Friday, July 29, 2011


Can you concentrate? It’s kind of a silly question until think about it. Because in this wonderful age where every kind of media, every nugget of information, and every last relationship is at our fingertips, our ability to concentrate for any significant stretch of time is being attacked.  With the advent of the laptop, the smartphone, and now the tablet, we literally have access to everything and everyone at all times.  We are never without the ability to consume, absorb, or communicate in almost any way we please.

While most would agree that the world is better because of this, new challenges grow out of the shifting tide. We are under pressure to respond to e-mails not in a matter of days but in a matter of hours. Text messaging is even more socially strenuous: if an hour goes by without a response, the person delivering the message starts to feel slighted by the lack of communication. This is not limited to important matters either; it can be a friendly text about how our day is going or about last night’s big game. We know the communication capabilities and expect the person on the other end to use them to their full potential.

This constant strain attacks our ability to do meaningful work.  Despite the adage that multitasking increases efficiency, multitasking dangers not just our ability to get meaningful things done, but ultimately our sense of self worth. For research will show, time and again, that difficult problems require intense singular focus, not the ability to share focus. And with this much consumption possibility at our fingertips, the temptation to multi-task and side track ourselves increases substantially. I would argue that the ability to concentrate is becoming a true skill, right up there with reading comprehension and quantitative abilities.  The difference is that while reading comprehension and quantitative abilities rely heavily on inherent intelligence, the ability to concentrate is developed through a different place, a place that is quickly rivalling intelligence as the skill most correlated to success.  This place I call integrity.

For me, integrity involves 5 key features:
  1. Learning to put off shallow, short term, gains in favour of sustained long term happiness.
  2. Accomplishing tasks out of appreciation and love instead of gaining status.
  3. Being able to shut out the bullshit when something truly important is at stake.
  4. Acknowledging that we error frequently, and that knowledge is always more fragile than we think.
  5. Making decisions that are true to ourselves and our values, no matter the short term pain or discomfort.
When it comes to concentration, numbers one and three are vital to success. We all know that shallow pang of happiness when somebody comments on our Facebook status or gives us a re-tweet. It’s becoming easier to allow ourselves to fall victim to these short term, fleeting pangs at the expense of sustainable long term relationships and opportunities that reveal themselves only through dedication and sacrifice. It follows from this that shutting out “urgent” bullshit is essential. Life for most people is becoming faster paced. There’s always an immediate emergency to deal with, and these emergencies become addicting to respond to because they give us that small, fleeting sense of satisfaction. They also happen to involve less intense thought. Responding to e-mails, setting up study plans, completing errands, and a host of other “essentials” can take priority in our lives in the blink of an eye because they constitute a crude shortcut to the sought out feeling of accomplishment. They are also virtually risk free; rarely is there an opportunity to fail at busy work. The tasks are simple and safe.

They do not lead to long term happiness, though, and they will not increase our integrity. They keep us inside our shell, never forcing us to venture into unknown, risky territory that may expose us. It is this territory that leads to real happiness and success. This area at the edge of our fears and abilities. We can never get to this area through busy work, only through meaningful work. And meaningful work requires concentration. Mastery requires concentration. If we can’t force ourselves to think intensely about something, to use our brain to its maximum potential for sustained stretches of time, we will not achieve substantive results in our relationships or in our work.
So concentrate on how you concentrate. Do you have the ability to turn off your cell phone for a few hours a day and focus on truly important work, whether it be creating something special or  strengthening an important relationship? Or do you consistently get sidetracked when requirements become too intense? If so, work on increasing your ability to focus; start by turning off the cell phone when you’re studying or working on your most important tasks. It takes integrity and dedication, but you’ll surely need it to accomplish your hopes and dreams.

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