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A focused mind brings success

Nov 28, 2004 Success, Sunday Nation

We’re all very busy, aren’t we? At least those of us with jobs and businesses are. This is the paradox of modern Kenya: a large number of citizens sit idle, unemployed or under-utilised; simultaneously, a small number of workers are buzzing around like deranged bumble bees, seemingly carrying the weight of the entire economy on their shoulders.

The busy people are amazingly busy. They run around juggling projects and deadlines with remarkable dexterity. At any given time, they will be reading a set of figures, writing a briefing paper, responding to e-mails and gulping coffee – whilst simultaneously barking on a phone. They start early and finish late every single day. They work weekends. They defer leave.

All of this is worn like a badge of honour. People take great pride in being busy and in having “no time”. Being busy is equated with being important. The higher up you are in an organisation, the more ridiculously busy you must appear to be. Having free time is the kiss of death. As you climb up the ladder, you must have less and less of it. When you get to the top, you must have no time to do absolutely anything.

Are these remarkably busy people sustaining the economy? Are they at the centre of our economic growth? They would certainly like to think so. They would like to tell us that by doing ten things at the same time, they are generating GDP. That by working past midnight, they are baking the national cake.

The reality may be a little different. True productivity comes from stillness, not from frenzied activity. We do our best work when we are wholly absorbed in a task. For most of us, total absorption is something we have not experienced. When you sit down to do something important, what happens? First, the phone rings. You answer, and the mind is immediately taken down an altogether different path. When you hang up, you start thinking about that unkind thing your spouse said in the morning. And then about the other dozen tasks that have not yet been done. And how nice it would be to have a doughnut right now. And the strange colour of the coffee cup. And whether that important e-mail has come through. And whether everyone in the office is looking at you. An hour later, progress made on the task at hand is close to nil.

Is it any wonder we have to start early and work late? We do not work ridiculous hours because we are great; we do so because we are absurdly unproductive.

Real productivity comes from what the spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran called “one-pointedness”. The mind is an instrument, he said, whose control we relinquish at our peril. If random thoughts come tumbling into our heads all the time, we will never make any headway in life. Like light focused through a lens onto a single point, we must focus our mental energy on one thing at a time. A diffuse mind takes you round in ever-widening circles. Only those who have understood this are capable of sustained endeavour.

The diffuse mind is always at war with itself. Part of it tries to do some real work; another part tries to chase every possible distraction. Energy is consumed in this process, and the restless-minded often complain of fatigue, listlessness, inattention and even boredom. Meanwhile the clock keeps ticking, and a hundred deadlines approach; in the end we panic and produce something, anything, just to get relief from unbearable tension. The result is mediocrity.

If you study most of the great achievers of our species, the common trait of one-pointedness usually shines through. From Einstein to Mandela, the high performers have known what they have to do: focus the attention. We don’t even have to go far to observe this. If you spend any time in the company of our Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, you will notice that no matter how small or inconsequential a personage you might be, her attention during the time she is with you is entirely on you. She is not thinking about a dozen other engagements; she is listening and talking to you. Look at her remarkable list of achievements, and see the power of her one-pointedness.

Most of the rest of us Kenyans, sadly, seem naturally multi-pointed. In addition to the day job, many of us have two or three side businesses we are running on the quiet. Our businessmen are obsessive believers in conglomerates: a man of means must be into anything and everything, from financial institutions to farms to fast food. On the roads, you will see Kenyans driving whilst simultaneously fiddling with the radio, reading the paper, eating a mandazi, speaking on the mobile phone and negotiating with a roadside vendor who is running alongside the vehicle. In the home, you will notice obsessive channel flicking – we cannot watch one channel without wondering what we’re missing on the other side. Accomplished males cannot even focus on one wife; an extra two or three (legal or extra-legal) are a hallmark of success in our world.

We have one of the highest levels of road deaths in the world, and amongst the lowest levels of productivity. Surprised?

The story is often told of the successful multi-tasking businessman who hears of a great sage. Intrigued (and a little irritated) by tales of the sage’s greatness, he decides to go and see what makes this man so eminent. He goes secretly to the sage’s rural home, and watches from a distance. At the end of the day, he confronts the wise man with an outburst. “I have observed you all day”, he says, “and there is nothing special about you. Like me, you get up early, go for a walk, eat your meals, do your work, and go to sleep! What on earth is so great about that?”

The sage looks at him and smiles. “There is a small difference”, he says to the businessman. “It is true that we do all the same things every day. However, when I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat. When I work, I do nothing but work. And when I sleep, I really sleep. In your case, you think about work while you walk, eat while you work, talk while you eat, and cannot sleep while sleeping!”

We must all learn the lesson of going deep and not just floating on the surface of the lake of consciousness. There is more to life than pointless distractions. Focused attention is a key source of joy. The pieces of work that we can look back on with pride are always the ones where we worked with a focused mind. The songs, movies or works of art that we enjoyed most in life were the ones that received our undivided attention. When the mind is still, we hear the notes of birds in the trees, and see the textures on leaves. A new plane of awareness opens up before us. A richer life becomes available.

So, then. What was this article about?

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