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.