Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Pruning Your List of What Matters

August 2nd, 2009 · 27 comments

Ahead of the CurveQuiet Study

Recently, I’ve been reading Ahead of the Curve, Philip Delves Broughton’s memoir of his time at Harvard Business School. It’s a reasonably interesting read, buoyed more by Broughton’s writing ability (he was a professional journalist before arriving at HBS) than the events that transpired (attending b-school, as it turns out, is not an adrenaline-soaked adventure).

There was one passage, however, from page 85 of the paperback edition, that caught my attention. It reads:

At a meeting of the Mormon Club, [the dean of HBS] explained the secret of his success. He has whittled his life down to just four things: work, family, faith, and golf.

This focus was later elaborated:

As an academic, he used to arrive at his office at dawn and work in silence until lunch time. Only then would he engage with the world…On Saturdays he played golf, and on Sundays he spent the day at church with his family.

Then came the conclusion:

Such discipline had propelled him to the leadership of the school.


This idea, of course, shares similarities with our many discussions here about doing less things better. But I appreciate the starkness of the Dean’s commitment to focus — a list of only four things captures everything that matters in his life.

This leds me to an interesting thought: I wonder if the most important advice one could give a college student, or recent graduate, about building a successful life, is to recommend that they list their own four things as soon as possible. That is, identify the small number of things you want to focus on in life, so you can then go about the business of doing them really well.

Chad Fowler, the CTO of a respected contract programming shop, tackled this same issue from a different direction in a recent guest post over at Tim Ferriss’s blog. Fowler said:

I recognized it from the big problems I have successfully solved in my life. The secret is to focus on whatever it is you’re trying to improve and make it better today than it was yesterday.

Ben Casnocha provided his own insightful take on the subject in a recent blog post titled Shrinking the “Stuff I Really Care About” Box. He noted:

[I should] focus intensely on those things [that I really care about] and let go and/or be non-competitive on everything else.

When you hear an idea once, it might merit an idle consideration. But when you hear it again and again, from a diverse collection of sources, it demands your attention. The particular idea here demanding my attention can be summarized simply: hard focus-style work on a small number of things is the basic currency of almost any success.

As I’m about to complete one phase of my life — I’m in the final weeks of my PhD program and am finishing what might be my last student-centric book — and start a new phase — in the fall, I’m starting a postdoc here at MIT and I don’t know what I will write next — you can be sure that I’ll be giving a lot of thought to pruning and polishing my own short list of things that matter.

27 thoughts on “Pruning Your List of What Matters

  1. Basu says:

    While I certainly agree with the basic idea of focusing your effort, I think it’s hard to determine what the correct level of focus is (and what one ‘item’ is). For example, in the Dean’s case, what excatly is ‘work’? Becoming successful might depend on how much you push the boundaries of what your priorities are as much as the effort involved. Simply doing the same things as other people, even if you do them well, might not be enough.

  2. Jason says:

    Along the same note, Stephen Covey recommends
    only being concerned with that which is within your sphere of influence. So if your thoughts and actions about “x” will yield insignificant results you might want to put off addressing it for now.

  3. @ngel says:

    I really hope that blogging really matters to you… 🙂

  4. vtamethodman says:

    Although applying yourself to four things will undoubtedly make you very good at those four things I would suggest for university students that they not make such a restrictive decision just yet. To me, college should be about expanding identity and part of that is to try many many things and fail at most of them. I can see the appeal of focusing on a few things. However I instead try to focus on becoming a really good learner and then apply that skill to become as multifaceted as possible.

  5. Jonas says:

    Congratulations Cal, on making it this far! What an accomplishment, you truly embody the philosophy you preach.

    It seems like even amidst the chaos of approaching the closing chapter of a major phase of your life, you find time to read voraciously on eclectic topics! I’d love to hear your take on how you make your reading list, what’s your view on non-course or work-related reading.

  6. anon says:

    I’ve read your book, and agree that discipline is an important factor. Dropping into my RSS feeds today was this story, however, that goes against the avoiding-extra line of thought; http://theuniversityblog.co.uk/2009/08/03/student-experience-is-heart-of-the-matter/ . I’m wondering how you reconcile this school of thought with yours?

  7. andres says:

    Cal, I’ve noticed you give less tips every time and reinforce those ones you already wrote about.
    It seems you’re going on a better direction by leaving more freedom to those of us who seek advice and talk about more cosmic issues and I appreciate that.

    “[I should] focus intensely on those things [that I really care about] and let go and/or be non-competitive on everything else”

    Keeping a good amount of randomness-input while reducing your schedule periodically may even get you out of the dip sometimes on those things that you honestly want to do.

  8. I agree! I focus on: work, family, friends, and faith and don’t worry to much about the rest.

    Within these areas, I have additional focus: I have specific business topics, family members, friends, and spiritual disciplines that are MUSTS where I constantly look to cultivate and improve. Outside of those areas, I spend little energy without any guilt because I know I’m doing what’s really important to me.

  9. Jason G. says:

    Amen to @ngel- hopefully blogging is still important to you!

    Your advice has been incredibly helpful to me. Good luck with the book and postdoc!

  10. Jon C says:

    “I would suggest for university students that they not make such a restrictive decision just yet.”

    Agreed. I too tried many many things and failed. At the end of my undergrad I had a “list” of things I enjoyed and what I was not good at. I think the key here though is to develop an extensive list throughout college and at the end of that chapter prune or whittle down the list down to a few components, in this case four. Life can’t be simplified into four simple categories but doing so creates guidelines to what really matters to a person. The four things the HBS Dean chose seemed to capture the act of balancing his life with the whole mind, body, and soul idea.

    My advice for undergrads would be to not compile that list ASAP but at the very least think about their four components as of now and look for patterns and trust innate abilities. Of course you don’t have to wait until the end of college (like I did) as people have different circumstances and rates of maturity. Perhaps, use the “begin-with-the-end-in-mind” approach. As an undergrad develops his or her list things will drop like bricks and some will stick. More likely than not they have a really good idea of what they like and what they would like their life to be like. It would be wise to get an idea of these components ASAP because the world seems to cater to those with direction.

  11. Eddie says:

    I feel that your latest posts are drifting away from your older ideas of seeking positive randomness and not making so many plans. Of course, this change is somewhat inevitable – you’re becoming more of a professional and less of a student. It’s also not a bad thing at all to discuss success in the greater context of careers and lives. I just hope you don’t forget your undergrad audience, even if there there is so much excellent material already in the archives.

  12. vtamethodman says:

    Jon, thanks for finishing my thought, if I had applied myself to the things I thought were important in my life at the beginning of university, I’d probably be a unsuccessful athlete rather than the multifaceted person I am today. Now that I know better, I can start to really concentrate on specific goals.

  13. Comment 6 (anon) refers to my post about student experience and a recent report that came out in the UK.

    I believe anon is referring to the point where I mention the number of opportunities available to students and the subsequent level of involvement each student chooses to take.

    The salient point is that many students either don’t grasp the opportunities on offer, or they take on far too many and end up without focus. In short, no clear focus is achieved.

    My previous post to TheUniversityBlog had suggested why students don’t always get the most from their experience. The first point made was about having too many priorities/commitments. I explain, “consider the most important two or three things that you want to commit to over and above everything else”.

    Students (in the UK, at least) are not always properly encouraged to push themselves and use what is available to them. That doesn’t mean they should embrace every opportunity, but they should focus on what is possible and how they can achieve it while at university.

    I hope this clears up what was meant in the post.

  14. Nazim says:

    I agree! I’ve recently kind of been pushed into taking a super hard class by the teacher but I just, last night, told him that I’d like to focus on my extracurriculars!

  15. Study Hacks says:

    I think it’s hard to determine what the correct level of focus is

    I had this same thought. I think the author is oversimplfying when he says Dean Clark focused on “work.” Probably, in the Dean’s mind, the concept was somewhat more narrow — something like, “production of top quality publications.”

    Becoming successful might depend on how much you push the boundaries of what your priorities are as much as the effort involved.

    I tend to think we put too much emphasize on the “new” and the “different.” To me, it seems that most people don’t put in much effort towards becoming really good at something — even if the “something” isn’t exotic. Instead, they’re content to simply handle their assigned work with reasonable effectiveness. In other words, most people go through a 40-year career without ever becoming exceptional at anything related to their field.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    To me, college should be about expanding identity and part of that is to try many many things and fail at most of them

    To many, however, this mindset leads them to the “perfect match trap,” where everything begins to fall short of some platonic ideal pursuit.

    I’d love to hear your take on how you make your reading list, what’s your view on non-course or work-related reading.

    I typically keep between 12 – 20 books on my nightstand. I visit multiple libraries multiple times a month, and print a dozen articles a from newspaper web sites each week. All of this is guided by a simple philosophy: “follow what seems interesting at the moment.”

    Keeping a good amount of randomness-input while reducing your schedule periodically may even get you out of the dip sometimes on those things that you honestly want to do.

    I really agree with this. I think the issue people have with randomness is its appropriate scope. Too many students, I think, apply it too broadly, thinking they should expose themselves to many unrelated activities and pursuits. I’m more of a fan of locking into a relatively broad pursuit quickly, then exposing yourself to much randomness within that pursuit to help uncover the specific projects that demand your time.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, I’ve noticed you give less tips every time and reinforce those ones you already wrote about. It seems you’re going on a better direction by leaving more freedom to those of us who seek advice and talk about more cosmic issues and I appreciate that.

    Part of the reason I’ve been more cosmic recently, however, is that it is summer. When the fall returns I hope to find an appropriate balance between the big picture and the technical issues of being student. I welcome feedback about what this balance should be.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    The salient point is that many students either don’t grasp the opportunities on offer, or they take on far too many and end up without focus. In short, no clear focus is achieved.

    Thanks for the sage clarification, Martin.

  19. jinap says:

    I divide my time into Work/School, Health, Relationships and Hobbies. Even though the categories are broad, I find it helps me keep track of my life.

    They are broad enough for flexibility within them, but because the overall focus is on what’s meaningful to me, I automatically narrow down to 1-3 goals within each category in order to keep balance.

  20. Maureen says:

    I, too, read Delves Broughton book. Was alright. I was interested in what the Harvard B-School experience would be like, etc but the author, I found, was a little negative on business people and the greed/pursuit of profit etc.

    I agree with the comment re not narrowing your focus in the first few years of university. Take different classes, just as one should read different type of books. Some believe really intelligent people can form parallels and connections between seemingly dissimilar thoughts and topics.

    I can see, however, when you reach an elite level of education and accomplishment, as you have, you have to be really focused on what you want to accomplish.

    In any event, I hope you keep blogging even after you finish your PhD.

  21. Andrew Louis says:

    Hi Cal,

    I’m a high school student that will be commencing senior year after the summer hols. I’m really glad that I’ve found your blog! I usually hate anything to do with character self-masturbation, but I love how this blog is focused on the overall development of the individual and not just ‘study hacks’. I think one of the reasons why your blog is so popular is because you provide feedback to comments which I haven’t seen any of my favourite bloggers do! I hope that your readers aren’t whittled out of your list!

    And I had a question that’s not exactly related to the blogpost.

    How neccessary is it to complete a master’s degree before starting post-doctoral work? Would it provide an edge in admissions? Or would I be fine pursuing post-doctoral studies directly after undergrad?

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you started your Ph.D in MIT right after you finished your undergrad in Dartmouth…

    Thanks much!

  22. Study Hacks says:

    How neccessary is it to complete a master’s degree before starting post-doctoral work? Would it provide an edge in admissions? Or would I be fine pursuing post-doctoral studies directly after undergrad?

    I assume you mean doctoral studies, not post-doctoral? In computer science, earning your MS is often just one of the steps you take en route to the PhD, so you don’t need to arrive with one in advance. Indeed, some schools, like MIT, don’t have programs to get an MS in computer science by itself, you can *only* earn one as part of a PhD program. A MEng degree, however, is often useful, as it shows off a little more research experience before applying. But it’s not necessary. I came to grad school straight out of dartmouth with only a BA.

  23. Ann says:

    In terms of feedback, Cal, I’d like to see more advice specifically targeted to the actual studying. I do appreciate your more philosophical articles, but I preferred the old ratio. If I’m being honest, I must also admit that these kinds of articles tend to repeat each other, not really adding any new value. Which is, of course, probably due to the summer slump, but you know, my two cents, for what they’re worth. Whatever you choose to do, good luck! I love your blog.

  24. Dagonet says:

    Isn’t that a question of being a hedgehog vs a fox?

  25. Eugene K says:

    I know this is a late post, but I found this article interesting and had a few posts (in case you still receive comments).
    First of all, can this advice be universal? I don’t think so. Whittling down the things that matter to four may be possible for someone with a few important tasks, like a successful Dean that really wants to be a good golfer. But, how about a mom with young children struggling to make ends meet and taking night classes? There are many variations that you can probably figure out from this one example.
    Also your citation of Chad Fowler is inconsistent with your first example. He says list four thing you want to improve. Other than golf, what exactly is the Dean improving? His faith or his family? There is a difference between listing tasks for improvement, listing things one cares about, and listing things one wants to devote attention to. I may really care about my faith, but not necessarily have to devote attention to it, or even feel that I need to learn more about it to practice.
    I feel this is one of your weaker articles, but I am still a big fan. I didn’t write just to criticize, but to help improve the site!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *