Notes on focus

I’ve tried a bunch of things, over the years, to find time and discipline to focus on working the tasks and projects that are meaningful to me. Mostly it boils down to actually doing the work and choosing the right kind of work. 🤷🏻‍♂️

There are two voices

“Focus on doing the most important thing so that you can get it done. Then, you can do the next most important thing, and so on”, says one.

“Follow your interests. Turn your energy into some kind of progress. Even if it’s not aligned to the absolute most important thing, all the time”, says the other.

They’re not-wrong!

The Important Thing

If there’s anything more useful than one clear priority, it’s One Important Thing. Maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. Either way, if you know that Thing #1 is more significant than Things #2-10, you have an advantage.

Priority makes focus. Purpose makes focus. Aligning purpose with priority. That’s a winner.

The big tent of principles

That said, it’s possible to pursue smaller things and stay in alignment with priority and purpose. The big-rock/one-important-thing isn’t an identity. They don’t have to represent your life goal. I recommend against trying to stay aligned with a big life goal, lest one miss all the lovely moments and achievements along the way. In other words, stop to say ”well if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is”.

The big tent of principles means you can connect the dots from working on something for a short period of time, say a day or month, to what you’re trying to do with the months and years of your life or career.

Side note: your big principle needs a bit of an open-ended definition. If the principle you’re basing the years of your career is “make a push-button UI that is 5% better”, it’s difficult to fit side-quests into that tent. “Improve the low-hanging fruit in human-computer interface and swing for the fences a few times on drastically improving the state of the art” is a better big tent principle.

Focus begat finish

Focus is a means, not an end. The end is finishing. Not almost-done, basically done, or waiting on one little thing before it’s done. Finished means it’s out there, people are reading it or using it or thinking about it or benefitting from it in some way.

Focus makes the room in your life (and inside your head) to make the thing or polish it or package it or tell the people about it. But focus alone won’t finish it.

Finishing is dozens of little details that need doing, aren’t doing themselves, and may indeed look dissimilar to monk-like focus. It’s probably an entirely different topic. For the purposes of these notes, remember that it’s easier to finish if you have developed the discipline to focus.


Saying “no” is the first step. Apps and trinkets and minimalism and meditation are not the key to generating focus.

To paraphrase Prince: “Nothing Compares 2 No”.

Saying “no”:

  • Reduces your inbound volume of work
  • Decreases coordination and collaboration multipliers that generate drag
  • Aligns more of the tasks on your list with the thing I said “yes” to

OTOH, many people feel bad vibes when they hear or say “no”. Say the literal word with care.

Don’t get so wrapped up in focusing and how other people do it and your ideal schedule and preparing to do the work that you never get around to doing the work.

Adam Keys @therealadam