Where Focus Fails and How All-Rounders Get Shit Done
You're Also Human? How Crazy is That?
Do you have many different things going on in your life? Do you seek out new challenges? Do you want to discover everything you are? Then I consider you an all-rounder like myself.
Creative people like entrepreneurs or artists are typical alrounders, as their work involves a bunch of different activities from ideation and creation over communication and collaboration to promotion and more. They don't just execute one craft all week. Instead they apply all kinds of skills to all kinds of projects using all kinds of tools and techniques.
This all-rounder lifestyle appeals to more and more people like us. We are fullfilled when we actualize our full potential. And the human potential is a wide spectrum. So we leave our 9 to 5 cubicle jobs behind, work on our own terms and explore what we're capable of. It's a quest to become a well rounded human being who lives in accordance with his own nature.
Not all projects we renaissance men and women do are paid jobs. Some of these endeavours mean working on our self, like losing weight. Others are pure self expression, like art and pet projects. And this self-development is about as important to us as any "career".
But doing lots of things and doing them on your own terms poses a huge challenge. You need to stay on top of all these projects and be productive in each of them, while nobody will tell you how to do that or when to do what. So the number one skill we have to master is self-management.
Some all-rounders pride themselves on being flexible enough to handle everything that comes up. They just broke out of a rigid environment and now want to experience flow and listen to their intuition. I think this notion employs multiple dangerous misunderstandings. For instance, by committing yourself to everything at once you don't commit yourself at all.
Being free means you must pick your own restrictions. In the following, I'll deduct how implementing the right kind of restrictions enables all-rounders to be highly productive across many different domains.
About the F Word
A major part of the self-development scene has picked focus as their mantra. Focus on your vision, your goal, your task at hand! Do just one thing and say No to all others! As a result, "Focus" has become a meaningless, problematic, even dangerous term. I'll explain.
Focussing on one goal works well for people who want to achieve elite excellence in one craft or get rich in a traditional industry that thrives on the law of comparative advantages and rewards high specialization.
A good example of this philosophy is Dan Pena, who says the best advice he ever got is "Focus on the few, not the many!" Dan focused his life on making money and teaching others how to be super successful.
But what about prototypical all-rounders like Joe Rogan
and Tim Ferriss
? They pursue lots of different adventures. Tim Ferriss is famous for applying the pareto principle to everything, and he showed that with only 20% of the time you can still reach 80% of the skill level. Now, 80% is not elite excellence but enough to have fun and be happy.
How do people like Joe and Tim get so much done when they don't focus on just one goal? I think they actually do focus very intensely, on one goal at a time. They just don't settle on a specific life goal, avoiding big design up front.
Successful all-rounders employ different adventures as milestones within their bigger journey. They dive into each project completely but also don't get lost in it. They define meaningful goals that are also achieveable. And they don't commit to projects with totally unknown outcomes or timeframes. You could say they live their life as an agile iterative process.
The other critical self-management skill that successful all-rounders have is to manage multiple parallel projects or ongoing tasks. In that regard, business men like Dan Pena have always been all-rounders.
Keep it Flowy
To be able to run several projects in parallel, you must be able to concentrate on the task at hand. So focus is crucial on the micro time scale as well. Not only do we know that mono-tasking is superior to multi-tasking, but deep concentration also promotes flow and creativity.
Flow is extremely important to me personally. For years, I assumed that shutting out all distractions is the key to that. I thought the longer I can work on one thing uninterrupted the better, and the best way to do a project would be to do only that project until it's done.
One consequence was that I never made real progress on my goal to pick some of my songs and produce an album. That project requires a few months, and I was never able or willing to take a break and invest the time. Sometimes I took one or two weeks and worked on one isolated song. I really dived into it. But at the end, I was totally exhausted and estranged from regular life.
Trying to sustain focus by avoiding any concurring projects is problematic:
- You drain out. Productivity and creativity evaporate. You need lots of breaks in between and long recovery after projetcs. A big part of this kind of breaks is unnecessary as we'll see during this article.
- You get attached to what drains you out. You can't let go of the task, can't get out of the flow tunnel. You tend to indulge in the task and make it your comfort zone. You have no concept or idea of what comes afterwards. You lose sight of the big picture. You have no time slot for recurring tasks that need to be handled on a regular basis.
P3 - The Panorama Productivity Principle
Different human capacities are more or less independent. For instance, athletes cycle through different physical capacities to maximize the overall output of their training. When their muscles recover they can still train cardio. When their cardiovascular system recovers they can still challenge their nervous system by practicing technique. When their concentration starts to fade, they can return to strengthening their muscles.
In the end, our brain is part of our body and its different areas have different responsibilities. So it's no wonder that we also have distinct mental capacities. Those are modes in which the brain processes information: mathematical, social, creative, analytic, aesthetic, verbal, logical, visual etc.
These modes are somehow independent. For instance, after I'm exhausted from writing program code, writing an essay feels refreshing. When I can't concentrate on writing anymore, I can perfectly discuss the same subject with a friend.
To maximize your overall productivity you must cycle through the right set of tasks/projects and focus on each one the right amount of time. Before you're too exhausted, you end the working session and switch to a different task. Every switch gives you a fresh start.
A task typically relies on multiple capacities to varying degrees. Using a specific tool is kind of a capacity and can be tiring. Just switching to a different tool can give you a break while your outcome and productivity remain stable. So by cycling through varying capacities, you need much less breaks overall, but that's not everything.
Let's look at these working sessions more closely:
When you switch to a fresh (recovered, reloaded) capacity, your current productivity or speed (output per hour) starts at zero. You first need to get into it, just as you warm up before an athletic performance. When you find your orientation and rhythm, productivity surges up. It reaches a maximum and later drops off due to exhaustion of the exploited capacity.
You maximize your total productivity across everything you do by maximizing the overall (average) productivity of each session. Since the current productivity rises and falls during a session, the session average does so as well. When a session's average productivity is at its maximum, you need to stop the session and start the next.
It's that moment when you know you're a bit exhausted and have clearly slowed down, but you're still quick enough to get some more things done: Don't force it! Stop, have a short break and continue with a task that draws on different capacities of yours!
Number of Projects
How many different tasks and projects should you have in rotation? Just as many as you personally need to maintain a healthy "capacity cycle". Any more than that would needlessly scatter your efforts and reduce the frequency in which you can deliver meaningful results.
But we can narrow that down further: It is probably not optimal to have 2 sessions of the same task at any one day. The involved capacities most likely do not recover fully until the next day. Also, you surely have enough projects or ongoing tasks to be able to avoid these repetitions.
But then, a night of sleep likely reloads most of your systems. So it's also not optimal to have much more going on than what you could get through in a day.
So if you plan for 8 working hours a day and an average session length of 1.5 hours, you can take on 5 to 6 projects or categories of tasks. My typical session length is one hour. So I have 8-9 things going (including morning routine and exercise), and I get through all of them almost every day.
How to Achieve Panorama Productivity
Running multiple projects in parallel requires that you follow a radical iterative process in each project. Plan to deliver small but valuable results in short iterations. I treat every week as an iteration. On Sundays and for every project, I define a small tangible result that I want to produce until next Sunday. Of course, I also review what I achieved last week and adjust my plans accordingly.
The best kind of result allows you to gather feedback. Remember: As an all-rounder you do all these projects as explorative experiments. You have to be aware of how the experiment itself is going. What's the return on investment of this project? Does it bring you money, relationships, happyness? Do the results resonate with you and others? That's another reason to review and plan between iterations.
The idea of "Panorama Productivity" as I presented it has direct implications on what an optimal schedule would be. It lets you do your sessions regularly and distributes work loads evenly over the available days. It is automatically sustainable and does not need regular slacking days.
But most of all, an optimal schedule implies radical time boxing. Forget To-Do lists, forget even your calendar. Create an iteration schedule with time boxes for all your sessions, so they cycle through your different capacities, projects or task categories. This is my recent week schedule template:
Enforce time boxing like a savage. Within your time boxes and projects you can, of course, use to-do lists and regular task management techniques. Then in your iteration review, you adjust factors like the weighting between projects and the individual session lengths.
Knowing there's a time slot for everything enables you to focus on the task or project at hand. And a schedule of this type also helps you shield your precious hours against the big wormholes that normally suck your time in, like other people who don't understand what a "home office" is.
An optimal schedule also timeboxes sleep: There's an average number of hours that you sleep everyday. By timeboxing that amount of sleep and forcing yourself to go to bed and get up at the same times every day, you give your body its inner clock back.
After a while, you won't even need an alarm anymore. Your body will know when it's time to wake up. It will also know when it's time to sleep, and that will get you more recovery out of the same amount of sleep. Sleep is the foundation of your productivity rhythm. Guard it like your life!
The biggest challenge of this radical time boxing is actually not getting into flow but getting out of it. Being able to let go of an ongoing task and shift your attention to the next one is just as important as being able to focus your attention on the current task.
Both of these processes rely on your ability to manage your attention, which you can improve through mindfulness meditation. So switching focus has nothing to do with multitasking. It is part of the idea of focus itself.
Inspiring Role Models
The perverted degree of specialization and the price that we pay for it are largely a phenomenon of "modern" society. So, to know that guys like Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan are extremely successful as all-rounders even in today's world inspires me like nothing else.
And if you look back in history, you'll find even more inspiring well-rounded generalists. One of the most eye opening books on productivity I ever read is Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It's a collection of what we know about the daily work routines of hundreds of the greatest minds of all time, from Einstein over Picasso to Freud.
After reading these numerous accounts, two things became very clear to me: First, high performing all-rounders are mostly crazy people and represent a wide range of pronounced personalities. Second, a few characteristics are almost universal among them. These characteristics relate to the very work that made them famous and can be boiled down into 4 rules:
- Put work first. Do whatever is necessary to have the time and silence your work requires.
- Establish regularity and routines. If you need exceptions, you better rework your routines.
- Get up early and do the the primary, most challenging work after getting up.
- Plan for only 3 to 4 hours of concentrated work per day, but take no day off.
In summary, focus does not mean pursuing just one goal or doing the same work all the time. It can help you live all different sides of yourself and thereby realize your full potential.
The principle of capacity cycles makes it very clear how all-rounders can stay on top of all their endeavours. Radically time boxing your different adventures and taking them on in an agile iterative fashion can actually set you free to discover what you're here for. It will make you ultra productive across a range of domains, so you can be a real sophisticate, a renaissance man (or woman) who lives this human life to the fullest.
These books were referenced in this article, ordered by my personal preference:
- The 4-Hour Workweek
- Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
- The Power of No
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
- Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence
- The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results