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10 Lessons from “Free to Focus” by Michael Hyatt

I’ve been following Michael Hyatt for about 3 years now and using his planners for just as long, so I’ve been exposed to his ideas and his philosophy (and many of the lessons in this book) for a good chunk of my short life as a professional. It was nice to see the full picture and the reasoning and research beyond what he’s been preaching, and I’m very happy that I finally sat down to read this book over the past few days and worked through the exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s an easy read, and I highly recommend it to anybody that does any work ever (so, that means you!). Some sections are clearly targeted at corporate workers and managers, but there’s always something to learn there, and it doesn’t take away from the message that Michael shares.

Also, it’s very nice to read a book on productivity that considers the big picture. This book is not as much about getting things done as it is about making sure that whatever you’re doing is the right thing to be doing for you. The book is based on an online course he’s developed, and though I haven’t taken the course I expect this to be great distillation of the major points for the average person.

One encapsulating quote: “Productivity is not about getting more things done; it’s about getting the right things done…you can actually achieve more by doing less.”

Quote that I expected to be in this book but never made an appearance (and I know this quote from another one of Michael’s resources, so I’m not sure why he didn’t include it):

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

10 lessons:

Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt
  1. First we must redefine productivity. “Productivity” in our current understanding comes from early factory work, focused solely on efficiency and the number of items that could be produced by a worker in a set amount of time. This was pioneered by an engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor, who sought to improve efficiency of workers by reducing any friction within and between their tasks. Part of this was reducing the autonomy of the individual, effectively turning them into a machine to act out a single and simple task. We are still effected by Taylorism today and believe that being more productive just means doing as many tasks as possible as quickly as we can. But our world is, to put it mildly, different from Taylor’s, but we still hold onto his old model of productivity more than a century after his death (1915).
  2. We are no longer living in a world where efficiency means working harder and faster because there are virtually no boundaries to the potentials of the virtual world. Factory workers had one job with one outcome and a narrow path to achieve that. On the other hand, we are currently overwhelmed by the possibility of knowledge work and the unending information and distractions available to us. Efficiency has lost its meaning in a world without clear metrics, where digital information is the prime mover of the economy. So we must define what efficiency is, otherwise, with always more tasks to do, it will consume our time and our lives. We will continue to see burnout and people working 50, 60, or 70 hour work weeks with no substantial increase in output worth the extra time. We are stuck in the loop of working harder so we’ll have more time to work harder so that we’ll be rewarded with more work. The underlying problem is that we’re not doing the right work.
  3. Perhaps the most important lesson in this book is the understanding that your energy is flexible but your time is not. Old models of productivity tell us to focus on modifying our time to work more and work faster, but they never take into account the energy that we have or the quality of the work. We have 24 hours in the day just like everybody else, but our energy comes and goes and is used up and replenished. We cannot, in fact, tackle work at 100% efficiency for more than a few hours, and extending the time that we work actually makes us less effective by draining our energy further and cutting into the time that we need to restore our energy through sleep and leisure. Michael cites a few studies that discuss the diminishing returns of overwork for these reasons, stating the obvious fact that the more we work the less effective each of those extra hours becomes.
  4. To this effect, Michael’s model redefines productivity: doing more of the right things and less of the wrong things. The outcome of productivity is that we 1. complete valuable tasks effectively, and 2. earn back the freedom to focus, be present, and be alive. Our work and lives are very often filled with tasks that are not meaningful but hold the same weight in our time, energy, and focus as meaningful tasks and projects. We can work ourselves to the bone, but we never question whether the tasks we’re working on are worth doing, or if the amount of attention we give them is representative of their value.
  5. Michael defines tasks in a 4-point matrix, with one axis being your passion for the activity and the other being your proficiency at it. In the Desire Zone you will find activities that you are both passionate about and effective at executing. This should be the bulk of the work that you do and where you spend your energy as these are your high-leverage tasks and the ones that create the most value. The other three are the Distraction Zone (tasks you enjoy but are not good at), the Disinterest Zone (tasks you are good at but do not enjoy), and the Drudgery zone (tasks you are neither good at or enjoy). The majority of the book is focused on identifying where your tasks lie, eliminating or reducing the time that you spend working in Drudgery, Disinterest, and Distraction zone tasks, and more effectively tackling the meaningful tasks in your Desire Zone. What’s important to keep in mind is that if you are doing things that you hate or are not good at, then you do not have the best person doing that job. You have both hired yourself to do a job that you cannot do well and taken time and energy away from the things that you can do well.
  6. Once you’ve identified which tasks should be removed from your plate, Michael gives examples of how to automate them, delegate them, and remove or avoid whatever you can that is not worth your focused time. His biggest point here is that everything you say yes to means that you are saying no to many other options. If you say yes to a business dinner, you are also saying no to having dinner with your partner or friends. If you say yes to taking on a new project, you are also saying no to having that time and energy to work on other tasks, read, learn, practice, etc. But you can’t just say no to bad ideas. You must also say no to many ideas that seem perfectly good. It is important to understand that since your time is limited you must be ruthless with what you allow onto your calendar.
  7. Automating and delegating tasks is a bigger conversation than can be had here, or even in this book, but Michael gives a great introduction to using templates, shortcuts, and helping others to help you. This is where you will find the nitty-gritty productivity talk that most books cover, like setting up email templates, creating detailed instructions for repetitive tasks, and creating routines and rituals. All of these are ways to save both time and energy. The aim is to make these automatic and avoid having to use any high-level thinking to solve a problem that has already been solved, similar to how we don’t have to think when driving a familiar route or taking a shower.
  8. The final section of the book tackles acting on the tasks that we have decided are worth our time and energy, or that we have been unable to eliminate from our plates. This is where Michael outlines two of the most important concepts that he teaches: the Ideal Week and the Daily and Weekly Big 3. The ideal week is a tool for consolidating your tasks into similar days to save energy and automate your decisions and your work. The goal of being this intentional in your planning is to focus all similar work together to minimize drag between types of tasks and to allow deeper and longer focus on the tasks that require it. For him, this means scheduling meetings together or recording podcasts on only one day of the week, leaving other days free for deeper work. For me it looks like deferring all miscellaneous articles I want to read to one day of the week so I am not pulled to distraction in the moment (more on this in a second), or batching similar tasks like writing to one day. The Daily and Weekly Big 3 are a call to focus not on everything that you could get done, but to identify just a few things that would be the most impactful. By reducing your workload and focusing on only a few tasks you bring more space and focus to the tasks that matter.
  9. In the world of computers, it is attention that has become scarce, not information. We are bombarded by information in all forms, be that learning, tasks from others, distractions, etc. With all this information we have infinite things we could be doing, and so instead of working deeply we are distracted and scattered. When everything is a task to be completed, nothing will actually be completed. And when everything is on a to-do list that never ends our stress never ends because there’s always something to be done. We have a thought about a problem looping in our mind and if we never close that or defer it effectively, it pulls on us while we’re away from work, precisely in the time we are meant to be recovering and preparing for the next day.
  10. Distractions come internally and externally. Internally we get bored or don’t have the energy or focus to tackle an uphill task, so we switch to a downhill task (like checking email) or directly towards a distraction like Facebook. Multitasking tricks our brains into thinking we’re working quickly and effectively, but it is actually a form of procrastination. By avoiding difficult, uphill work we feel busy switching between simple tasks. Externally we are distracted by everything around us at work, like requests from others, emails, or “urgent” tasks that we must get done. The modern workplace is almost designed to be full of distractions, and in my current office at home I am expected to be available for contact by email, on Microsoft Teams, by Facebook Message, or by a call at any time. I currently work in customer service, so it’s my job to be available and answer questions quickly. But people doing knowledge work or designing systems or fixing complex problems or writing for a living are very often facing similar calls on their attention. Michael is not the only productivity writer to discuss this (see the fantastic Deep Work by Cal Newport) and he cites multiple studies on just how much time is wasted at work on distractions and switching between tasks.

There are a few sections of the book that make for great references but weren’t substantial enough to summarize here. These include 1. a detailed list of limiting beliefs about our ability to become productive, 2. steps to consider when you want to say no to a new request or get out of a commitment that’s not ideal, 3. the entirety of both chapters on automation and delegation, 4. the outline of the Ideal Week and its components, 5. how to conduct a weekly review to learn and prepare for the next challenge, and 6. a breakdown of how to ensure that external distractions are kept to a minimum.

Top Quotes:

  • “What will your life have been, in the end, but the sum total of everything you spent it focusing on?” – quoting the writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman
  • “The important question is not, Can I do this job faster, easier, and cheaper? It’s, Should I be doing this job at all?
  • “Many of the best things in life happen in the spaces between our tasks, in the intentional moments set aside for other people.”
  • On the freedom to play: “When you’re not working toward something, you’re free to be inefficient, which means you can step back and experiment, try new things, and imagine the world differently than it appears to be.”
  • “If we want to be free to focus, we must eliminate everything standing in our way. That doesn’t mean simply saying no to a lot of bad ideas; it also means turning down a ton of good and worthwhile ideas.”
  • “If time, and therefore your calendar, is a zero-sum game, we must realize saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.”
  • “Everything good in our lives is the result of extensive, exhaustive trial and error. If you’re letting one or two failures keep you from implementing a major productivity solution, you’ve got bigger problems than an out-of-control to-do list.”
  • “When we multitask, we compromise our ability to decide what’s relevant and what’s not. We start wasting time by processing useless information.”
  • “Structuring your day…frees you to focus on what’s in front of you; be present with whom and what needs your attention; be spontaneous, knowing that there’s time reserved for work and play; or do nothing at all.”
  • “The trick is to systematically decide what deserves your attention now, what deserves your attention later, and what doesn’t deserve your attention at all.”
  • “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it…People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” – quoting the Stoic philosopher Seneca