Founders: Overcome 'The tyranny of the scattered mind'!

New York Times columnist David Brooks is one of my favorites. Without fail, Brooks’ weekly observations on human behavior transcend his mandate as a political and economics commentator, delivering lessons on leadership, ambition, strategy and failure relevant to anyone — especially founders. (See our post on Brook’s recent column about behavioral breakdown among high-achievers called The Rank-Link Imbalance.)

Yesterday’s column, “Pitching With Purpose” has particular value. It’s about prioritizing task-oriented discipline — above even courage or creativity — to affect change in your work. In Brooks’ demonstration, ‘the work’ happens to be Major League pitching, but as he writes, “it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the pitching mound.”

We all have a success dogma that pays mental homage (or at least lip service!) to discipline. Brooks’ writes that this isn’t good enough:

you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.

Discipline your behavior. Affect the mind. Affect change. Sounds easy enough…

Brooks refers to the book “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” by sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman, who forced behavioral regimens on his clients, including “rituals” and “repetition,” to cure pitchers who suffered for “thinking about a thousand and one things up on the mound.” Low and behold, by freeing pitchers of their “mental tyranny,” Dorfman improved their performance, too.

Being consummate multi-taskers, founders no doubt suffer the “mental tyranny” of thinking about 1,001 things, when what you really should be thinking about is only the task at hand (strike zone!).

Happily, there are several tips in Brooks’ essay to help you “free your mind”:

1) Repetition isn’t enough. Sometimes you gotta pretend.

Just as a bike is better balanced when it is going forward, a pitcher’s mind is better balanced when it is unceasingly aggressive. If a pitcher doesn’t actually feel this way when he enters a game, Dorfman asks him to pretend. If your body impersonates an attitude long enough, then the mind begins to adopt it.

2) Re-examine the geography of your workplace.

There are two locales in a pitcher’s universe — on the mound and off the mound. Off the mound is for thinking about the past and future, on the mound is for thinking about the present. When a pitcher is on the pitching rubber, Dorfman writes, he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.

While at work, think about nothing but your business-task at hand, or “step off the rubber.”

3) Focus more on your task-effort (which you control), less on responses to it (which you don’t).

A pitcher shouldn’t judge himself by how the batters hit his pitches, but instead by whether he threw the pitch he wanted to throw.

4) Focusing on the (comparatively) small task at hand will arrest diverted thinking about the (comparatively large) ego involved.

A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.

Dorfman’s discipline theory is rooted in his original belief that “it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft — three hours of practice every day for 10 years.” Have you mastered your craft? By his measure, I’m not close to mastering mine, but after reading Brooks’ column, I’m only too eager to “free my mind” and get more disciplined about it.