How to Focus and Concentrate Better: Lessons From a Lion Tamer

Over a century ago, a lion tamer named Clyde Beatty learned a lesson that is so important that it impacts nearly every area your life today.

What was that lesson?

Keep reading to find out what a lion tamer can teach you about how to focus, concentrate better, and live a healthier life.

The Lion Tamer Who Survived

Clyde Beatty was born in Bainbridge, Ohio in 1903. When he was a teenager, he left home to join the circus and landed a job as a cage cleaner. In the years that followed, Beatty quickly progressed from a lowly cage boy to a popular entertainer.

Beatty became famous for his “fighting act” in which he would tame fierce wild animals. At one point, Beatty’s act included a segment where he brought lions, tigers, cougars, and hyenas into the circus ring all at once and tamed the entire group.

But here’s the most impressive feat of all…

In an era when the majority of lion tamers died in the ring, Beatty lived into his 60s. In the end, it was cancer that took his life, not a lion.

How did he manage to survive? Thanks to a simple idea.

Clyde Beatty was one of the first lion tamers to bring a chair into the circus ring.

Here’s what happened…

The Whip and The Chair

The classic image of a lion tamer is one of the entertainer holding a whip and a chair. The whip gets all of the attention, but it’s mostly for show. In reality, it’s the chair that does the important work.

When a lion tamer holds a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tries to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With its focus divided, the lion becomes confused and is unsure about what to do next. When faced with so many options, the lion chooses to freeze and wait instead of attacking the man holding the chair.

lessons on how to focus and concentrate from lion tamer Clyde Beatty

Clyde Beatty taming a lion with a chair. (Image from Harvard Library.)

Avoid the Fate of the Lion

How often do you find yourself in the same position as the lion?

How often do you have something you want to achieve (i.e. lose weight, gain muscle, start a business, travel more) … only to end up confused by all of the options in front of you and never make progress?

This is especially true in health, fitness, and medicine, where every person and company seems to believe it is their duty to make things more complex. Every workout routine you find is the best one. Every diet expert says their plan is the optimal one.

This frustrates me to no end because while all the experts are busy debating about which option is best, the people who want to actually improve their lives (you and me) are left frustrated by all of the conflicting information.

The end result is that we feel like we can’t focus or that we’re focused on the wrong things, and so we take less action, make less progress, and stay the same when we could be improving.

I think it’s time we change that. Here’s how…

How to Focus and Concentrate Better

Anytime you find the world waving a chair in your face, remember this: all you need to do is commit to one thing.

In the beginning, you don’t even have to succeed. You just need to get started. Starting before you feel ready is one of the habits of successful people.

Most of the time, the ability to get started and commit to a task is the only thing you need to do to focus better. Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.

Have you ever had a task that you absolutely had to get done? What happened? You got it done. Maybe you procrastinated, but once you committed to doing it, you got it finished.

In other words: making progress in your health, your work, and your life isn’t about learning how to focus and concentrate better, it’s about learning how to choose and commit to a specific task.

You have the ability to focus, you just need to choose what to direct it towards instead of acting like the lion and dividing your attention among the four legs of the chair.

Want to lose 40 pounds? Awesome. Eat real food (anything that doesn’t come in a package or a box is a good start) and exercise more. You don’t need more information. You don’t need to learn how to focus on the right things. You just need to commit to the fundamentals. Build good habits first, there will be plenty of time to figure the details out later.

Want to perform like an elite athlete? Great. Quit dreaming and start living like one. Get to sleep earlier. Organize your day around your training. If you have to miss other commitments, then you have to miss them. If it’s important to you, then stop gazing at the other distractions and commit to it.

Want to start a business? You can! Sure, you’ll be uncomfortable. Every entrepreneur is uncertain. You don’t need to learn a new strategy or figure out how to focus better. You just need to commit to making it happen. Take the first step and trust that you’ll figure out how to take the second step when you need to do so.

We all have the ability to focus and concentrate, but only if we decide what is important to us and what we want to commit to accomplishing. The only wrong choice is no choice.

Stop Gazing at the Chair

Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Whether you know it or not, you’re already in the ring. We all are. Most of the time, we sit quietly, gazing at the chair in front of us, silently debating about which leg is the most important.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you have somewhere you want to go, something you want to accomplish, someone you want to become… then make a decision. If you’re clear about where you want to go, the rest of the world will either help you get there or get out of the way. Both of those are useful.

You don’t have to do it all at once, but there is something that you need to do now. Something that’s calling you, something that’s important to you, something that you’re destined to do. I don’t know what it is, but you do. Swipe the chair out of the way and choose it.

31 Comments

  1. James,

    I always like how you bring in historical examples of success related to your articles. I often struggle with focusing because there are so many things that related to my field of interest that concentrating can be difficult. For a person that has more than one role in their business or in their civic lives, how do you suggest switching concentrations throughout the day?

    John

    • James Clear says:

      Good question (and a tough one to answer). Personally, I struggle with “compartmentalization” of my day. It’s hard for me to go from thing to thing at a high level. There’s always a switching cost involved.

      Example: I write for an hour, then do an interview for an hour, and then go back to writing. That sequence isn’t nearly as effective as writing for two hours and then doing an interview for an hour. It usually takes me 30 minutes just to get going (or longer).

      With other tasks, it might not take as long to get into a flow. So some of this depends on the work.

      I’m sure I’ll learn better strategies as time goes on, but right now my way of dealing with this is by blocking out larger chunks of time for fewer tasks. Example: I would love to read books everyday, but it’s hard for me to fit it in my schedule. So, I block off 4 hours on Fridays to do it.

      If you can block your work into similar chunks, then you might see some benefit from less time spent switching between tasks and longer periods of time to allow for deep and focused work.

  2. KC says:

    So that’s why they used the chair! I love this! It’s so true especially in this age of information; it’s easy to get lost and let the search for “perfect” get in the way of actually doing “better”. You can spend a half an hour researching interval training, weight training, et al when you could have just taken a brisk walk and burned some calories. I have been guilty of this many, many times.

    • James Clear says:

      KC — glad you enjoyed it! I’ve been guilty of it many times as well.

      The bottom line: planning is great until it becomes a form of procrastination.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Elaine says:

    Ahh….once again a timely blog. It’s like the powers that be know what I am doing… anyways yes, there is something I should be doing and a chair is in the way. I just need to swipe the chair which is Twitter, Facebook. LinkedIn, and Emails and get back to work. Shutting down social media now. Thanks James.

  4. Jennie says:

    Yes! This is perfect. I’ve been trying to learn this lesson myself lately and have been trying to recognize when I’m stuck in an information-gathering phase and just need to start. Too often we don’t want to start something until we are perfectly prepared and informed and that is just never going to happen.

    My personal experience has been with weight loss. I kept putting off starting to eat better because I needed more information about the best method, when in reality just by starting to do something (following a meal plan provided by my nutritionist) I lost over 50 pounds. Now I’m trying to start adding exercise into my life and I kept getting stuck in the debate about cardio versus lifting, picking a gym, doing research, etc. I finally realized I was stuck in the cycle and so I picked a plan and am sticking to it. I’m allowed to continue reading about other methods only as long as I’m continuing to stick with my current plan. If the current plan doesn’t work after I give it an honest effort (I’m currently going for 10 weeks), then I’ll pick something else. You’ve just got to get started and focus on the plan you’ve chosen instead of giving in to information overload!

    • James Clear says:

      Jennie — You’re a great example of the right way to approach these types of issues. Do you have all the answers? Of course not. Do you feel like you have a lot to learn? Sure you do.

      But you’re not letting that get in the way of making progress with the information that you already have available to you. I love it. Keep up the great work!

      Thanks for reading — and especially for sharing your thoughts!

  5. MOOSE says:

    James –

    Another extremely pertinent article. I have been feeling this recently in my own life, and I think you are right on with your advice.

    I also think this can also be where the value of self-experimentation comes into play – take the weight loss example. While it is true that all you need to do is eat real food and move a lot, sticking to a certain plan can help to develop a habit; yet, not all habits work the same for everyone. For example, bananas are real food (depending on your definition). If I really like bananas, eating 50 bananas a day and moving a lot will help me lose weight. Well, I know from experiments that 50 bananas a day isn’t going to be as good for me losing weight, personally, as eating a ton of broccoli, leeks, kale, etc; on the other hand, there are people out there who id does work for (crazy as it seems)! In the real world, people are often choosing to ‘go paleo’ ‘go vegan’, do the ‘zone diet’, whatever it is.

    By deciding to run a self-experiment, I force myself to take action AND stick to one particular plan for a designated amount of time. This way, I make huge progress, but also learn what works best for me (and a hell of a lot of other information in the process). For example, I have run many versions of a paleo diet for the last two years, and I know exactly what whole foods are allowed on that diet that I will still overeat on now. Next, I am going to be testing a plant-based whole foods (vegan) diet for the next month (the parameters and results are going to be coming on my site in the next month or two – could be a very controversial topic…). At the end of it, I will know what works best for me (blood work included), and I will also know a HELL of a lot more about my own biochemistry and how to cook a variety of different foods that I can use for the rest of my life, all while doing something rather than deciding whose advice to follow while procrastinating on actually starting. Of course, I have fun with the whole experimenting, too :)

    • Jennie says:

      I think experimenting is key when it involves a set period of time. It’s so easy to disregard something as not working because you inconsistently do it for a week. Truly giving it a shot for a reasonable period of time where you should likely see results is the only way to know.

      • MOOSE says:

        Jennie –
        Awesome point. It’s really important to set the variables involved in your experiment and outline the time period before you start. The other thing I find important is quantifying your results, whether through blood work, quantified mind tests, accurate bodyfat testing, or just how many reps of a consistent workout you can do from week to week (depending on what your goals are).

        Without these steps, its far too easy to let your mind play cognitive tricks on you as to how your results are going (especially with diet – it seems for many people your mind REALLY wants some sugar and will do anything to get at it!).

        I learned to get this obsessive with my experiments the hard way – by only judging what I thought the results were and not running them long enough.

        Cool stuff. Thanks for adding that update!

  6. Boocomet says:

    James… Great entry and you’re exactly right. There is a huge number of people out there trying to tell us the best way to eat, exercise, sleep, relieve stress and so on and so on and so on. One thing that works for me is finding a source I trust, someone whose diet and exercise message reasonates with me. Then I focus on that message and try develop habits in line with that strategy by using the “I don’t” method. It isn’t easy, but with focus and discipline, you usually get to where you need to be. Thanks for the Clyde Beatty story.

    • James Clear says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article! And yes, I think you’re on target with your approach.

      Finding someone you trust and focusing on building habits that align with that system is usually a great way to go. Keep up the good work and thanks for reading!

  7. You are so spot on about keeping your focus on one target. One step at a time is the way to go. I met this guy the other day, he was dieting and had a good 50lbs to lose, and he was talking about his cheat days and carb cycling schedule etc. He’d be a lot better off just focusing on eating less, and worrying about all those other things once he got to that stage.

    There’s a lot of diluting information out there that just confuses people and makes them throw the towel in the ring, myself included.

    I really enjoyed this post James, keep up the good work.
    - Nicklas Kingo

    • James Clear says:

      Nicklas — Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      In theory, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make many changes as once. But in practice, it’s usually too overwhelming. Almost all habits (good and bad) are formed through a series of small, repeated behaviors. Despite how much we hear about them in the media, major transformations rarely happen overnight. So, I’m in agreement with you: usually it’s best to simply focus on one thing, do it well, and build the habit.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. elizabethe says:

    Thank you, this is, again, brilliant, and exactly what I needed to hear. That uncomfortable part of pursuing your dreams sure is uncomfortable, though!

  9. Peter H says:

    I like what you said about all the experts believing that their way is the best (and, I’ll add, that’s why you should pay them lots of money for it!).

    I like to say that the plan was made for you, you were not made for the plan. When presented with “the chair”, take the one thing that works for you and go with it. (And here’s another thought: Sometimes we get stuck because we don’t want to say “no” to really good options!)

    Great article, James. Thank you!

    • James Clear says:

      Peter — I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for taking the time to read.

      As for not wanting to say no to good options… that’s a tough challenge. Maybe I’ll write more about that in the future. :)

  10. Darius B. says:

    Hey,

    Really enjoyed the article but the comment section is getting even more fascinating!

    There are so many different approaches to take/discuss:

    -Focusing on fundamentals vs Finding the optimal path
    -Experimenting vs Researching
    -Common knowledge/Best practices vs Challenging status quo
    -Single focus vs Multi-focus

    And indeed when done right each and every approach can work magnificently, depending on the situation.

    For example, I am more than happy to just go out and run when my goal is to run a marathon, but I am also sure that doing research and best practices was the right thing to do when designing a book.

    No wonder that chair was so effective on lions, we don’t even need a chair, just some thoughts, to get ourselves confused :))

    Cheers

  11. Donna Marie Dyer says:

    Hi James – I loved this article.

    Eliminating distraction is a current hobby of mine :) At times it feels like I’m rewiring my brain, convincing myself that I don’t need to grab at every shining object (idea, website, project, tool) that catches my attention.

    I’m getting better everyday, and my next challenge is to purposefully decide how to spend my now free time. Some how, I’ve forgotten that I’m in command. Now to grab the wheel, steer the ship and stay the course!

    Thanks for the encouragement!

    Donna Marie

  12. Tony says:

    Great story, and great insight of your own. Looking forward to more on similar topics.

  13. Amy G says:

    “You have the ability to focus, you just need to choose what to direct it towards instead of acting like the lion and dividing your attention among the four legs of the chair.”

    This is exactly what I needed to hear/read to remind me to stay focused in pursuit of my goals, dreams and passions…

    Truly wise, my friend. and I love your blog! Keep up the great work. :)

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Amy! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      And I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Feel free to share your thoughts here anytime!

  14. Jeromey says:

    Interesting story and great picture. I never thought I would learn something from a whip and a chair. Thanks for writing something unique James.

    • James Clear says:

      You bet! I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jeromey. I’ll do my best to keep sending useful ideas your way.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your thoughts are always welcome here!

  15. Bronwyn says:

    Wow, so true… so much information out there for us, this can be very confusing. Which way to go? Which path will give me the results I desire?

    Thanks James, all that you give is simple and wholesome, at this very moment I see clearly… laid to rest a blockage.

    WOW, once again… Thanks James :)

    • James Clear says:

      Bronwyn — thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll do my best to keep sending useful ideas your way.

      As always, thanks for taking the time to read. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  16. Sovereign Jon says:

    James — Thank You. This one, yet SIMPLE, article explained more to me about my own “Sovereign Authority and POWER” than ALL the volumes of esoteric knowledge that I have read and studied over the last 30 years of my life.

    Again, Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! :)

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