Often, when trying to make progress towards an innovative challenge there are thousands of things you could be doing.

Examined individually, each of these actions look like they could bring you closer to your end goal.

Or worse, they may each be different goals which all seem equally appealing and worth putting effort into.

However, if they are each taking up your time and effort, the result is often time working ineffectively, working towards targets which are not aligned and where you end the day not sure whether you actually made any meaningful progress at all.

As an example, let us imagine that you are part of a startup or small innovation team.

You have an idea for a new service (like personalised healthy meal plans tailored to your career and health goals), and you have already validated that there is demand for such a service (so you are not starting completely from scratch).

Your team is not sure of the most effective work it could do on a daily basis. The options for what you could be doing include:

Hiring coders to build an MVP of an app / Learning javascript to code the app yourselves / Cold calling customers for pre-orders / Setting up an automated online marketing system / Agreeing the vision for the company / debating which companies to use to ask for a logo / discussing which font should be on the homepage / Brainstorming names for the company / Speaking with commercial real estate agents in case you ever want an office in the future / Film videos for social media talking about your mission / Putting together a pitch deck for Venture Capital investments / Trying Facebook advertising / Trying Youtube advertising / Trying Tiktok advertising / Trying radio advertising / Starting a podcast / Comparing which team member has the cutest pet in case that pet could become a mascot / Comparing the features of online project management software options to decide what the team could use when it scales / ….

… you get the idea. There is an endless amount of work you could be doing.

If you only have 8 hours in a day in which to do effective work, that could either be 16x 30 minute slots for 16 different microscopic bits of progress, or one 8 hour slot to focus on really progressing just one aspect.

What is often much more effective is being focussed on a single goal and the absolute minimum different actions which all are aligned towards getting you and your team there.

The scientific reasons why focusing on one task is more effective

There are many scientific studies which show why people should rather focus on a single task rather than many different ones in order to make progress:

  • Task Switching costs: Studies have shown that when someone is distracted from a task or switches to another activity, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain your previous level of productivity
  • Lowering distractions: Distractions have been shown to lower your creativity and result in task switching. Even having something nearby which distracts you by thinking about it, like your mobile phone, can make your output less effective even if you do not look at it
  • Preventing you from getting into a flow state: A flow state, when you are completely engrossed in an activity and produce output almost automatically, is one of the most productive and effective modes of working. If you are constantly switching between tasks, you will likely not have the stretches of time in a repeated activity required to get into a flow state.
  • Time pressure leading to lower creativity: Studies have shown that regular time pressure leads to people’s work being less creative. As a result,
  • Less time available for mind wandering: Mind wandering, and even just productive procrastination, can be extremely beneficial to your creative output. But they both require the time and space while not working. Trying to cram too many things into our calendar means we often don’t have extended period where we give our brains the space to think of new ideas.

The scientific reasons why people find it so hard to focus on one task

Nonetheless, this is one of the hardest things for individuals and teams to actually do.

Even if people begin working on one goal, before they are finished with it they may get distracted by a new shiny object (opportunity) and move on to another set of tasks before the first set are complete.

Why is there this conflict?

There are a number of psychological and team biases which make people want to spend time and effort working on multiple different activities instead of focusing on only one effective goal:

  1. Fear of failure: One of the biggest reasons why people would prefer to try many things is that they think this will reduce their chance of failure. Often, they think that any individual activity they try has a chance of failing. They therefore think that doing more different things, it means that if any one of those activities does not work, one of the other activities may make up for it. In reality, it means that by not focusing enough on any of them, it means ALL of the things you are working on are more likely to fail.
  2. Addition bias: Most humans suffer from an innate bias where when trying to improve something, we invariably prefer to add additional things rather than try to remove things. As a result, when people try to look at the work they could do to make progress, they feel like adding more options is the right thing to do, when in reality subtracting options may be more effective.
  3. FOMO: People often have a fear of missing out. What if I am not doing something I see other people doing and it would be the one thing that works. This is a huge problem when people look for tactics or tips from experts online, because every expert may show different options for what works. The secret is, the reason the option worked for the expert is because they focused on it.
  4. Sunk cost fallacy: Once someone has begun any type of work, even if it is just an initial thought of it, then people feel nervous about stopping it or doing something different. It feels like the previous investment, whether it was time, financial or even just emotional, would have been wasted if we stopped. In reality, those are sunk costs you cannot get back, and often the best thing to do is to have a mindset where you can start fresh at any time if it is the right thing to do. This includes stopping work you have begun if it means you can focus on something more effective.
  5. Loss aversion: One of the primary fears and biases which people have is not wanting to lose what they already have. People feel negative experiences and losses much more strongly than positive gains, so may try to do as many things as possible to prevent them failing.
  6. Choice overwhelm: Research shows that the more options you put in front of everyone, the less able and likely they are to make a choice at all. This makes it hard for people to decide on putting focus on any one specific activity. See also: Analysis Paralysis
  7. Planning fallacy: People almost always underestimate how much time a set of tasks will take them, and are too optimistic in the plan they put together of how quickly they can get things done. As a result, they believe they can do more different tasks in a day / week / month than they end up being able to actually complete.
  8. Ambiguity Effect: We are hardwired to dislike ambiguity. Our brains have a bias that we would rather avoid options that we consider to be ambiguous or to be missing information. However, when working on any creative, challenging and innovative task, we will not know what the outcome will be. Therefore, people often choose to work on things they are comfortable with, which may be the tasks which make less of an impact overall. Also see: Fixed Mindset.
  9. Busyness: Our society rewards people who show themselves to be busy. Not being busy is often interpreted as being lazy, so surely being busy with lots of different activity should be effective, right? Unfortunately, just because you are busy doing an activity does not mean it is the right thing to do. Often, it can be emotionally easier to convince yourself you are making progress by being busy, than doing the hard work of actually making progress on the tasks which are harder but have a larger impact.

As a result, it can be incredibly uncomfortable for people to focus on doing only one task, or a small number of highly valuable activities, which actually helps make progress towards a goal. This would feel like “giving up” on all the other options of what you could be doing.

Nonetheless, focusing your time and attention on just a few small activities is usually the best thing you can do.

Saying no can be really hard, but it is ultimately priceless.

How to become better at focusing on only one task

With so many barriers to people being able to say no to anything but the most effective tasks, what systems can you use to focus on fewer tasks more effectively?

Here are a few of of the most effective

  • Ruthless elimination: In order to focus, you need to stop working on all activities that are not perfectly aligned with your key goals. Billionaire investor Warren Buffet has a simple system he uses to help people focus: The Avoid-At-All-Costs (AAAC) list. Here is how you can create this list for yourself
    1. take a piece of paper (or nowadays anything to create a list, like your favorite app), and write down your Top 25 goals (specific things you want to accomplish)
    2. Then, take a minute, look through the whole list, and on a separate sheet, select your Top 5 goals from the original list and write those down again, while crossing them off the list of 25
    3. You should now have two lists, one with your Top 5 goals, and the other with the remaining 20 goals
    4. Now, according to Buffet: Everything you didn’t put in the Top 5 just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5
    5. Important: Once you have sorted the two lists, your brain will find it really hard to accept not doing things on the AAAC list. This is because of all of the reasons I outlined in the section above. You will want to find ways and reasons to still justify working on them. However, that will just make you less likely to succeed at the Top 5 list. It is called the AAAC list for a reason.
  • Use the Eisenhower matrix: When it comes to determining what to focus on, it helps to be able to sort out what should be a focus now, and what can wait until later. This is where a system called the Eisenhower Matrix comes in (named after the US President who used it to prioritise his work). It asks you to look at each task you could be working on, and rate it on how urgent and important it is. You can then plot them in the following quadrants to see how they compare:

Here is what to do with tasks of each type:

    • Important/Urgent tasks (Do) are done immediately and personally, e.g. crises, deadlines, problems.
    • Important/Not Urgent tasks (Decide) get an end date and are done personally, e.g. relationships, planning, recreation.
    • Unimportant/Urgent tasks (Delegate) are delegated, e.g. interruptions, meetings, activities.
    • Unimportant/Not Urgent tasks (Delete) are dropped, e.g. time wasters, pleasant activities, trivia
  • Block off time in your calendar for deep work: So how do you actually use your time to focus and work effectively. One of the simplest yet most effective ways is to use your calendar. Set up dedicated time blocked in your calendar to do one specific activity, and treat that time with utmost respect. No meetings. No discussions. No distractions. Ideally, these sessions should be at least 2 hours of uninterrupted time, so that your brain can get into flow and you can actually get deep, focused work progress or even completed.
  • Eliminate distractions: We have seen the evidence for it already. Distractions prevent progress or the ability to focus. So do whatever you can to try and reduce or even eliminate distractions during the time when you are focusing on deep work. This is especially true of your mobile phone, social media, the news, TV or anything else that would distract you from being able to focus on the task in front of you.

With this knowledge, I hope you now understand not only why it is so important yet challenging to be able to focus on a smaller number of high-impact actions, but also how you can best achieve this.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in a comment below.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.