Scott H Young

Why Focus (not Effort) is the Key to Getting Stuff Done


Around the time I started this blog, I was obsessed with habits. The psychology is fascinating and the idea that you could reprogram your behavior was compelling. After all, how much could you accomplish if you never failed to act on what you planned?

The science of behavior change makes it exciting too: operant and classical conditioning, trigger patterns and variable reinforcement. It turns the seemingly dull task of building good habits into an exotic discipline.

During that time, I got pretty good at it too. Exercising regularly, reading a book a day, cutting out television. I saw we were all robots, operating on unseen patterns. My only difference is someone had shown me the control switch.

Looking back now, in spite of the fanciness of the psychological tricks, I think I neglected the power of what may have been the most important rule: never more than one habit at a time.

Focus is an underestimated resource. What’s more, unlike willpower or motivation, which can be fickle to summon, focus can be created easily.

Stop Doing So Much Stuff

Being more focused is easy: stop having so many damn goals.

Sometimes I’ll get emails from students who are in a double major, active in sports, chair in student government, volunteering, and desperately trying to prevent from burning out. Then they go on to ask me how they can focus more in their studies.

The problem is that their life is the antithesis of focus. Part of the blame comes from the belief that being “well-rounded” is essential on resumes, so they fill their time with draining activities. (For an excellent critique of this strategy, read Cal Newport’s fantastic book.)

It’s obvious that the stress would disappear if these students decided to drop most these small goals and focus on only one or two big ones. What’s less obvious, but also likely, is that by harnessing focus in one or two goals, their accomplishment would go up enough that it would more than compensate for the other gaps.

Focus is a philosophy, not a resource. You can be focused by choice, just by choosing to have fewer goals to work on.

The Hardest Year in My Life (a Case Study in Focus)

As an example of the power of focus, I want to contrast two years in my life. One where I burned out and felt enormous stress, and the other where I felt almost none and I was generally pretty relaxed.

The difficult year was in college. Like the hypothetical student I discussed, I severely lacked focus. I had two positions in student government, full classes, and a demanding schedule of competitions. Not to mention trying to sustain this blog which would eventually become my full-time business.

I was so burned out by the end that I left the country for the year, with little to show other than aches from my misadventure.

The year of low stress and relaxation? This past year, doing the MIT Challenge.

To an outsider, last year seemed a lot more difficult. After all, trying to learn the content of a 4-year science degree from a tough school seems far more difficult than trying to balance a few student council positions while taking a couple business classes.

The difference was focus. The total difficulty of my hardest year was aggressively compounded by the fact there was so many different goals. The MIT Challenge was more difficult and impressive in isolation, but avoided the temptation of distraction.

Too Much Motivation?

Very few psychological factors are universally positive. The opposite of depression, is not bliss, but mania. Often the two coexist, with those suffering from manic depression experiencing both extremes.

There are those that suffer from too little motivation. Cultivating motivation from apathy is a difficult task, but not an impossible one.

But less frequently to we recognize the opposite problem: too much motivation. Too much enthusiasm leads to starting many projects you’ll never finish. It leads to splitting your focus in the misguided belief that such splits are sustainable.

If the opposite of depression is mania, not happiness, then the opposite of laziness is not productivity, it’s this. The middle ground, where you’re enthused but focused, is the work equivalent to the meditative contentment which is neither depressed nor manic.

My Advice to Get Things Done (Which Most People Won’t Follow)

I’m going to give a piece of advice for getting more work done and actually achieving all those goals you claim to have, but haven’t made much progress on yet. But it’s also a piece of advice I’m guessing most people will ignore, even though it wouldn’t be too hard to implement. Here it is:

Only have one goal at a time.

This doesn’t mean you must devote your life obsessively to only one end. All it means is that if you’re going to have goals at all, put one as the focus and let the others be optional, for a dedicated period of time.

What if you have two goals that are both really important to you? Well then let one be your focus for this month and let the other be your focus for the next.

Having a goal doesn’t mean everything else in your life is completely ignored. I still went to the gym, wrote blog articles, met new people and paid my taxes during the MIT Challenge. The difference was that I knew they weren’t my focus, so my job was only to try to keep them running smoothly.

The temptation to lose focus won’t come from laziness. Laziness may actually be a positive attribute since it discourages you from picking up new goals. The discipline to focus comes from resisting the enthusiasm to try new projects.

The Action Steps to Use this to Get More Done

The action steps to start using this to accomplish more are quite simple:

  1. Decide what is your focus right now. There can only be one.
  2. Commit to keeping it as your focus until a certain time. It might be a deadline for a project, as it was with my challenge, or it might be arbitrary. Focus doesn’t work if it switches too rapidly.
  3. Everything other than your focus, the aim is to keep it running smoothly, but no active self-improvement and absolutely no new voluntary commitments.

If your goal is a small one, make the commitment period shorter. If you have two major goals, flip a coin and commit to the first one for the next month and the second for the month after.

If your project is long-term, make it a focus in the beginning until you think you can continue it successfully with it being a non-focus. My business was a focus for the first few years, but during the MIT Challenge it became a non-focus. That didn’t mean I stopped blogging (indeed, I maintained two blogs during that time), but that I only sustained output.

For many people these action steps won’t be enough. Their existing load of commitments is so vast that they are already overextended. Merely trying to keep all of these activities as non-focuses will still leave them burned out.

If you’re in this situation, phase out your existing commitments over time. Eventually, you can get to a state where you could meaningfully focus on one goal in particular.

To the people who claim that focus is a luxury they can’t afford, why not just try it for one month? Experience tells me that after an experiment, you’ll realize that you can’t afford not to focus.


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44 Responses to “Why Focus (not Effort) is the Key to Getting Stuff Done”

  1. Blake Hall says:

    About a year ago a changed from my mantra from “do everything” to “simplification”, I removed about 90% of my goals and projects and generally made everything I could as simple and focused as possible.

    The result?

    I’ve gotten more done in the past year then the five years before that, by far.

    So I could not agree with this more. Try to do a hundred things and you’ll accomplish next to nothing. Do things one at a time, and you will move upwards steadily and not backtrack.

  2. Alexander says:

    I’ve made this mistake too often. When things are going well, it’s so tempting to make more commitments… I think it’s a form of impatience.

  3. Great post! I’ve definitely suffered from too many goals and overextension. Serializing goals rather than adopt an inefficient concurrency is one solution. However, I am curious what you have to say about the sweet spot between total serialization and an acceptable level of concurrency. I’ve met a lot of people who were so focused on a certain goal that they neglected important things that I now consider to be necessary daily practices. “There’s plenty of time to sleep after I retire” is something I’ve heard a lot, yet sleep and exercise are demonstrably beneficial to keep going on a regular basis.

  4. zoominsab says:

    a thought that came to my mind when reading your article, especially your conclusion, was that focus seems to be a luxury of men. Women tend not to be able to focus on only one thing at a time. But I came to the conclusion that what you refer to as focus is the concept of making one thing your main objective but still leaving time for other things, that are necessary or not. So we don’t have to sink into tasks like most IT specialists or men in general but can be busy with whatever but have that one incentive of reaching one specific goal.

  5. Nikolaus says:

    That is an interesting and probably “too true to be true” post – I really enjoyed it. Modern times give us so many possibilities, that we often forget what they really are: possibilities. Not every cake has to be eaten at the same time and I don’t have to dance on every wedding … One thing at a time is a very good way of focussing, thanks Scott!

  6. Justin says:

    I agree that focusing on just one thing would probably create the best overall results. However, I was wondering what your thoughts are on this tactic regarding someone who is currently in school. Should school automatically be the number one focus? It’s not really an option to let school fall by the wayside but at the same time I would rather choose another goal as my only focus.

  7. Anna M. says:

    Thank you so much! Right now it’s time in my life when I could use your advise and I’m going to.

  8. Scott Young says:

    Franklin,

    Like all my posts, I write about ideas because of what I feel is the general tendency and suggest a direction that will fix that. I think there are definitely people who over serialize, and obsess on goals to the detriment of their life. I left the description of “keeping things running smoothly” on other goals purposely vague in that sense. In the end, it requires judgement.

    To me, the available energy to focus is already a small % of what you can do. Most of your time and energy is already devoted to the things you have to do, eat, sleep, relax, exercise, etc. The real question, therefore is whether of the 5% of discretionary energy you have you should be splitting it.

    Justin,

    That’s a tough question, and I can’t answer for you. I can say that during my time in college school often wasn’t the focus, but I had also built up the habits so that just keeping it running “smoothly” meant I would still get decent grades. Whether you can afford a similar mentality is another question.

    Ultimately I think the only exception to my “focus” rule would be in such cases, where you have a main project and a single side project. The main project, like school or a job, may require some minimal focus just so your life doesn’t fall apart, but the side project is where you allow yourself growth.

    -Scott

  9. [...] Why Focus (not Effort) is the Key to Getting Stuff Done | Scott H Young [...]

  10. [...] Why Focus (not Effort) is the Key to Getting Stuff Done [Scott H Young] [...]

  11. T. Bodine says:

    I’m about twice your age, Scott, and I’m always impressed by your observations. (Apparently, age does not make one a sage.) There’s lots to like in your post, but in particular it’s what you said about us being robots and the matter of self-control.

    Many people take offense at the idea that we’re robotic beings, in part. The beautiful thing about self-control is that some inner-part of us is the programmer and can set the goals for some other part of us to do. But if we don’t learn to listen to that inner self, then we are truly robots under the control of others. Better to be a freebot!

  12. I’m a psychologist and homeschooler who has been following your blog for a while now with fascination. I am trying to educate my six children in the fast, efficient way you have been educating yourself.

    What you have to say about focus is oh so true, but I have to tell you that while I am the psychologist, YOU have diagnosed me. I am overly motivated! I never thought of it that way before. :-) Looking back, I have been the most productive and happy when I had a singular focus. That’s how I wrote my book and completed a Body for Life transformation–I didn’t have anything else big going on to distract me.

    Thanks for a great reminder.

  13. Keri Peardon says:

    I just got finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, and she talks a lot about these same principles.

    Focusing on only one task at a time is really a necessity for anyone who is introverted. Extroverts tend to like “multitasking” projects or goals, because they like variety and constant stimulation, but even they lose effectiveness when they have too many irons in the fire.

    Introverts are also much more likely to feel disappointed, guilty, or ashamed if they don’t meet their goals! (Another reason to not take on too much.)

  14. Fnor says:

    The idea is interesting, but seems difficult to apply…

    I currently have a website talking about piano and would like to take it further. I also have to continue to study piano and music, this gives me lots of ideas for the website and my own enjoyment. Endly I am in senior year in college, and I can drop my courses…

    I can agree that simplification is a good thing, and I certainly could take away some of my smaller goals. However I can’t see myself choosing between these three… all are very important.

  15. Pierre says:

    Awesome article and perspective on goals and getting things done.

    I find my self in an extreme acheivement oriented environment where you are evaluated by your abbility to do a ton of different things and execute on them all. What advice do you have about how to focus on less in an environment that screams more?

  16. Rob Thorell says:

    I am guilty of attempting too much at one time.. I feel that I am either feeling overwhelmed with projects that need to be started or overwhelmed with half finished projects. I am not sure what is worse

  17. Momo says:

    Scott,

    early in your MIT challenge you shifted from doing one class a week to doing four classes over a month. My question: what did this look like? For example, did you cycle through each course spending a few days on each until completion?

    I’ve gone through all your MIT challenge vlogs but I haven’t seen the answer mentioned anywhere.

  18. Kylie says:

    Yes! I could not agree more! In addition to one goal at a time just being more effective, I find that it also increases my satisfaction with the results. One reason is that I’m more likely to be successful by just focusing on one habit/goal at a time. The other is that I have the opportunity to focus on the celebration of that one success. And I like that.

  19. Mitch says:

    Amazing article. I struggle with this concept, trying to get too many things done every day. In my head, that’s the way to be successful. It’s the way to be recognised. “If I become good at lots of things, then the ‘sum of the parts is greater than the whole’”. I have found that, although I am good at a lot of things, I am not the “expert” at many, if at all. Focus is definitely the key to long term success, efficiency and self-fulfilment.

    I also like the reference to universal positivity. Very few things in science, or life, are exclusive or exist in their own right. Everything has an opposite. And I believe, success lies in ‘balance’ or ‘equilibrium’. That’s why life is not always good… but can be most of the time.

  20. Kuade says:

    Great post. Simply great post. I’ll be linking back to it from my site. My wife and I were just discussing this topic last night and while we were discussing the “why” this was necessary, this post will help with the “how” portion of executing (and also reinforces the ‘why’).

    Great post – great site – great TEDx presentation. Very much looking forward to reading more on your blog. You sound like the type of guy I would like to buy a cup of coffee and chat it up with one day.

    Thanks for your contributions, sir.

  21. Hi Scott, Great post! I too am all about focus and simplification like Blake mentioned in his comment. I just naturally get too frustrated and overwhelmed to think about more than a few things at a time. Even in my day-to-day goals I only have 1-2 things that I mark as having to get done that day. That’s it. If I get my 1-2 things done and I want to work on other things, then I do so. If I feel like I have done enough for the day then I relax guilt-free.

    One thing people will notice when they focus is that all those other things that they thought needed to get done – well they either don’t get done and everything is still ok because those things weren’t as important as we thought. Or they find a way of working themselves out somehow or another.

  22. Jennifer says:

    I have found that starting new tasks or projects were one of my procrastination strategies (excuses) for not working on existing ones.

    Focusing certainly brings out those closet skeletons for me, forcing me to focus on stuffs I’ve been trying to run away from!

  23. Scott Young says:

    Momo,

    I worked only on one class in any particular day. So a week would look like Monday – Class 1, Tuesday – Class 2, Wednesday – Class 3, etc.

    -Scott

  24. [...] butter scraped over too much bread* . I worry about too much multitasking and I tend to agree with this article about the benefits of focus. All I can do is trust in my instinct that since my Work-in-Progress [...]

  25. Alice says:

    Interesting approach. My “problem” is that I usually need many different projects because only one will not motivate me enough. For example, I will write for a few days – after that my inspiration to write will decrease – then I will be in the mood for composing again – until after a few days the balance switches again.

  26. [...] Why Focus (not Effort) is the Key to Getting Stuff Done. That’s one of the reasons Ritalin works so well – it helps ADHD sufferers focus, not just put in more effort! [...]

  27. Steve Bithell says:

    Excellent post!

    There is a lot of advice out there about ‘commit to the three/five/ten most important things..’, but no one else seems to have taken the extra step, by adding the word ‘..properly’.

  28. Holistic says:

    Thanks for that article. For me it’s very important to go ahead, and achieves goals, but I know, it is necessery to have lots of motivations and determination to do it. How beautiful it is to have straight and easy way to goal, but we have no concentration so we loose our priority often and quick. So as you write, if you only have one goal at a time, you have much more possibility to win!

  29. Charmaine says:

    You may have just changed my life.
    I’m going to school, working a challenging full-time job, am the mother of a pre-schooler and am pregnant. I’ve been kicking myself because I have not been placing enough energy into keeping my environment un-chaotic and on keeping my body as healthy as I have in the past.
    Somehow, this post helped clarify what everyone has been telling me – I can’t do it all at the same time.
    I need to focus on getting my courses under control, and once I can maintain them, THEN I can focus on optimizing my health until that’s in maintenance mode. (With the caveat that I take good care of the child inside of me.) After that I can worry about an organized home.
    Maybe that’s not what you were saying, but it’s what I needed to hear right now. It helped me give myself the freedom to not be perfect.

  30. Weywoda says:

    Read your blog for the first time, interesting article, interesting blog! Seeing as we usually judge ourselves and are judged by our accomplishments, focusing on one and getting that done before moving on to another makes sense.

    I’ve had success with this method previously. There have been several occasions when I needed a prerequisite for something or needed to upgrade my foreign language skills. So I had to focus on just that one thing, and you’re right, it really does work!

    The problem I have with focus is often the question, “What should I focus on now?”. If I do have to do multiple courses and an assignment is due soon but I am making no progress, should keep focusing on it or switch to the thing due the next day? Knowing when to focus and when to put in the effort is not always obvious, but essential.
    Just the other day a friend of mine was working on a programming problem for 5 hours and making little progress, became and decided to take a shower. He then suddenly realized he had forgotten an essential point and just wasted those last 5 hours…

    How do you approach this issue?

  31. Peter Hall says:

    Scott, Great post. Sometimes the mistake we make is trying to be more productive by thinking we can get everything done by being more effecient – like we’re machines that just need speeding up. The truth is, as you say, more about focus. Ironcially we’ll get more done if we choose to do less. I’ve recently taken some time out and had some modest goals which I quickly reduced. One change was to focus on writing rather than writing, photography, cycling and gardening. The book got finished, edited and published and the next is underway. Good news as the new job is starting soon and having only done a bit of a book in the time would have been frustrating.

  32. Kay says:

    Hi Scott, thanks for this brilliant post. I came across your blog while looking for info about speed reading and I guess I just stuck around.

    This post finally put a handle on what I have been feeling lately – like a plate spinner in a circus. I took stock of my life and realised that I have so many things on the go and keep saying I should do more of this and more of that, then feel guilty because I am spending time on something else. I haven’t been accomplishing much because I am too busy running around shaking the stick to keep the plates spinning.

    Yesterday I put your strategy into practice and picked one thing to focus on, just to see what would happen. I must say that I went to bed with a sense of achievement, that I had actually done something meaningful with my day.

    Keep up the good work!

  33. Chelle Stein says:

    Being Bipolar and having experienced mania firsthand, I can relate a lot to this post :) At my worst I was trying to run 32 different projects all at once. What happened after that? I crashed and burned of course.

    One goal and one focus is definitely excellent advice.

  34. Johnny says:

    If I narrow down my goals (to one), will I achieve that goal faster than trying to achieve multiple goals?

  35. I discovered your TEDx talk through this reddit thread (http://www.reddit.com/r/learnprogramming/comments/11taa4/thank_you_you_rock/) and started browsing your site. I love what you have to say. It’s a perfect mixture of psychology and self-improvement.

    To echo what others have said, I think you become content focusing on one goal after repeatedly failing so many separate pursuits. I want to be a writer, entrepreneur, filmmaker, blogger, and programmer. Two years after adding and deleting to this list and I’m nowhere really close to any of those. It takes that realization to finally settle down and go, “okay, maybe I should be a little more patient?”

    What’s funny about the way you’ve broken down goal setting is that this is precisely how kids and teenagers learn things, just without really knowing it or giving a name to it. What happens when a 14 year old teen discovers he wants to play the guitar? He falls in love with it, it’s his singular pursuit every day around the same time after school, he lives his life hanging with friends whenever the opportunity arises, and if he keeps at it, he’s good enough to start his own band in a couple of years. There’s no pressure, and I’m sure his practicing and self-improvement through the guitar are some of his most serene hours.

    I will definitely be following you on this Scott. Really happy to have stumbled upon this as I try to meet some goals myself. Can’t wait to be notified again of your course!

    -Sean Dominguez

  36. [...] Just the other day, I ran across a post on reddit’s /r/learnprogramming that lead me to an excellent TEDx Talk of a young blogger named Scott Young who went through a full four-year MIT Computer Science course load in just under one year. After checking out his blog and his posts on focus and motivation, this line, in particular, really hit home for me: Too Much Motivation? [...]

  37. Mike says:

    Scott,

    What are your thoughts on forming new relationships? While reenergizing can take up energy as well. If you’ve never gotten into the habit of meeting new people, is that something to put ahead of waking up early or constructing metaphors as a 30 day trial?

    Mike

  38. Scott Young says:

    Mike,

    Relationships are definitely important. I’d guess (beyond the personal implications) that the relationships I’ve formed have been far more productive than almost any individual habit in my overall productivity. Sacrificing efficiency is sometimes useful if it means being more social.

    -Scott

  39. Jacq says:

    What are your thoughts on education then?

    Ideally how would it be structured? One subject at a time? two? what about in high school (or in my case, as I live in singapore, secondary school) where we have 8 different subjects to master for the exams? What about trying everything first and finding what interests you and what doesnt?

    Cheers

    Jacky

  40. [...] Too many focuses will stretch you thin and you’ll never do it. If it is your main focus, act like it. Make it your only focus for a set period of time and tackle it. [...]

  41. Lester says:

    Hey Scott, I been thinking, is it possible to trick your mind to focus on only one thing? For example, I want to focus all my energy on something that will improve my career but really my thoughts wonder to a girl I can’t have instead. Is it possible that with training you can focus all your energy on something productive instead?

    Also even if you when you do able to focus on your productive life, doesn’t that violate focusing on one thing at the time? Because productive life is a such a vague goal that it produces a lot of different challenges for you to meet to attain productive life.

  42. Elena Alganaeva says:

    Hello, Scott, I was wondering if it was possible to add a PRINT feature to your articles? I wish I could read your blog while commuting but do not really want to read off the computer / telephone screen as my eyes get dry. Probably other people have a similar problem. thanks.

    Elena

  43. [...] en savoir plus, vous pouvez lire l‘article complet de Scott Young sur son blog (en [...]

  44. Tsipora says:

    Great post! It also has a built in prioritization mechanism. I thought I should focus on a certain area – something I really want very much – but when I read: “Everything other than your focus, the aim is to keep it running smoothly…,” I realized that another more fundamental area was not running as smoothly as it should, and that actually needed to be the main area of focus instead of what I thought I should go after…Thanks!

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