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.


  • Macela Santos

    I’ll try the challenge Scott, great ideas should always have a chance before we decide if it works or not for us. Thanks againd and congrats for your amazing work =)

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