When Thinking Lab members tell me their task is hard, I hear alarm bells in my mind. Invariably, I find they are making a difficult task harder than it has to be.
A difficult task is one that requires a special mental effort to complete. It may require all your creativity. It may require you to manage your emotions despite real-world setbacks. It may require that you learn new skills. It may require that you concentrate on a schedule despite difficult circumstances.
I thrive on difficult tasks like these. I have made a career out of developing and teaching the mental tools needed to complete them. These tools are based on one truth: to do difficult work, you need to take your mental needs seriously. The two most overlooked needs for difficult work are that you find it intellectually stimulating and that you see real progress. If you are intrigued and satisfied with the work, hour by hour, you can put in huge amounts of effort over time to succeed at incredibly difficult tasks. Intellectual stimulation and progress are the two fundamental values that motivate day-to-day action on long-term projects.
This is why alarm bells go off when I hear someone say a task is hard. They usually say it with a groan. They mean that it is not only difficult, it is also exhausting, stressful, or unrewarding. But these are signs that you are not meeting your needs. They are alerts that you need to change the way you are approaching the task. There is always a way to do a task that meets your mental needs.
Let’s look at this in the case of concentration. In future articles I’ll discuss how to meet your needs in other kinds of difficult tasks that may be harder than they need to be.
In its simplest sense, to concentrate means to sustain your attention on something. Concentration demands significant mental effort, especially when you single-mindedly maintain your purpose despite distractions that could waylay you. Distractions are the primary obstacle to concentration. Once your attention turns to the distraction, it takes both time and energy to redirect your attention back to your purpose.
For example, concentrating on catching balls in a baseball outfield or when returning the ball in tennis takes true concentration. You need to keep your purpose in mind at all times while also maintaining a state of readiness to notice and respond to whatever happens with the ball. You need both that single-minded purpose and situational awareness to go after the ball and make the appropriate play, wherever the ball goes. If you drop attention from your purpose, you can easily become mesmerized by the motion of the ball. Then you wind up watching it instead of running to the best position or identifying your best play. Chances are you will miss the ball or mishandle it. And of course, if you get distracted while the ball is in flight, you lose track of it and lose precious time trying to relocate it.
Concentrated thinking is similar. A thinking purpose is something like “solve the problem” or “make a decision” or “clarify this idea.” As in sports, you need to sustain attention on that purpose regardless of what unfolds. In thinking, you reach new conclusions, reveal new information, and you constantly judge whether you’re making progress or off on a tangent. At any time, you can get caught up in a side issue and go down a rabbit hole. Emotions can come up and seem to demand attention. Plus, if you are interrupted, you can lose your train of thought and need to start over again.
Concentration is clearly difficult. It requires a special, sustained mental effort.
You may have processes in place to help you minimize external distractions without realizing that those processes are designed to satisfy your own mental needs. For example, you probably schedule concentrated work for a time when other people won’t want to interrupt you. You may set all of your devices to “do not disturb.” Or you may complete other work beforehand so that nothing urgent can come up on another project. This is all standard advice for minimizing external distractions.
If you do not make these preparations, you are making concentration harder than it needs to be. At best, you will handle the distractions, but you will get tired faster, plus waste precious time getting back on track, so you will significantly reduce overall time you can work on the difficult task now. At worst, as you get tired, one of the distractions will send you off on a tangent. Thanks to the reduced time on task, you ensure you will make little or no progress and that you never get “into” the task so you can become intrigued by it.
Internal distractions are another story.
Fewer people know how to meet their needs when faced with internal distractions such as strong emotions or thoughts about competing projects. Most people assume they should try to eliminate internal distractions just as they eliminate external distractions. To concentrate, they suppress any off-topic thoughts or feelings. They create tunnel vision for the task.
This turns out to be a mental disaster.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes suppressing off-topic thoughts and feelings “works” in that you get the task completed. But it always adds a feeling of pressure that is unpleasant. It always takes more effort than normal concentration, so you get tired faster. And it guarantees you will not use everything you know about the topic to reach your conclusion.
This last is the fundamental problem. When you suppress off-topic thoughts and feelings, you reduce your ability to integrate ideas. Tangential ideas may actually be relevant information or leads to creative solutions. Peripheral inklings can alert you to mistaken assumptions or suggest ways you can improve your process. Emotions alert you to values that have some relation to the situation. When you narrow your attention to shut out anything not directly on topic, you lose access to the fringes of awareness. You lose access to creative ideas, your full value hierarchy, and your wide store of knowledge. You reduce your operational intelligence.
If the problem is easy, you may not need all of your intelligence. Tunnel vision may “work.” But if the problem is not easy enough, you’ll fail. You may be able to write a short email with tunnel vision, but you won’t be able to write a deep or thoughtful reply.
As humans, we have a need for integration. By this I mean that we need to check new ideas to see how they fit with everything else we know. This is the way that we avoid making mistakes in the present and that we correct mistakes we made in the past. When you look back at a really stupid decision you made, and say, “I should have known better,” what you mean is, “If I had paid attention to the signals I was getting in the fringes of awareness, I could have avoided a lot of trouble.”
At some level, you know that this is how you avoid mistakes. So when you shut down “off-topic” thoughts and feelings, you sow seeds of fear and doubt. You know you may be shutting down signals that would have helped you make the best decisions possible. This tends to increase the number of allegedly off-topic thoughts and feelings to be suppressed. All of that suppression takes effort and tires you out very quickly.
Even if your tunnel vision “works” and you make a play or get an answer, you have now associated stress and fatigue with success. Congratulations, you are training yourself to hate concentration.
Professional athletes don’t maintain concentration by tunnel vision and neither should professional thinkers.
The alternative is to develop emotional resilience. You can learn to feel feelings and let them wash through your body without breaking your concentration. You can strengthen your values so that you genuinely see the irrelevant stuff as not important, in which case it won’t come up to distract you. You can disintegrate old baggage so that it doesn’t interfere with your motivation.
I’m not sure how professional athletes develop resilience, which they clearly have, but thinkers can do it by slowing down the thinking process. By using deliberate methods of introspection to address issues as they arise, and guiding action toward values when there is a conflict, you can get over a hump, strengthen your values, and put old baggage to rest. Emotional resilience is a learnable skill, if you make the investment.
If you are using tunnel vision to concentrate, you are making a difficult task harder than it needs to be. You are neglecting your need to draw on everything you know.
Concentration already requires your best. It is already tiring. It is already error-prone. Don’t sabotage concentration by making it harder than it needs to be. Develop skill at emotional resilience.