You will accomplish nothing if you try to do everything. Sounds like common sense and yet it’s way too simplified to be meaningful.
The construct of work and how we do it effectively varies dramatically from person to person. Just perusing the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey shows how vast individual habits and quirks are when it comes to work.
It only gets more convoluted when you take into account the generalist vs. specialist tendencies of every person. Saying that you need to focus on one thing is hardly enough.
Nothing is so simple.
Let’s take a look at the good that comes with focus first.
You will make progress.
The basic premise for focusing is that you will make real progress because you only have one outlet for your attention. Doing too many things, being spread too thin, is a recipe for disaster. Trying to tackle 12 projects at once is a fool’s errand.
Rather than dividing your attention across the board, spending it on one thing leads to results because it allows you to work without distraction.
You can do deep work.
What comes from this type of focus? The ability to do Deep Work, as described in the book by Cal Newport.
What his means is you need enough time to truly get into the groove. Focusing for 15 minutes isn’t going to get you very far. You need deeper immersion to work through difficult tasks and problems. Put in other words, you need to get into a flow.
The switching costs that come from multitasking or shorter frames of focus can stifle any and all productivity. You need enough time to get your hands dirty.
Your returns will add up.
All good things come to those who wait. Things don’t just suddenly get done, it takes time and hard work. Focusing on one thing means that those returns will show up sooner than later.
Furthermore, there’s a good chance you’ll suddenly make rapid progress through the power of compounding.
With consistent effort, all of that time and energy adds up and has the potential to grow exponentially over time (keyword potential).
You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.Winston Churchill
All of this makes sense, but it’s far from perfect. Having laser like focus comes with a number of downsides as well.
You have to decide.
The idea that you should focus on a single thing, hinges on you being able to pick one thing to focus on. What if nothing takes such high priority in your eyes? What if you don’t truly want any of the options in front of you?
Focusing on a single thing is great if you know what you want to do, but if you don’t, having some variety can help you figure things out.
Your success isn’t guaranteed.
Let’s say you pick one thing to do, that still doesn’t guarantee you any form of success. All the advice says if you stick with it and work, you’ll achieve your goals, but we don’t hear about all the failures that get forgotten because they were failures in the first place.
Spending years or decades on one thing doesn’t mean you automatically deserve success. There are no certainties in life. It’s important to be aware of this possibility: what happens when it doesn’t work? Having other options may not be so bad if this is the potential outcome.
You will get bored or worse, burnt out.
Focusing on a single thing is a quick way to boredom and possibly even burnout. While there’s a lower limit on being productive in any task, I firmly believe there’s also an upper limit.
At some point, pounding your head against the wall isn’t going to get you anywhere. If all you do is focus on one thing, you face a real possibility of boredom or burnout.
Whatever you like to do, make it a hobby. Whatever the world likes to do, make it a business.Warren Buffet
It’s not so black and white. There’s no doubt value in focus, but not extreme focus in which you close the rest of the world out. The right answer is somewhere in between.
From Einstein playing the violin to allow his mind to wander or Leonardo Da Vinci trying his hand at seemingly everything, there’s value in diversity, play, and having hobbies to distract and inspire you now and then.
It’s this same balance that works for me, as I divide my time between designing and writing. Having these separate areas of focus means that I’m always inspired and have the desire to work when I do switch gears. I’m not dreading going back to either because I give myself time in between doing both.
There’s a healthy balance between these two ways of work and finding that balance for yourself is the key. Just remember that the extremes are not the answer.