Some days seem especially designed for goofing off. We get to the office full of high resolve, only to watch the minutes and hours dribble away in unproductive activity.
We look over the newspaper, amazed that we never realized before how interesting the shipping news was. We check with coworkers to see how things are going at their end of the shop. We gaze out the window, wondering what the weather is like in Paris at this time of year. Suddenly, nothing will do but to rearrange our files—what a great time to discard unnecessary papers! Before you know it, lunch time is on the horizon—no point in settling down to serious work now. May as well call home and see what's cooking there. And on and on and on...
Perhaps no human activity generates as little interest as the ability to rivet one's attention on a particular subject and obliterate all other consideration for a time—that is, concentration. Yet, without it, we wouldn't learn anything; or get our jobs done; or enjoy a book, movie or play; or be able to drive any distance; or hold up our end of a conversation.
Under pressure, we have all drawn upon special resources that have enabled us to perform at our optimum levels. Not the least of these resources is a single-mindedness of purpose that allows us to drive out all thoughts that do not contribute immediately to the work at hand.
The key to concentration is learning to create this single-mindedness of purpose at will.
It can be done, of course. In fact, it must be learned and cultivated, for no one is born with the ability. Watch any child and you will see how short the human span of attention is before it is consciously put under control. A kid will riffle through a magazine or book for a minute or so, throw it aside, tackle a game or puzzle, only to desert that too in favor of television, then give up everything and ask his mother, "What should I do now?"
No article is going to change your habits in 15 minutes, certainly, but it may serve to remind you of certain fundamentals that, in turn, will enable you to concentrate your full brain power and energies on whatever task needs doing. The first step in enhancing your ability to concentrate, obviously, is to:
SELL YOURSELF ON THE BENEFITS OF CONCENTRATION. One way to do this is to view the job in intensely personal, even selfish, terms. By answering the question, "What's in it for me?" you will gain the necessary impetus to dive in with all your energy. Maybe the answer is, "I'll impress the boss." Perhaps it's "I'll be able to shoot up to the country with the family for a long weekend." But find the emotional reason for concentrating and you will soon persuade yourself to concentrate.
If that doesn't work, try this approach: Ask yourself, "What do I stand to lose if I don't buckle down?" It may mean having to work over the weekend…the loss of a big account…disgrace in your boss's eyes. But somewhere there is a built-in threat of loss in not concentrating, be it money, prestige, time or money. Whatever it is, identify it—and run scared.
SHUT OUT THE WORLD. Jean Kerr, play-wright and mother of five, found peace and quiet in her car, parked several blocks from her home, cut off from family, friends and telephone.
You may not be able to run away quite so completely, but there are a few steps you can take to shut out the world.
Rearrange your lunch hour so that you're on the job when your coworkers are out eating. Result: 60 blissful minutes of golden silence, excellent for concentration.
Eliminate the means of escape. Everyone has their own method of avoiding work and, as we have noted, man is at his most ingenious in devising excuses for not tackling a chore. Some don'ts:
- Don't have a copy of your favorite magazine or newspaper within easy reach.
- Don't place your desk in front of a window with an interesting view.
- Don't attempt serious concentration with someone else in the room.
- Don't start a job without first anticipating all the tools you will need; A simple trip to a supply room can snap the delicate thread of concentration.
How Creative Are You?
Are you an originator?
To a degree, everyone is. But most of us don't realize anything like our true potential as "idea people" because we apparently lose some of our more uninhibited creative powers in the process of growing up. As we mature in other ways, something happens to the soaring imagination of childhood that once so easily turned a cumulus cloud into a fire-breathing dragon or a darkened wood into Camelot.
The following quiz should give you some idea of how much of your original creativity you still possess and indicate areas where you might fruitfully seek to improve.
- Do you tend to accept things as they are because you assume, "If improvements could be made, they would have been made by people smarter than I"?
- Do you ever challenge company policies or methods?
- Do you always insist on doing things "by the book," or are you satisfied to get the job done, regardless of whether a few rules are bent in the process?
- Deep down, do you fear ridicule of your ideas?
- Do you have a reputation in your organization for being an "idea person"?
- Do you enjoy experimenting with new methods and techniques?
- When something makes you angry, or takes too long, or costs too much, or is wasteful in some way, do you simply mutter about it—or recognize it as a fertile area for investigating possible improvements?
- Do you have confidence in your ideas and judgment, or does one discouraging word throw you?
- Do you have the patience to toy with a problem, turning it over in your mind until a new perspective or insight present themselves?
- When something you observe in another field strikes you as ingenious or remarkable, do you seek ways to adapt it to your own needs?
- Are you amenable to suggestions from others?
- Are you stubborn in the best sense of the word, unwilling to give up when something has you stymied?
- What as the last good idea you had?
- What made it particularly special?
- How did you hit upon it?
- Do you ever doodle your way to creativity by "playing" on paper with the factors involved in a problem?
- Have you identified the people in your organization whose expertise and advice can be drawn upon from time to time to prime the wells of your own thinking?
- Do you tried to read widely outside your own specialty?
- Are you drawn to games and other leisure activities that require creative thinking (e.g., chess, puzzles, Scrabble, sketching, painting)?
- Are you tolerant of new, untried ideas, regardless of their origin?
- What is the biggest problem currently facing you at work?
- What have you done about solving it?
- Have you contacted anyone who has faced a similar problem in the past, with a view to drawing upon his or her expertise?
- When faced with a problem, do you try to isolate the key element, on the supposition that if you can crack it, everything else will fall into place?
- Do you view idea creation as partly fun?
Simple Time Stretchers
If you considered how your work day is spent, chances are you would find that almost all of it is devoted to just a few activities: reading, writing or dictating, telephoning and talking to people in person.
Because these four major activities usually take place in a haphazard way, valuable time is frequently wasted in looking for things…making the mental "switch" from one to another…backtracking and so on.
Try this: build your day around these duties. That is, set aside a period of time exclusively for making telephone calls, another for dictating letters and memos, a third for reading, a fourth for personal interviews. Of course, you will have to make allowances for the unexpected, but by segmenting your day you will almost surely get more done with a minimum of conflict.
Some additional time-savers:
BE DECISIVE. Once you have all the facts of a matter, make a decision and act.
JUMP RIGHT IN. Sharpening pencils, window gazing or looking over the daily crossword puzzle can waste valuable time in the morning. Get started promptly; avoid procrastination.
BE AN EARLY BIRD. More and more managers get to the office before their staffs so that they can plan their day in uninterrupted calm.
POLICE YOUR TIME. Use travel time, waiting time or eating time for planning activities, thinking out problems, reading or jotting down ideas for future implementation.