Why Focusing Can Often Feel Lazy

A lot of ideas sound right when you hear them, but don’t feel right when you do them. This is often because they have unseen side effects that aren’t immediately obvious when you first learn them.

One such idea is that focus matters more than time management. That is to say, it’s better to have focus on a limited number of ongoing projects, than to perfectly optimize all the time usage in your day.

The intuition behind this idea is simple: we have less ability to focus than we have time in the day. Since focus is the real bottleneck of our productive output, it makes more sense to optimize for focus than for efficient time usage.

Of course that intuition about the idea could be wrong. Focus could turn out to be less restrictive than time of day, either in general or in some specific case we care about. Focus could turn out to not really be a resource at all, so optimizing for its use doesn’t make sense. But, even so, I think the intuition is a compelling one.

How it Feels to Prioritize Focus

So let’s say you accept, at least for the moment, that prioritizing focus matters more than time management. All’s good you say, now just to burrow that specific idea into your routines and planning for your work.

But then you notice something strange. You’re now wasting a lot of time with this approach.

There are days in which your projects are waiting on a critical step. Maybe you need to hear back from a designer. Maybe someone you’re coordinating with needs to be briefed before you go further. Maybe you have a creative block, but need to finalize a particular idea before you can move to the next step.

Of course, this is exactly what the idea of prioritizing focus over time really implies. If you prioritize focus and also happen to have perfect time management, then you didn’t really need to prioritize either over the other—neither was a bottleneck and they are all perfectly consistent.

Perhaps you realize that the fact that there is wasted time in your schedule is an inevitable consequence of deciding to have fewer projects, and you continue to apply this philosophy to your work.

But still, it doesn’t feel productive. After all, if you have a big goal, and you end up spending a couple days working on low-priority tasks, deliberately avoiding starting a new project which would be more “productive” to maintain your principle of focus, it can feel very lazy.

This isn’t hypothetical, it’s something I’ve been wrestling with since finishing the year without English. With my learning goals, the projects rarely, if ever, hit delays based on other people or creative blocks. With my business goals, such occurrences are fairly common.

With the MIT Challenge, a work philosophy prioritizing focus was fairly trivial. The demands of the challenge basically forced me to single-project, and the ability to do assignments, projects and exams whenever I was ready meant there were never any delays.

But that also means that as a work philosophy, prioritizing focus didn’t mean very much. It simply described what I was already compelled to do anyways.

Now, without such an intense learning project, my focus is on business projects. Except these frequently have stopping junctures. Periods where the project can’t move forward because progress depends on another person, or a decision I’m not ready to make.

For the moment, my current strategy for dealing with these gaps is to spend them working at my queue of things I want to learn. But it still feels very lazy to spend a Wednesday afternoon reading a book because all your main projects are tied up and you don’t want to risk starting a new one.

Being Lazy and Feeling Lazy

Here’s a common pattern: idea X sounds good, and quite possibly is the best strategy for a particular problem, but when you apply X in your life, it feels suboptimal in some important way, so you feel compelled to abandon it.

I’ve seen it with habits. If you follow a microhabit approach, you do easy-to-do placeholder habits while building up a real habit. This could mean you decide to, at minimum, go to the gym and touch the door every day, even if you don’t work out. Then you find yourself not pushing really hard at the gym and you feel bad about this, so you give up the system. But not pushing hard was an obvious implication of the approach in the first place!

I’ve seen it with people who have used my weekly/daily goals system. The point of the system is to write out your weekly and daily tasks. When you’re done your daily tasks you’re done for the day. Except when I followed up with people implementing this system, they found that, even when they got all their work done, they still felt lazy and unproductive.

None of this denies the possibility that these ideas are wrong. Prioritizing focus might be a bad idea, or I might be implementing it poorly with respect to my situation in some way. Microhabits might be an inferior approach to pushing with full intensity at the gym. Weekly/daily goals might not be an effective productivity system.

But, I believe if you think it through for a moment, nearly every coherent strategy is going to suffer from these same effects. Situations where you feel like you’re underoptimized, but that underoptimization is directly implied by the strategy you’re using.

I’ve given a couple examples: focus, microhabits and weekly/daily goals. Have you ever had this experience before? What was it for? How did you combat the feeling to abandon your previously decided strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Don’t Be Afraid to Go at Your Own Pace

It’s okay to learn slowly.

That might sound funny from a guy who is known (perhaps even notorious) for trying to learn things faster, but it’s true.

My motivation for doing the MIT Challenge was (a) to see if I could do it and (b) if I could, hopefully help other people imagine self-education goals that they’d like to pursue. The same was true for the year without English.

But the intention was never to make people feel inferior if they don’t decide to take on all the exams for an undergraduate degree in one year, or don’t try to learn four languages back-to-back. Indeed, given that it takes me almost a year of planning and I work hard, more than full-time, during the challenges, it’s absurd to feel that the takeaway of those challenges is that everyone should try to do exactly the same thing I did.

My intention was that people might take inspiration, or even some methods, from my, admittedly, extreme examples, and apply it to a project that fits their own lives.

Many people have done that. I’ve heard from people who have taken on subsets of the MIT Challenge curriculum at a slower pace and have learned semesters’ worth of courses for free, entirely on their own. I’ve heard from people who have started using the no-English rule to try to reach the next level in just one language they care about.

But occasionally I get emails from people that seem to miss the point.

An interesting one was from a father of two, working full-time, asking me whether he could complete the MIT Challenge in his spare time in one year.

Now, I’m not one to quickly jump to saying certain accomplishments are impossible, but my guess is that if he had the stamina and intelligence to do that, he wouldn’t have to ask me.

Do You Need to Learn a Language in Three Months?

It’s easy to dismiss the previous example as someone who either didn’t read anything about my challenge (where it’s clearly posted the hours I worked), or is simply overly optimistic. But I have gotten other, more nuanced misunderstandings of my message, which I think do deserve an actual clarification.

My principle Korean teacher is in her forties and three years ago started learning English. Comparing linguistic ability with different languages is problematic, but her level of English is definitely better than my Korean and likely better than my Chinese. It would be harder to compare against the European languages I know, but that’s not really fair since they were easier to learn.

She spoke with me candidly about her thoughts on people like myself and Benny Lewis claiming to reach functional levels in just a few months. She said it disagreed with her experience. Languages, in her view, take years to learn to fluency, not just a few months.

The truth is, I agree with her. But I also agree with Benny Lewis and my own experience that a language can be learned in a short time. Isn’t that a contradiction?

The reason for the seeming contradiction is that the question is ill-posed. “How long does it take to learn a language?” isn’t a meaningful question.

Yes, languages do take years to learn. This is particularly true of so-called “hard” languages (Chinese, Korean) compared to “easy” ones (Spanish, French).

My teacher already speaks English well enough to sustain full conversations and read books. But what she really wants to be able to do is speak with excellent English, without the tell-tale mistakes of grammar and pronunciation that plague non-native speakers. She also wants to be able to read works of literature in English like Woolf and Joyce.

I speak Chinese well enough to have one-on-one conversations about most things and I can read intermediate texts. But I’d like to be to read books like the Dao De Jing and modern Chinese novels. I’d also like to be able to give presentations in Chinese and have question-and-answer sessions about topics I’m knowledgeable in.

Those are both goals which will take years of continued practice to realize.

However, yes, languages also can be learned in a matter of months. After three months of immersion in China, I was able to have full conversations about Tibetan politics, differences in cultural attitudes between the East and West and recreational drug use with people who can’t speak English. In Spanish, due to its relative ease, three months was more than enough time to be able to discuss essentially any topic and read most books.

The problem isn’t that my Korean teacher has an ineffective method for learning, or that people who claim to learn languages quickly are charlatans. It’s simply that different goals take different amounts of time. Sometimes learning “slowly” is best and sometimes learning “quickly” can be more efficient.

Why Does the MIT Challenge Have to be Done in 12 Months?

Why does it have to be the complete curriculum, including classes that have nothing to do with computer science? Why focus on passing exams instead of building real-world applications? Why does it even have to be MIT instead of a coding bootcamp?

The answer of course is that there is no reason. I simply picked what seemed compelling to me at the time.

Just like the decision to challenge a language over three months or three decades depends a lot on what you want to accomplish (and, indeed, the two aren’t mutually exclusive), the decision of how to learn computer science also has considerable flexibility.

If I wanted to learn programming in order to land a job as a developer, I’d probably join a coding bootcamp. That way I’d know I’d be learning the most current technologies and have access to referrals for employment later.

If I was already a programmer, but wanted to have a stronger background in theory, I might do the reduced MIT curriculum I mentioned here, which omits all the non-computer science courses I took as part of the challenge.

If I simply wanted to experience a world-class education that would cover not only computer science, but physics, economics, biology, chemistry, logic, philosophy and be taught at a level that doesn’t dumb down for its students, I might take on the entire challenge.

But even those goals don’t presuppose the pace I took. It’s perfectly reasonable to take it over four years or forty, to skip the ones that don’t interest you or spend your time lavishly on the ones which do.

When Should You Learn Slowly?

I like looking at outliers. Achievements that seem to break my model of what is possible, so that I can question some of my own methods. I do this for a lot more than just learning.

I’m fascinated by cases like Tim Ferriss gaining muscle quickly, or Ramit Sethi building a blog into an empire in only a few years. Even if I decide not to follow their particular methods, there’s usually something I can learn from studying those unusual successes.

But that doesn’t mean I need to go at the same pace, or that if I don’t, I’m somehow a failure. I’m fine with going to the gym over several years, steadily improving my fitness. I’m fine working on growing my audience and business at my own pace, making regular improvements.

Sometimes I can’t follow their pace because I lack the resources or abilities they have. Perhaps Tim’s extensive self-knowledge about fitness and previous athletic experience make gaining muscle unusually quickly something that works for him but not me. Perhaps Ramit’s incredible business growth is due to an uncanny business intelligence, mentors or focus.

Sometimes I don’t follow their pace because it isn’t the best strategy for my goals. My fitness goals are more modest, so going slower and having more sustainable improvement matters more for me, even if it sacrifices speed. My career and life goals aren’t the same as Ramit’s so I’m content to reach my own milestones in keeping with them.

I would offer the same advice to the people who have shown an interest in my own unusual endeavors. That I hope you can gain some interesting ideas to apply to your own learning, or perhaps even consider learning goals you hadn’t before. But that you’ll pursue them at the pace which works for you, and if you can’t or don’t go quite as fast, that it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.