Focusing is an Art, Not a Science

Productivity is all the rage. People want to get more done in less time. Productivity systems abound: Getting Things Done, Pomodoro, the Seinfeld thing, etc. There’s certainly something to be said for each of them.

But have you thought about something a little simpler and more basic: How to focus? Like, really how to focus your mind on one hard, long project until it’s done?

Productivity systems are great in that they keep you accountable for getting lots of task-oriented work completed. But they don’t answer the larger question, which is: What do you do that creates value in your career? And more than that, what are you doing that’s going to have a cumulative effect, that’s really going to matter years down the road?

I see these two concepts as intertwined and incredibly important, and ignored by overly task-oriented productivity methods.

The first is figuring out where you’re going to create a massive amount of value in your career, The second is figuring out how you’re going to carve out the time and energy to focus deeply on the first.

The thing is, that type of work — whether it’s building a new product, writing a book, learning a hard subject, building a keynote speech, writing a complicated piece of software, whatever — doesn’t happen by saying “I’ll get to it”, and then allocating 15 minutes here or there in between checking your email and going to meetings.

It happens by stringing together sessions of deep, focused effort. Hours at a time, over and over. The intense kind where you sort of lose yourself and wake up later with a lot of awesome work done.

Learning how to do that kind of work, I think, is something of an art.

I say “art” for a reason. I see a lot of people out there promoting their “science-based” system for getting a lot done. Let me tell you something: The word science is being used to fool you and trick you. To make you salivate, Pavlov-style. “Science” is not some monolith that tells you how to create really meaningful work. There’s no “science” of success. There’s no “science” of productivity. That’s pure charlatanism.

Doing great work is an art. A group of researchers can’t answer the complex question of how to live and work correctly; the real world is too varied. We don’t live in a controlled experiment and we’re not lab rats, or worse, college students in psych labs.

Some scientific research papers can certainly give you hints on how the mind works, sure. They might even tell you a few things about information retention and task-based memory. I can see how that might be useful.

But that’s a long way away from creating a career you care about, where you regularly do focused, meaningful work that feels satisfying. Your life is not the one measured in the labs: You’re not trying to memorize flashcards or strings of numbers; what I’m talking about cannot be boiled down to rigorous science. (And anyone who reads Farnam Street knows the deep respect I have for real science.)

No — it’s art! Or more properly, artisanship. And the essence of being an artisan is that it’s deeply personal: It has to speak to you. You must be willing to put your soul into the game. This means everyone will go about the Art of Focus in their own way. It takes experimentation, dedication, and an understanding that no one can do it for you.

I even called a course I put together The Art of Focus, for this very reason. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to “scientifically” solve your problems or fix your brain, like you’re a mouse in a lab. I just wanted to give people all of the tips and tricks I knew about doing focused, meaningful work, so they could build a system themselves.

Because the truth of the matter is that, however you go about it, you do need to build your capacity for hard, focused work. That is vital in an age of complexity, where we need to carve out a niche. Most of us aren’t making widgets anymore, and much of that work is being replaced by machines anyways.

And if you’ll let me be controversial for a second, I think that’s a good thing for humanity. Humans aren’t meant to live on a factory assembly line (or the white-collar equivalent – spreadsheets and Powerpoint). We’re meant to lose ourselves in valuable and satisfying work that smacks of originality and humanity.

I know a lot of finance people who want to switch into some related craftsmanship, or writing, or software-building, but not the other way around. Do you know any woodworkers who want to switch into finance? Do you know any writers who want to switch into corporate accounting? Me neither.

But in order to build an awesome career doing hard but satisfying long-term work, you need to build your ability to focus for hours at a time. You need to learn hard skills. You need to let go of multitasking, distraction, and the temptation to be “busy.”

I built the Art of Focus to get people started on that path, but I recommend doing it any way you feel comfortable. With apologies to Phil Knight, just do it.