You’re Trying to Do Too Much

We tend to add things, even when subtracting is both logically equivalent and more practically useful.

We want to get in shape, so we add exercise to our schedule. We want to succeed at a project at work, so we add it to our to-do list. We want to learn more, so we stack up more books.

What’s missing is that, given our finite time, every addition necessarily implies an equal subtraction. The thirty minutes you spend on exercise must, logically speaking, be subtracted from something else. The to-do list items you add must squeeze out other work. The books you queue up must push down the ones below them. To pretend otherwise is to engage in self-delusion.

This is human nature. When we look at a figure-ground illusion, we don’t see that the vase and the faces coexist—one part becomes the figure, and the other recedes into the background. Given a goal, it’s only natural to add work in, and neglect what necessarily must be subtracted.

Real Focus Means Doing Less

Combating this illusion takes work. My team and I have quarterly meetings where we discuss what to work on over the next three months. Invariably, the discussions center on what work we should add: Which essays should I write? Videos, courses, redesigns or workshops? 

We spend far less time asking which ongoing projects should be discontinued, which daily tasks don’t need to be done. Yet if we’re not going to work ourselves into burned-out husks, every addition must necessitate a removal.

The conventional strategy for subtraction is to do it by default: Procrastinate on everything that isn’t a priority. Rebel against the escalating commitments on your time. Opt out and ignore.

But this solution isn’t satisfactory. While goal-setting can have an additive bias, it is at least deliberate. While we might procrastinate on our least valuable tasks, often we procrastinate on work that is harder, ambiguous or frustrating. Ironically, in our unconsidered efforts to cut back, we often cut back the very tasks that really need doing.

The Goal of Creating Space

We can correct this bias in our thinking by temporarily flipping our perspective. Instead of seeing the vase in the middle, try to see the faces on the side. Instead of looking at the goals we’re trying to accomplish, look at all the things we do that suck up our time and energy and offer very little in return.

In our work, that means identifying shallow work and preventing it from proliferating, cutting back emails, meetings and back-and-forth text messages that could be resolved in a single phone call, or clamping down on busywork and phantom commitments that should “really only take half an hour” but end up taking days.

In our lives, that means stepping back from the automatic and the algorithmic—cutting back on activities that compel our attention rather than the things that we freely choose. The motivation here is not to live like a monk, devoid of modern entertainment, but to choose the things we pay attention to. Rather than scroll endlessly on Netflix, watch movies you’re actually excited about.

Subtractive efforts, on their own, cannot tell you what to focus on. But often they can help you realize that the things you need to focus on are already there.

A Special Session of Life of Focus

Long-time readers will know that Cal Newport and I have a course dedicated to this exact pursuit, Life of Focus. We take students on a three-month journey dedicated to subtracting out the stuff that doesn’t matter—so there is more room for the things you truly care about. There’s a reason it is our most popular course.

Next week, Cal and I are holding a special session of Life of Focus. This will include an extended conversation detailing how the ideas and research in our new books (Cal’s Slow Productivity and my Get Better at Anything) integrate with building a life of focus. Past and existing students will get access to the new module for free.

If you’re interested in giving yourself more space to do important work—and to accomplish it without burning yourself out—registration details will be sent on Monday. I hope to see you in the course!

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