Focussing on the Day's Work
Walter Dill Scott
From System Magazine
TO keep light from going off in useless directions we use reflectors; to keep human energy from being expended in useless directions we must remove distractions. To focus the light at any point we use lenses; to focus our minds at any point we use concentration.
Concentration is a state secured by the mental activity called attention. To understand concentration we must first consider the more fundamental facts of attention.
In the evolution of the human race certain things have been so important for the individual and the race that re-
sponses toward them have become instruction. They appeal to every individual and attract his attention without fail. Thus moving objects, loud sounds, sudden contrasts and the like were ordinarily portents of evil to primitive man and his attention was drawn to them irresistibly. Even for us to pay attention to such objects requires no intention and no effort. Hence it is spoken of as passive involuntary attention.
The attention of animals and of children is practically confined to this passive form while adults are by no means free from it. For instance, ideas
and things to which I have no intention of turning my mind' attract me. Ripe fruit, gesticulating men, beautiful women, approaching holidays, and scores of other things simply pop up in my mind and enthrall my attention. My mind1 may be so concentrated upon these things that I become oblivious to pressing responsibilities. In some instances the concentration may be but momentary, in others there may result a day dream, a building of air castles, which lasts for a long time and recurs with distressing frequency.
Such attention is action in the line of least resistance. Though it ma} suffice for the acts of animals and children it is sadly deficient in our complex business life.
Even here, however, it is easy o relapse to the lower plane er activity and to respond to the appeal of the crier in the street, the incmvenier.ee of the heat, the news of Gc bad game, or a pleasing reverie or even to fall into a state of mental apathy. The warfare against these distractions is never wholly won. Banishing these allurements results in the concentration so essential for successfully handling business problems. The strain is not so much in solving the problems as in retaining the concentration of the mind.
When an effort of will enables us to overcome these distractions and apply our minds to the subject in hand, the strain soon repeats itself. It frequently happens that this struggle is continuous—particularly when the distractions are unusual or our physical condition is below the normal. No effort of the will is able to hold our minds down to work for any length of time unie?-: the task develops interesting in itself.
This attention with effort is known as voluntary attention. It i? die most exhausting act which any i lividual can perform. Strength of will consists in the power to resist distractions and to hold the mind down to even the most uninteresting occupations.
Fortunately for human achievements, acts which in the begin .ing require voluntary effort may later result without effort.
The school boy must struggle to keep his mind on such uninteresting things as the alphabet. Later he may become a literary man and find nothing attracts his attention so quickly as printed symbols. In commercial arithmetic the boy labors to fix his attention on dollar signs, and problems involving profit and loss. Launched in business, however, these things may attract him more than a foot ball game.
It is the outcome of previous application that we now attend without effort to many things in our civilization which differ from those of more primitive life. Such attention without effort is known as secondary passive attention. Examples are furnished by the geologist’s attention to the strata of the earth, the historian’s to original manuscripts, the manufacturer’s to byproducts, the merchant’s to distant customers, and the attention which we all give to printed symbols, and scores of other things unnoticed by our distant ancestors. Here our attention is similar to passive attention, though the latter was the resultof inheritance while our secondary passive attention results from our individual efforts and is the product of our training.
Through passive attention my concentration upon a “castle in Spain” may be perfect until destroyed by a fly on my nose. Voluntary attention may make my concentration upon the duty at hand entirely satisfactory till dissipated by some one entering my office. Secondary passive attention fixes my mind upon the adding of a column of figures and it may be distracted by a commotion in my vicinity. Thus concentration produced by any form of attention is easily destroyed by a legion of possible disturbances. If I desire to increase my concentration to the maximum, I must remove every possible cause of distraction.
Organized society has recognized the hindering effect of some distrae-
tions and has made halting attempts to abolish them.
Thus locomotives are prohibited from sounding whistles within city limits but power plants are permitted by noise and smoke to annoy every citizen in the vicinity. Street cars are forbidden to use flat wheels but are still allowed to run on the surface or on a resounding structure and thus become a public nuisance. Steam calliopes, newsboys, street venders and other unnecessary sources of noise are still tolerated.
In the design and construction of office buildings, stores and factories in noisy neighborhoods, too little consideration is given to existing means of excluding or deadening outside sounds, though the newer office buildings are examples of initiative in this direction: not only are they of soundproof construction ; in many instances they have replaced the noisy pavements of the streets with blocks which reduce the clatter to a minimum. In both improvements they have been emulated by some of the great retail stores which have shut out external noises and reduced those within to a point where they no longer distract the attention of clerks or customers from the business of selling and buying. In many, however, clerks are still forced to call aloud for cash girls or department managers and the handling of customers at elevators is attended by wholly unnecessary shouting and clash of equipment.
Of all distractions, sound is certainly the most common and the most insistent in its appeal.
The individual efforts towards reducing it quoted above were stimulated by the hope of immediate and tangible profit—sound-proof offices commanding higher rents and quiet stores attracting more customers. In not a few cases, manufacturers have gone deeper, however, recognizing that anything which claims the attention of an employee from his work reduces his efficiency and cuts profits even though he be a piece worker. In part this explains the migration of many indus-
tries to the smaller towns and the development of a new type of city factory with sound-proof walls and floors, windows sealed against noise and a system of mechanical ventilation.
The individual manufacturer or merchant, therefore, need not wait for a general crusade to abate the noise, the smoke and the other distractions which reduce his employe’s effectiveness. In no small measure he can shut out external noises and eliminate many of those within. Loud dictation, conversations, clicking typewriters, loud-ringing telephones can all be cut to a key which makes them virtually indistinguishable in an office of any size. More and more the big open office as an absorbent of sound seems to be gaining in favor. In one of the newest and largest of these I know, nearly all the typewriting machines are segregated in a glass-walled room and long distance telephone messages can be taken at any instrument in the great office.
Like sound in its imperative appeal for attention is the consciousness of strangers passing one’s desk or windows.
Movement of fellow employes about the department, unless excessive or unusual, is hardly noticed ; let an individual or a group with whom we are not acquainted come within the field of our vision and they claim attention immediately. For this reason shops or factories whose windows command a busy street find it profitable to use opaque glass to shut out the shifting scene.
This scheme of retreat and protection has been carried well-nigh to perfection by many individuals. Privateoffices guarded by secretaries fortify them against distractions and unauthorized claims on their attention both from within and without their organizations. Routine problems, in administration, production, distribution are never referred to them ; these are settled by department heads and only new or vital questions are submitted to the executive. In many large companies, besides the depart-
ment head's and secretaries who assume this load of routine, there are assistants to the president and the general manager who further reduce the demands upon their chiefs. The value of time, the effect of interruptions and distractions upon their own efficiency, are understood by countless executives who neglect to guard their employes against similar distractions.
Individual business men, unsupported by organizations, have worked out individual methods of self-protection.
One man postpones consideration of questions of policy, selling conditions and so on until the business of the day has been finished and interruptions from customers or employes are improbable. Another, with his stenographer, reaches his office half an hour earlier than his organization, and, picking out the day’s big task, has it well towards accomplishment before the usual distractions begin. The foremost electrical and mechanical engineer in the country, solves his most difficult and abstruse problems at home, at night. His organization provides a perfect defence against interruptions; but only in the silence, the isolation of his home at night does he find the complete absence of distraction permitting the absolute concentration which produces great results.
If I am anxious or need to develop the power of concentration upon what people say either in conversation or in public discourse, I may be helped by persistently and continuously forcing myself to attend. The habit of concentration may to a degree be thus acquired ; pursuing it, I should never allow myself to listen indifferently, but I must force myself to strict attention.
Such practice would result ultimately in a habit of concentration upon what I hear, but would not necessarily increase my power of concentration upon writing, adding or other activities. Specific training in each is essential and even then the results will be far short of what might be desired. Persistent effort in any direction is not without result, however, and any increase in concentration is so valu-
able that it is worth the effort it costs. If a man lacks power of concentration in any particular direction he should force concentration in that line and continue till a habit results.
Our control over our muscles and movements far exceeds our direct control over our attention. An attitude of concentration is possible, even when the desired mental process is not present. Thus by fixing my eyes on a page and keeping them adjusted for reading even when my mind is on a subject far removed, I can help my will to secure concentration. I can likewise restrain myself from picking up a newspaper or from chatting with a friend when it is the time for concentrated action on my work. By continuously resisting movements which tend to distract and by holding myself in the position of attention, the strain upon my will in forcing concentration becomes less.
Concentration is practically impossible when the brain is fagged or the bodily condition is far below the normal in any respect.
The connection between the body and the mind is most intimate and the perfect working of the body is necessary to the highest efficiency of the mind. The power of concentration is accordingly affected by surroundings in the hours of labor, by sleep and recreation, by the quality and quantity of food, and by every condition which affects the bodily processes favorably.
Recognition of this truth is behind the very general movement both here and abroad to provide the best possible conditions both in the factories and the home environment of workers. Concentration of physical forces, employers are coming more and more to understand1, means maximum output —the corollary of profits. The foundation, of course, is a clean, spacious, well-lighted and perfectly ventilated factory in a situation which affords pure air and accessibility to the homes of employes. In England and Germany the advance toward's this ideal has taken form in the “garden cities” of which the plant is the nucleus and
the support. In America there is no lack of industrial towns planned and built as carefully as the works to which they are tributary.
Some have added various “welfare” features, ranging from hot luncheons served at cost, free baths and medical attendance to night schools for employees to teach them how to live and work to better advantage. The profit comes back in the increased efficiency of. the employes.
Even though the health be perfect and the attitude of attention be sustained the will is unable to retain concentration by an effort for more than a few seconds at a time.
When the mind is concentrated upon an object, this object must devolop and prove interesting otherwise there will be required every few seconds the same tug of the will. This concentration by voluntary attention is essential, but cannot be permanent. To secure enduring concentration we may have to “pull ourselves together” occasionally, but the necessity for such efforts should be reduced. This is accomplished by developing interest in the task before us, through application of the fundamental motives such as selfpreservation, imitation, competition, loyalty, and the love of the game.
If the task before me is essential for my self-preservation, I will find my mind riveted upon it. If I hope to secure more from speculation than from the completion of my present tasks, then my self-preservation is not dependent upon my work and my mind will irresistibly be drawn to the stock market and the race track. If I want my work to be interesting and to compel my undivided attention, I should then try and make my work appeal to me as of more importance than anything else in the world. I must be dependent upon it for my income ; I must see that others are working and so imitate their action ; I must compete with others in the accomplishment of th« task ; I must regard the work as a service to the house ; and I must in every possible way try to “get into the game.”
This conversion of a difficult task into an interesting activity is the most fruitful method of securing concentration.
Efforts of will can never be dispensed with but the necessity for such efforts should be reduced to the minimum. The assumption of the attitude of attention should gradually become habitual during the hours of work and so take care of itself.
The methods which a business man must use to cultivate concentration in himself are also applicable to his employees. The manner of applying the methods is of course different. The employer may see to it that as far as possible all distractions are removed. He cannot directly cause his men to put forth voluntary effort but he can see to it that they retain the attitude of concentration. This may require the prohibition of acts which are distracting but which would otherwise seem indifferent. The employer has a duty in regard to the health of his men. Certain employers have assumed to regulate the lives of their men even after the day’s work is over. Bad habits have been prohibited; sanitary conditions of living have been provided ; hours of labor have been reduced ; vacations have been granted ; and sanitary conditions in shop and factory have been provided for.
Employers are finding it to their interest to make concentration easy for their men by rendering their work interesting.
This they have done by making the work seem worth while. The men are given living wages, the hope of promotion is not too long deferred1, attractive and efficient models for imitation are provided, friendly competition is encouraged, loyalty to the house is engendered, and love of the work inculcated. In addition, everything which hinders the development of interest in the work has been resisted.
How will a salesman, for instance, develop interest in his work if he makes more from his “side lines” than from the service he renders to the house which pays his expenses? How-
can the laborer be interested in his work if he believes that by gambling he can make more in an hour than he could by a month’s steady work? The successful shoemaker sticks to his last, the successful professional man keeps out of business, and1 the wise business man resists the temptation to speculate. Occasionally a man may be capable of carrying on diverse lines of business for himself, but the man is certainly a very great exception who can hold his attention to the interests of his employer when he expects to receive greater rewards from other sources.
The power of concentration depends in part upon inheritance and in part upon training.
Some individuals, like an Edison or a Roosevelt, seem to be constructed after the manner of a search light. All their energy may be turned in one direction and all the rest of the world disregarded. Others are what we call scatter brained. They are unable to attend completely to any one thing. They respond constantly to stimulation in the environment and to ideas which seem to “pop up” in their minds.
Some people can read a book or paper with perfect satisfaction even though companions around them are talking and laughing. For others such attempts are farcical.
Many great men are reputed to have had marvelous powers of concentration. When engaged in their work they became so absorbed in it that distracting thoughts had no access to their minds and even hunger, sleep, and salutations of friends have frequently been unable to divert the attention from the absorbing topic.
There are persons who cannot really work except in the midst of excitement.
When surrounded by numerous appeals to attention they get wakened up by resisting these attractions and find superfluous energy adequate to attend to the subject in hand. This is on the same principle which governs the effects of poisonous stimulants. Taken into the system, the whole
bodily activity is aroused in an attempt to expel the poison. Some of this abnormally awakened energy may be applied to uses other than those intended by nature. Hence some individuals are actually helped in their work at least temporarily by the use of stimulants'. Most of the energy is, of course, required to expel the poison and hence the method of generating the energy is uneconomical.
The men who find that they can accomplish the most work and concentrate themselves upon it the most perfectly when in the midst of noise and confusion are paying a great price for the increase of energy, available for profitable work. To be dependent on confusion for the necessary stimulation is abnormal and expensive. Rapid exhaustion and a shortened life result. It is a bad habit and nothing more.
Many persons seem able to disregard the common and necessary distractions of office, store or factory.
With such persons energy is necessary for overcoming the distractions. Other persons are so constituted that these distractions can never be overcome. Such persons can not hear a message through a telephone when others in the room are talking; they cannot dictate a letter if a third person is within hearing; they cannot add a column of figures when others are talking. Habit and effort may reduce such disability but in some instances it will never even approximately eliminate it. Such persons may be very efficient employes and their inability to concentrate in the presence of distractions should be respected. Every business man is careful to locate every piece of machinery where it will work best but equal care has not been given to locating men where they may work to the greatest advantage.
By inheritance the power of concentration differs greatly among intelligent persons. By training, those with defective power may improve but will never perfect the power to concentrate amidst distractions. To subject such persons to distraction's is an unwise expenditure of energy.