Category Archives: Book

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.


Michael Hyatt on Beyond the To-Do List

On Beyond the To-Do list, episode 53, Erik Fisher talks to Michael Hyatt about goal setting.  Hyatt is promoting his course, 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.  Here are a few features of the episode

When Hyatt and Fisher are talking about successes and failures, Hyatt mentions that he doesn’t see anything as a failure (9:50).   Each time he doesn’t succeed, he at least learns something about the process and if his gains aren’t in book sales or dollar amounts, they’re in the knowledge about what to do next time. This aligns with the three year view and Dan Andrews 1000 Day Rule.

At 12:30 Hyatt says that sometimes we take care of what is urgent rather than what is important.  In Manage Your Day-To-Day Dan Ariely suggests that this is when we start to tackle our email because it feels urgent and productive.  What we need instead are performance markers for our big projects.  Instead of clearing out three emails, what are three boxes to mark as done on a big project.  In the book Ariely writes that there is  a cost to checking email, “Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else.  Email is easy to compared to the project that takes 50 hours.”  We do a poor job of having this list of things to do and a good job of having our email inboxes at the ready.

Ariely has one solution, “It would probably be best if managers went to the IT department and asked that email not be distributed between eight and eleven every morning.”  If memory serves, Michael Hyatt does some version of this where he takes care of his spiritual and physical needs first thing in the morning before he even thinks about tacking email.

Founder of many companies, Penelope Trunk knows this.  She writes, “Each of us is only as effective as the questions we ask. So understanding the process of asking good questions is essential to our success.”  She understands that Ariely is saying we should focus on the big things, but she’s taking it one step further and asking how we identify what the big things are.  From her same post:

Netflix doesn’t track vacation time because they don’t care about vacation. They track results because they care about results. So they have a hard-core performance standard but no vacation policy .  The term for this type of thinking is key performance indicators , or KPIs. It’s a trendy way to zero-in on what you care about; my investors always ask me about KPIs. At Quistic , I measure sales, because at my last company, Brazen Careerist , I measured traffic and realized that it doesn’t matter how much traffic you get if people don’t buy stuff.

In Manage, Ariely calls these performance markers and while he doesn’t lay them out like Trunk does, he connects to our mental need to do things, “How do we make ourselves feel like we’re making progress?”

I don’t know about Hyatt’s Best Year Ever course but if you want to get started get out of email and find a few markers.


In TMBA 225 Asia, Dan Andrews and Jon Myers talk about the benefits of working in Asia.  The episode is lighter in business content than what Dan and Ian typically have, but it’s still got some good stuff.

In the episode Dan talks about why some people might not work well in Asia. (25:14)

You gotta have that grit and that long-term view that I’m gonna hang for twenty-four months.

This idea is also in the title of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough writes, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”