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Focus: The Last Superpower?
Your mission is to find your life's work and to not get distracted once you do.
When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates first met over dinner, they were asked what factor had been most important in their success.
“And I said, ‘Focus,’” Buffett recounted. “And Bill said the same thing.”
I don’t like calling things a ‘superpower’, but the ability to focus in a world conspiring to distract you might come close.
Focus has an inner and an outer dimension: focusing on what is important is macro focus. Staying focused on the task is micro focus.
Or as James Clear put it: “know what you want and go after it relentlessly.” Paradoxically, the latter — relentless work — may be an escape from the terror of truly exploring the former. We will get to that in a minute.
Mastering this dual focus may be one of the most important skills you can develop. Your greatest success lies right at the intersection.
Buffett, Gates, Jobs, and many others understood this. Michael Moritz wrote that Gates obsessively removed distractions from his environment: he stripped the receiver off his TV to avoid watching anything but educational videotapes and took the radio out of his car, ‘lest news bulletins or music prevented him from thinking about Microsoft.’ In Moritz’ opinion, Jobs’ “ability to shut off the outside world paid enormous dividends.”
Alice Schroeder explained how Buffett structured his day for maximum focus with the window shutters closed, stacks of reading materials on the desk, and the occasional phone call. “You get no sense that a world exists outside,” she noted, “which is what he wants, no distractions.”
Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, called Jobs “the most remarkably focused person” he’d ever met. Jobs would regularly ask him:
“How many things have you said no to today?”
Ive believes that focus “means saying no to something you with every bone in your body you think is a phenomenal idea.”
If it’s not a little painful, it’s not focus.
All three had macro focus — the Buffett Partnership followed by Berkshire, Microsoft followed by the Gates Foundation, Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and Apple again — and they protected their micro focus as best as they could. That kind of focus, maintained over long periods of time, becomes an unstoppable force.
Think of macro focus as a circle and a dot at the center. An area on which you focus and a dot you want to hit. A bit like a bullseye target.
If you lack macro focus, you shift between circles, unsure which one is worth pursuing. They go in and out of focus, so to speak.
Lack of micro focus is knowing your circle but not staying on target. Damn shame.
Once you realize just how much effort is required to achieve mastery, focus becomes an imperative. “You must choose the few things you want to be known for and ignore the rest,” as Alex Hormozi put it. Or in the words of Rust Cohle from True Detective:
Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.
Complete alignment: Michael Bloomberg’s one metric
Ted Merz, former Global Head of News Product at Bloomberg, has published some amazing pieces about Bloomberg, including one about Bloomberg’s one metric:
Success at Bloomberg LP is defined by a number displayed on an electronic board on the wall near Mike Bloomberg’s desk. The electronic board, one of many hanging throughout the company’s offices, includes the number of Bloomberg terminals sold year to date. The undated photo shows 1,874. ... Bloomberg’s success is due in part to a clarity of mission that the board embodies, as well as a willingness to share that information to motivate employees.
Talk about focus. Bloomberg built one great company and figured out one metric to keep his eyes on the ball.
Buffett does something similar when he publishes his annual scoreboard in the form of Berkshire’s per share performance. One enduring company, one clear metric to keep track of success.
If you had to use one metric to measure your progress — just one! — what would it be? If today you only made progress on one project or goal, which one would allow you to fall asleep in peace?
I believe these questions matter because the default state is a world conspiring against you living a focused life.
The conspiracy against a focused life
A focused life means saying not to a million things which makes you less likely to waste your money and time (watching ads, for example). A focused life makes you a lot less valuable as a consumer.
In The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford called attention “the thing that is most one’s own” because what we pay attention to determines what is real to us, what is “actually present to our consciousness.” Just as we become what we eat, our reality becomes what we pay attention to. And just like our appetite has been hijacked by food engineers (by “manipulating levels of sugar, fat, and salt”) so are attention engineers trying to conquer our minds. Crawford called distractibility, or lack of ability to focus, the “mental equivalent of obesity”.
Every day we are forced to navigate a world filled with junk food media, “packaged in ways that our brains find irresistible.” Compared to this “highly engineered environment”, Crawford writes, “the natural world begins to seem bland and tasteless, like broccoli compared with Cheetos.” We crave stimulation and distraction. Our attention span falters.
During a recent conversation with Tim Ferriss, John Romero, co-founder of id Software and designer of the legendary video game DOOM, explained how id’s tiny team published games at an insane monthly pace in 1991:
We knew what to cut … if we’re getting closer to our deadline. And because there was no internet back then and no one had cell phones, there was complete and total focus because our phone never rang. So there’s no interruptions. Nobody’s coming to the house and knocking on the door, interrupting our thoughts. So we could just focus for 12 hours a day at least, and just code, design, you name it, constantly.
Notice that Romero had both micro and macro focus. Micro focus is being in the office without getting lost on the internet, without the phone ringing, without interruption. Macro focus is devoting your life to making games and building one company.
The payoff for being focused has increased exponentially: technology affords us more leverage than ever, but simultaneously the world has become wildly distracting.
(If you want to dive deeper, there are books and studies about the cost of multi-tasking and the declining attention span.)
I can think of two recent examples in the difficult arena of podcasting: Andrew Huberman and David Senra, host of Founders. Both have macro focus: they are very clear about their mission in life. And they practice relentless daily focus. I talked to David about it:
I'm relentlessly focused. I won't allow myself to think about anything else but making the podcast. I'm not starting another company. I'm not running a fund. I am reading books and making podcasts. I have one focus. I found what I want to do and I'm going to do it for an excessively long time.
To be fair, the struggle for focus is not novel. Robert Oppenheimer once talked about the Institute for Advanced Studies and the need to design an environment that supports sustained focus:
There are no telephones ringing and you don’t have to go to committee meetings. Most people depend on being interrupted to live. … They are used to having to attend to other people’s business. When they get here, there is nothing of that. They can’t run away.
It is to help [those] who are creative and deep and active and struggling scholars and scientists to get the job done that is their destiny to do.
Oppenheimer picked up on something important: sustained focus can be uncomfortable. Most people run from it!
Micro focus requires discipline, small but consistent dosages of suffering. Macro focus asks us to choose what to suffer for.
If you get micro focus wrong, you go to bed frustrated. You know your goals, but you’re not moving. Your day felt like a meaningless grind.
If you get macro focus wrong, you spend years, decades even, walking with great success in the wrong direction. Until one day you wake up and realize you never entered your Maze. The cost of getting macro focus wrong is an existential crisis.
Micro focus, not a micro problem
Let me be clear: I’ve always struggled not to let too many mental (and browser) tabs open up. My mind can be very jumpy. Occasionally I ‘wake up’ in my room with a trail of unfinished projects. I catch myself deep in the Twitter feed when I look around and spot half a laundry pile folded. Also, the laptop is open in the middle of a piece. Didn’t I want to finish editing that? My second desk is covered by a couple of open books. Didn’t I just start reading that very interesting chapter? A forgotten pot of tea waits in the kitchen.
Which is to say: micro focus is not exactly my strength. I’m pretty sure most of my readers are better at this.
Still, I will share a few things that work for me (and I recommend listening to Huberman’s episodes on focus as a source of ideas). At different times I use:
Calming breathing exercises if I am scattered or anxious, activating breathing if I feel tired and lethargic
Caffeine! I love coffee (through I do my best not to drink too much or too late in the day…) and I’ve started to experiment with different kinds of mushroom ‘coffee’ brews
Nootropics — a big word for supplements that support focus and cognitive function. I like Lion’s mane. Huberman recommends L-Tyrosine, creatine, and Omega-3 supplements. I’m not sure whether they’re effective, there’s just too much variance day by day.
Rest. I’m a big believer in short naps (I do 10-12 minutes) or guided half-sleep sessions (Yoga Nidra/Non-Sleep Deep Rest). Not only do you wake up re-charged, your night shift might be solving difficult problems for you.
Jerry Seinfeld once talked about this: “Tired is not something I tolerate. Tired is wrong. If you’re tired, something’s wrong. If I’m tired, I just stop. And I go, ‘no, no, no, I’m not going to be tired.’ And I’ll do TM [Transcendental Meditation] right then and there. This is something I got from my dad… One of his great lines was, ‘Never argue with the body.’ He was a great mid-day nap guy.”
Exercise, yoga, walks, and nature. Spending more time exercising and going for walks has improved my ability to focus and to be creative.
Setting timers and rewards. Carve up time into blocks (like the Pomodoro technique) and give your brain something to look forward to.
Sound and music: Huberman believes in binaural beats. Sometimes I listen to those but usually only for a relatively short time. After that, I switch to a no vocals playlist or some ambient (Meditative Mind on YouTube has great stuff). On a good day, sound can take me into a deep flow state.
Environmental priming: I mostly work from home or local cafes and there is a distinct downside to that. Stepping into the office is a signal to your body that ‘we’re here to get that thing done.’ I wish I had a dedicated home office room. Maybe I will give Wework another shot. My point is: I’m not doing this well, and I’m probably paying a significant price for it.
Another interesting idea that I have not tried yet is the cocaine/kale smartphone (eliminate the addictive distraction machine for most of your day).
Let me know what works for you in the comments. How do you combat distractions and get in the zone? What would you recommend I try?
But what if it’s something else?
Now having said all of that: the counterargument to this is that maybe they are all part of an elaborate coping strategy. They are required because you’re doing something you don’t actually want to do.
As Graham Weaver put it, we show up very differently and “truly energized” once we find ‘our thing’.
When our whole being is fully invested, we tap into a superpower, and we can sustain that for a long time. You won’t tap into this power as long as you’re living someone else’s dream.
Having discipline to do what we don’t want to do is a core life skill. But if you continuously struggle to find micro focus (and you have not been diagnosed with an attention disorder), it could be a sign that you’re working on the wrong thing.
Paul Graham made this point about procrastination in his essay on doing great work:
Per-project procrastination doesn't set off the alarms that per-day procrastination does. You're too busy to notice it. The way to beat it is to stop occasionally and ask yourself: Am I working on what I most want to work on?
When you're young it's ok if the answer is sometimes no, but this gets increasingly dangerous as you get older.
If you’re always working on things that drain you, it’s possible you are procrastinating on doing something important (in which case you might also want to bookmark this terrific burnout guide).
If poor micro focus is a result of bad habits and a distracting environment, you should be able to make significant improvements by experimenting with tools, practices, and by changing your work environment.
But if it’s a result of poor macro focus, you’re looking at a completely different can of worms. Fixing that requires curiosity and courage. Because, and this is a tough one, you don’t get to choose what you were born to do.
Looking for the work of your life
The gap between what you want and what you think you want can be enormous. This is the gap of deathbed regrets (first among five: “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”)
People with tons of options, will spend their whole life working jobs they hate. It's really strange and tragic.
Giffon relayed a conversation with a coach who told people about their true calling. This, it turned out, “was the most devastating thing” for many.
It’s not hard to figure out why: ‘If I tell someone who is a very successful investor that they need to be a third-grade teacher. You know that becoming a third-grade teacher now means you no longer live in Tribeca, you don't have the same friends, you don't have the same apartment and all that is terrifying to you, so the fear of loss.’
(I wonder if he ever ran into the opposite: a teacher who should really be an investor. Unlikely, I think, since the teacher would not have been able to afford the coach.)
I’ve written about this idea before (real growth is scary): the more success you’ve already had (and the higher your financial obligations), the more difficult it is to explore any other paths (see also Tom Morgan’s work on fitness landscapes). But what if you can’t shake the feeling that your macro focus is off?
What if you would like to have that intense focus but can’t figure out what would be important enough?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Finding your macro focus might turn into a multi-year journey and involve a whole lot of failed experiments.
But you can start looking for trailheads. These could be negative or positive emotions or states, like fear and resistance, being in flow state, or feeling deeply curious, centered or ‘alive.’ Tom Morgan offered some great questions in his most recent piece.
And Patrick O’Shaughnessy collected some classic ones:
1) Where do you feel great resistance or fear?
2) What that you do looks hard to others but feels easy to you?
3) What would you keep doing no matter how much money you had? Or even better, what couldn’t you get paid $1B to stop doing?
4) What’s the weirdest thing you spend a lot of time on? Or, what’s a passion you’d be embarrassed to admit publicly?
Why look for fear? If it doesn’t scare you, it’s probably not that important. If it’s important, failure matters. It’s scary to truly commit to something whose failure would matter. It’s much easier to keep yourself busy with activities whose outcomes disappear into the background. List all the things that a part of you wants to do but which another part of you is scared of. Explore your own resistance.
On the flipside, in which moments or activities do you feel fully alive, fully you? What prevents you from exploring these further? In what ways are you tapping into your natural talents? What truly excites you? What would get you out of bed earlier?
A friend recently told me that you find your life’s purpose somewhere at the intersection of your talent and your trauma. The point is to look beyond the question of ‘what am I good at’. There is something unique you can contribute to the world, and it may relate to your path, the obstacles you faced, the struggles and setbacks you endured.
Where do you judge yourself for your curiosity? What is interesting to you but part of you resists — maybe a part of you feels it’s too weird, too out there, not prestigious enough, not going to earn you enough money etc. Again, look for the fear and resistance and find out specifically what is holding you back from exploring
Buffett’s fake but useful list of what to avoid
Buffett uses a lot of methods to stay focused. Study him and you see it all the time: he developed effective filters to filter his idea funnel. He learned how to say no and cut conversations short without offending people. Schroeder called him ‘a master of time management.’
There is a story about him giving his pilot advice on how to excel in life. That conversation didn’t happen but the technique is still useful.
Make a list of the 25 you want to do in the next few years or over the course of your life
Select just five. Select just the ones you want to do more than anything.
Those are the ones to focus on.
Buffett was then supposed to have asked the pilot about the other twenty. The pilot replied:
“Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top 5. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”
And that’s how focus dies.
This is what Jobs meant when he asked Jony Ive how many things he’d said no to that day.
Instead, the remaining twenty become your ‘avoid at all cost’ list. These are the good, but not good enough, ideas whose temptation you have to resist. They get no attention until you’ve tackled the top five.
Or as Buffett put it:
There will always be an unending supply of opportunities, things to do, causes you care about, and on and on. Knowing when and how to say no to projects, social invitations, and other requests or your time frees you up to focus on objectives that matter.
In his autobiography, Bloomberg mused about cashing in, selling the business, and relaxing. “Certainly at a particular size,” he wrote, “it's the prudent thing to do.”
The prudent thing. But not Bloomberg’s thing. “Real entrepreneurs,” Bloomberg answered his own question, “never do.”
Real builders are so focused (a.k.a. one-dimensional) and dedicated, they'd have a nervous breakdown after two weeks of sitting around. Their challenge-even their reason for living would be gone.
That’s kind of what you’re looking for. A project that feels so important they couldn’t pay you to stop.
Don’t take this too literally. Of course, life has multiple dimensions and there are more ‘reasons for living’ than work. Focus does not mean to ignore or discount the importance of your spouse, family, health, friends, community, creative outlets, and spirituality at the expense of work. Quite the contrary. Because it is so difficult and time-consuming to do great work and because there are other important areas in life, it is crucial to stay focused.
And it’s natural for the ‘one thing’ to change over time. Not everyone feels called to work on one thing their entire lives. Arnold Schwarzenegger was insanely focused: first on succeeding as a bodybuilder, then on acting, finally on his political career. But he wisely didn’t attempt to excel at all three at the same time.
Macro focus asks you to discover what is important. Micro focus requires you to remember it at all times. One without the other can be disastrous. Combining both with consistent effort will unlock a compounding force beyond imagination.
Thank you for reading. Stay focused.