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The Secret to Beating Anyone at Anything

Focus.

Focus is the act of putting all of your attention and concentration towards a single act. It’s staying away from distractions like email and Twitter to finally get some real work done. It’s doing the hard work and putting your all into it. Focus is a cycle of abundance which takes less time than your normal, easy routine. Focusing leaves you with more time to recuperate your energy, which ultimately allows you to focus harder tomorrow.

When assessing your progress on producing things of real value (the best path to building a rewarding and well-rewarded life), consider your own capacity for hard focus. Most important accomplishments boil down to this single, often overlooked ability.

This quote is from Cal Newport, who believes that the ability to sustain focus for long periods of time is the key to success.

Let’s say you and your best friend run against one another. Your best friend runs for three hours a day, listening to his pumping workout music and looking on as the sun sets under the ocean. You, however, simply run in your neighborhood for an hour every day. But you’re different. You’re not the staring at the sights or the people, you’re focusing on your running form and your breathing, every single day. After a month, who do you think will be the better runner? You will, because you were focusing.

Anyone can “work” for five hours. But, if you’re capable of really working on meaningful and important tasks, then you’re going somewhere.

It’s so much easier to allow your brain to drift off into the scenery or the blend of noises in the environment, maybe even dreaming about how your life will be when you’re rich and famous. Maybe you’re letting yourself get into the flow. “I understand this work, I am good at this work, and I’m not challenged at all.” This flow is seen as a sign of mastery and the key to workplace happiness. Being in the state of flow, however, doesn’t make you any better at what you’re doing. There is no progress when your brain isn’t being strained and pulled in directions it doesn’t feel comfortable moving towards.

But this strain and discomfort is what drives progress. This brain strain is called deliberate practice. It’s fast (in the long-term), hard, and not the most natural reaction to work. You will burn out very quickly when you start, but this is how the best students, creatives, and athletes are made. It’s not too late to get started, and it isn’t so hard to do so.

How to Focus

Although focus can mean taking less classes or working on a fewer number of projects, this kind of focus isn’t going to help you with excelling and being more efficient about your work . What is going to help you is something I like to call the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique.

If you don’t know, the Pomodoro Technique is a time-management tool. You essentially write down a task list, estimate how many pomodoros (or 25-minute segments) it will take to finish these tasks, work for those 25 minutes at a time, take a short rest, and continue. It’s really, really good…if all you’re doing is vacuuming or digging a hole in the ground.

For those of us with deep, hard work to do, the Pomodoro Technique has its flaws. My use as a student who has new and different work every day caused me to hugely underestimate the amount of time certain tasks take, and overestimate others. Along with that, the timer stops at abrupt moments, in which you may be in the middle of a deep thought. After your five-minute break, time is wasted trying to recuperate and realign whatever you were working on. Speaking of breaks, five minutes is a very frantic margin to be relaxed and ready to work again.

The problem with the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s not flexible enough to accommodate the varied tasks and work that individuals have to accomplish.

That’s where the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique comes in.

Rules of the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique:

  1. Start with a pre-work ritual. Make sure this gets you feeling relaxed, ready, and pumped for work. This must include writing down your task list (more on that below). I start by writing down my tasks and preparing my environment for the stretch of work I will be doing. Then, I take a 20-minute nap, and when I wake up, my mind is cleared and energized, and I’m ready to start work.
  2. Write down a very limited task list. Choose 5-7 specific tasks you want to get done that day. Nothing can be open-ended (eg. Write novel). If you do need to do a long-term project, break it up into specific tasks with specific goals to reach that day. I use 3×5 index cards for this, simply because there’s a bottom to the page and it’s durable enough to carry around.
  3. Divide your tasks into “pomodoros.” Think about and skim over what you have to do in this specific task. Estimate comfortable stopping points that never leave your brain too tired to go on, or too energized to recuperate properly. Remember, if a task looks long, but not hard, you should be fitting more of that into one pomodoro. We’re focusing on quality of energy, not quantity of time.
  4. Work and rest accordingly. More than your hard work, the way you rest and recover is much more important. Don’t do anything that requires cognitive ability (eg. replying to email) or anything that sucks you in for hours (eg. Twitter, Facebook). Go for a little walk, meditate, or relax in your seat and listen to a song of your choice. Do what works for you, but make sure it doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes. After a couple of these breaks, feel free to take a longer break. A nap, a chat, or a bit of exercise are all great ways to spend this extended break.
  5. When you’re done, you’re done. After your task list is complete, that’s it. No matter what time it is, you are not allowed to work anymore. This doesn’t mean you still can’t be productive, it just means that your hard, deep tasks are done for the day. Make a list of productive, yet non-work-related activities you can do in your downtime. Reading’s my #1 choice.

This is focus. It’s going to be hard at first, but as you get more skilled at it through daily practice, the deep work you find excruciating today will turn into a breeze a year from now. It’s a struggle, but in some time, you’ll find yourself being way more productive, yet having more free time than you did before. You can make up your own system or use mine, as long as your system involves deep, hard, and straining focus that’s constantly pushing you towards progress.

Have any questions? Leave a comment below or email me at [email protected]. I read and respond to everything.

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  1. Good article on focus, Radhika! I agree that learning to retain it is crucial.

    Two points of critique:
    1) Not sure about the first example, as running doesn’t seem to require a particularly strong focus, as far as I can see it. The guy training for 3 hours a day may well be in advantage, as he simply works out more.
    2) Not sure about your assessment of flow either. As far as I can tell, working in flow *will* indeed make us better, as we require more experience the longer we work. At the same time, we’ll only retain flow if we seek increasingly greater challenges.

    I can very well relate to your problems with the Pomodoro technique. It’s not helpful to be arbitrarily interrupted from deep focus. I like to use it to get tasks done that bore/annoy me, though. It’s much easier to work on something tedious when you know that it’s only for 25 minutes and then you’re allowed to do something else. :)

    Welcome to the blogging world! Looking forward to see more of your posts!

    • Hey Fabian,

      1) This didn’t seem to come off so clearly since multiple people asked me about it. The guy who runs for 3h doesn’t give any regard to form, breathing, etc. If he went to a personal trainer for a couple of hours, his running would improve drastically. What you’ve basically done is went to the personal trainer, and focused on what the trainer said for a month, to get it into a form of habit. Once you got your body to run in the right way (our sedentary upbringing wouldn’t make the “natural” running form correct), there may be something else you have to focus on–like breathing frequency. If you’re going to run competitively, these are all important things to take into account. Being able to simply run to improve is a situation for a perfect world. It isn’t so anymore.

      2) I definitely made a mistake with flow, but editing it out is futile. I added in something I didn’t understand too well (turns out I’ve never actually experienced flow), and solicited a negative response for it. I won’t make that mistake again.

      Definitely. If I had to clean and cook all day, I would use [an unaltered] Pomodoro, without a doubt. I guess my problems with the Pomodoro Technique have been a luxury. A couple of years ago, I would’ve killed to do the amount of hard, challenging, and engaging work I do now.

      Thanks again, Fabian! I appreciate the support.

  2. Hello

    Your comparison of runners seems very unequal and the conclusion you drew isn’t necessarily correct. The man with three hours I would expect to win, and what’s stopping you from enjoying the environment and focusing on technique together as it doesn’t seem too hard.
    The pomodoro technique from my understanding relies on the fact that breaking off during intense activities is actually a good thing as when we return, we have to quickly get on track which is a form of revision of what we are doing. Also due to the way our memory works, we remember the start and end of a session better, so it helps to create more starts and ends.
    I liked your points on focus. Although as with most advice it doesn’t seem too actionable or real world helpful in its current form, so I ask you, do you have any personal anecdotes to highlight what you described in this post? If so please share.

    Thanks,
    Smith

    • Hi Smith,

      The point I was trying to make with the runners is that the 3h runner could’ve ignored his form–all he did was run. Over the long term, this would severely disarm him. That’s why personal trainers are so valuable. One hour with the and your breathing, form, etc., things you often overlook, are corrected to the point of the pros.

      The response I’ve gotten from this post (on Reddit, mostly) agrees that for deep work, the Pomodoro Technique’s method of backtracking does nothing more than hinder us from working correctly. eg. I’m a third-grader working on a long-division problem. In the middle, ah! My Pomodoro’s over! I take a break, and when I come back, I have to go–”What is it I did in my long division problem?” and waste time that way. Can you cite something in relevance to “how our memory works?”

      I put a list of actions that I personally partake in. I don’t know what you mean by helpful in the real world. As a student, I use this. If the whole thing doesn’t seem actionable to you, I’ve had a particularly interesting response to the Pre-Work Ritual and to When You’re Done, You’re Done. What do you think about those?

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Hi again, can you link me to the reddit post you mentioned?
        A few things I think you’re missing
        -The bell doesnt signify drop your pencil and stop. The idea is to finish the though/ sentence/ mathematical line before you take the break
        - I dont have any experience about running but I still think 3h vs 1h, the 3 hours will win through sheer hours. This kind of evidence isn’t so strong unless it can be backed up by an actual experiment, so take it with some salt.
        - Often people aren’t too conscious of the benefits of the start/end effect (whatever its name is) but along the line in the future they mystically remember those points more often – there are many little mini tests you can do on yourself and when I try it, I am surprised at how little of the middle I remember compare to start and end. As for citation I’m afraid that most of the articles I get linked through from Lifehacker.com which has a terrible search function so I can’t find the exact one. However this may be helpful:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_memory_biases
        also the official pomodoro technique website has a big PDF (for free, iirc its about 70 or so pages and yes I have no life lol so i read it) that I used as the basis of my statement. That document references Tony Buzan’s works (which are avaliable in book form and some content on the web) so looking there might be valuable (some of his work is decent imo)
        - Asking “what is it I did” is usually a good thing imo, I would consider such introspection to not be a waste of time as its possible to get sucked into work that feels like its useful when it is infact not (personal example for this is some mathematics work when you’ve reached the point where your just doing something without really thinking)
        - I phrased my comment poorly so apologies for that, what I mean is most advice like this usually gets followed for a couple of days, even a week and then revert back to the usual schedule. What i was wondering is have you been doing this for a while and can you share an example of when you realised this approach was doing you much better than the ‘standard’ way of studying.

        Again id just like to emphasise I really think this is a good article, so don’t take my discussion/ criticism as disheartening; I just like to drill down and really understand what you are saying rather than telling myself “yeah I understand” to only then proceed to forget it all within a few days.

        Thanks!

        • Hi Smith,

          Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/getdisciplined/comments/1mxyrs/the_secret_to_beating_anyone_at_anything/

          The issue I find is that once you get into advanced forms of work, where problems/thoughts can take up to 10 minutes per result, the stopping (and the short amount of time for stopping) doesn’t work too well. It causes burn-out and stress for me very quickly.

          Yeah, I don’t have much experience running either. (I’m more into cycling, myself.) It’s simply an analogy.

          I’ll definitely look into what you said. As far as memory, I find I have a pretty good memory by simply 1) being interested in what I’m learning and 2) being active in my consumption (taking notes, etc.) Extra) have it be in print and not on a screen.

          I actually read the Pomodoro PDF a couple of years ago. At the time, when I was doing mostly menial work, Pomodoro really helped. I don’t remember a thing about it, though. I will look into Tony Buzan, too.

          Asking “What did I do?” is something I actively partake in. But–this could just be because I have extra anxieties–, in the process of working, if I ask myself it, I’ll convince myself that everything is pointless, or go into some deep realm of my mind and never get out. I have specific hours for thinking, introspection, and obviously, review that have to be far away from my working hours. I don’t have the luxury of asking myself that while I work, simply because I have to do things for school that if I was self-studying, I wouldn’t ever, ever do. (eg. Thinking maps. Absolutely despise them, but I have to do them because the teacher assigned it.)

          Yeah, sure. I’ve been using Pomodoro on/off for three years now. As I said before, when I started, it worked out really well, just because I wasn’t being challenged and barely did deep work. This school year (started over a month ago), I started using most of the steps I outlined. The Pre-Work ritual came in around a week before I posted the article, because I found that I didn’t have enough energy to start working. It’s in constant development, but I guess I could say I’ve been using this specific method for 2 months now. If I’d been using this method for over a year, without any changes, I’d be a little frightened. The work changes, so the methods should change.

          Thank you again for commenting with such depth. I prefer this discussion (I don’t consider it criticizing at all) much more to “Good article! Thanks!” and the fact that I got such a detailed response out of you is very motivating to keep putting my ideas out there. I hope this helps.

          • Thanks for the link
            I understand what you are saying now.
            A solution for that could be doing 50min10min break, as I used to do when I found 25 minutes wasn’t enough to get anything substantial done in some tasks.
            The Tony Buzan books over-promise on what they can teach you, so take their bold claims with a large grain of salt, but its still a good read and at worst is just refreshing things you already know.
            Ah I guess you already have a pretty set regime, so the “what did i do?” question is more for people who are just getting started. Thats good you’re so organised!
            I’ll bite the bullet and try out the Pre-work ritual, as lame as I’d probably feeling taking a nap BEFORE work it might work; could be a useful addition that I wished I learned sooner.

            Your welcome. Do you have an RSS feed by any chance, so I can add you to my reader?
            Thanks

          • As far as the pre-work ritual, you can make it anything you want. I nap because I’m usually online before I do work, and I need to clear my mind and shut my eyes for a bit. You could go for a run, too, if that’s what makes you feel comfortable.

            My RSS feed is simply http://rmorabia.com/feed, although I publish book quotes on a daily basis. If you’re interested in that along with the regular posts, RSS is fine, otherwise, I’d suggest you sign up via email, because you’d only get an email around once a week, when I publish an essay (like this). That link for the email signup is here: http://eepurl.com/E8Pw5

            Thanks again for your genuine interest.

        • I’m a high-school Junior right now, which means I’m just taking general courses (most at the AP level, if you’re aware of what that means. If you aren’t aware, it basically means that I’m taking a college-level course in high-school and have the possibility to test out of taking these in college). Single-Variable Calculus, Physics, Spanish, US History, Psychology, and English.

          That’s one of the reasons why I tackle focus as an actionable plan versus “Do work in less areas!” I don’t have that luxury right now.

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