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