Productivity - Achievement Zone

W HEN A KNOCK SOUNDED ON HER OFFICE DOOR, Alma Triner looked up, startled—and noticed that it was dark outside. She hadn’t even had lunch! Her boss opened the door and put his head inside. “Want a ride to the party?” he asked.

For a moment, Triner was surprised. Then her mind shifted gears. A vice president of the international consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. she was expected at a dinner party for the firm’s top executives. But she hadn’t thought about it for hours. Since morning, she’d been working on a presentation for a client. As the ideas and words came smoothly, everything else had escaped her. “I was getting so much accomplished,” she recalled later. “Every sentence, every concept felt just right. I was hardly aware of what I was doing.”

Alma Triner had been in her zone — a term often used by athletes to describe being so zeroed in on a task that they are oblivious to distractions. Absorbed by her project, Triner was able to ignore jangling telephones, hunger pangs, even the march of time. And she had not only produced top quality work but had done so in less time than it would have taken many equally talented competitors. The ability to devote unswerving attention to a task can produce success in any field. On the other hand, being unable to stay in a zone can turn a sure winner into an also-ran. At the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials, decathlon star Dan O’Brien began by setting such a record pace in the contest’s events that a place on the team seemed certain. That’s when he relaxed and stumbl-ed in the pole vault—failing to clear a height that he had reached hundreds of times before. Unable, as he admitted later, to “get his head together,” he tried and failed twice more. Despite O’Brien’s physical abilities, a mental lapse had dashed his Olympic hopes.

Most of us can sympathize with O’Brien. You’ve probably had those frustrating times when you couldn’t seem to get your brain going. You ye sat blankly in front of the computer screen, struggling to find the right words. You’ve stared at the budget figures, unable to get your mind around them. And yet you’ve also known states of high concentration—when you’ve gotten your best work done at a fast pace. How can you get yourself into your most productive state, your own personal zone?

Psychologists who have worked in the field of maximum performance, and neur-ologists who’ve studied what happens to the brain in such states, provide useful advice.

           Practice, practice. Does mental focus develop the part of the brain used in the task, just as physical exercise builds up the muscles? Psychology professor Michael Posner of the University of Oregon used PET scans and electroencephal-ograms to trace the brain activity of people focused on given tasks. Trying a task for the first time increased blood flow and electrical activity in the brain. But as the subjects became accomplished, brain blood flow and electrical discharges decreased. The more we practice concentration, Posner believes, the less brain activity is necessary. And mental skills perfected in one area can be transferred to others.

“The key,” says Louis Csoka, who taught concentration to future battlefield commanders at West Point, “is to learn to overcome noise’ and interference, whether internal or external.” For example, if you’re a Jazz lover, you might practice by turning on some music and listening only to the alto saxophone, blocking out all the other instruments or vocals. If you’re a football fan, practice by looking at only the left outside linebacker.

           Follow a ritual. On operating-room days, California oral surgeon Al Steunenberg always rises at the same hour, drives to work by the same route and parks in the same parking place. He dons his scrub suit top first, then the pants; washes the right hand first, then the left; moves to exactly the same position beside the patient. It’s not superstition. In following his ritual, the surgeon systematically focuses on the task ahead. By the time he is ready to operate, he is completely in his zone. “It’s like an athlete or a priest before a ceremony, says Mihaly Csikszentmi-halyi, professor of human development at the University of Chicago and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “Habitual behavior makes it easier for them to devote their undivided attention to the challenge ahead. The ritual activity re-calibrates the mind.” A ritual can be created for just about any task. If you hate balancing your check-book, establish a sequence: clear off your desk; lay pencils on your left and calculator on your right; open the bank statement. The ritual will ease the transition to the unwelcome chore.

          • Invent challenges. A hundred years ago, pioneer psychologist William

James declared that humans use only a tiny part of their potential. All too many of our tasks are routine or tedious. Then the brain operates almost on idle. The result can be careless mistakes or dragged-out drudgery because we cant get with it.

The perfect state of flow, or zoning, Csikszentmihalyi explains, occurs when our skills exactly measure up to the challenges confronting us. Therefore, says Csikszentmihalyi, the way to get a dull but simple job done easily is to make it harder. Turn a boring task into a challenging game, so that you engage all your potential. Invent rules, set goals, pace yourself against a clock. The increased challenge may be what nudges you into your zone.

I was once asked to write an introduction to a series of articles on litigation. Words came slowly as I plugged away at a topic that didn’t inspire me. I made numerous trips to the coffeepot. Then the magazine’s art director phoned to say he’d created an eye-catching design for the article, drawing a gavel bent into the letter J. Could the first word of the article begin with J? I not only accepted the challenge, but added one of my own: Could every paragraph begin with J? Using such words as Justice, Jurisprudence and John Marshall, I managed nine - - paragraphs. By engaging my attention, the contest expedited the task.

          • Talk to yourself . As you install that drip irrigation system in your rose bed, tell yourself, “The line to the hose bib goes here. About six feet, then the first emitter.... Verbalizing keeps your mind on the task, reinforces the steps you’re taking, and reminds you of what needs to be done. Self-talk can also serve as “white noise,” taking your mind off distracting stimuli. A young ski racer, bothered by spectators and blowing snow, was having a dis-appointing competition when his coach pulled him aside. “Look ahead,” the coach said, reminding the skier to focus on the gates ahead as he skied the ones before. Repeating the phrase like a mantra —”Look ahead, look ahead, look ahead”—the skier focused his attention and won a medal.

The benefits of talking to yourself have been confirmed in an activity as exotic as walking barefoot on red-hot coals. Ron Pekala, of the Mid-Atlantic Educational Institute in Chester, Pa., studied 27 people who had traversed a glowing fire bed heated to more than 1200 degrees. Those who were distracted were likely to end up with blistered feet. But those who became absorbed in repeating a phrase such as “cool moss, cool moss” emerged without burns. “I just remember walking on something like warm potato chips,” one said. “Focusing on the words kept them in one-point concentration,” Pekala says. “The others’ attention was divided, and they suffered as a result.”

          • Forget tomorrow. You can’t wait to see your boss’s smile when you submit that flawless report on time. Or perhaps you’re nagged by the worry that he won’t like it. “Preoccupation with outcomes makes us mindless,” says Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. When you let your thoughts drift to the future, you go right out of your zone—and take your concentration with you.

Dallas Cowboys lineman Leon Lett learned that the hard way. Lett, a defensive tackle, had not scored a touchdown since he was a ten-year-old. But in the 1993 Super Bowl, he got his chance when the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback fumbled right in front of him. Lett scooped up the ball and headed for the goal line, 64 yards away. There was no one between him and a sure six points. Crossingthe ten-yard line, Lett threw out his arms in jubilation, the ball in one out-stretched paw. He never heard the pursuing footsteps of Bills wide receiver Don Beebe. At the one-yard line, Beebe reached out and knocked the ball from Lett’s grasp, ending the lineman’s premature triumph.

Focusing on the future instead of the present can cripple any activity. “A top tennis player thinks about making a good shot, not about winning the match,” says psychologist John E. Anderson, president of the Center for Sports Psychology. “One good shot followed by another good shot will win the match.” To keep in your zone, stay zeroed in on the here and now.

          • Interrupt yourself . Sometimes a short break can actually help you get a job done faster. When stress threatens your concentration, take a deep breath and picture yourself in a calm environment. Or bend over, and let your arms dangle, relaxing all your muscles. Sound can also help. You can buy relaxation tapes or make your own, selecting whatever sounds you find soothing. After you’ve unwound, go back to the job. But when you’ve finished, don’t immediately plunge into the next task on your list. “Take a break for a while,” Csikszentmihalyi advises, and give yourself a chance to rejuvenate.



Published monthly by:

          The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

          Pleasantville, N.Y. 10507

                    Vol. 147, No. 880, August 1995,

                    Copyright @ 1995, (pgs. 171-176)

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