Is it an extreme sport trying to book a half-hour meeting on your calendar? Are you the rockstar at work who owns several initiatives, is perennially busy, and is a stellar value driver?
Most of us work on a bunch of things simultaneously - a couple of big-ticket items and a bunch of small low-stakes initiatives. Corporate power structures tend to incentivize ownership and to maximize our value, we end up owning several initiatives under our belt. But the need for constant busyness is a modern phenomenon.
In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, NYT Bestselling author Cal Newport asks “Imagine if Einstein maintained a blog, wrote a book, joined a bunch of clubs, and tried to master rowing at the same time he was working on general relativity?
We'd still be living in the age of Newton.”
There is a lot to be said about giving a problem your undivided attention; anything worth achieving requires hard work sustained over a long period of time.
By 1912, Einstein was an accomplished theoretical physicist. He took a step back and thought - What if I focused on one thing? What if I applied non-Euclidian math to my own work on general relativity so it accounted for the effect of gravity?
For the next three years, that's what he did. That's all he did. (He later claimed his hair turned white from the stress.)
In 1915, he published what was arguably the greatest scientific accomplishment of the 20th century - his theory of relativity.
Cal Newport calls it Einstein’s law of focus - “Einstein's push for general relativity highlights an important reality about accomplishment. We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects to which we can devote a large amount of attention. In a perfect world, we would all be Einsteins. We would each have only one, or at most two, projects in the three major spheres of our lives: professional, extracurricular, and personal. “
This jack-of-all-trades phenomenon shows up in businesses as well. When a product is launched, it typically has a concise value proposition and is trying to solve a very specific problem. But with time, the team keeps adding features - most likely ones that the majority of its consumers aren’t going to use. All of a sudden, a note-taking app has a messaging feature and a text-first microblogging platform succumbs to the peer pressure of ephemeral stories.
Several companies like Asana, Evernote, Basecamp, and Notion have removed features from their offering to sharpen their solution and streamline their product. Cliche though it may be, but sometimes less really is more.
So if you could pick just one high-impact problem to solve, what would it be?