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Growing up, I remember watching a show on the Discovery channel that talked about different species of human beings, one of which is the Neanderthal. They had the incredible to focus on doing one task at a time, producing far greater amounts than their smarter, but “lazier” cousins. It occurred to me that in terms of production, even if you are only half as fast as someone else, you can still produce more if you work three times as long! In the end, people judge you by how much you produced, not how much you were capable of producing.

Fast forward a few years, to where I was taking 7-8 of Cornell’s most challenging courses per semester, and getting all As in them. Was I smarter than my peers? I really doubt it. My success was due mostly to this concept of focusing on one thing at a time.

Why Focus On One Thing At A Time

Our brains, like computers, really can’t think of that many things in parallel. In fact, most of the time, it can only think of one thought at a time. That means if you are thinking about donuts, you probably aren’t thinking about how to finish your project at the exact same time. In some sense, every project can be completed given a certain amount of thought dedicated to it. If it’s a computer science project, the actual change might only be a few lines of code, taking a few seconds. Therefore, most of the cost of doing something is in figuring out exactly what to do.

Following that logic, the more thought we dedicate to a project, the more likely it is to be complete. Since thinking about donuts isn’t a thought about the project, you essentially waste a “computer cycle” when you could have spent it on your project. Focusing on one thing at a time will help you save these cycles. This is a very literal interpretation of “you become what you think about”.

Secondly, thinking about several things or switching between them incurs a “context switching cost”. It takes time for you to gather the relevant information for a project into your brain. For example, if you were to consider buying a house, you’d have to remember the mortgage rates, how much you have in the bank, how much income you expect, the cost of the house, etc. All that information takes a while for you to actually comprehend before you can make a decision on whether you’d like to buy a house. What if you had to go to sleep today? Tomorrow, it might take you another little while to fetch that same information into your brain again (although it’ll probably be faster this time).

This extra fetching time can add up to very substantial amounts, especially if you are switching between two things constantly. Consider working on a project and talking with a friend on IM at the same time. Every time you switch between your project and an IM window, it takes maybe 5 seconds for you to gather yourself and figure out where you were in the conversation. It then takes another 15 seconds for you to figure out what you were working on before being interrupted. Say there’s about 100 such interruptions an hour, that’s about 33 minutes of time spent on switching between the window and your project alone!! The worst part about this is, you’re not having a conversation OR doing a project during those 33 minutes.

Someone else might be able to do their job twice as fast as you, but if they’re wasting those 33 minutes and you’re not, you’ll still produce more than them. Additionally, your work and your relationship with your friend would probably be better too, as they’ll both get your full attention.

How To Focus On One Thing At A Time

Since it’s so important to not waste your brain cycles on switching between things, how do we go about minimizing this loss of time? Well, my personal method is to use a schedule. Then, during the allocated time on your schedule, focus on the task at hand. Just having a schedule itself is helpful since it drives your thoughts towards your goal. Most of the time, our thoughts aren’t focused just because we don’t exactly know what we’re supposed to be working on.

Then, try to tune out distractions during your allocated time. Go to quiet spot where you can get things done in peace. Discourage people from interrupting you and schedule them in to other time slots. For example, if your coworkers continuously interrupt you during work with questions, ask them to use email or schedule meetings to you for less important questions. If your friends are always sending you instant messages during your study session, simply stay off IM.

Additionally, try to focus on one thing at a time to completion. That way, you don’t have to go back to it later and spending time getting into context again. These can really add up!

These are only physical distractions though. This actually also applies to thought. Since our memory is associative (i.e. you think of something and something related comes up), random thoughts can start pulling you in different directions. Therefore, when you are studying say a math problem and a thought of a watermelon pops up because the question talks about watermelons, recognize that and don’t get pulled into a memory of interactions with watermelons! My way of doing this is to give yourself a mental “slap on the wrist”. Imagine that image and start doodling it out with like a big X, all the time giving yourself a “this is bad” thought. If you do this often enough, it becomes almost second nature to hold off certain thoughts.

There you have it: Many, many extra hours per day – if you choose to use them!

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40 Responses to “Focus On One Thing At A Time To Completion”

  1. Srini on September 5th, 2008 12:23 pm

    Excellent article. I suffer from the exact kind of “distraction syndrome” that you talk about here. I am going to print this and put it up on my desk and share it with friends. Thanks and please keep more such articles coming!

  2. T.prakash on January 29th, 2009 7:16 am

    I am sufferring from too much of distraction of thoughts thereby i am unable to focus on one thing at a time. After reading your article, I have understood as to how I can improve myself

  3. Jered on February 15th, 2009 2:41 am

    As I am writing this, there’s so many distractions that’s on my mind, so to exercise I focused on what I’m going to write, focus to completion. Its been a wonderful experience to have read this article, my goal is improving myself, reaching my dreams, working them. Focus is the key.

  4. Valley on March 11th, 2009 8:27 am

    This is an excellent post.

  5. Max on March 13th, 2009 3:28 am

    I also have many distractions every day and I used to be able to easily focus my attention on the task at hand, lately however I have found that the distractions get my attention more and more. I don’t know what caused this but I am beginning to think I have ADD more and more. If people talk, it doesn’t even have to be to me, I hear every second of their conversation. Laughter, phones ringing..all these things take me out of my “zone” and I am lost at how to improve it. I could ask to work at home, but I doubt my boss is going to accept it.

    It’s getting increasingly annoying to me that I can’t keep my mind focussed on what I am doing and is starting to create problems for me. Projects contain errors I never even saw, that costs me extra time to correct, and as a result other projects get the hit. I feel lost at this moment as the tips in this article is good, but I can’t incorporate them at my work environment.

  6. frank on April 21st, 2009 5:45 am


    I have the exact same problem. I used to get distracted so much. I think ADD is not a real medical condition but it is a label for “people who can’t maintain focus” and no way I was going to be labelled. I, therefore had to figure out a solution to this problem.
    After dedicated research and from personal experience I realized There are countless distractions in our lives everyday. Think of them as a challenge, the distractions are your enemies. It is easier to control your distractions with choices. Remember, life is all about choices. Choose to ignore the distraction or choose to focus on the distraction. Don’t let the enemy beat you. Remember your thoughts MOLD your goals they create it. So why waste so much time on distractions?

    I didn’t believe in this theory before. Until one day I was so mad at God for not giving me a birthday present. I told God I want a birthday present I don’t care what it is. I want money so I can purchase my gifts. I thought about it for like 2 hours that mustve been like what 5 thousand thoughts? I was so focused on my birthday present. Anyways I was so angry so I went to bed because I knew my parents were broke and I was gonna have a lousy birthday. The next day I remembered what I had told god and I aplogized. I walked to school and I arrived. I went to class as usual annoyed sat down. My teacher came and gave me a detention slip to go to the deans office because I didn’t bring the proper uniform. “Ugh” what a birthday I thought. I went to the Deans office and I had told them that I can run home that it wasn’t far and I cld get my shirt the dean wouldn’t let me until I asked him “would you rather me wait here all day until schools over or would you rather I spend precious time on schoolwork? I promise 10 minutes” so I persuaded him to let me go. I ran out of the school and kept running across the construction yard, I stopped to catch my breath and something caught my eye. It was a wallet with no name on it. There was 150 dollars in it! I found 2 other 20s rolling in the wind so 190 total. I was so thrilled. But then a cold chill came to me as I put the money in my wallet. I thought “sh** I better watch what I think because they create my tommorow”

    So max, from my own personal testimony its true thoughts do create ur reality? Pretty cool eh?

    I spent close to 4 years of dedicated research on the subconcious mind, life lessons, mental techiques all the bs about the human mind. Honestly I can tell you for a fact I know a lot more than this guy does. Just send me an email at

    Or any of you who read my post


  7. Matt Belcher on October 6th, 2009 2:45 pm

    This is an excellent article. I am going to ping to it.

    What this article outlines is the constant challenges we have today on our time. Phone, TV, Internet. It all creates challenges when you are trying to concentrate.

    We really have to guard our time and manage what we are doing each day.

    I know this may look very simple but writing down your to do list for the next day before you go to bed is a great process.

    It gives you a list to do and you will be tough on yourself. Tougher than you would be if you did it in the morning.

    It also allows you to forgot what you have to do and just enjoy the evening.

    Basic I knwo but try it. I encourage all my readers to do this.


  8. LostinTranslation on November 29th, 2009 5:57 pm

    AWESOME input my friend(s)….I constantly have trouble focusing on “Getting things done”, and constantly fail because I have so much trouble “calming” my mind enough to follow through! Further, between television and the radio advertisements, and the somewhat lame and disheartening lyrics of some of today’s music, I get totally lost! I have also had trouble preparing a schedule, simply because I am too focused on getting it right. I’m searching for the right way to get it done, but then think of how wrong it is. The funny thing is, if I just let the mental thoughts go, and focused on what I can to produce, then I can be successful.
    I too can attest to the ADD syndrome, and wonder what the connection may be between growing up as a child during a time when “Pop” television and commercials were on the loose, and parents having little supervision of their child’s viewing habits, whether it was because of ignorance. I speak of the connection with so much multi-tasking between a sitcom, or cartoon, and then following to a commercial for a toy. The child can never truly focus, and with the substance of potential media, the child may begin to think like unconditionally, without ever being able to truly focus on a thought for an extended period of time (hence, ADD).
    Again, I thank you for your input and will try to tackle my thoughts in order to be more productive, for a longer period of time, on the tasks I tackle. I can say first hand, it is tough for me here on the net, because there is so much stimulating information, yet I have trouble controlling my impulse to just “click, click, click”. I’m working on it, for myself and others, in lieu of a better tomorrow!! Thanks again…Sincerely, LostinTranslation (LIT).

  9. Ted on January 19th, 2010 11:49 am

    Thanks for your great post!

    While there is a lot of material and research on multi-tasking, it seems I can’t find anything good on “multi-projecting” (for a lack of a better word).

    What I mean is this: It’s pretty obvious that writing a blog post while chatting with a friend is extremely inefficient. But we’re talking about minutes and hours here, what about larger time periods? Let’s pretend I have an idea for a website and another idea for a software product. And let’s also throw in an idea for a song. What would be more efficient — to spend a month or so solely on website development, then a month on my software product and then take a week to sit down and write that song? Or try to schedule some time each day for all three projects? What would be more efficient? Also, it’s maybe not so hard to switch to software project from website project, but what about the song (I think you understand, I’m talking generally about creative activities)? Scheduling the time to work on a song seems un-natural to me, wouldn’t it limit creativity?

    These are the questions I can’t get answered and it would be really great to hear your comments…

    Thanks a lot!

  10. booboo on April 11th, 2010 1:47 pm

    I was distracted from doing my work, by reading this utterly useless article, yes, once again, another person thinking they’re intelligent by stating the blindingly obvious…

  11. Arun on December 16th, 2010 3:51 am

    I am really impressed with your article on managing distraction and focusing on one task at one time. Well, i have enjoyed this article and will apply it from now onwards. If i get benefited, i will surely spread it to other friends of mine.

  12. Mike on January 26th, 2011 8:06 pm

    I got distracted into googling how to not get distracted and landed on this. Going to try it, Thanks! :)

  13. Nicole on June 9th, 2011 6:03 am

    We all know to avoid multi-tasking and distractions, but don’t really know how to actually do that and keep that from happening. Conscious effort doesn’t really work, because we get distracted!

    A couple things I realized is that internet ad banners, hyperlinks within articles, having multiple windows, tabs, and documents open on the desktop, and things like this facilitate distraction. So I only allow myself to have one tab open and one internet window, unless I am doing a project that needs two open. When I get the urge to open another tab to check email or look up some random term I read, I realize it and ignore it, because I have a “one window/tab only” rule. I also make sure to place my phone on silent for that period and deep in my bag, and whenever I have a random thought that I need to do something, I keep a scrap of paper beside me where I quickly jot it down and then move on. Then I know I can get back to all those “distractions” when I’m doing a project. I’ll even jot down “look up what ‘SMH’ stands for.”

  14. Nicole on June 9th, 2011 6:04 am

    I meant “when I’m DONE the project” not when I’m doing it.

  15. Harish on August 2nd, 2011 11:06 pm

    Thanks is of great help for me

  16. gaurav on December 28th, 2011 3:53 am

    awesome mann…….
    hope itll help me!!

  17. sharan on February 24th, 2012 6:14 am

    I am a computer science student and i found the topic very appealing because of the comparisons drawn to context switching and computer cycles…
    Really cool …. :)

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