Concentration: The Knowledge Workers Super Power

rubiks

If there is any one ‘secret’ to effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives [knowledge workers] do first things first and they do them one at a time…Concentration is necessary precisely because the executive faces so many tasks clamoring to be done. For doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number of diversity of tasks one can actually perform…This is the ‘secret’ of those people who do so many things and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than the rest of us.”

-Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive.

The Effective Executive”, published in 1967, brings out many of the common themes Cal Newport, author of Deep Work published in 2016, preaches today. It is my belief that concentration really is the secret to effectiveness, and given that people have been writing about it for at least 50 years is also a cause to believe that this is a time tested concept. Days when I feel like I have accomplished much, and still end work on time are filled with bouts of intense concentration; contrasted with days when I end up working longer hours, almost always driven by not staying on task. 

Cal Newport’s new podcast, “Deep Questions”, has been the most useful podcast I have come across over the last 4 months in terms of enhancing my work output. Of the many concepts I have found useful, one that stands out to me is his approach to improving concentration. 

He has suggested that one should treat concentration, or training their mind, much like an athlete would. An athlete will focus on both general fitness and specific fitness / skill work.

General physical fitness for an athlete would be getting your diet dialed in, sleep habits lined up, and general strength and conditioning on point. While specific physical fitness / skill work could be practicing a foul shot or getting repetitions on shooting your double leg take-down. General concentration fitness could mean reading for long periods, listening to a long-form podcast or audio-book without zoning out, playing a game of chess, working on a Rubik’s cube, memorizing a deck of cards, or simply not pulling out your phone every time you have a moment of boredom. Of course, specific concentration fitness will depend on your line of work – but a great place to start for me has been to set a timer to see how long I can stay on a task without getting distracted by something else. 

Many things have changed since Peter’s time, but the importance of concentration for effectiveness hasn’t. Now we have the tools and knowledge to deliberately practice developing this super power. 

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