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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Amazing Powers of Concentration

Comments (8)

Tim O’Reilly tweeted a link to an article titled How To Concentrate which was originally published in 1930.  It is excellent and worth reading slowly (presumably while you are concentrating.)

Amy often tells me that I have "Amazing Powers of Concentration."  If you are a Pink Floyd fan, you will get the subtle reference to a line from Nobody Home.  The line is actually "And Amazing Powers of Observation", but Amy is generously applying it to my actual skill.  Entertainingly (as in circus trick) I have a second amazing power – that of "total recall of the last thing someone said to me while I was concentrating on something else."  I use this very effectively in my marriage.

I’ve never really understood the phrase "I’m thinking."  It’s too abstract for me.  I like to think I think all the time.  So "I’m thinking" doesn’t feel like it applies to anything.  For example, when "I’m running", it’s pretty clear what I’m doing.  "I’m thinking" – not so much so.

However, "I’m concentrating" definitely means something to me.  I have different levels of concentration such as:

  • Extended: I’m working on something that takes many months to do like – say – raising a new venture capital fund or running a marathon in every state in the US.
  • Intense: I’m working on something that takes longer than 15 minutes to do.
  • Deep: I’m working on something that takes a few minutes to complete but requires a lot of mental horsepower to figure out.

As I read through the How To Concentrate article, I realized that many of the things applied to my ability to have amazing powers of concentration.  The article is a short one.  Read it – it should only take a few minutes.  The sections are titled:

  • "Concentration is the Most Important Intellectual Habit of Man."
  • This ONE THING I Do
  • Aids to Concentration
  • Periodical Relaxation
  • Mental Freedom
  • The Proper Environment
  • A Definite Schedule

Consider each section and what you have done to set up your life so you can have amazing powers of concentration.

  • Nikolaus Bauman

    “Entertainingly (as in circus trick) I have a second amazing power – that of “total recall of the last thing someone said to me while I was concentrating on something else.” I use this very effectively in my marriage.”

    This is the phonological loop, or more specifically, the phonological buffer store. In my marriage, I get called out on it all the time :-).

    • http://www.owocki.com/ Kevin Owocki

      You should ask Brad about his 'magic eight ball' trick, for his responses to questions he did not hear.

  • Nadine

    Coincidently, I just read an article (and mentioned it in my blog) in the July/Aug issue of Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Along the same lines of ability to concentrate for a period of time. MANY people in my life don't quite understand my need for thinking time. I tend to have to escape for a walk, lock myself in the car — or other small private spaces!
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

  • http://joeduck.com Joseph Hunkins

    Ha – I also like to use that “last comment” trick, but I think my wife's figured it out. I don't get much mileage out of that one anymore.

  • sigmawaite

    One way to help concentration is to resist reading and posting to Brad's blog! But since my program just compiled, I'll take a break from work!

    Aids in concentration:

    (1) Be working on a problem that is important and/or that you like.

    (2) Work in a room with few distractions so that the work is the most interesting thing there. Making progress can help holding the concentration.

    (3) For most of my best work, I can't do it all in one sitting and have to return off and on over days or weeks. So, have to keep up 'concentration' by returning frequently enough. A way to do this is just to get quite 'immersed' in the problem.

    (4) If thoroughly immersed in the problem, then 30 minutes thinking while horizontal on a sofa can sometimes give a 'turbo boost' that will get you over the top!

    In part I learned how to concentrate by working in mathematics, from plane geometry through Ph.D. and since. An advantage here is that, with proofs and counterexamples, often can tell if the work is correct and, thus, test the concentration techniques. The exercises in Kelley's 'General Topology' help build 'character' and maybe concentration!

    To get good results, it's also important to make good use of the concentrated effort. Here in original work in mathematics I found:

    (1) Look at some very simple special cases first and see how those go.

    (2) Accumulate a lot of intuitive views.

    (3) With these views, have some wild bright ideas and test them with some simple examples; thus, begin to delineate what is true and false.

    (4) To save time, do the work mostly between ears and write little or nothing until have some significant results; yes, this is easy since mostly the important derivations are simple and not long manipulations that go for pages.

    (5) Look for some general, simplifying ideas; these can lead to stronger and more general results.

    (6) Don't get stuck, and one way is to climb back up to 40,000 feet to the big picture again. Indeed, don't descend to some particular ground level details too soon.

    The A. Wiles (Fermat's last theorem) description of going from room to room, turning the lights on one room at a time, was also good.

  • http://blog.jparkhill.com Jay Parkhill

    I think I am going to tape this line from the article right above the screen on my laptop:

    “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.”

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Tom

    I hear young people (particularly internet people) say all the time that they're “multi-tasking”. I don't believe it, and never have; I just can't figure out if it's brilliant or lame to cite an ancient 1930 quote: ” time and energy are lost not so much on the operation itself as in passing from one operation to another.”

  • gregorylent

    that you have good powers of concentration means you are not disturbed by unnecessary mental activity …. and thinking, in the sense of being with an idea, is an inward listening process.

    thoughts are a disease in the yogi world, in the same sense as worry or anxiety. having no thoughts allows one to see what is, without prejudice or limitation.

    being a witness of one's thoughts leads to becoming aware of awareness itself, awareness without object, i.e. pure subject, and that opens a door into what people call enlightenment, being aware of the self while being aware of the world.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ncnorth ncnorth

    Coincidently, I just read an article (and mentioned it in my blog) in the July/Aug issue of Atlantic Monthly, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Along the same lines of ability to concentrate for a period of time. MANY people in my life don't quite understand my need for thinking time. I tend to have to escape for a walk, lock myself in the car — or other small private spaces!
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/joseph_hun22281 joseph_hun22281

    Ha – I also like to use that "last comment" trick, but I think my wife's figured it out. I don't get much mileage out of that one anymore.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/sigmawaite sigmawaite

    One way to help concentration is to resist reading and posting to Brad's blog! But since my program just compiled, I'll take a break from work!

    Aids in concentration:

    (1) Be working on a problem that is important and/or that you like.

    (2) Work in a room with few distractions so that the work is the most interesting thing there. Making progress can help holding the concentration.

    (3) For most of my best work, I can't do it all in one sitting and have to return off and on over days or weeks. So, have to keep up 'concentration' by returning frequently enough. A way to do this is just to get quite 'immersed' in the problem.

    (4) If thoroughly immersed in the problem, then 30 minutes thinking while horizontal on a sofa can sometimes give a 'turbo boost' that will get you over the top!

    In part I learned how to concentrate by working in mathematics, from plane geometry through Ph.D. and since. An advantage here is that, with proofs and counterexamples, often can tell if the work is correct and, thus, test the concentration techniques. The exercises in Kelley's 'General Topology' help build 'character' and maybe concentration!

    To get good results, it's also important to make good use of the concentrated effort. Here in original work in mathematics I found:

    (1) Look at some very simple special cases first and see how those go.

    (2) Accumulate a lot of intuitive views.

    (3) With these views, have some wild bright ideas and test them with some simple examples; thus, begin to delineate what is true and false.

    (4) To save time, do the work mostly between ears and write little or nothing until have some significant results; yes, this is easy since mostly the important derivations are simple and not long manipulations that go for pages.

    (5) Look for some general, simplifying ideas; these can lead to stronger and more general results.

    (6) Don't get stuck, and one way is to climb back up to 40,000 feet to the big picture again. Indeed, don't descend to some particular ground level details too soon.

    The A. Wiles (Fermat's last theorem) description of going from room to room, turning the lights on one room at a time, was also good.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/nbauman nbauman

    "Entertainingly (as in circus trick) I have a second amazing power – that of "total recall of the last thing someone said to me while I was concentrating on something else." I use this very effectively in my marriage."

    This is the phonological loop, or more specifically, the phonological buffer store. In my marriage, I get called out on it all the time :-).

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jay_parkhil2393 jay_parkhil2393

    I think I am going to tape this line from the article right above the screen on my laptop:

    "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."

    Thanks for posting this.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/tom tom

    I hear young people (particularly internet people) say all the time that they're "multi-tasking". I don't believe it, and never have; I just can't figure out if it's brilliant or lame to cite an ancient 1930 quote: " time and energy are lost not so much on the operation itself as in passing from one operation to another."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/gregorylent gregorylent

    that you have good powers of concentration means you are not disturbed by unnecessary mental activity …. and thinking, in the sense of being with an idea, is an inward listening process.

    thoughts are a disease in the yogi world, in the same sense as worry or anxiety. having no thoughts allows one to see what is, without prejudice or limitation.

    being a witness of one's thoughts leads to becoming aware of awareness itself, awareness without object, i.e. pure subject, and that opens a door into what people call enlightenment, being aware of the self while being aware of the world.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ignighter36531 ignighter36531

    You should ask Brad about his 'magic eight ball' trick, for his responses to questions he did not hear.

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