Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On the Value of Hard Focus

June 22nd, 2009 · 93 comments

Running WisdomMurakami

I recently began reading Haruki Murakami’s excellent mini-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If your life requires a non-trivial amount of creative work, I highly recommend this quick read.

Today, I wanted to focus on a few quotes that resonated with my thinking. On page 77, Murakami remarks:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value.

You’ve heard me make this argument before. But Murakami takes the idea somewhere interesting when he then notes:

Fortunately [sustaining focus for a long period of time] can be acquired and sharpened through training.

His suggestion is to “sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.” To Marukami, training to write for four to five hours each morning was no different than training for the marathon that he’s run every year for the past two decades.

From Murakami to the Classroom

These quotes popped to mind when I received an e-mail this morning from a worried student.

“I’m in an environment that I love, doing what I want to be doing for the rest of my life,” she began.

“But I’m struggling to stay afloat…I try to stay engaged…I schedule time blocks in my day planner, but just ignore them and do other things.”

“I’m having a really, really hard time not putting everything off until the last minute before their due.”

To me, this student is like Murakami’s untrained novelist. School work, like any work that requires demanding thinking, is tiring. After a grace period of maybe 20 – 30 minutes, your mind starts to disengage. In the red book, I compare the sensation to a weight descending inside your skull. Your energy fades and you begin to experience a desperate craving for novel stimulation. Nothing in the world seems more tempting than to go seek such stimulation — to check your e-mail, or sift through your Facebook feed like a hyper-extroverted gold prospector.

Hard Focus

To succeed as a student (or a novelist) you have to fight that feeling and keep working. I call this ability hard focus.

Our student from above probably lacks hard focus muscles. She has no training in keeping her concentration locked even after resistance builds. And because of this, she’s collapsing well short of the finish line in the mental marathons she needs to run as an upper-level student.

Fortunately, as Marukami explained, this deficiency can be remedied in the same way that a runner builds his endurance: you have to try to push yourself, each day, a little farther than is comfortable. Over time, your threshold raises.

My Marathon Training

Consider my own example. I’m in the middle of a challenge that might scare most students in my position: I’m writing a doctoral dissertation and a book simultaneously. (Literally: my thesis and manuscript are due within a week of each other.)

This requires, on average, 4 – 6 hours of hard focus (split about evenly between the two projects) per day, five days per week.

I could not have pulled this off five years ago. But in the intervening half decade, I’ve been pushing hard to expand my hard focus capacity. As my graduate student experience progressed, I systematically increased the amount of time I would force myself to work continuously without a break to seek unrelated stimulation. This culminated in my current schedule in which I write for 2 – 3 hours, take a break for lunch, e-mail, and exercise, and then work on my thesis for 2 – 3 hours, before finishing for the day.

My life right now is not easy. And you’ll have to ask me in September if my training was sufficient to get me all the way to the finish line. (I don’t like to mention my challenges publicly because I’m superstitious and feel like its taunting the Gods. I made a reluctant exception for this article because I think the bigger point is so important.) But for now, it’s not overwhelming. Like the well-trained marathoner at the 19th mile marker, I’ve built up the required muscle mass to keep moving at a good pace.

Conclusion

These thoughts all lead to a simple conclusion. When assessing your progress on producing things of real value (the best path to building a rewarding and well-rewarded life), consider your own capacity for hard focus. Most important accomplishments boil down to this single, often overlooked ability.

93 thoughts on “On the Value of Hard Focus

  1. VTAMethodman says:

    Too true about hard focus. Cal I think you need a virtual assistant!

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Cal I think you need a virtual assistant!

    I avoid needing a virtual assistant by working to keeping my life clear of everything except the small number of things on which I’m devoting hard focus. I’ll I do all day is write. But that’s all I’m expected to do. So it’s pretty fulfilling.

  3. I definitely agree with you, but I think it partially conflicts with your standard advice about not studying for long periods of time.

    If you never work for extended periods, how will you build up “focus muscles?”

    Relevant articles:
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/07/26/the-straight-a-gospels-pseudo-work-does-not-equal-work/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/04/28/monday-master-class-the-study-hacks-guide-to-exams/

  4. Murakami looks like a very interesting read – I’ll be sure to check it out! Building focus is clearly one of those things you really need to practice to become good at – and maintain. I have found that challenging myself to work five more minutes on whatever I am doing is a good way to improve my ability to focus. Have you come across any similar techniques for sharpening your focus?

  5. Joanne says:

    Another great article. Virtual assistants can be helpful for mundane tasks but are probably useless for the complicated and creative task of writing. It’s hard to find people who can write well, in my opinion.

  6. VTAMethodman says:

    Ok, well then maybe a research assistant :) Working in academia you probably know that the only way those profs can put out 3 books a year is with their army of RA’s. Might be a great idea if you’re still in the research stage.

  7. Swaroop says:

    I have started maintaining 3-4 hours of “hard focus”, as you put it, as the benchmark for a productive day.

    But I still couldn’t stick to it.

    So I started to actually measure the time I spent in focus using a timer application. I gave full permission to myself to not force myself to work. Instead, the only thing I will do is be loyal to the timer application to not cheat.

    Instantly, to my surprise, it had the desired effect, and now I have gained the ability to do “hard focus”.

    Btw, I just finished reading the book too! Although what I extracted from the book was more about life lessons from running.

  8. I always love the idea of studying(/focussing) as a sport in which you have to train. When teachers said that to me, I always got motivated and wanted to train(=study).

    A great article Cal, good point made about training yourself in focus! Thanks

  9. Dave says:

    Most of us are too self-indulgent and cave in too easily to our distracting desires. “Hard focus” is an excellent term for the stick-to-it-iveness and what we used to call persistence which is a must-have attribute to be successful.

    The was an article in the New York Times recently about the struggles freelancers are facing with the economy in the dumps. It could be that many of them have not yet developed the “hard focus” needed to sustain themselves in this challenging economy.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    I definitely agree with you, but I think it partially conflicts with your standard advice about not studying for long periods of time.

    Standard studying doesn’t require hard focus. It’s reserved more for original thinking, like working on a paper or difficult research. Even then, the key is to portion it out intelligently. Start with one hour, move up to two to three, eventually. But then sprinkle these sessions across your schedule with plenty of time inbetween. These are, of course, far different from the long pseudowork sessions that I abhor.

  11. Ryan Freed says:

    Very good point, standard studying is different. However, I still like to study for long amounts of time in one sitting. If I take too many breaks I feel like i forgot a lot of the information and cant understnad how they relate to eachother.

    The problem I have is actually sitting down and starting to study because of so many distractions. Once I get the motivation to actually start studying I dont finish till im satisfied.

  12. Maureen says:

    I love this post esp the part about building up your focus like a muscle.
    I am convinced focused effort and a little bit of learning from mistakes and setback is what separates the intelligent (successful) student from the rest.

    Thanks again for sharing how you’ve mamaged to increase your focus and output.

  13. Siva says:

    5 to 6 hours daily? I’m reading the Outliers and it kind of seems similar to that. Though I tend to disagree with Gladwell about the opportunity and background bit [I mean, come on, hardwork, not who your next-door neighbors are, decides what you achieve].

    I think that a considerable amount of time, with a clear goal and focus will make us formidable in whatever field we are in. As for me, i am in the middle of my 3 months of summer randomity before going back to school in August :D.

    Great article as always (:!

  14. Study Hacks says:

    As for me, i am in the middle of my 3 months of summer randomity before going back to school in August

    Enjoy the freedom!

  15. Paula says:

    Go Cal go!

  16. supergirl says:

    Heh. I used to have a pretty good ability to do this. Then I got sick for a few weeks, got lazy for a few more afterwards, and it all went. I’m trying to figure out if maybe my second extracurricular is adding deep procrastination problems that prevent it building up again.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    I used to have a pretty good ability to do this. Then I got sick for a few weeks, got lazy for a few more afterwards, and it all went.

    Do you trust that the schedule you’re trying to return to makes sense? Our brains are good the scent of arbitrariness, and will rebel in its presence.

  18. @Siva, in Outliers, Gladwell isn’t saying that it’s hard work or (exclusive or) your environment that makes you uberly successful. He’s actually saying it’s both. That is, w/o the being afforded the opportunity to work hard (for example your mom doesn’t have the money to buy you an expensive computer so you can start programming from 5 years old so you can’t become an expert by age 15–using the 10 year rule), becoming uberly successful (or an expert) at a thing is very difficult or at least unlikely.

    Regarding this post, it reminds me of another post Steve Pavlina did on self-discipline where he draws the analogy between building up discipline endurance and progressive weight training (see Building Self-Discipline).

  19. Loai says:

    Thanks. Your blog really helps.

  20. Ichigo says:

    I finished this book recently as well. It’s a great read w/some good insights to Murakami. As for ‘hard focus’, I don’t think focusing for extended periods of time is ever an issue if you’re doing what you want to be doing whether it be difficult or not. When difficult, I believe the issue to be persistence.

  21. Study Hacks says:

    I don’t think focusing for extended periods of time is ever an issue if you’re doing what you want to be doing whether it be difficult or not.

    I don’t agree. Hard focus is always hard. I think the myth that there is some *right* pursuit for you that will always feel easy, leads people to lots of switching of careers and goals…

  22. Arun says:

    That 5 – 6 hours figure really struck a chord with me. I am working full-time on my project, and have been timing myself diligently for the past 3 months or so – I found that I simply couldn’t focus for more 5-6 hours a day. Something gets saturated in me. This was quite disheartening, because I was rather looking forward to the 11 – 14 hours of marathon sessions when I started my career break.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    This was quite disheartening, because I was rather looking forward to the 11 – 14 hours of marathon sessions when I started my career break.

    I don’t think anyone, at any skill level, does that much work!

  24. Sarah Nguyen says:

    Wait, so you don’t take any breaks during your 3-hour hard focus sessions? I can get about 5-6 blocks of 50 minutes studying & 10 minute breaks ~6 days a week, but only with 10 minute rests in between, and sometimes a long dinner with friends + classes. Do you have any specific suggestions to increase your “study/concentration threshold”? :)

  25. Ken Kurosawa says:

    Cal, thanks for the article. I’ll have to get a hold of Murakami’s book. (I loved “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”) I’ve always had a short attention span and with the Internet my attention span got even shorter. I’ve acknowledged that I need to really get my self into shape and started a ‘focus training regiment.’ I hope to see some improvement in the next few months!

  26. Dave King says:

    Having a second grader and a freshman in college, I have been intrigued by your thoughts on studying. What worked for me in the second year of medical school was the following routine:

    Reading and studying transcribed notes for 45-60 minutes then I would exercise ( I initially started walking one mile then progressed over time to running it). I would then sit down and do it over again 4-5 iterations per evening.

    What was interesting was that I jumped my class rank from 60th out of 120 to 30th.

    It wasnt till this year when I read Ratey’s Spark that I learned why this may be quite helpful. It seems that exercise increases BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrphic Factor) and for a period will increase the strength of the synapses that are formed. If interested in a synopsis, google on youtube spark ratey google and a 45 minute lecture by the author to google employees will appear. And no, Im not related nor do I get an incentive to reference this book.

    Keep the ideas coming….

  27. Bombolino says:

    For those of you who have successfully built up your hard focus muscles, how long did it take for you to see major gains? And are those gains measured by the day or the session? (For example, increasing from 30 to 50 minutes per session vs increasing from 2 to 6 hours per day.)

  28. Mike says:

    Hi Cal,

    First off thanks!!! great site!

    I have been reading your site every now and then for about 6 months now. I use it for inspiration and to get me off my butt and moving. I need help in developing focus – “hard focus” specifically. Would appreciate some baby steps to get me started and on my way to developing hard focus. I am very poor at this as my mind always wonders after 30mins of work then after weeks have gone and i have not accomplished much. thanks and more power to you!

  29. Kathryn says:

    great article. I am a runner and have heard of that book but not within the context you wrote about. I have learned so many things from running that seem to apply to your article when you discuss hard foucs, thanks for the insight. Love your articles. kc

  30. Nishant says:

    His suggestion is to “sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.”

    I know this might sound stupid.
    Cal ,could you please explain what this(bolded) word means in this context,is it to focus on one issue or to focus on one point i.e a small dot on a paper,hole in a well.

  31. Sweden says:

    Hello Cal!

    I just want to say that I admire your blog. Very interesting articles. I just wanted to ask you about this topic:

    Is it possible to focus hard 7 hours?

    I work in 50 min interval with 10 min break. After 3*50 I take 1 hour break and then contiunue. Is this good?

    As I said, I admire your blog. :)

    Thanks!

  32. Study Hacks says:
    Is it possible to focus hard 7 hours?

    Probably not. Research has shown the limits of hard focus in professional hard focusers (i.e., musicians; athletes) to be around 4 – 5 hours.

  33. Sweden says:

    This is interesting. You have probably heard about the 10000 rule.

    10000 hours in 10 years.

    10 * 365= 3650 days

    10000/3650= 3 hours

    So you have right. To focus hard is really hard. Multi-tasking is a big issue.

    I have to ask you something: Can I listen to music(no text)? I have read that music can increase your focus.

    Thanks Cal!

  34. Dominique Mayfield says:

    Hey Cal!

    I plan to get your book How to Become a Straight A Student, from what I read from your blog I could definitely use it. Im a junior in college and while I only have around a year left of school Im losing a lot of my motivation to do my work.

    The hard focus exercise is very intriguing and I plan on trying it. Concerning hard focus, do you suggest doing something that requires hard focus for say an hour or two a day then adding 5 to 10 minutes each time to build your focus muscles? Thanks!

  35. pigtail says:

    Hi, Cal

    I have been trying “hard focus” but not doing very well. I can study for several hours straight only if I listen to music. I want to break the habit of listening to music, because I do want full hard focus, but I am still struggling. :(

  36. Christa says:

    I have found out that after I realized what I really want to do with my life, there hasn’t been any problems with focusing hard on the most crucial things. Being an entrepreneur gives also a really nice insight about what’s crucial in life and business and what is not – otherwise you’ll be bankrupt in no time!

    That book seems to be interesting, I have to read it. Great blog by the way!

  37. Daulet says:

    Thanks for sharing! hard focus & stick-to-it-iveness!

  38. vas says:

    Your philosophy re-affirmed by the latest Man Booker prize winner Philip Roth: —
    “In any case, Roth seems fairly insulated from the big screen. The same thing might be said of television, the Internet and various other conduits of cultural ephemera. He still lives up in rural Connecticut, although he has recently begun spending the winter in New York City. He still writes seven days a week and has yet to discover any authorial shortcuts: “It’s neither more nor less difficult than it’s always been.”

    In short, he leads the sort of quasi-monastic existence that would do Zuckerman proud. No doubt he has gained a ferocious level of concentration — how else do you write 29 books and counting? But one wonders whether his splendid isolation has cut him off from the three-ring circus of contemporary American life. ”

    from LA times -http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-philip-roth14-2008sep14,0,2462935.story

  39. Purav says:

    I think Hard focus is an important key for unlocking the door of success.
    I have the same problem of being lazy or losing my concentration after 45 minutes or so,i have to normally study on my laptop and easily get distracted by the Internet world.
    For Hard focus,meditation and de-stressing music like (Mozart,youtube videos) are a great help as it increases your concentration power.
    This site is a great help.Thanks

  40. Daniel says:

    I am a marathon runner. You say “Fortunately, as Marukami explained, this deficiency can be remedied in the same way that a runner builds his endurance: you have to try to push yourself, each day, a little farther than is comfortable. Over time, your threshold raises.” Actually, Murakami says to run to a point where you live a little bit in reserve, enough so you feel like coming back the next day.

  41. 22 yr old recent college grad says:

    First, I wanted to sincerely thank you for writing. For writing your blog entries, your books, and for the hard focus you’ve put into sharing study hacks with so many of us. In case you’re a fan of specifics, I read this blog article as well as a few others including your recent 99 percent ones today. I also purchased the red book about a year ago and have leafed through many a page multiple times. In terms of feedback, I may have one external metric to share from my explorations, but you’d have to judge it’s value. It’s a checklist I made (big fan of checklists pre and post Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto). I call it the quality checklist:

    [ ] is it important
    [ ] set specific deadline
    [ ] gather 1) materials 2) info 3) space
    [ ] outline “process”
    [ ] go – aka Just Do It
    [ ] feedback

    I typically have an inclination to keep things I discover private, but some of the things I love the most – like Wikileaks or your blog – really value sharing and transparency. So in that spirit, I shared. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want me to elaborate any of the list.

    As for internal metrics, I can wholeheartedly say you made my day way better. Thank you so much Cal! And all the best at Georgetown!

  42. Kes says:

    Is there a good method to train yourself for hard focus? For instance, marathon runners keep diligent track of their times and such and how they’ve progressed. What’s the most efficient way of training yourself to focus hard? I’m guessing we would have to calibrate our current level of hard focus, and work of that basis. Then work incrementally to increase our focus time or intensity. We’d need a clear baseline of how hard is hard focus as well. We’d need to clearly define that for ourselves. Perhaps someone should take the time to do all this and compile it in a plan. I’ll try if I have time.

  43. Donna says:

    Think Daniel (June 14th) got it right–go to the point where there’s a little in reserve. I find too much hard focus and pushing just makes me anxious and ill.
    There’s an interesting alternative approach to productivity One of the greats in advertising, copywriter Claude Hopkins, said that his method for productivity was this:
    set a timer for a certain amount of time, doesn’t matter if it’s 15 minutes or 30, you decide. Then work flat out for that period of time. When the timer stops, immediately stop what you are doing, get up, and go do something, anything, for 5 minutes. Come back, and do it all again. I haven’t tried it, but he was very successful…

  44. Martynas Kriunas says:

    Interesting article. I am also practicing working for 2-3 hours continuously as being in the state of flow enhances productivity, but it’s damn hard to keep focused for 2-3 hours.

  45. Kenny says:

    What are your thoughts on the pomodoro technique?

    25 minutes of “hard” focus followed by a 5 minute break and taking an extended 20 minute break after 4 sessions?

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

  46. Yora says:

    I decided to do a trial in focusing. The idea is to time myself for an hour or longer and mark all distractions during hard focusing. Depending on the number of times I do it on a given day there will be a variation in the number of distractions per time. I am hoping to plot it to see the direction. Now, what would be interesting to do, is to have the same data available from the readers of this blog so that we have N>1 for sample size, and then one could do some meaningful analysis on this. If anyone is interested in having their data combined for analysis, email me: vhe7@yahoo.com I can send you the table Ive created and you can either use that or add other points to it.

  47. Kevin says:

    About 2 weeks ago, my research groupmate I set out in search for the ultimate in timing our work. We found SlimTimer and immediately took a liking to it as it is all web-based. It is not feature-rich, but it serves the primary purpose of providing external motivation to stay focused — knowing that that’s the only way to complete pre-determined blocks of time and populate the work-week or workday appropriately, if anything.

  48. Pikavippi says:

    What are your thoughts on the pomodoro technique?

    25 minutes of “hard” focus followed by a 5 minute break and taking an extended 20 minute break after 4 sessions?

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

    That works pretty good what i have noticed. The breaks really make a difference.

  49. Pikavippi says:

    It seems to work but the data is not so accurate! IMHO

  50. I use “to do” list everyday. This list only includes three to five tasks and I need to finish them at the end of the day. I follow that list strictly and don’t do anything else. That is the only way for me to be very effective and focus on right things.

  51. YS says:

    Excellent article. I just bought Cal’s book and having found him on the net am pouring over the thoughts expressed in this blog site and how I can apply it in my real life to grow my business and my personal productivity. I also have a precocious child who has a hard time focusing. As I started researching, I also found a link http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/200910/easily-distracted-why-its-hard-focus-and-what-do-about-it which might be a reason why many people resort to easier choices like memorizing than “hard focus” (gray word vs gray color choice). There are some suggestions on how to get that hard focus time. I get the feeling it comes down to promising yourself non-negotiable hard focus time. It is a personal commitment you make to yourself.

  52. Deb says:

    Hey Cal-
    Another great article! It really outlines the importance and the most fool-proof way of developing focus, which, as you pointed out, is essential to be exceptional in anything. My problem is not with actually forcing myself to keep sitting and doing work-I can usually do that with some good old-fashioned willpower- but I find myself mentally disengaging from my work. After that, I end up just doing some semblance of a rote review, no brain required. Help?

  53. I think focus has played a great part in the rexcent successes in my personal and professional life. My first memories of focus are related to zoning out to a comic book (spiderman and fantastic four) The description of the excercise was interesting I might give it a try. All and all a great article – and not too long either. I was just about to loose focus.

  54. Nate says:

    Have you read Willpower, by Baumeister? If not, I think you should skim it, but I’ll summarize a small part of it since you’re surely busy:

    You’ve written extensively on the need for hard focus and how draining it is, how to time breaks and how to strengthen it. This focus is basically the willpower resource, according to the book. Its drawn from a pool that is drained by:

    1- controlling your thoughts
    2- controlling your emotions
    3- impulse control
    4- performance control- “focusing your energy on the task at hand, finding the right combination of speed and accuracy, managing time, perservering when you feel like quitting.” (I’d offer chess and studying as example activities.)
    5- deciding between alternatives

    Every time you do 1-5, you drain your limited reservoir and once it’s low you enter “ego depletion,” in which your ability to do any of 1-5 dramatically declines. Rationing the energy is basic to any success in life. It seems related to blood-sugar levels, which realistically only means that people need to learn from hypoglycemics how to maintain a steady level, probably through protein-heavy diets and regular exercise.

    Apparently you can train yourself to expand the reservoir too…

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