Thomas Carney
Thomas thinks of ways to make Planio grow, writes content and ponders metrics.
October 19, 2016 · 5 min read

Finding Focus: The Hard Thing About Doing Hard Work

Finding Focus Take Pam.

She’s a back-end developer at a startup revolutionizing the pet industry by creating robot dog sitters for the highflying pet owner.

It’s exciting stuff that has the potential to endlessly entertain pets everywhere.

A quick recap of her day: Pam walks into her open-plan office, sits down in a room full of other people, put on her pair of noise-cancelling headphones and tries to focus on a hard problem.

Then, the person besides her starts cracking up at a video a colleague sent via team chat. And then Palm gets a chat notification herself. And while she’s looking at notifications, she decides to hit up her email inbox.

Boom. She’s sucked into a vortex of urgent and not important tasks clamoring for her attention.

The machine learning algorithms for the robotic dog sitters? Not much happens on that for today.

The Role of Focus in the Knowledge Economy

Well Myelinated

The knowledge economy is based on organizations taking intellectual knowledge and turning that knowledge into business value.

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport posits that there are two core abilities for thriving in this economy:

  1.  the ability to master hard things;
  2.  the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Following Newport’s thesis, learning to master the filters in SnapChat is both easy and not very valuable in the modern economy. On the other hand, the ability to analyze large sets of data (perhaps which SnapChat filters are the most successful) is both very difficult and very valuable.

Secondly, Newport argues that to produce at your peak level, you need to be able to work for long stretches of time with absolute concentration without being interrupted.

On the question of why focus is so important, Newport suggests that the answer may lie in a fundamental process in our brain. He refers to The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. In the book, Coyle makes the case that myelin, a layer of fatty tissue that develops around neurons, acts an insulator that permits cells to fire faster and cleaner.

When you’re trying to acquire a complex new skill while simultaneously flicking around on SnapChat, you’re firing too many circuits haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you want to strengthen with myelin.

Newport puts it quite succinctly:

“To be great at something is to be very well myelinated”

Therefore, both Coyle and Newport favor a single-minded focus, rather than multi-tasking, for both skill acquisition and performance.

Why Do We Find It So Hard to Find Focus?

Once we take the view that focused single tasking is vital for succeeding at knowledge work, the question then shifts to how we go about doing just that.

Undoubtedly, the tech industry’s fascination with open-plan offices hasn’t helped. The idea that sitting in a sea of other people chatting, phoning, giggling and what have you are all conducive to focus is, well, unusual.

However, we can’t just lay all the blame on open-space offices. Anyone who’s tried to work from home can attest to the difficulties they’ve faced in finding focus even when alone.

Newport argues that a big part of the reason why we spend so much time in meetings, emails and chat is that, in absence of clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors on the bottom line, we’ll tend towards behaviors that are the easiest in the moment.

And meetings, emails and chat are often easier than the actual work.

A slightly more nuanced view comes for the authors of “The Four Disciplines of Execution” (4DX). They point towards the “Whirlwind” as the reason we fail to focus on our most important work. The Whirlwind is the mass of day-to-day events that require our focus. It’s the sudden emergencies, the server outages or the angry customers. It’s the work that needs to be done to keep the show on the road.

It’s important work. It needs to be done, but it’s also not the work that will bring the organization to the next level.

The 4DX authors argue that these ongoing demands have to be balanced with strategic goals if you want to grow and move forward.

The 4DX Framework for Finding Focus

The 4dx framework

I found the solution laid out by the 4DX book to be so interesting that I’ll give you an outline of the strategy. In many respects you’ll find traces of many agile methodologies in it.

Focus on Wildly Important Goals

There’s a story of Warren Buffet advising his personal pilot, Mike Flint, on career goals.

Buffet told the pilot to write down a list of his top 25 career goals, which the pilot did.

Then Buffet told the pilot to circle his top 5 goals, which the pilot also did.

Buffet asked the pilot how he’s approach the goals. The pilot said he would mainly work on the top 5 goals and occasionally focus on the other 20.

Buffet replied angrily:

Everything you didn't circle just became your 'avoid at all cost list.' No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top 5.

In the same vein, the 4DX authors advise focusing on the “one or two goals that will make all the difference, instead of giving mediocre effort to dozens of goals”.

Act on Lead Measures

You probably have some metrics for monitoring how well you’re doing - revenue, user growth or last sprint’s performance.

The problem with these metrics is that they’re telling you how well you’ve done in the past. Once you know the, it’s too late to change them.

They’re lagging measures of performance. Focusing on them can be demoralizing, because you can’t change last month’s numbers by doing something today.

At best, you can do something today to change next month’s numbers. And that’s where lead measures come in.

At lead measure is a metric that is within your control that will predictively impact the lagging indicators.

Here are a few examples of lagging measures with corresponding lead measures:

  1. increase revenue -> make an upsell offer to every customer you talk to each day;
  2. increase inbound leads -> write 500 words per day;
  3. get more clients -> send at least 50 emails per week to potential customers;
  4. find a new job -> ask one development hiring manager out for a coffee per week;
  5. learn to code -> make one Git commit per day.

The beauty of having a lead measure is that you have something very specific that you can focus on: “Did I hit my lead measure today or not?”

And this brings us very nicely to the third principle.

Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

The 4DX authors tell the story of a football team playing an important game in front of a large crowd just after Hurricane Katrina.

There was a twist to the game, however. Hurricane Katrina had blown away the scoreboard, so the spectators couldn’t follow the score.

Instead of the usual chants and cheers, there was a low hum of bored conversations drifting from the audience.

Without a scoreboard to keep track, the spectators lost all interest in the game.

In the same way, once you’ve selected your wildly important goals and settled on your lead measures, you also need to a way to keep track of progress.

Cal Newport kept a running tab of hours spent working deeply on a book as well as the milestones of the book, such as completing chapters of it, on a piece of paper at his desk. He’d simply make a mark on a piece of paper for each of deep work he did.

That’s a great duo of both lead and lagging measures kept in a place he’d see daily.

Keep a Cadence of Accountability

The 4DX authors comment that you need a “rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal”. During the meetings, each team member states the specific actions they’re going to take in the following week to hit the lead measures, acknowledge the current state of the scoreboard and give an account of what happened regarding the previous week’s commitments.

Find the System that Works for You

You know, it’s hard to do hard work.

It’s rare that someone comes into the office after a long weekend, and, when asked what they did, say:

You know, I didn’t really have much planned, so I ended up sitting around on the couch, and before you know it I ended up shipping a side project I had lying around. I really must watch out to stop being so damned productive.

If you’re looking for tactical approaches for applying these principles, you can check out our article on the pro and cons of 6 different productivity systems.

And I’d highly recommend you read Deep Work by Cal Newport and the Four Disciplines of Execution.

May the focus be with you!