Sean Cheng

Finding Focus

January 21, 2021 - 13 min read

I get serious FOMO. I’m usually working on several different things at once, but whenever I see new projects, online courses, or internship openings, I want to take them on too. I have a hard time turning things down.

But for all of us, time is a significant constraint. I found myself unable to determine what to prioritize each day and it showed in my mediocre work. It’s impossible to achieve the same level of quality on ten different projects as opposed to if you just focused on three.

Goal competition says that one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have. In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention. Whenever you chase a new goal, you have to pull focus and energy from your other pursuits. — James Clear

I had difficulty deciding what few things I should work on and sticking with them without being distracted by the newer opportunities that came along.

But during my gap year, I’ve begun to figure out how to narrow down on work worth doing, and in this essay, I will outline how you can do it too.

Table of Contents:

1. Why you need to first become unfocused before you can focus

2. What are values

3. How to find your values if you don't know them

4. Choosing what to do based on your values

6. How to create a why statement

7. How why statements help you overcome adversity

8. Using why statements to clarify your motivations

Try Lots of Things

Before you can focus, you’ll actually have to become unfocused for a time. It’s a classic one step back, two steps forward scenario.

Here’s what Linus Lee (partner at Dorm Room Fund) has to say about this in his blog post, How To Find Focus:

At any moment, we are either in a divergent phase of life, or in a convergent phase. During a divergent period, we’re usually focused on broadening our inputs. We go to school, take on internships, travel, try a career switch, and so on, exploring new paths. During a convergent time, we take what we’ve learned thus far to double down on just a handful of goals on which we can spend our energy – we become more focused.

Without trying different things, you won’t have enough data (i.e. life experience) to know what the characteristics are of the type of work you enjoy. Some people are lucky enough to stumble upon their passion on the first try, but if you are not one of these people, rapidly experimenting with a lot of different things will help you gain a better sense of what feels right to you.

This is exactly what happened during my gap year. I had the chance to experiment with data science, web development, content marketing, and much more. In the process, I quickly found out what elements of each I enjoyed.

Your Values

Now that you’ve explored a variety of experiences, you can begin reflecting on the macro characteristics of what you liked about each of them. These are what I define as your values. They are the broad themes that bring you satisfaction, joy, and a sense of fulfillment.

Reflect on your past projects, conversations, and experiences. Then, record the actions and events that led to your feelings of excitement and contentment. Perhaps you got to focus on a tough problem that you found interesting or maybe you received an award for your work. Often, these details tie back to something bigger— your values.

Here’s a list of a few values you might consider:

  • Prestige - Is there social status attributed to this?
  • Control - Do I get to work on things I care about?
  • Social - Do I get to interact with people I find interesting and pleasant to be around?
  • Wealth - Are there significant monetary gains to be had?
  • Spiritual - Is this in alignment with my moral and spiritual convictions?
  • Cultural - Is this consistent with my cultural identity?
  • Learning - Am I being intellectually challenged and stimulated?

These are just several broad categories but there are many more. As you record what brings you joy, start ranking which elements are the most important to you.

After a recent trip to Taiwan, I realized that one of my values was finding a deeper connection to my Taiwanese heritage. I thought back on the happiness I felt exploring the country and making friends there, but also reflected on how much more I would’ve enjoyed the experience if I knew more about the culture.

What If I Don't Know What My Values Are?

Values can be hard to identify if you haven’t been paying much attention to them before. An exercise you might try is spending a week (or longer) documenting your daily life and identifying what activities bring on the positive emotions of joy and satisfaction.

Next, analyze the characteristics of the activities that you believe led to those feelings. These are what you value. For example, you might find that you had more fun writing an essay assignment without a designated prompt, which might demonstrate that one of your values is creative freedom or independence.

If figuring out what you enjoy is difficult, reflecting on what you don’t want can be just as powerful. Create a list of anti-values of things you definitely want to avoid. When I did this exercise, I found that I wanted to avoid opportunities that lacked novelty, didn’t allow me to create, and wouldn’t put me in a position to form connections with others.

Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead — through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. — Charlie Munger

Here’s an example of how you might go through each day recording your activities and your values:

Choose Pursuits That Align With Your Values

With your list of values, you can start analyzing which of your goals/activities align most closely with them. Do this by writing down all of your values on one side of a piece of paper and your goals on the other side. Go down your list of goals and write down the values that they satisfy. Based on time constraints, you can either deprioritize or cut the goals that have the fewest number of values listed next to them.

However, there is an exception. Some values may be significantly more important to you than others. It’s possible that a goal only has one value listed next to it but because it’s critically important, you still decide to pursue it.

In scenarios where you like two things equally, it can be hard to let go. One of my goals for my gap year was to get back into piano and start taking lessons again. But, I also wanted to spend more time improving my reading and writing in Chinese. It was difficult to determine how to prioritize.

This type of dilemma was something I struggled with for the longest time until my friend shared this perspective with me:

“Sean, life is long and you’ll have time to learn and do many things. Bucket your life into periods of several years where you focus on certain things for a while and then move onto different things. If you lose interest in some things over the years that’s okay— it means you weren’t passionate about them in the first place.”

This insight stuck with me and allowed me to quiet the internal voice telling me to do everything now. I became free to choose the one good option among the many available to me. If I focused on Chinese first, I would still be able to pursue piano in the future and vice versa. By choosing one, I was giving myself the bandwidth to focus and excel.

Writing Down Your Why

After choosing what to do, I begin writing down a why statement to accompany each one. This can be based on the values you wrote earlier, with additional details to make the rationale behind them more concrete.

Here’s an example:

  1. Review Mandarin Chinese flashcards for an hour a day.
    • Going back to Taiwan during my gap year made me aware of how much my Taiwanese heritage is part of my identity. I’m missing out on half of what it means to be me when I’m not able to fully access that part of my culture. Being able to read and write in Mandarin will allow me to more easily navigate Taiwan and connect with the people there. Also, it will give me more flexibility when it comes to job opportunities.
  2. Write 750 words each day.
    • Writing is thinking. Through consistent writing, I will have a larger bank of well-reasoned ideas and arguments I can use in daily life. Writing will also reveal the gaps in my logic and what I still don’t understand. The benefits of writing will translate to more novel ideas in my schoolwork, increased poise in future interviews, and improvements in my persuasive abilities.
  3. Publish a YouTube video each week.
    • Building an audience will allow me to form connections with other people. I’ll learn interesting skills like videography, editing, and get the chance to learn from the people I talk to.

Writing down your ‘whys’ serves as another layer of verification that you’re pursuing the right things. When I did this with all my activities, it quickly became apparent to me which ones were a higher priority and aligned better with my values.

Publishing a YouTube video each week had the weakest rationale in the example above. Although learning to film and edit videos aligned with my values of consistent learning and creative exploration, it wasn’t as aligned with my higher ranking priorities of learning more about my culture and becoming a better thinker. Upon further reflection, I realized that my inability to write a robust ‘why’ for filming YouTube videos indicated that it was more of a passing interest rather than something I would dedicate time to seriously pursue. Because of this, I was able to cut it out since I had trouble balancing all three goals. This does not mean I’ll never film videos in the future, only that at the moment it is not a priority because of my time constraints.

Weather The Storm

Having well-thought-out reasons behind what you do on paper is especially valuable when you encounter obstacles and distractions. During these times I find it helpful to read what I wrote as the why behind each of my goals.

If studying Mandarin is especially hard one day, it’s motivating for me to go back and read why I’m working so hard in the first place. Your desires and emotions are fickle but that compelling why statement will not change.

Maybe on another day, I will see someone else telling the story of their successful side-hustle on social media and I feel the urge to start something like that of my own. In those moments, I revisit my current goals, recalling my original rationale for why they are my priority. Then, that desire to add on another project fades away.

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Clarifying Your Motivations

I want to emphasize that it’s crucial that you either physically or digitally write down your values and whys. That’s because other people, our environments, and societal expectations have unexpected amounts of power in shaping what we want. Writing cuts through these influences to help us clarify what our true motivations are.

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” - Paul Graham

Putting pen to paper will reveal any discrepancies between what you think your rationales are for your goals and what your true motivations are. Writing helps prevent you from going down a path that you didn’t want to traverse in the first place.

For example, before starting college, I thought I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer. I didn’t write down my why and in my head, my reasons ran vaguely along the lines of, “it’s a well-respected career that will let me make a difference and help people in my work.” But when I was finally forced to articulate why I wanted to become a lawyer to get into a pre-law advising program in writing, I found it difficult to come up with specific examples and compelling reasons. I discovered that my wanting to be a lawyer was less about liking the career (not a knock on lawyers; many do very meaningful work), but more about not knowing what else to do, and falling back on a traditionally prestigious job.

Conclusion

Defining your values is a process that must be repeated over and over because our values can change organically or be unduly influenced by others over time. Check quarterly to make sure you are still on the right track. If you find that your goals no longer align with your current values because of new experiences or interactions you have had, it is completely fine to switch course. Just carefully consider if this new information is compelling enough to overturn your past goals by thinking through your values, and comparing your past and current “whys.”

Especially in high pressure and conformist environments, it can be easy to get distracted by what the person next to us is doing. But through thoughtful reflection and writing of our key motivations, it becomes a lot easier to escape this cycle of comparison and uncertainty. We gain the power to say no and find our focus.

Thank you to Will Han and Mina Liang for reading drafts of this and providing valuable feedback.

Inspiration for some of the ideas in this post comes from Julian Shapiro’s What To Work On


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