The Irony of Focus: Why Doing Only One Thing Actually Lets You Do More

In my article series on ultralearning, one commenter wrote to me that he has trouble picking a project because there are just too many things he wants to learn. He starts one project, but then is enticed by the many other things that suddenly seem more interesting.

This is a common problem and it isn’t exclusive to learning.

When I think about traveling, it’s hard to think of one place I’d like to go. Instead its dozens of places. I’d like to go back to China. I hear Iceland is really good. Someone told me about a safari they did in Africa. Too many ideas than time or money will allow.

When I think about self-improvement, possibilities also overflow. I’d like to get better at meditating. Really get to a new level of fitness. There’s some business projects I’d like to tackle. What about a new hobby? Again, there’s no way I can do everything.

Why I Focus

Earlier in my life, I used to easily succumb to these temptations. I’d start a project, but when the reality of the project set in, and things were sometimes difficult or challenging, I’d flip back to imagination mode and pull myself into a different idea.

Eventually I realized that these temptations are mirages. That flitting back and forth between projects, goals and fantasies, isn’t how you end up with an interesting life. It’s how you end up daydreaming all day and never actually doing anything interesting at all.

Do concrete projects sequentially. Ones which demand focus and exclude other possibilities. This can feel limiting, but it is also liberating. Because by doing projects, you actually get stuff done. And when it’s done, you can move onto a different project and passion. Focusing gets things done, so you end up doing a larger variety of things, averaged over a long period of time, than the back-and-forth daydreams most people waste the majority of their time on.

Why Focusing is So Hard

A useful concept for understanding the temptation to distraction comes from construal level theory. This suggests our brain has two modes that it uses for thinking, a near-mode, which works with practical matters close at hand, and a far-mode which is used for thinking about ideals and identity.

The relevance to our discussion here is that projects you’re currently doing are in near-mode, while projects you imagine yourself doing are far.

A near-mode project makes clear that working hard isn’t always fun. You’re tired because you had to wake up earlier to start working. You’re frustrated because of a lack of progress. You realize that actually speaking another language isn’t that impressive, that learning to program is endless, that this new skill doesn’t immediately make you smarter in every possible way.

Imagining far-mode projects doesn’t have these drawbacks. You can focus on how wonderful it would be to own your own business, learn another language, be in incredible shape or understand quantum physics, without any of the work. There’s no complexities, drawbacks or difficulties.

When people start a project, and switch from far to near, they suddenly realize that it isn’t as glamorous as they realized. The mistake they make, however, is in believing that this is a defect to this specific project. They think they must have chosen the wrong pursuit, rather than this being a general feature of all projects they undertake.

Overcoming the Temptation of Distraction

Assuming you actually want to do things and not just daydream about them, there’s two processes I’ve found helpful for overcoming this temptation.

The first is to learn to fall in love with the actual process of doing things. No, it’s not always sexy, and it has obstacles and frustrations. But there’s also a special satisfaction that comes from being a doer and accomplishing your dreams instead of just dreaming about them. The more time you spend with the process of doing, the more real it seems and the more enjoyable it becomes compared to just fantasizing.

The second process is to recognize that the only way you can even come close to living out all the ideas you have in your head is to actually work on them one at a time. Set projects and work on them. In the moment, it may feel like they’re excluding everything else, but over time you’ll start to see a bigger picture. You’ll see that you’re actually out there doing the things you wanted to do.

Focus is powerful because it allows you to actually get things done. It can be hard because it also forces you to confront the reality of the things you want to do, instead of living in the mere fantasy of them. But while the reality of working on your goals, learning new subjects or going on adventures may not be as rosy as it first appears, I believe it is ultimately a lot more satisfying.

  • Bjarke Tan

    Hey scott awesome article 🙂
    Sorry about my ignorance but is ultralearning and what cal newport calls deep work the same thing?
    Please don’t take this the wrong way i really like/interested and support both ideas but they just seems a bit similar but no matter what they are still very interesting ideas 🙂

  • Bjarke Tan

    Hey scott awesome article 🙂
    Sorry about my ignorance but is ultralearning and what cal newport calls deep work the same thing?
    Please don’t take this the wrong way i really like/interested and support both ideas but they just seems a bit similar but no matter what they are still very interesting ideas 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Hmmm there are overlaps for sure, but they’re certainly different.

    Ultralearning is an approach to doing intense self-education. Deep work is working deeply with focus. So they both involve focus, but ultralearning is specific to learning new things. It’s entirely possible to work deeply without having learning as the main goal (you could be focused on performing an already learned skill, for example).

  • Scott Young

    Hmmm there are overlaps for sure, but they’re certainly different.

    Ultralearning is an approach to doing intense self-education. Deep work is working deeply with focus. So they both involve focus, but ultralearning is specific to learning new things. It’s entirely possible to work deeply without having learning as the main goal (you could be focused on performing an already learned skill, for example).

  • Mr. Fair

    Interesting read Scott. It is defiantly a tougher challenge for those with ADHD 🙂

  • Mr. Fair

    Interesting read Scott. It is defiantly a tougher challenge for those with ADHD 🙂

  • teddy

    Very good article I have read your great blog for a long time but think this article is very close to something I have been struggling with for a while now.
    It is related to Willpower management, at the moment I am trying to improve my diet which involves a lot of I won’t power, but not really any extra stuff to do. So while I am trying to improve my diet I have a lot of spare time as I am not really doing anything extra and so feel like it is being wasted and am thinking about all the extra stuff I could be doing in that time. But have read in multiple places and in your article above that you should focus on one thing at a time.
    So do you think it is better to continue with my diet and fill in the extra time however I feel at the moment or manage that time in some other way to do something else productive while still trying to also maintain the diet?

  • teddy

    Very good article I have read your great blog for a long time but think this article is very close to something I have been struggling with for a while now.
    It is related to Willpower management, at the moment I am trying to improve my diet which involves a lot of I won’t power, but not really any extra stuff to do. So while I am trying to improve my diet I have a lot of spare time as I am not really doing anything extra and so feel like it is being wasted and am thinking about all the extra stuff I could be doing in that time. But have read in multiple places and in your article above that you should focus on one thing at a time.
    So do you think it is better to continue with my diet and fill in the extra time however I feel at the moment or manage that time in some other way to do something else productive while still trying to also maintain the diet?

  • Tebogo Leshabane

    There is a Zen quote I stumbled on a few weeks ago, “Simplicity is the difficulty” Your writing style comes to mind when I think of this quote. Your ability to squeeze so much information in a lucid way is amazing. I love your blog man, whatever you do in life just keep writing.

  • Tebogo Leshabane

    There is a Zen quote I stumbled on a few weeks ago, “Simplicity is the difficulty” Your writing style comes to mind when I think of this quote. Your ability to squeeze so much information in a lucid way is amazing. I love your blog man, whatever you do in life just keep writing.

  • thomas vandekerckhove

    The construal level theory reminds me of “system 1” and “system 2” in Daniel Kahneman’s book thinking fast and slow. I don’t know if you have read this book?

  • thomas vandekerckhove

    The construal level theory reminds me of “system 1” and “system 2” in Daniel Kahneman’s book thinking fast and slow. I don’t know if you have read this book?

  • Kashish

    Where’s your 28th b’day blog post?

  • Kashish

    Where’s your 28th b’day blog post?

  • Fæz Rawas

    I’m guessing I’m that ‘commenter’? Awesome write up Scott.
    I just linked to this article on Reddit thread titled ‘What has made you quit doing something you love?’ and where the top comments – “I like something, I then try and blow it up, then I get bored, and find something new.
    I feel like I have this disease where I can’t get anything done, only very thoroughly started.” – relate directly to the subject matter of this article.

    Would you recommend any specific book that deals with the subject of focus in specific? Also do you have any opinion about whether someone with ADHD can become focused through self discipline and without the aid of medication, or is it something more ‘chemical’ that needs to be treated?

  • Fæz Rawas

    I’m guessing I’m that ‘commenter’? Awesome write up Scott.
    I just linked to this article on Reddit thread titled ‘What has made you quit doing something you love?’ and where the top comments – “I like something, I then try and blow it up, then I get bored, and find something new.
    I feel like I have this disease where I can’t get anything done, only very thoroughly started.” – relate directly to the subject matter of this article.

    Would you recommend any specific book that deals with the subject of focus in specific? Also do you have any opinion about whether someone with ADHD can become focused through self discipline and without the aid of medication, or is it something more ‘chemical’ that needs to be treated?

  • Rohan

    Hey Scott, great post! It’s very true that one underestimates the hard work required for every project. Following the advise you gave me on your last post, I did actually only focus on one goal since then. The temptation to quit and start something else is always in the back of the mind, but resisting this has really allowed me to make big progress very quickly! 🙂

  • Rohan

    Hey Scott, great post! It’s very true that one underestimates the hard work required for every project. Following the advise you gave me on your last post, I did actually only focus on one goal since then. The temptation to quit and start something else is always in the back of the mind, but resisting this has really allowed me to make big progress very quickly! 🙂

  • Juraj

    Hi Scott!

    I totally agree that trying to do all at once is a typical problem – it happens to me all the time.

    However, I doubt one can focus only on one thing at a time and once it’s finished moved to another one.

    The problem is that the nature of many “projects” makes them ongoing – you need to exercise regularly, you need to eat healthy all the time, you need to learn new language every day (ideally) or at least week, you need to practice programming on a daily basis, etc.

    The next reason is that you really don’t want to spend all your time on one thing because it’s counterproductive.
    If you’re trying to push too hard you may get stuck and actually achieve less.
    E.g. it’s probably useless to try to learn new language for many hours a day, since there will be a huge amount of new stuff and you just won’t be able to remember it.

    I can imagine that you’re talking about starting new project / practice (like start meditating).
    And once this become natural to you, you can continue to do it while also focusing on another project.
    I also think there’s is a difference whether you have a full-time job or not. If not, you can probably focus on more than one project at a time.

    Do you have any other suggestions how to combine all these things together and still get a reasonable progress?

  • Juraj

    Hi Scott!

    I totally agree that trying to do all at once is a typical problem – it happens to me all the time.

    However, I doubt one can focus only on one thing at a time and once it’s finished moved to another one.

    The problem is that the nature of many “projects” makes them ongoing – you need to exercise regularly, you need to eat healthy all the time, you need to learn new language every day (ideally) or at least week, you need to practice programming on a daily basis, etc.

    The next reason is that you really don’t want to spend all your time on one thing because it’s counterproductive.
    If you’re trying to push too hard you may get stuck and actually achieve less.
    E.g. it’s probably useless to try to learn new language for many hours a day, since there will be a huge amount of new stuff and you just won’t be able to remember it.

    I can imagine that you’re talking about starting new project / practice (like start meditating).
    And once this become natural to you, you can continue to do it while also focusing on another project.
    I also think there’s is a difference whether you have a full-time job or not. If not, you can probably focus on more than one project at a time.

    Do you have any other suggestions how to combine all these things together and still get a reasonable progress?

  • Chris Lewis

    I have a suggestion and this is something I learned from someone else that follows the same philosophy as Scott. I think Scott understands that everyone has responsibilities and we can’t all focus JUST on one thing.

    I believe when Scott says follow one goal at a time, he means don’t try to consciously pursue any two, three, or four goals all at once. It’s like the old Chinese saying,

    “The person that chases two rabbits, catches neither…”

    As for your other responsibilities such as family, work, staying healthy etc., you just maintain those areas to keep them running smoothly.

    I would suggest reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Both aithors touch heavily on this subject.

    Cheers

  • Chris Lewis

    I have a suggestion and this is something I learned from someone else that follows the same philosophy as Scott. I think Scott understands that everyone has responsibilities and we can’t all focus JUST on one thing.

    I believe when Scott says follow one goal at a time, he means don’t try to consciously pursue any two, three, or four goals all at once. It’s like the old Chinese saying,

    “The person that chases two rabbits, catches neither…”

    As for your other responsibilities such as family, work, staying healthy etc., you just maintain those areas to keep them running smoothly.

    I would suggest reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Both aithors touch heavily on this subject.

    Cheers

  • Arif Khan

    Scott,
    You speak to a very common problem that most people do not recognize enough to address. I am currently in my first year of a Psy. D program, and often I find that students who are falling behind have not acquired the skill of focusing completely on their education goals. Thus, they pursue other activities without realizing the consequences of not focusing on course loads until they are placed on academic probation. In terms of life outside of academics, I try to apply focus wherever I may have a chance. For example, listening to someone speak, reading an article or watching a quick news bit. I find there are many opportunities to increase focus, even in incremental levels. As usual, another great post, enjoy reading your blog.

  • Arif Khan

    Scott,
    You speak to a very common problem that most people do not recognize enough to address. I am currently in my first year of a Psy. D program, and often I find that students who are falling behind have not acquired the skill of focusing completely on their education goals. Thus, they pursue other activities without realizing the consequences of not focusing on course loads until they are placed on academic probation. In terms of life outside of academics, I try to apply focus wherever I may have a chance. For example, listening to someone speak, reading an article or watching a quick news bit. I find there are many opportunities to increase focus, even in incremental levels. As usual, another great post, enjoy reading your blog.

  • Scott —

    Your final comments about falling in love with the process of doing things, versus getting caught up in the fantasy of mastery (which is only an illusion until you get into the muck and put in the work) hits really, really close to home. I’m printing that portion out and taping it to my wall.

    patrick

  • Patrick Mathieson

    Scott —

    Your final comments about falling in love with the process of doing things, versus getting caught up in the fantasy of mastery (which is only an illusion until you get into the muck and put in the work) hits really, really close to home. I’m printing that portion out and taping it to my wall.

    patrick

  • Arthur Mustafin

    Chris, many thanks for book recommendation!

  • Arthur Mustafin

    Chris, many thanks for book recommendation!

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