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!