Because it is distractions that sap our time and that derail our best intentions. The interruption of co-workers, crisis issues, road noise, an unregulated cell phone, nearby conversations, the inconveniences of an undisciplined inner focus, are examples of the “little” things that turn our attentions.
It’s in consideration of the things that cost us our focus that we are reminded of the old saw, “The measure of a man is the size of the thing that undoes him.” The fact is, the average person is unable to stick with a task for 10 minutes before losing himself to his own disquieting mental chatter.
Long-term concentration is a focus on a future goal that could be weeks, months or years away. It could be a college degree, a health or fitness goal, saving for a home, planning a vacation, investing for our children’s college education, etc. This requires an ability to commit to and stay committed to a goal over the long haul. This kind of concentration requires that we know securely “why” we are applying ourselves to such an outcome. When we are unable to explain — logically and emotionally — why we want to achieve a certain goal we’ve set, we are not likely to reach it. In fact, research suggests that the success rate is virtually zero. While our motivation may be little more than a matter of mental focus, we need to know where we are going and why if we hope to get there. Great accomplishments are made of these.
Such accomplishments are the results of small things — thought patterns, beliefs, and attitudes. Some are fortunate to have had the training that produces these attributes early in life. Others struggle through a lifetime in search of it. The good news is that “concentration” is available to all by a few simple measures.
- Know where you’re going. A point in every direction is no point at all.
- Know why you are doing what you are doing. Know the purpose in things. Form a model of a “purpose driven life.”
- Know who you are and how you’re going to get to where you’re going. Shakespeare had it right: We must endeavor to know ourselves, to know our emotional, intellectual, and physical responses, before we can hope to achieve planned goals — the definition of success.
- Live slow! It’s what produces the best results. We train, in school, in the workplace, long and hard to prepare for the achievement ahead. Why then do we return so quickly to expedience as the vade mecum of our McDonald’s society? Read more slowly, savor the words, their meaning together. Look up when walking — there’s a world around you that you haven’t noticed. Be patient with yourself and others. Give yourself the luxury of focus.
When you notice someone who is good at these things, honor them with a question about how they have achieved them. Watch them run circles around others, and study how they do it. Ask them how they deal with the endless stream of thoughts in their heads and still concentrate, about how they are able to narrow their focus gaining the increased productivity that obtains.
Do that and you’ll find that they mentally shut it out. They don’t have to shut their doors. They literally don’t have distracting thoughts while they are supposed to be concentrating on something else. Outside sounds and physical feelings don’t enter their conscious thoughts. Bright lights don’t bother them, extreme cold and heat don’t affect them, humidity isn’t a bother. In fact, when you have developed your mental skills to focus your mind, such extraordinary control over your environment is available to you.
The ability to do anything better and faster and for longer periods of time, while finding contentment in doing it, can be yours. Focus allows us to go many hours without sleep and with little diminished awareness. In fact, awareness increases dramatically when in a high state of focus.
If you want to gain the ability to concentrate so completely in the moment, you can’t be disturbed by anything — or if you would like to be able to stick with a project or a dream for years — begin the focus techniques above and enjoy the results.
Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life — think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success — this is focus.