One of the important components of good self-education habits is the ability to focus. I don’t buy in too much to innate intelligence as the determining factor in whether someone can learn well. I’ve just seen too many instances of someone with what appeared to be average intelligence and skills excel far beyond others who supposedly had much more of both. I believe focus makes the difference. Someone who can truly focus on a learning project is going to learn better than someone who is constantly distracted or multitasking.
Alan H. Cohen’s advice in his book Why Your Life Sucks and What You Can Do About It is one of the smartest bits of advice I’ve ever read in a self-improvement book. (It’s a great book by the way and I recommend it.) Here’s what he wrote.
The secret of genius is focus. If you can laser your attention on any subject or project, it will reveal its blueprint to you. George Washington Carver discovered 325 uses for the peanut and 100 for the sweet potato! Great geniuses are powerful focusers. Many have been called eccentric or insane because they put aside worldly concerns for the sake of their music, art, architecture, drama, inventing, or writing. But they are the individuals who change the world, while those with scattered attention wade through mediocre lives. Geniuses don’t fritter their precious minds on mass trends. They create the trends that alter the masses.
Cohen’s insight is so true and the focus he mentions, combined with tenacity and conviction, is an astoundingly powerful combination.
Recent research on the effects of multitasking back up the claim that focus is important and gives pause to those of us who are constantly emailing, tweeting, surfing, texting, (yes, I’m often guilty of the previous four), watching television, playing video games and otherwise flitting constantly from thing to thing while we attempt to learn something.
According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, heavy multitaskers are easily distracted by irrelevant information. A potential reason for this may be that people who multitask tend to retain all of that distracting, and often mundane, information in short-term memory. If your short-term memory is full of a lot of stuff that’s not relevant to the real tasks at hand (such as learning something), it affects your ability to focus.
So what can we learn from all this. When you want to learn something, focus on it. Set aside time to focus solely on your learning. If your environment is distracting, change it. Go to a library or anywhere you can best focus. Or find yourself some good noise-canceling headphones to create some privacy if you’re in a loud environment. No two of us are alike and what might be distracting surroundings to one person might be an atmosphere of solitude to another.
In addition to controlling the distractions within our environment, we need to minimize the distractions within ourselves. Whatever it takes to bring your focus to the objective of the moment, make that a part of your self-education practice. Meditation might help. Taking care of those lagging chores or tasks on your to do list might free up your mind to focus on more important matters. Perhaps you can “trick” yourself into focusing by thinking of your learning projects in 15-minute chunks of time. Whatever works for you, do it. The ability to focus is imperative if you’re going to maintain a life of effective self-education.
Remember what Peter McWilliams said, “Our thoughts create our reality – where we put our focus is the direction we tend to go.” So put your focus on your learning and you’ll learn.