Throughout our careers, we’re often told to focus, to do one thing well and nothing else. Entrepreneur Stef Lewandowski makes the case for having several irons in the fire:
My approach, looking back at having been in that liminal putting-out-feelers state a few times now, is to let a thousand flowers bloom. In the past, rather than looking for a single opportunity to fully commit to, I’ve started off with several ideas with several people, with a huge variety in scale. I remember when I decided to move away from agency life, I had a proposal in the final stages for a £25m innovation lab, a handful of prototypes, a citizen journalism project that had users, and a diagram on a piece of paper for how you might make a TV and film workflow in a web browser.
The lab didn’t happen, the prototypes were interesting but didn’t grow, the citizen journalism project had no revenue, but that piece of paper, well, we raised some angel funds and it became my next focus.
The lesson here isn’t that focus is “bad,” but that there’s a time for focusing and there’s a time for putting out feelers. “Once you’ve spotted something,” he continues, “and you’ve got a good signal, that this is the thing you should be doing, then it’s all about getting laser-focussed to make it happen. Spotting it though is really hard.”
Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta has a great recommendation for those times when you’re wallowing in self-doubt, consumed by stress over your work and paralyzed into inaction. Just start doing something:
[J]ust pick something to work on. Write something, draw something, program something, animate something, sew something. It doesn’t matter. Anything that your heart is drawn to.
Set an intention for this activity: I’m doing this out of compassion for others, out of love for myself, to meet my commitment to so and so.
Now get started: begin actually doing it. Don’t worry about whether you’ll do it for 10 minutes or an hour. Don’t worry about how good you’ll be at it, or what people will think of it, or whether you’ll succeed or not. Those are not relevant to the task.
Just do. Put your mind completely in the activity, in the motion and ideas and emotions, in your body and breath and surroundings. Be completely mindful, completely immersed.
When all else fails, you can always fall back on the work itself. Strip away the complicating factors that live strictly in your whirring, buzzing, mile-a-minute brain, and just focus on the actual work. The work shall set you free.
Research shows that your ability to persevere is directly correlated to your likelihood of success. Those who can hang in there when things get tough, studies show, are the ones who regularly succeed. It’s no wonder why this is the case: those who persevere are the only ones who come out on the other side, while everyone else has called it quits.
One primary reason why many of us quit anything is simply because sometimes things are difficult — but only to a point. By definition, things that are difficult are things that can be overcome, understood, and dealt with. Part of our ability to overcome difficult things is linked to our close personal network, but it’s also a matter of whether or not we’ve set the right expectations for the challenge ahead. When we pursue a new habit, start a new job, or otherwise undertake a new challenge, our assumptions and expectations about the work required of us is one of the most important factors for ensuring we’ll make it through to the end.
Ben Casnocha gives us the playful anecdote of learning how to draw an owl:
I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It’s because they thought it would be easy.
Drawing an owl can be difficult (particularly if you aren’t an artist by trade), but—like starting a new job, trying to create a new habit, or working your way toward prominent success—it can be done. The first step isn’t simply to start, it’s to set your expectations and ensure you’re ready for the task in front of you. I call this step zero.
If you’re starting a new job, step zero for you is to talk to your manager or team about exact expectations for you from day one. If you’re starting a new habit, your step zero may be to create a list of everything you’ll need to do in order to make the habit stick.
As Casnocha explains:
Step one is always start, and step two is always keep going and going and going until you’ve nailed it.
Before you start any endeavor, focus on the step before starting: establishing the right expectations and planning how to tackle them.
Disagreeing with your boss is awkward, but expressing that divergent viewpoint is important in your professional growth as well as the forward progress of your company. Social scientist Joseph Grenny shares with Harvard Business Review how to express disagreement with your superior without coming across as a jackass:
Discuss intent before content. When the boss gets defensive, it’s… because she believes your dissent is a threat to her goals. Defenses are far less often provoked by actual content than they are by perceived intent. You can be far more candid about your view if you frame it in the context of a mutual purpose that the boss already cares about. If you fail to do this, the boss may believe your disagreement signals a lack of commitment to her interests.
Show respect before dissent. Most of us assume that if you want to be respectful, you have to dilute your disagreement, and if you want to be honest, you’re going to have to hurt some feelings. But this is a false dichotomy. You must find a way to assure your boss that you respect her and her position. When that sense of respect is secure, you can venture into expressing your views openly and honestly.
Basically, the trick is to frame your disparate view in the context of your team or company’s larger goals, while also conveying respect for your higher-up through the language you use and the attitude with which you use it. Disagreement can even be productive in the workplace, if and when it is communicated properly.
Professor of Business Psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic knows that creativity can be further developed by pairing it with an activity that the individual is truly passionate about. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Chamorro-Premuzic explains:
One of the most effective methods for enhancing creative performance is to increase individuals’ motivation, particularly intrinsic motivation (their task-related enjoyment, interest, and involvement). Ever since Teresa Amabile first emphasized this idea, meta-analytic studies have confirmed the intuitive idea that assigning people to projects they love unleashes their creative potential. In contrast, extrinsic rewards, such as financial incentives, tend to inhibit people’s creativity.
The next time you work on a collaborative project, be sure to find collaborators that are genuinely engaged in the venture as their creative contributions will be more elevated. If you can’t choose who you work with, than at least delegate people to tasks they truly enjoy. Not only will this prevent complaining, but you will receive more original work. As psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”
You might be familiar with research that suggests setting goals and then laser-focusing on them can actually be detrimental to motivation and perseverance. The more fixated you are on your goal, the less you enjoy the actual experience of working towards that goal, thereby increasing your chance of failure.
James Clear suggests a new approach to goal-setting. Namely, don’t set them. When it comes to making progress in areas that are important to you, craft a system that will help you get there in lieu of setting a goal:
What’s the difference between goals and systems?
If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.
The problem with most goals is that they place huge burdens on you, and in so doing can imply that you’re not quite good enough yet. They also don’t set you up for long-term positive change, being geared towards one major milestone after which you could cease your productive routine entirely and still have achieved what you set out to.
Clear doesn’t advocate doing away with goals entirely, but rather using them as a guide for building a system that’s much more rewarding, habit-building, and geared towards measurable progress:
[K]eep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals.
When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
Productivity expert Jordan Cohen suggests using these gaps wisely:
- Take a few minutes at the start of each day to identify the gaps in your schedule.
- Schedule what you want to accomplish in each gap right on your calendar. This can be anything from lower value work that needs to get done (such as expense reports) to larger, finite tasks you’ve been dreading (such as outlining your next presentation).
- Hold yourself accountable. At the end of the day, look back on your 30-minute tasks and note which ones you’ve accomplished.
So stop looking at those 30-minute gaps in your day as empty space. They may be the key to turbocharging your productivity.