He can tell where you are from just looking at your shoes. He can guess your occupation after a brief examination of your hands. He can determine your next steps based solely on clues you’ve already left behind.
I’m talking, of course, about Sherlock Holmes. The world’s greatest detective has been solving mysteries since his introduction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back in 1887. I’ve personally been a fan since I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles as a kid.
Holmes possesses a number of traits that prove valuable as he works through each investigation. He’s a student of the physical sciences which aids his analyzing evidence from a crime scene. He is also a brilliant strategist, something that allows him to anticipate the motives and likely next moves of his opponent. The skill I most admire, however, is Holmes’ ability to decipher a great deal of information from a handful of seemingly meaningless clues.
Think about the impact this ability would have in the workplace, for instance. Salespeople could uncover unmet needs by simply observing the habits or appearance of their prospects. Service personnel could determine the source of a customer’s unhappiness by reviewing past account usage and analyzing communication patterns. Managers could better equip their teams by acting on clues gathered from mere observation.
Known as abductive reasoning, Holmes’ ability to infer huge amounts of information from tiny bits of data seems like something only a fictional character could be capable of. Recent research, though, would seem to indicate that this “Holmesian deduction” is actually an innate ability that each of us can tap into. The power of focus is formidable, and it’s within our grasp. We’ve just forgotten how to do it.
Holmes himself once told Watson “You see, but you do not observe.” That, I believe, is the problem all too many of us face. Our eyes function properly, but we fail to observe what we’re seeing. That is, we fail to process information in a meaningful way. The vast majority of what we see simply does not register as important. Although seen, it is almost immediately dismissed and, therefore, forgotten.
Another barrier to abductive reasoning is our inability to focus attention on any given task. Our desire to multi-task coupled with increasingly short attention spans has robbed us of our ability to focus. While conducting research for her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, author Maria Konnikova attempted to counteract her tendency to shift focus so that she could see as well as observe. The pull of email and social media proved almost too powerful to overcome. She found herself fighting the impulse to look at each email that popped into her inbox.
I know that, even in my own house, achieving a state of Sherlock Holmes-like focus is extremely difficult. My family has a hard time sitting down to watch an episode of television without multi-tasking. My son studies for school while watching. My wife hops up to finish the laundry. I reach for the phone when it signals some type of update.
So how do we regain our super-powers of observation? It takes discipline and time. To become a great detective in our own right, we have to begin by making a concerted effort to block out distractions. It’s hard to focus on any one thing when others are competing for your attention. Konnikova found that she lacked the personal discipline to ignore the lure of online distractions. She actually downloaded an app to her phone that blocks access to certain functions for a predetermined amount of time.
Secondly, it takes practice. Blocking out distractions does nothing to keep the mind form wandering on its own. You have to train yourself to live in the moment – to fully immerse yourself in what’s going on around you. You have to reach a state where your brain actually observes what your eyes see. This doesn’t happen overnight. Like any skill, this level of mindfulness has to be practiced.
There’s another benefit to mastering this skill as well. Konnikova uncovered research that shows multi-tasking is counterproductive and damaging to your psyche. We’re actually more productive and happier in general when we allow ourselves to live in the moment and fully take in what’s happening around us. The constant distractions that we think keep us connected and efficient are actually having the opposite effect.
I’m going to give it a shot. I often feel frustrated at the length of time it takes me to complete certain projects. Something tells me it’s my inability to block out distractions that keeps me from focusing in a way that produces my best work. Stayed tuned for an update on my progress. Or just watch the news. You might see me listed as the man who solves the next big mystery.
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