Single-Minded Focus

by Brian on April 30, 2011 in Personal Development,Winning

First things first, second things never. ~ Shirley Conran

We often have one large goal or dream that sits at the front of our minds.

Maybe you want to start your own business, learn a foreign language, get in shape, or move to a sandy beach.

That one goal is so big that it’s more than just an item on the to do list. You wont be able to cross it off the list after 30 minutes of activity on a Sunday. That goal is a fundamental part of being the person you want to be and creating the life that you want to live.

Deep inside you probably know that what you need to achieve this goal is a long, protracted period of single-minded focus.

However, there are a number of psychological traps and games that we often fall into that distract us from our singular purpose.

Psychological Barriers to Getting Started

Often times we have troubles even getting started.

You’d like to think that your passion alone will carry you through to completion of the goal as if that business, fit body, language fluency, or beach house were pre-destined for you.

However, what you really run into is mountains of self doubt and you constantly wonder whether or not if you actually commit to your goal that you will actually get there someday or you’ll just have wasted a lot of time with no results to show for it.

You know that the goal will take lots of time and effort to achieve. You may not even know how to get started or what to do to achieve that goal. In fact the weight of that goal is so heavy that you almost want to avoid it.

The sheer volume of work required to accomplish the goal intimidates you into inaction and you are torn between desire for the goal and the angst that you are not even doing anything to bring yourself closer to it.

You often wish that your goal was as simple as something like trying to dig a 10 ft hole. Then the path would be clear, all you have to do is dig straight down until your shovel strikes 10 ft below where it started. If only it were that simple you could proceed confidently knowing that your effort would lead to the desired outcome. However, our goals are often complex and the path not clear.

Time goes by and you drift into a state of learned helplessness thinking that maybe the goal is just out of your reach. Or perhaps you’ve even convinced yourself that you’re comfortable where you’re at right now and you’ll just put that goal off for “someday” because you’re busy with other things right now. You don’t even dig out the first shovel full of your 10 ft hole. From time to time you beat yourself up for procrastinating on your ultimate project.

Ways We Distract Ourselves

Eventually you actually do get started working towards your goal. Often times the real, meaningful tasks appear scary and we get distracted by doing things that seem related to our goals on the surface but don’t actually bring us any closer to them.

Let’s say you wanted to start a t-shirt store on the internet so you register yourself a domain name and get to work. You know that in order for this business to really take off you really only need to do one thing–sell lots and lots of t-shirts. In order to sell t-shirts you need to run advertisements and do deals with other stores to sell your t-shirts.

However, you are a no name business and it’s tough work to get noticed. You face difficulty, frustration, and even rejection in trying to setup distribution relationships for your t-shirts. Soon you find yourself distracted by things you can control like designing the ultimate business card and website design minutiae. They’re related enough to your store that it lets you feel like you are making progress even though you are actually avoiding the important but scary work–selling.

Going back to our hole digging example. It’s almost like we decided that organizing the piles of dirt created from digging out the hole was easier than digging the hole itself. Maybe we decide we need a dirt removal system and so we go to work creating the ultimate dirt removal system. Meanwhile, work on digging the hole has nearly ceased, but we have become hyper-efficient at disposing what little dirt that we do remove from the hole. All the activity makes you feel like you are accomplishing something when in reality you are not making any substantial progress towards your purpose.

Find the One Task that Makes the Difference and Go Deep

Often you will find that in order to achieve your goal there is one main task that you need to do over and over again to make progress.

If you are running a store, you need to sell more products. If you want to get stronger, you need to go to the gym consistently and lift progressively heavier weights. If you want to write a blog, you need to keep writing posts.

The more often you repeat that task the better you will get at it and the more progress you will make on your goal.

During college I spent a year in Japan learning Japanese. I had already been studying Japanese for a few years and could speak fairly fluently, but my reading and writing were lagging behind.

I knew that in order to make a big difference in my Japanese abilities I would have to bite the bullet and learn more Kanji (the written symbols). There are 1945 Kanji in the accepted everyday use set that one should know in order to be considered educated in the language. However, I only knew about 300-400 at the time.

We had a week off of classes for a fall holiday so I shut myself up in my apartment and committed to learning Kanji. I allowed for one day of rest, and spent the other six days memorizing 100 Kanji per day. This took 10-12 hours per day of study. At the end of the week I had learned 600 Kanji and over 2,000 words containing them. After returning to class the following week I took the Kanji test for the lessons I had covered and successfully passed them all.

Don’t Multi-Task

But, you object, isn’t multi-tasking the hallmark of productivity? It’s supposed to be the prized ability of the ages.

Well, it depends what you mean by multi-tasking. If you mean answering the phone, checking email, and surfing the web while working on your project, then you should be aware of a study done for Hewlett-Packard that showed that multi-tasking reduced IQ more than smoking marijuana.

If you are a woman, you might think you can justify multi-tasking because women are better at multi-tasking than men. That may be true, but women still perform better when doing a single task at a time compared to their performance when doing many things at the same time.

Any way you slice it, this type of same time multi-tasking is detrimental to performance if you are doing something of any importance.

For your “big goal,” however, what’s more relevant is other big goals you may have. Perhaps you had two businesses in mind you wanted to start or two blogs in mind you wanted to write. Maybe you’d like to run a marathon, but you’d also like to compete in a local tennis tournament.

Having more than one big goal is normal as we have many different aspirations in life. However, it’s best to just focus on one at a time. Trying to pursue more than one goal at once pulls you in different directions and often causes you to make zero progress on any of them.

Your goals may also conflict with each other. The type of training you need for a marathon is very different from how you would prepare for a tennis tournament.

At the same time I was learning Japanese, I was also learning Korean. When I arrived in Japan for my year abroad, I had just come from a summer in Korea. I thought I would maintain my Korean and pursue studying it part time, but I soon discovered that the effort spent on trying to learn two different languages at the same time left my mind jumbled and made it difficult to focus on either of them.

I decided to study the languages sequentially instead of simultaneously. While I was in Japan, I stayed 100% focused on learning Japanese. When I went to Korea again, I stayed 100% focused on learning Korean. As a result of this dedicated focus I made dramatic progress in both and today I am able to speak both Japanese and Korean fluently.


Single-minded focus is the key to achieving any large, life-changing goal. If you want to make any real progress on a goal, you have commit to relentlessly doing the actions that you know in your own heart are the ones that will lead to success.

Nearly as importantly, you also have to vigilantly reduce, eliminate, or simply stop doing other tasks that take away time and energy from your purpose.

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