Scott H Young

How to Juggle Pursuits and Still Get Stuff Done


Juggling too much?

I like variety. I run a business full-time, but I’m also a full-time student. Over the last several years I’ve taken on: weigh-lifting, charity fundraising, web programming, public speaking, game design, speed reading, cooking and French, at some time or another. I don’t claim expertise in any of them, but I dabble.

On the surface, juggling so many different pursuits seems to be a recipe for failure. How can you get anything done, when you want to do everything?

Is Variety a Vice?

People who study high performance all seem to argue the same thing: lack of focus is bad. Malcolm Gladwell argues that ten thousand hours of practice are necessary to become world-class. That means decades-long focuses, to the exclusion of other activities.

Cal Newport also demonstrates that the secret to impressive achievements is focus:

But here’s what’s interesting: when you spend time around Rhodes Scholars, … [you reach] a surprising conclusion: the proper reaction to an elite student such as Nicholas is not “I should be doing more,” but instead: “I should be doing less.”

Both of these authors paint a particular picture of success: the minimalist who focuses hard on a specific obsession to become successful.

Can You Juggle Pursuits and Still Become Great?

I actually agree with Cal. The minimalist obsession is very likely a great strategy for success. But it misses part of the story.

That story is there are plenty of counterexamples of pursuit jugglers who have achieved great successes. People like Richard Branson or Tim Ferriss, who have shunned the call for focus and excel in varied interests.

Tim Ferriss justifies his rationale for having multiple obsessions as being akin to holding a diversified portfolio of stocks. If one of your pursuits isn’t going well, you have the others to provide psychological stability.

Even Cal himself, I would argue is less minimalist than his philosophy suggests. While obtaining his PhD in computer science, Cal also wrote three books and runs one of the largest student advice blogs on the web.

Life advice isn’t a formula, ultimately, but a strategy. For every “answer” to a problem, there is someone who will suggest the exact opposite. The interesting thing is that they may both be right.

The minimalist obsession is an excellent strategy. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

How to Live a Varied Life and Still Get Stuff Done

The reason I’ve taken on so many pursuits isn’t because I believe it will make me more impressive. I do it because it’s fun. Sometimes adventure matters more than efficiency.

The suggestion, therefore, isn’t to go out and start a dozen different activities. Instead, it is: assuming you already have varied interests, how do you manage that so you can still get meaningful work done?

I can’t say I’ve found the perfect answer, but the strategy I’ve used so far breaks into three parts: not juggling pursuits in parallel, separating interests from commitments and emphasizing recurring themes in my goals.

1. Don’t Juggle Pursuits in Parallel

I’ve taken on a lot of different pursuits over the last several years. But I rarely have more than two or three at the same time. That makes a huge difference.

I’ve taken on the practice of forcing myself to take a sabbatical from one pursuit before starting the next one. This allows me to avoid the problem of chronic distractions—I can try many things without ever feeling overwhelmed.

When I’m taking on a challenging project, I often try to have only one focus for a period of time. In January and February of this year, I was focused on bringing in new students to my rapid learning course. After a successful opening, my focus right now is my fitness for the next two months.

By taking on varied interests serially, you can give the retrospective sense of an incredibly varied life, while retaining focus each step of the way. (As an aside, a perfect example of such serial obsessions is the novel Forrest Gump)

2. Distinguish Interests from Commitments

Much of Cal’s philosophy, I feel, targets not people who have varied interests and pursuits, but people who have too many commitments. Students who believe they need to join every club to make their resume sound impressive. Entrepreneurs who can’t turn down a single opportunity, splitting each day between a dozen projects.

There’s a subtle difference between pursuing an interest and making a commitment. On the surface, both seem to be an investment of time. But excessive pursuits can easily be scaled back in a crunch; excessive commitments cannot.

Trying out a new pursuit has no cost. Two months ago, I started teaching myself a bit of Python. But other commitments took up my time and I stopped working on it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again, maybe I won’t, but in either case, I don’t feel guilty or pressured.

Taking on a new commitment has a definite obligation. Some of these commitments are to other people. For this reason I rarely say “yes” to requests on my time. For each yes, I have to implicitly say “no” to dozens of other people.

Sometimes these commitments are to yourself. If I set a business or fitness goal, I create an obligation to myself. Goals are only useful when you use them sparingly, aware of their power to commit a large chunk of your resources to a particular end. If you set goals for dozens of different things at a time, they are just whims.

3. Emphasize Recurring Themes

With my interests, I don’t let my past skills dictate my pursuits. Four-and-a-half years ago, I was a lousy, self-conscious dancer. But I decided to take a Latin dancing class just for fun. I can barely remember how to salsa, but it was the push I needed to build my confidence. Now I love dancing.

I actively try pursuits that I know I will be terrible at. Turns out, with a little practice, I’m often wrong.

While my pursuits rarely follow sequential logic, my goals usually do. Furthering the distinction between interests and commitments, I try to use commitments to build on past skills. There are two reasons for that:

First, when you are starting out with a new skill, it’s hard to know what to expect. A month or two of dabbling is probably necessary just to get an idea of where you are with the skill and whether you enjoy it enough to continue with it.

Second, by putting commitments into recurring themes, you can make progress. This blog and business started as a side project, like any other. But after I saw successes, I emphasized it again in further projects. If a life of solitary obsession is boring, a life without any overarching theme never goes anywhere.

Living an Adventure

The truth is, a varied life, juggling dozens of different pursuits over years, isn’t too different from a more austere, minimalist obsession. The real counterexample is the majority, who struggle to do the same as everyone else, only slightly better, never leaving the comfort of familiarity.

Image thanks to garryknight


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13 Responses to “How to Juggle Pursuits and Still Get Stuff Done”

  1. Suvil says:

    I was actually thinking the same thing Scott after reading Cal’s article when it was published a few days ago. You have correctly captured the counterexamples here. But I was thinking, there are even two other aspects to this situation when a person wants to do many things and focus on not just one. One of them is a person’s priorities. I have met plenty of people who definitely do not have prestigious scholarships or study in prestigious institutions but still are very successful. Most of them are entrepreneurs who have started up their own business’s here. The only thing I seem to get from them is that they do not care about studying with prestigious scholarships and stuff but rather they are more focused on doing their work the best way they can and at the same time enjoying themselves with their other pursuits.
    Secondly there is the aspect of Integration. If a person want’s to do multiple pursuits then why not combine them. There are plenty of examples in the world out there like. Chris Guillebeau is one of them. Travel, Writing and Blogging all combined in one. Similarly if a person loves photography, travelling and also wants to be a blogger, he/she can combine it all in one. The only danger is of the activity turning out to be of a low quailty if and only if the person does not focus fully.

  2. John says:

    Yep I think you just have to be aware that when you juggle multiple pursuits at one time you are not going to be as effective as if you were focused … but some of us including myself have ADD and get bored quickly and easily … I am always trying to stop myself from getting distracted by the next shiny object.

  3. Sam says:

    Cal’s primary work is doing research, and unsurprisingly this requires an incredible amount of focus at times. Terence Tao said somewhere on his blog that he is happy if he gets 4 good hours of work out of a day, and he has won the fields medal — us mere mortals can not reasonably hope for much more.

    From the perspective of mental sharpness/focus, everything else that Cal does is easy compared to his primary work. He can present two results for all study habit related things that he picks up: 1) A blog post, which also gives feedback; and 2) In the long term, a book. I’m going to guess that he can’t squeeze out too many productive research hours each day, and at that stage he probably switches to doing other things that benefit the rest of us.

    His activities are also tightly coupled: researchers write, authors write, and blog owners write. He has spent 5-10 years on perfecting his writing, under the guidance of a supervisor and editors, and we can assume that he wasn’t the worst writer in his class when he entered grad school. Same thing with reading papers on learning: he reads other papers in his daytime job, so it is probably not particularly stressing for him to read a couple of more papers that don’t have a single theorem in sight. All this reading is also beneficial for his own writing, but perhaps to a lesser extent than direct writing practice.

    Does this make Cal a minimalist or not? I’m not sure, but the skills that he builds in the areas he has chosen to excel in are almost certain to give benefits in other parts of his life, and compared to many others he actually is a minimalist. It is also clear that the results of his strategy are pretty amazing.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Sam,

    My argument is more from a matter of perspective. Is Cal a minimalist–yes, I would think so. However, he has the appearance of greater diversity than an analysis of his philosophy suggests. I also remember a few posts where he spoke about learning blue grass guitar.

    If you look at the advice I give, much of it is similar to the advice to focus given by Cal. However instead of trying to eliminate the variety, the goal of mine is to cultivate it and prevent it from becoming a distraction.

  5. Tim says:

    The story of my life. Many diverse side projects, each tackled/explored one at a time. Like John, I have ‘ADD’ — a tool for creativity.

    But, I’ve had a mission since I was young. I knew more or less what I wanted to do, and that it would involve engineering and design. To achieve success in engineering at university, I twisted every project I could to align with my mission. I took a lighter courseload so that could focus, enjoy learning, have time for side projects.

    My approach is to harmonize several intense interests (music, engineering, architecture and design, environmental sustainability) into a single master plan. Other interests come and go and receive bursts of focus, but my core interests drive the big decisions.

    Thanks to a few long lasting obsessions, I’ve grown from a creative generalist (ADDer) to a T-shaped person: a generalizing specialist.

    A downside of ADD convolved with centralized passion, in my case: It’s difficult to synchronize with society. I’m driven by inspiration more than habit, and habits are difficult to engrain. I’m esoteric, nocturnal, with a pathetic comprehension of time.

    ADD: disorder, or personality trait? It’s rampant in intuitive, percieving personalities (ENTP, INTP, INFP, ENFP). When these absent-minded personalities are imbued with centralized purpose, amazing things can happen: Edison (ENTP, totally ADHD), Einstein (INTP), Tolkien (INFP).

  6. Nicky Spur says:

    The title of this post is so relevant to people who are strongly motivated. i agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I also feel that people need to go through all stages to know what suits them best and what is the most effective for them. For example, a person has to experience trying to many pursuits at once to know they’re limit, and they should, as you say, dabble first before making a commitment. I’ve personally found that skills often have cross over benefits, what I learn in one area of discipline and easily be applied to another. They’re not all this simple and straight forward but often success in one area can help you succeed in another.

    Enjoyed the post.

  7. Amelia says:

    I mistakenly tried a few years to cut back on my life activities and was simply greeted with an empty, unproductive time on this earth. I liked the idea of paring back my responsibilities so that I could have more time for just the few important things in my life, however I worked out that I don’t have a one-eyed passion that I can throw myself into (unlike my partner, who is a professional drummer and does EVERYTHING music, and not much else.. I kindof envy him). Recently I discovered that I thrive when I am busy and have lots of random projects going and lots more on the to-do list. I have a hard time letting them go when it’s time, however I am getting better at this. Minimalism is great for some, but juggling pursuits is definitely for me.
    Thanks for the post Scott :)

  8. This post means a lot to me. I have so many interests but I can get overwhelmed and so people tell me to cut back. But maybe I -like- having a lot of interests. You’ve given me some great perspective for balancing them better.

  9. JenP says:

    Thank you for this! I’m fed up of people saying I lack focus and should do less. Like you, I do lots of things because it’s fun! I actually don’t mind being a jack of all trades and a master of none – it’s other people who seem to resent that and think I should be deciding which thing to focus on so I can get really good at it!

  10. Justin says:

    I believe that variety is the spice of life, but things can get muddled in the mix. Whatever I am learning I like to immerse myself in it for about thirty days without learning anything else.

    This makes it easier for me to retain and use what I had learned.

  11. Horace says:

    I have a practical question when juggling multiple pursuits:
    how do you refresh yourself after doing something
    mentally draining? Suppose I’ve just spent an hour or so
    debugging a program or solving a math problem, and now
    I feel too tired mentally to learn this language that I’m interesting
    in. How do you guys like to refresh yourselves? I’ve tried things like
    taking a walk and listening to music, but it doesn’t seem to help.

  12. Roger says:

    10,000 hours is only 5 years at 40 hours a week (with 2 weeks vacation a year). So it is reasonable to “become world-class” in less than half a decade if dedicated time is the only factor. With truly single-minded focus (say 80 hours a week), ten thousand hours would be amassed in 2.5 years.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Roger,

    I think the 10,000 hours is the amount of deliberate practice. I think it’s unlikely (even if you’re working full-time) to truly amass more than a few hours of this type of intense practice in a day–even if you are truly committed.

    I say that not to be discouraging but to distinguish these productive hours towards mastery from the more common “work” that we all put in but doesn’t perfect our skills.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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