Focus Like Einstein (And Win Big)
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Focus Like Einstein (And Win Big)
Be honest. Who here is guilty of starting more projects than you finish?
It's not a sign of laziness; in fact, it shows your tenacity and lust for life. You get excited about trying something new and go for it. I admire that.
Perhaps you identified a bunch of weak spots in your company's culture, and you started six different initiatives to address them. You made great progress on each, but at some point, they all just... fizzled out.
Maybe you have a list of personal development goals or New Year's resolutions that you've been chipping away at. You joined a gym, started a morning routine, and dove into a bunch of books. It's now a few weeks into the year and your new habits are nowhere to be found.
The issue is that – while yes, it's good to have many aspirations – you can't spread yourself thin and expect big results. Just ask Einstein.
What is the Einstein Principle?
Albert Einstein remains one of the most infamous minds in known history. The intelligence he possessed and wielded has become the stuff of legends.
And of course, we all love the trivia about his childhood:
"Did you know Einstein flunked his school science classes?"
"Einstein could barely speak until he was four years old."
These are just some of the famous snippets about Einstein. But there's one thing that often goes overlooked: his ability to focus on a few core tasks and really commit to them.
Cal Newport gave a name to Einstein's work ethic in his blog post from 2007, The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less. The idea is that if you focus on a few projects – rather than, say, fifteen – and devote more energy to them, you can achieve better results.
In essence: focus your efforts for greater success.
Focus, Frankenstein, and General Relativity
Pop quiz: where was Einstein from the years 1912 to 1915?
If you guessed a physics lab, you'd be right. Einstein was living in a small apartment in the Swiss Alps, working on his General Relativity Theory. During this time, he focused solely on this project and nothing else.
He remained so dedicated to it that even when World War I broke out across Europe and everyone was scrambling for safety, Einstein stayed put. He worked feverishly through the war years until he finally completed his task – and achieved one of the greatest breakthroughs of all time.
As an avid Frankenstein fan, I can't help but draw some comparisons between the two stories. I always felt overwhelmed by Dr. Frankenstein's momentous task of creating life from death. But it wasn't the task itself that overwhelmed me; it was the thought of being so hyper-fixated on one task for days, months, or years at a time.
Because we're not used to that level of dedication, are we? In the 21st century, there's no end to the distractions at our disposal.
We can start a dropshipping company in about an hour on our laptops. Then we can open a new tab and sign up for Skillshare to start learning a coding language. Within the very same day, we can apply for a new job, sign up for a gym, and order a pottery wheel from Amazon.
But just because we have everything at our fingertips doesn't mean we have to do everything – or indeed, that we should.
How Your Aspirations Keep You Stuck
I'm going to hazard a guess that the majority of my readers are self-help consumers. I certainly am. If you've ever watched my Success Story Podcast over on YouTube, you will have seen the enormous collection of self-development books behind me.
Self-help content, I believe, is excellent when approached properly. But here's the problem – we don't often approach it in a productive way.
How often have you gotten to the end of a self-help book feeling inspired to change your life, only to neglect all your aspirations a day later? This is actually due to cognitive distortion. We conflate thinking about potential action with taking said action.
A similar problem arises if you work toward too many goals at once. You see your to-do list and think, "Wow, I've got plans to achieve so many great things. I'm really making progress here."
But is it really progress if, at the end of the year, you've doubled your to-do list and completed a total of zero tasks?
(Hint: no, it isn't. A twelve-month vacation would have been more productive.)
The Einstein Principle to the Rescue
I know – you're feeling attacked. I am too. But this is where the Einstein Principle can help.
Einstein's theory was that, if you ruthlessly cut down your to-do list and focus on just one or two projects, you can achieve more in the long run.
This is because:
- You are narrowing your energy and resources to one task, so you can devote more time and effort to it. It's like what I wrote about last week; multi-tasking is a myth and an energy sap. If you focus on one task, you can get infinitely more done.
- You're also mitigating the risk of overwhelm and distraction. Staring down a to-do list of twelve projects is daunting – but staring at just one or two is much less so.
- You stand a better chance of completing your tasks if they are few in number and specific in scope. Otherwise, you'll be running around like a headless chicken for months (or years) with no end goal in sight.
Do you think Einstein would have come up with his groundbreaking theory of General Relativity if he'd been trying to solve world hunger at the same time? Or attempting to discover a new particle? I'm guessing not.
Of course, it's not always realistic to focus on one major project at a time. Einstein's relationships and personal life suffered greatly while he was in the throes of discovery. His marriage faltered and his hair turned white.
(Don't start me on Frankenstein. He practically forgot to eat, drink, or sleep for two years while he robbed graves and stitched body parts together. His family and friends literally had to stage an intervention.)
I would never suggest devoting 100 percent of your time and energy to a work project without mixing in some hobbies, nor would I suggest sacrificing your health or relationships to reach a goal.
But if you want to achieve something great, the Einstein Principle can help. Identify one or two major projects and focus on them like a laser beam. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish in a short time – and how much better your life becomes when it is focused on one central goal.
How To Use the Principle
Cal Newport hit the nail on the head with his instructions for this principle. In essence, he recommends that you write three separate to-do lists: Professional, Extracurricular, and Personal.
The Professional column is for anything work or study related. For example: write a business plan, develop a new product line, or take an online course.
The Extracurricular column is for activities that don't necessarily relate to your current job or career but are important nonetheless. This might include reading books, taking part in community activities, or joining clubs and organizations.
And finally, the Personal column is for those things you need to do to look after yourself: exercising, getting enough sleep, eating well, starting a new morning routine.
Once these lists are complete (no less than two items per list), here's the main part of the process:
- Choose your non-negotiables. From each list, which are the two goals that absolutely must get done? They will be tasks that other people are relying on you for, or that your mental or physical health depends on.
- Cull your non-essentials. This will be anything you can reasonably afford to put on hold without consequences.
- Prioritize your remaining tasks. Now that you know what must get done and what can wait, make a plan for the remaining tasks to get done in the next 1-2 weeks.
Suddenly, your to-do list is much more manageable. You aren't going on a wild goose chase trying to do everything at once. You have a clear plan of attack and you know exactly what needs to get done, in what order, and by when.
Find Your Theory of Relativity
I genuinely believe that focus is an ability most people lack in the 21st century. I don't mean working on a task solidly for more than two hours. I mean real, deep, hyperfocus on one area of life and pursuing it with unwavering commitment.
The Einstein Principle is the perfect antidote to the chaos, distraction, and overwhelm that plague us on a daily basis. Try it out for yourself – you might just be surprised at what you can achieve in a short amount of time when you put your laser-like focus into action.
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