Even the smartest peo­ple some­times strug­gle to stay in the zone. What tricks do they use to get back on track? Tips from a Cam­bridge don to a cross­word set­ter

Friday - - CONTENTS -

Fo­cus. We ask ev­ery­one from a cross­word set­ter and a Cam­bridge pro­fes­sor to an ac­tor, a space sci­en­tist and a cab driver.

Mary Beard

Pro­fes­sor of clas­sics at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge

Most of the essen­tials of my job come down to con­cen­tra­tion and fo­cus. It is not a mat­ter of me­mory, but of how best to use and de­ploy what one has re­mem­bered. That is true if, for ex­am­ple, you are mark­ing a stu­dent’s es­say. It is not a ques­tion of see­ing what they get wrong or right (my sub­ject isn’t re­ally about that, oth­ers may be). It is about see­ing what the stu­dent was try­ing to ar­gue, and how they could make it bet­ter and more con­vinc­ing. That sounds sim­ple, but it re­quires a hell of a lot of thought. The same is true of lec­tur­ing, or writ­ing the chap­ter of a book. It is all about how you can use what you know to make the most pow­er­ful case, to en­gage peo­ple’s in­ter­est, or to show why what you want to say is im­por­tant.

When it comes to tech­niques that help me fo­cus, some­times con­cen­tra­tion is helped by loos­en­ing up a bit (though not too much). Some­times it is helped by tak­ing a break. I am not ad­vo­cat­ing lazi­ness. But it takes a very long time to learn that sim­ply plough­ing on, hour af­ter hour, isn’t the most pro­duc­tive thing to do (as I al­ways tell my stu­dents, more marks are lost in ex­ams by be­ing tired than by not know­ing enough). And you have to keep your in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est up. You won’t re­mem­ber ideas ef­fec­tively if you are not ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in them.

The most im­por­tant les­son I have learned when it comes to writ­ing or con­vey­ing dif­fi­cult ideas is this: if you sit all morn­ing and find your­self hav­ing re­peated at­tempts to crys­tallise some­thing and it never works, and you just hit the delete but­ton again and again, the prob­lem is prob­a­bly a big­ger one. It’s not that you can’t crys­tallise it on pa­per, it’s that you haven’t re­ally worked out what you want to say. Why it never works is be­cause you haven’t yet mas­tered the ques­tion. So it’s time to go back to the draw­ing board.


Guardian cross­word set­ter

I find that just be­fore giv­ing any talk at an event I de­clare to my­self how it’s go­ing to go. Much like when we go to a party and we de­cide be­fore­hand that it’s go­ing to be rub­bish – and it is. We can also de­cide it’s go­ing to be great. That’s the power of words. We get to say how our life goes.

I was giv­ing a TedxTalk at the Royal Al­bert Hall in front of 4,500 peo­ple, just me on stage with a mem­o­rised eight-minute piece to say on how word­play can bring peo­ple to­gether.

Twenty min­utes be­fore I was due to go on, I got lost in the cor­ri­dors be­hind the stage while try­ing to find the loos and I just about found my way back to the green room. Then there was a prob­lem with my mi­cro­phone get­ting clipped on my back-stage pass, which I was try­ing to bite through with my teeth to re­lease. With

mo­ments to go, my wife looked at me as if to say: ‘You look scared.’

She was right. As soon as I re­alised what my face looked like, that was an op­por­tu­nity to stop be­ing so sig­nif­i­cant! As soon as we re­alise some­thing doesn’t re­ally mat­ter in the great scheme of things, we can re­lax. I said to my­self: ‘This is go­ing to be fun,’ and stepped on to the stage.

Re­gard­ing el­e­ments of my work and con­cen­tra­tion, I find play­ing short-term games works. For ex­am­ple, if I have 30 clues to write in a puz­zle, I might plan to do six ev­ery hour. I can even set an alarm to give me a five-minute warn­ing. Am I win­ning? Am I los­ing? If I lose, I could al­ways win the next game ... It’s fun. I some­times run marathons too. My sec­ond Lon­don Marathon was the worst ex­pe­ri­ence. I was think­ing of the fin­ish from mile one. And it seemed a long, long way! Play­ing 26 games to the mile­posts was much more fun on the next marathons.

Liv Bo­eree

Poker cham­pion and sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor The ma­jor test for play­ing good poker is to be as ra­tio­nal as pos­si­ble. So emo­tions are gen­er­ally the worst thing for a poker player. Whether it’s fear, ex­cite­ment or anger, they all cloud your judg­ment be­cause they make you mo­ti­vated to come to a de­ci­sion, rather than re­alise the truth of the sit­u­a­tion. You’re try­ing to be a judge, eval­u­at­ing all these bits of ev­i­dence, but if you let your emo­tions get in the way, you’ll start to look for things that might not be there; for ex­am­ple, think­ing an­other player might be bluff­ing, rather than pin­point­ing the ob­jec­tive truth. Emo­tions can be help­ful in in­spir­ing us to want to be bet­ter, but for in-game de­ci­sion­mak­ing you want to find a way to mas­ter them and keep a cool head.

Imag­ine be­ing in a big tour­na­ment. You start off with a 1,000 chips, you lose a big hand and you’re down to 500. An­other player jumps up from 250 chips to 500. You’ll both be in a very dif­fer­ent mind­set even though you both have the same num­ber of chips. So you need to find a way to men­tally de­tach your­self from things that have hap­pened his­tor­i­cally that might make you emo­tion­ally up­set.

I was re­ally tested in this way on the ma­jor fi­nal ta­ble at the Euro­pean poker tour. I had the com­mand­ing chip lead, lost a hand badly and men­tally just went to pieces. I re­mem­ber hav­ing this very an­gry di­a­logue in my head – it felt like a weird in­jus­tice. I had to recog­nise that I was in this emo­tional state – which is of­ten the hard­est part – but as soon as I re­alised, I could ad­dress it. I told my­self: ‘This is re­ally im­por­tant, and not the time to fo­cus on past er­rors.’ I took a mo­ment

Whether it’s fear, ex­cite­ment or anger, they all cloud your judg­ment be­cause they make you mo­ti­vated to come to a de­ci­sion

to breathe and did a lit­tle grat­i­tude thing, telling my­self how lucky I am right now to be in this sit­u­a­tion. Then I did a big pic­ture grat­i­tude thing – telling my­self I should to be grate­ful I was born in the 1980s rather than the 1600s when ev­ery­one was dy­ing of any­thing – that kind of thing.

I found it a re­ally good way to get some in­stant per­spec­tive. Any­thing like that will just get you out of that emo­tional state and back to your ob­jec­tive. And ... I ended up win­ning. It’s a very low cost thing to try, even if it doesn’t work out you might have a mo­ment when you feel bet­ter about the sit­u­a­tion.

In gen­eral, if I know that I have some­thing im­por­tant com­ing up, the most pow­er­ful thing I can do is a bit of med­i­ta­tion. Even a walk in the park where you stand bare­foot – I find it makes you feel re­ally present, just stand­ing like a weirdo in the park for 10 min­utes, fo­cus­ing on your breath. That re­ally sets you up well for the day, whether it’s play­ing poker, or any­thing else.

Suzanne Ber­tish

RSC ac­tor play­ing Agamem­non in Troilus and


Learn­ing lines is a bore, pe­riod. For me, on stage, phys­i­cal­ity helps. So the lines are in my body as well. When learn­ing for a play, I tell my­self I have to know these lines by such and such time. Or that I’ll get to page 20 by the end of the week, page 40 by the sec­ond week ... I give my­self a frame­work and a goal. I re­mem­ber, years ago, some­one telling me to put the script un­der my pil­low. That may be a myth, but I do think learn­ing last thing at night and first thing in the morn­ing works. I’d say my con­cen­tra­tion is good but my me­mory less good. I take a sup­ple­ment called gingko biloba and I take lecithin. I think

those sup­ple­ments help too.

It’s im­por­tant to make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween learn­ing for the long term, for a play, and cram­ming for the short term like ac­tors do for film and tele­vi­sion. There’s a sub­tle dif­fer­ence, but for a play you re­ally have to get it in you. And it’s not im­pro­vi­sa­tional; you have to say what’s on the page. You have to be ac­cu­rate.

With live the­atre, there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that you’re go­ing to go blank. And it’s re­ally, re­ally fright­en­ing. Once I was per­form­ing in the Cherry Or­chard at the Na­tional The­atre and I had a speech. I knew it, I’d done it a mil­lion times, but I said the first two lines and just went blank. I didn’t have a clue what I was go­ing to say. There was this long, long pause, it was hor­rific, I wanted to die in that mo­ment, you’re so ex­posed. Even­tu­ally I said, in char­ac­ter: ‘What do I say? What do I say?’ and it came back to me. In those few min­utes the whole speech was just flash­ing through my brain. I did get back on track, but it was hor­ri­ble. I don’t know why it hap­pened.

Me­mory can be just so mys­te­ri­ous. My god­fa­ther had a pho­to­graphic me­mory and to­tal re­call. I re­mem­ber my mother say­ing it was the freaki­est thing, the first time he vis­ited Lon­don – he’d just looked at a few maps and knew his way round bet­ter than she did, and she lived there.

But I do be­lieve the part of your mind that works for me­mory is like a mus­cle and the more you work it, the bet­ter it be­comes.

Lu­cie Green

Space sci­en­tist and broad­caster

My job is quite var­ied as an aca­demic. I could be writ­ing a com­puter pro­gram, read­ing long, de­tailed math­e­mat­i­cal re­search pa­pers or con­duct­ing my own re­search. One of my most com­plex chal­lenges was work­ing on a Euro­pean Space Agency mis­sion to plan a satel­lite that could make more ac­cu­rate fore­casts for space weather. It re­quired hav­ing to think of lots of new things at the same time with­out im­me­di­ately know­ing what the path is to work out the an­swers to the ques­tions we were fac­ing.

I’m quite keen on phys­i­cal space to give me men­tal space. That’s re­flected in the place I work. I work at the UCL Mullard Space Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory. It’s in a Vic­to­rian man­sion in the Sur­rey hills, so we’ve got an aw­ful lot of coun­try­side around us and the prop­erty sits in grounds with many acres. I have a view of the South Downs. I like the feel­ing of open phys­i­cal space and not feel­ing con­strained, which helps me fo­cus. At home, I work in the big­gest room with the most light, so I don’t feel boxed in.

I tend to lis­ten to baroque mu­sic when I work. I like or­dered, very def­i­nite beats in the mu­sic I lis­ten to. That can cre­ate a sound­scape that stops me get­ting dis­tracted by other noises. I’m not mo­ti­vated by hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar com­poser or piece of mu­sic, I want it to be a bar­rier that sur­rounds me and stops the dis­trac­tions of the out­side world com­ing in. There’s some­thing use­ful about hav­ing un­fa­mil­iar mu­sic so it doesn’t draw too much of your at­ten­tion.

Robert Lor­dan

Cab driver and au­thor

What re­ally tests me on a daily ba­sis are the anom­alies which the pub­lic throw at you. Many pas­sen­gers get ar­eas and road names con­fused. They may use col­lo­quial names or aren’t even en­tirely sure of their des­ti­na­tion, hav­ing only a vague de­scrip­tion to go on. In such cases a lot of fo­cus is re­quired in or­der to en­sure your fare ends up at the cor­rect place.

But learn­ing the Knowl­edge [Knowl­edge of Lon­don is the in-depth study of a num­ber of pre-set Lon­don street routes and all places of in­ter­est] tested my abil­ity to fo­cus more than any­thing. You’re as­sessed in a se­ries of one-on-one ver­bal ex­ams; I had to en­dure 27 of them. Now and then an ex­am­iner will prod your tem­per­a­ment and so, while an­swer­ing ques­tions, they’ll try and throw you. In my own ex­pe­ri­ence this in­volved, among other things, hav­ing a book hurled across the room while I was speak­ing. They play quite a few other psy­cho­log­i­cal tricks, too. When you fi­nally be­come a cab­bie, you quickly re­alise that the Knowl­edge ex­am­in­ers were in fact pro­vid­ing a sim­u­la­tion of sorts, pre­par­ing you for a ca­reer which is of­ten spent think­ing un­der pres­sure.

There are quite a few tech­niques trainee cabbies use. For me, the most prac­ti­cal trick was to em­ploy acronyms and mnemon­ics. As well as pro­vid­ing me with the tools to latch on to lo­cal maps and land­marks, the me­mory tech­niques I’ve ac­quired also pro­vide a real boost when learn­ing key phrases in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage.

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