The secret that will help you crush the hardest tasks

The Shockley Story: A Lesson in Focus

William Shockley was on his way to winning the Nobel Prize. But he nearly lost it. And here is why you should care.

Shockley, along with two fellow scientists, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, were working on inventing the semiconductor transistor, which changed the world by making the modern computer possible. But when Bardeen and Brattain filed the patent, they left out Shockley’s name.

Shockley felt so infuriated and betrayed that legend has it, he disappeared into a hotel room for a month and only came out when he had designed a better transistor.

Later, all three of them received the Nobel Prize. 😊

But why did Shockley have to vanish for a month? 

Personal Experience: Overcoming Overload

While I haven’t done anything even 1% as hard, let me share a recent experience to illustrate the answer.

A few weeks ago, I was finalizing the Zen Productivity program, and my brain was wilting under overload because I had to simultaneously grapple with the following tasks:

  1. I had to review 100-plus Zen Productivity videos, quizzes, and spreadsheets, identify conceptual gaps (if any), edit/create videos to fill the gaps, and put them in a logical structure.
  2. While doing the above, I had to incorporate feedback from dozens of participants in a test pilot we had recently conducted.
  3. In addition, while creating the program, I had jotted down 50-odd additional ideas that I had to incorporate into the program.

The Danger of Distractions

Grappling with all this, my head felt like it would explode. In the middle of that, I got a call from a colleague who said, “I wanted to discuss some ops-related issue. Can we do that?”

Normally, I would have said, “Sure!” But in that situation, it would have been a disaster. Here is why.

When we are trying to understand something complicated, our mind is building intricate mental models – that is how our learning happens.

Initially, these models are weak – like a house made of bamboo. But as we spend time thinking more deeply and challenging our understanding, our mental models firm up – the bamboo house starts getting cemented. 

But if you switch your attention before your thinking has solidified, what happens? It is like abandoning your bamboo structure and coming back after a few months. You would find the bamboo structure dilapidated and would have to start all over again.

The Cost of Switching Attention

Had I started discussing some unrelated matter with my colleague in the middle of my work, the edifice of understanding that I had erected in my mind would have partially collapsed. After the discussion, it would have been very painful and time-consuming to resurrect my understanding.

And if I kept switching again and again, I would go on forever. The best case is that I would have taken 10x more time. The worst case is that the task would probably never get done or get done very poorly.

Switching our attention when we are in the middle of a hard task exacts a massive cost. Yet, how often do we leave our work to check email or do some random task?

This is why we are not able to do hard things. We think that hard things require intellect – however we often have the intellect but not the ability to stay with the task long enough.

But this is not the only cost of switching.

The Neuroscience of Task Switching

When we are mentally engaged with a task, e.g., reading a book, the words we are reading are first held temporarily in our working memory, before we can process and make sense of it. Once we give it meaning, it is saved in our long-term memory. 

So, working memory is critical for any cognitive task, but unfortunately, it can only store about 7 items. And when you switch attention, this short-term memory will flush out the old information to reload information. That is why when you get back, you struggle to remember where you were. This further overloads your brain.

Furthermore, every time you switch, the neural circuit pertaining to the previous task has to be switched off and the one pertaining to the new task has to be amplified. This also tires out your brain.

That is why William Shockley disappeared for a month, so his mind could stay with the task and go really deep. Had he been checking his WhatsApp and email every 5 minutes, he would not even have invented a paperclip (no offense to the paperclip! 😊)

Strategies to Maintain Focus

The next time you are in the middle of a hard task and something else demands your attention, avoid switching if you can. If you remember some other task that you need to do, write it down and do it later. If a colleague is asking for something, ask if you can get back after, say, 45 minutes. By hook or by crook, find a way to stay with your tasks long enough.

But there is an even bigger obstacle you will face – after working for some time, you may start feeling restless and will want to switch (to escape). When that happens, take a long enough break – maybe a few slow deep breaths and some light walking will calm your mind. Come back when ready.

Now, are all interruptions equally bad? Not really.

For example, if someone asks you to just sign a document mindlessly (e.g., a routine approval), the interruption is not that harmful (though still not recommended). But if you have to fully engage with this other task, avoid it at all costs.

Conclusion: Achieving Greatness Through Focus

You don’t have to vanish for a month like Shockley, but every day, create some undisturbed pockets of time. And during this period, every time you resist the temptation to switch attention, you score a small win. As these small wins keep adding up, you will do great things in life – this is my promise. 

Greatness requires staying with the task longer than most people do.

Thank you for reading this. Hope you will apply this to your life.


Similar Posts