Deep Focus

A glacier has cut through the mountains to create a fjord, not just anywhere, but right in that picture.  Right. There.  

I was flipping through – a great term from a past way of reading – the Tropical MBA archives when I found Dan Andrews’ thoughts about John Mayer.  In an interview Mayer says that if Facebook and Twitter had existed years ago, he might not become the great guitar player he is.  Mayer needed time to devote to just playing the guitar, and look where it got him.   This reminded me of the strongest voice for deep practice that I’ve heard, Cal Newport.  Newport suggests that to get any meaningful work done, we need to focus intently on one things and one thing only.  

Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant). (11/21/12)

Does that sound familiar?  We rip through email to get to inbox zero or we check industry – but often personal – news on Twitter.  We don’t focus on work.  In writing just the first few hundred words on this post I hopped on to Twitter to ask someone a question.   How do we get anything meaningful done then?  

We should lock the door and focus on one thing until we solve a problem.  James Altucher is famous for making lists and he says that when making a list “you want your brain to sweat.”

Newport echoes this idea,  but in a more academic way, that we need to pursue “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”  Newport says that he might put a Do Not Disturb sign on his door, but Stephen King forgets the sign and just closes his.  In On Writing:

The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

After you shut the door and begin pursuing your word count, King writes “the door stays closed until that goal is met.”  He isn’t the only author to do this, to sit down and get work done.  When William Faulkner was writing and there was no lock, he removed the door knob instead.

Despite Dan Andrews and Cal Newport starting with the same idea, that to be successful you need to have a sharp focus on something, their next actions are complete opposites.

In the post Andrews writes, “I didn’t understand something John (Mayer) seemed to get early on– that finding work you love is a better success strategy than finding benefits you love.”  Andrews is saying that if we find the work we love, we’ll be happy and that will trump the benefits you get from it.  Tony Subblebine echoes this idea in an interview with Pat Flynn.  Stubblebine said at one job he was working for money to buy a big tv, at his new job though, he’s so busy he doesn’t even want to watch tv.   

Newport on the other hand has spent some of his deep focus time trying to convince people that this is not the case, if fact, it’s flat out wrong.  His archcase is that of Steve Jobs.  What did Steve Jobs love about computers?  What did Steve Jobs love about marketing?  Newports conclusion is that Jobs didn’t love any of these things until he was good at them and that we get the order flipped.  Newport thinks that instead of finding a job we love, we get great at a job and we’ll love being good at it.

Whether Andrews or Newport is right about pursuing your passions I don’t know, but either catalyst will probably work to get more great work done.  If our brains are – like Altucher says – muscles we need to exercise, then the field of exercise may also give us a clue for spending our time in the most beneficial way.  

The New York Times reported that high intensity interval training provides many of the same fitness benefits as endurance training.   The article suggests that if we take seven minutes to do a variety of exercises with the most intensity we can manage, then we’ll see health gains comparable to “a long run and a visit to the weight room.”  

This also reminds me of a story about Jerry Rice, a hero of my youth.  Rice is universally considered the best wide receiver but he had a training routine that differed from what many football players were doing at the time – he ran on hills.  Rice and his running buddy Rodger Craig found that these workouts contributed more to their success on the field than any other off field activity would.  

What do we get then, after deep focus on something we are pursuing – we get to view what’s next.  It’s like we have two choices about moving through an unknown landscape.  The first is that we circle around where we are, we keep our current place in our peripheral vision and slowly move away from our choice.  We are doing a backward path of circling the drain.  Or we can strike out, move away and forward and discover what’s beyond our field of vision.


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