The Power of Complements: Get Obsessive Results, Without the Obsession


How do you become completely focused towards a goal without burning yourself out? Even if your motivation for finishing a project, getting in shape or graduating summa cum laude is high, 100% focus is almost impossible to keep up. Does achievement require obsession, or is there another way?

The most obvious solution to the burnout problem is simply to not work so hard. If you take time to rest, then you can still focus with the rest of your time. While energy management is a huge step up from chronic procrastination or being a workaholic, this approach is essentially a trade-off. You end up with unused time in order to prevent burning out.

A better strategy to keep your energy high without sacrificing your focus is to work on complements.

Immersion Beats Obsession

A complement is an activity that indirectly helps your goal, but is a completely different type of activity. Spending time on complements as well as your regular work can help you get more progress towards your goal without feeling like a sacrifice. This is a strategy of immersion instead of obsession.

The two criteria for a complement is simple:

  1. The activity must indirectly help with your goal.
  2. The activity must be fundamentally different than regular work.

Indirect Action

A good complement will help you make progress towards a big goal, although usually indirectly. If you wanted to get in shape, your regular “work” would be eating the right foods and exercising. Obviously it’s impossible to be obsessive here and stay at the gym 12 hours a day. There is a limit to how much time you can spend directly working on this goal.

However, if you are really serious about a health goal, you might want to add on a complement activity. These complements won’t substitute the direct work of getting to the gym, but they can support that work. Here are a few example complements for your health:

  • Reading books on nutrition and exercise.
  • Talking to people who have already reached your fitness goals.
  • Experimenting with different cooking techniques to find great tasting food within your diet.

None of these activities, on its own, will help you get in shape. But by adding them to your project, you can get faster results without doing more work.

Fundamentally Different From Work

Complements must be a different type of activity than regular work. Reading books outside your classes may be great for indirect help in your studies. However, if you are having to read weighty textbooks as well, it doesn’t make a good complement.

If you want to add complements to help achieve your goal, look for activities that are completely different from the direct work you do. Some dimensions to consider:

  • If your work is physical (e.g. exercising), pick non-physical complements.
  • If your work is on the computer, pick non-digital complements.
  • If your work is highly creative, pick complements focused on learning.
  • If your work is solitary, pick social complements.

Think of your energy as being like a muscle. If you use it too much, you need to rest. However, that doesn’t mean you can get a bit more from using a different muscle. Compliments that help indirectly but differ in activity type allow you to become fully immersed in your project.

Finding Powerhouse Complements

Finding great complements requires broadening the scope of your project. Brainstorm for activities that would help with your goal but require different muscles. Don’t look at your project as just a linear sequence of steps to finish. Look for alternative ways you can boost your progress.

There are some complements that work well for a variety of situations. Here’s just a few you might want to consider:

  • Reading. Books can become complements for almost any project. More knowledge means you can work smarter.
  • Networking. Connections can help the inflow of new ideas and opportunities. Building connections with possible mentors or even peers can give you a strong support base.
  • Courses. Take courses to get a bit more skill in a complementary area. Join Toastmasters to help with your communication, or learn a martial art to work on your self-discipline.
  • Create. Building turns abstract ideas into skills. Don’t start entire new projects to work on, but small bursts of creative activities such as writing, music, art or programming can build complementary skills.
  • Teach. Bring your current skills to other people. This could be in leading a volunteer organization, tutoring a beginner or writing a blog on the subject. Teaching helps by improving your own understanding of a subject as well as connecting you with influential people.

Direct Work First, Complements Later

The idea of complements also comes with a potential danger. That is, if you spend all your time working on the indirect activities, you might neglect the really important work. The goal of a complement is to make use of the leftover energy you can’t devote entirely to work. When compliments start to replace actual work (reading about health instead of exercising) nothing will get done.

The purpose of a complement is to move you towards immersion instead of obsession. By immersing yourself in all the different angles that help towards a goal, you can stay focused without exhausting yourself. Complete obsession with 12-hour workdays isn’t healthy. But if you immerse yourself, most of the activities that help your project won’t actually feel like work.

  • Adam Alexander

    One of the ways that I learn is to use short exercises, (and depending on the results, a good 30 day trial may be in order)… So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to try a quick exercise here, with listing complementary activities.

    I’m a programmer by trade… I have two main projects running right now, one for my job, and the other that is personal. Using the good old 80/20 rule, 80% of my time spent programming is on the project for my job, with the other 20% on my personal project. (I can’t finish my personal project and earn an income that I can’t be fired from if I don’t already have an income… 😉 )

    Unfortunately, my time spent programming is also restricted by the 80/20 rule… I can only program 80% of the time, and I have to find other activities for the other 20%. (Please don’t mind that I’m just repeating the obvious. Part of the short exercise process I use is to restate the scenario and make it specific to my situation.)

    So, with the goal of filling the 20% downtime with complimentary activities, what is complimentary to programming? It is digital, creative, and solitary… The perfect compliment would be physical, learning, and social. The best activity that I can think of would be to attend seminars, or scaling that down, to have a social group of programmers who meet on a regular basis.

    This best-case scenario would be meetings where programmers can talk shop without typing out a bit of code… (Hopefully in an environment that doesn’t cost money… because spending 20% of my time at seminars would get extremely expensive.)

    The next best cases would be to get rid of one dimension… For instance, instead of learning, just socialize away from the computer. Instead of staying away from the computer, socialize on a forum filled with other programmers. Instead of socializing, read books on programming.

    I wonder if I could organize some sort of software developer’s club in my area… If not, an entrepreneurial club such as a chamber of commerce, or even Toastmasters, would be closer to the ideal, because they cover topics that independent software developers have to face eventually.

  • Chris Jones

    Wow, that’s a really awesome thought. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it in that way. I’m going to try to implement these ideas. Thank you very much. I was also wondering, how do you decide how long an article should be? How can you make sure it contains all the information it needs without being too long?

  • Jeff@My Super-Charged Life

    I think these are excellent suggestions! It is easy for me to obsess when I get focused on something that I want to accomplish and this can lead to burnout as you mentioned. I like the way you point out how you need to be careful about what complements you select. I can see where conflicts could arise. Thanks for another great article!

  • Scott Young


    Not sure how you’re applying the 80/20 rule there…

    The idea behind complements is to use the maximize the amount of time and energy towards an important goal without burning out.


  • Benedikt

    Not for publication, just a correction:

    “However, that doesn’t mean you can get a bit more from using a different muscle.”
    -> can’t

    Your blog is great!

  • Adam Alexander

    I’m not really trying to apply the 80/20 rule… just using it as a basic (and most certainly not objective) measurement of how much time I’m spending on each task, and as a reminder to give the complementary tasks the right perspective.

    The idea behind the 80/20 rule in this case could also be an analogy of a capstone of an arch… The capstone itself makes up a small portion of the entire construction, and supports only a fraction of the weight compared to the pillars, but it is also seen, subjectively speaking, as one of the most important parts of the arch. (Objectively, every stone is equally important, but we tend to place a special psychological significance on the capstone.)

  • Scott Young


    Gotcha. I’ve seen too many misapplications of Pareto’s principle that I start to get paranoid!