Tag Archives: focus

How Michael Lewis writes such great books

I wish I hadn’t written what I wrote 3 days ago.

I wrote a post on The Power of Focus — how, when you concentrate on one thing, and one thing only, you get fantastic results.

That’s true, and I stand by it, but I missed a HUGE point that I should have made in that post.

I focused entirely on micro-focus. I completely missed macro-focus. And you need BOTH to produce fantastic work.

Micro-focus

Micro-focus is focus on the immediate task at hand, what’s right in front of you right now. Micro-focusing is what you do when you lock yourself away and shut off the wi-fi in order to write. It’s when you find a quiet place to read a book with no distractions. It means putting your phone away when you’re talking to someone. It’s doing deep work.

That’s what I was talking about in my last post. The fact that doing this kind of micro-focus produces fantastic results — better work, better conversations, more enjoyment. That’s all true.

What’s missing here is macro-focus.

Macro-focus

Macro-focus means that your actions over time also need to be focused — ideally on one project or long-term goal. It’s that old adage: you can have anything, but you can’t have everything.

So it means that rather than trying to build five businesses, you focus on one. Don’t try and learn French and the trombone at the same time. Don’t train for the Olympics while also trying to write a great novel — pick one or the other. And if you do pick the novel, then try and just write ONE novel at a time.

As Robert Greene says:

Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity every time.

– Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces, The 48 Laws of Power

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have multiple goals, or do lots of things in your life. You can. You just have to do them in sequence rather than all at once. Once you’ve built one business, sell it or hire someone to manage it, and build another. Write one book, and publish it, then build another. Or train for the Olympics. Whatever you want.

The combination

Let’s look at the different combinations of macro- and micro-focus.

The Focus Matrix

The real power comes when you can combine a macro-focus — a single, overarching goal — with the micro-focus necessary to achieve that goal.

Let’s look at Michael Lewis. However you want to judge success as a writer, he’s one of the best. Multiple New York Times best-selling books. Critical acclaim for the quality of his writing. Huge influence in his niche. And he’s probably made a ton of money.

Let’s take Flash Boys as an example of his process (because he talks about it in this interview, which I highly recommend). It started out as a potential magazine story for Vanity Fair, but when he interviewed a couple of people, he realised it had the potential to be a book.

So he went at it — hard. He spent a year interviewing Brad Katsuyama, the book’s main character. He talked to over a thousand high-frequency traders for information, for background, and for on-the-record comments. He did as much research as one person could do on this world. And then he spent the weeks and months to craft a fantastic manuscript.

That’s the macro-focus. One project, hard.

Now let’s look at the micro-focus. Imagine being interviewed by Michael Lewis for a book. Do you think he’s checking his twitter feed while he’s talking to you? No — partly because he doesn’t have twitter. Do you think he’s also watching the game on TV over your shoulder? No. He’s 100% in the room, getting the material he needs to get.

And when he’s writing, he’s writing. Here’s what he has to say about his process:

The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

That’s micro-focus, applied to a macro-focused goal.

The end result? Michael Lewis has written not one but multiple fantastic, best-selling books over his career.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

The power of focus

When you fully and completely focus on what’s in front of you, great things happen.

The work you do without distractions rather than in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion isn’t just a slightly better — it’s usually orders of magnitude better.

The conversation you have without ever looking at your phone isn’t just slightly better — it’s often 5-10x better.

The experience you have when you fully immerse yourself in it, and forget everything else around you isn’t just slightly better — it can be incredible, unbelievable, and sometimes life-changing.

The funny thing is, there are two different ways to achieve this.

The first is to be engaged in something so enthralling — a personal passion project, an incredible first date, a once-in-a-lifetime trip — that you forget about things like Twitter and Facebook updates, and get lost in what you’re doing.

The second is to deliberately, consciously say no to distractions. To choose to immerse yourself in what you’re doing. To truly focus.

Once you realise that you can do that, it’s like a superpower. It’s just a choice you have to make.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

This equation could make you a star

Tim Ferriss and Cal Newport should have babies.

If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection, which means you already know who Tim Ferriss is. The author of the best-seller The Four Hour Work Week, he’s famously keen on productivity, eliminating useless activities, and generally accomplishing more while doing less.

Cal Newport is a Georgetown Computer Science professor and the author of several books, including one of my favourites, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and his latest book Deep Work.

It’s in Deep Work that Cal reveals his formula for success — and it’s the same formula that Tim Ferriss arrived at, independently:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Let that sink in for a moment.

Even if you don’t have a maths background, you’ll probably notice that the right-hand side of this equation has two variables: (Time Spent) and (Intensity of Focus).

Producing high-quality work will bring you professional success — whether that means more sales, a promotion, winning awards. So by altering either the amount of time you spend or your intensity of focus, you can alter the amount of high-quality work you produce.

With me so far? Good.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase your intensity of focus, meaning that with the same amount of time, you can produce a higher level of output.

In The Four Hour Work Week, Ferriss argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase the intensity of your focus, meaning that in less time, you can still produce the same level of output.

Those are two different goals. Newport is concerned with achieving great career success. Ferriss is concerned (at least in The Four Hour Work Week) with maintaining your lifestyle but creating more free time.

But they’ve both hit upon the same formula, and realised that the key lies in increasing the intensity of focus.

Let’s admit it — it’s easy, even satisfying, to work long hours at a low level of intensity. You never quite challenge yourself, but you can still tell yourself the story that you’re “working so hard at the moment”, even if that means slowly reading and answering emails for 12 hours a day.

Working at peak intensity: that’s hard. It requires focus. Planning. Turning off your phone and locking yourself in a quiet room. And it’s tiring. Which is 95% of people don’t do it. Which is why there are such outsized rewards to be had if you can be in the 5% that do.

So now that you have this mental model to refer to, you can start to ask the right questions, and think about exactly what you should be doing.

  • What is my end goal?
  • What is the activity that will most effectively lead to this goal?
  • How much time do I want to dedicate to this activity?
  • What does high-intensity performance look like in this activity?
  • What do I need to do beforehand to make sure I can perform at that intensity, and how do I recover afterwards?
  • Is that level of intensity, for that amount of time, sustainable in the long-run?

Once you start to answer all of those questions, you start to see how exactly you should be spending your time in order to have the greatest impact.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.