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How To Concentrate
( Originally Published 1930 )
"Concentration is the Most Important Intellectual Habit of Man."
Not one person in ten thousand can really concentrate. Some realize that they do not know how—others drift along the line of least resistance and let their minds vegetate, apparently never suspecting their weakness or realizing that they are an utter failure at concentration. To Cori-centre—bringing all your mental force and faculties to bear steadily on a given center with-out deviation from that exact point—whipping into line all wandering fancies—stray ideas or thoughts that go off on a tangent—to hold steadily all your power on the central thing under consideration without an instant of wavering—that is Concentration.
This ONE THING I Do
A difficult thing to do, and very few minds can do it. St. Paul gives us the shortest definition of concentration on record when he says, " This one thing I do," short, but tremendously significant. Another Bible definition is excellent: " Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it withthy might ." Some men work that way, intense fellows--brilliant professional men—big business men—executives—leaders in the world of finance—science—invention—literature—education—it matters not what kind of work, the point is that when these men pitch hay, they pitch hay —when they write a book, they write a book—when they manage a sales campaign, they man-age a sales campaign. That one thing they do at that one time, and nothing else, and every ounce they have goes into the doing. But back of all this has been a lot of mental discipline, a lot of habit-forming, a lot of brain-building. Let us consider some of the steps by which they have climbed. To the ambitious student, I offer five practical aids to concentration, planned to meet the needs of one who wishes to build from the ground up. We must assume as prerequisites, interest and attention, which have already been discussed.
AIDS TO CONCENTRATION
These aids will do more than help you to follow a memory course; they deal with your daily work. Concentration applies to all the activities of life. It should be established as a life habit. To all who think, I bring this message, Think it with thy might. Make a business of doing one thing at a time with all your soul. Chesterfield was right when he said, " There is time enough for everything in the course of a day if we do but one thing at a time, but there is not time enough in a year if we try to do two things at a time."
It may seem paradoxical that the first aid to better concentration refers to relaxation. But I have observed that some of the most intense intellects fail in their concentration because they never relax. Failure to let go between efforts is their chief stumbling block. They keep them-selves tense, nervous, " keyed-up " all the time, even when there is no need for it, thereby wasting nervous energy. They find it very difficult to " let go "—to relieve the high-tension by a little natural, wholesome relaxation. Possibly they feel like the Irishman who was trapped on the fourth floor of a burning building. He fought his way to the window but was afraid to jump. The flames drove him on until he was hanging to the window ledge with his hands. His friends, in the street below, seeing the walls were about to fall, kept shouting at him to " let go." Finally, he growled back at them between set teeth—" How kin I let go when it's all I can do to hang on? " But we must learn to let go—to relax completely—before each period of in-tense concentration. Here is the working principle: Relaxation precedes perfect concentration. A delightful illustration of this point is given by Elizabeth Towne.
Six puppies were playing in the barn. The barn door was closed and with the world shut out, they were giving themselves up completely to the; spirit of play. Two of them were staging a mock battle over a feather, while the others were rolling over and over in the loose straw on the barn floor in utter enjoyment.
Suddenly the barn door softly creaked. 'Instantly every puppy came to attention; heads up —tails up—bodies rigid—bright eyes fixed in intense concentration on that door, as it slowly swung open. A moment before they had been in a state of complete relaxation. Now, they offered a perfect example of concentration as they stood at attention, waiting and watching for the unknown danger that Might be coming from the other. Side of the barn door.
All great mental achievement has been preceded by periods of absolute rest or relaxtion! During.this time fatigue disappears the nervous forces. recuperate and the minds-stores up fresh energy axed establishes a reserve to draw upon during" the hours of intense concentration demanded by the. big task high lies must ahead.
Very often this preparation period of relaxation determines. the success or failure of the uder taking.-Herbert -Spencer, once made, a speech on.," The Gospel "of Relaxation will, which he pointed ,out that continual tress and strain high tension without periods relaxation were responsible for much chronic fatigue and many a nervous breakdown. is far better to indulge. It in an voluntary let down than: to Offer an involuntary breakdown, Different .people take their relaxation best in different ways, but, whether in complete rest, of play or wholesome laughter, it must come before any sustained effort of concentration. Nature itself requires cycles of growth and rest. Take your breathing spell before the battle.
The next step is to free the mind. Nothing is of greater aid to concentration. In fact, unless you are able to do this, concentration is impossible. When. harassed by the three devils, hurry, worry, and f ear, the mind never has a fair chance to center on anything. " Worry generates a poison at the roots of memory." But in your period of relaxation, you have an excellent opportunity to free the mind—now is your chance to eliminate all mental handicaps and get ready for the race. Not only hurry, worry, and fear must be thrown overboard, but anything and everything that troubles you and disturbs your serenity and your peace of mind. Out they go ! You should not indulge in day-dreaming, either, or mental drifting. Clear the mental horizon; give yourself a clean slate to write upon when your hour of concentration comes. And when it comes, if you have availed yourself of these first two aids I have given, you will be, possessed of that rare thing, mental poise.
THE PROPER ENVIRONMENT
In order to keep it, utilize the third aid: right conditions. Now, it is true that a trained mind can concentrate under any conditions—in the roar and din of .crowded cities or the busy hum of traffic—in the midst of telephone calls or a thousand and one other interruptions. Some men can concentrate on a mental problem while walking down a Chicago street and never hear the roar of the elevated or see the hurrying throngs. I have seen men write on a crowded street car perfectly oblivious to the people about them, not even hearing their own stations when called. But these men were already masters of concentration, and I am addressing my remarks to those who have not yet learned how to concentrate. Therefore, it is only a matter of common-sense to make conditions as favorable as possible. Give your mind a fair chance. Concentration is difficult enough, even under the best conditions. I would suggest that you seek a quiet place free from all distractions (and noise is a terrible distractor), a place free from all interruptions which may break your train of thought (and a telephone is a terrible interruptor), a place where you can be alone, free from all outside influences (and a friend who " must drops in " is a terrible outside influence), and a place of pleasing environment, beautiful or otherwise, where the atmosphere is right for you. I mean atmosphere in its fuller sense, although an abundance of sweet, fresh air is necessary. A well-poised mind can create its own atmosphere which inspires the individual, puts him at his best, is strongly conducive to good mental work, and has much to do with his success in concentrating. Not alone for the beginner, but I may safely say for the majority, is this true. In fact, some of our greatest creative thinkers absolutely insist on right conditions and the right kind of a place in which to produce their master-pieces. True, good books have been written in mail—great poems written in the trenches—masterly speeches conceived on an express train. But in every case there was a degree of concentration strong enough to rise triumphant above the environment.
Atmosphere--environment—these things differ with the individual—it's all in the mind. One man may do his best work seated in a luxurious chair in his beautiful and artistic study--another may reach his highest plane of creative thinking while sitting under a lone pine-tree on the crest of a hill. Choose your own place for concentration, but remember that solitude has always been, in all the history of mental achievement, a requisite for great work.
Solitude calls forth the mood of receptivity. Only then do we get the best. Great things are worked out in silence. Then come the flashes of inspiration—the new visions. Emerson tells us that " Solitude is to genius the stern friend—the cold, obscure shelter, where mould the wings which will bear it farther than suns or stars," and we have this thought from Carlyle: " Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together—that at length they may emerge full-formed and mamestic into the delight of life—which they are henceforth to rule."
The great poems written in lonely garrets—the masterpiece paintings conceived by the artist amid the fields—the divine harmonies first heard by the musician communing with the stars—the sublime oration which first stirred the soul of the orator as he tramped in the forest—all attest that the best comes to man when he is alone.
Witness Burns—the Scotch peasant among the daisies pouring out the lyric songs which to- day touch sympathetic hearts the " warld o'er."
Witness Emerson—bidding good-bye to the proud world and retiring to that Sylvan Home, " bosomed in yon green hills "—and there creating his incomparable essays.
Witness Demosthenes—on the seashore—building to the big music of the waves his match-less oration on the Crown.
Witness Byron—alone on the Alps—writing by the glare of the lightning flash his magnificent description of the Thunderstorm.
And today right in this practical present—thousands of our most successful business men have learned this secret—that by getting alone—they can gain new efficiency—and think out better plans for managing their daily affairs.
History will bear me out in the statement that to bear Solitude well is a mark of greatness. Look at Lincoln—back there in the country for the first thirty years of his life, nourishing his own soul and disciplining his own mind.
Hillis has well said, " What a college and a crowd could not do for thousands of young men —Solitude did for the rail-splitter's son. Alone he sailed the seas of thought with God for his only companion, till at last he stood forth, a mountain-minded man."
A DEFINITE SCHEDULE
The fourth aid to concentration, is a very practical one: make a daily schedule. In the first place, such a schedule saves an inconceivable amount of time. Harrington Emerson, in his noted book, Twelve Principles of Efficiency, lays great stress upon the necessity and value of a written daily schedule. But what has this to do with concentration as applied to memory, you may ask? Simply this—your daily schedule helps to focus the mind, holds it steadily to one thing at a time and in the right order. Following a logical sequence tends to eliminate con-fusion.
It has been demonstrated in efficiency tests over and over again that time and energy are lost not so much on the operation itself as in passing from one operation to another. So in our mental operations, failure to move smoothly from one thing to another results in confusion. And when confusion comes, concentration goes. A definite daily schedule is a wonderful aid in keeping the mind on the right track. It often proves to be the salvation of those who have been unable to concentrate. Try it.