Last week, I shared the idea of a “productive frontier.” When you’re below the frontier, you can usually get more done simply by optimizing your systems. Cut out the waste and be more productive. When you’re at the frontier, getting more done comes at the expense of other things — like your time off.

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One wrinkle I didn’t address in that essay was the role of effort. This matters greatly because a lot of our up-and-down struggles with productivity come from it.

Put simply, for most types of work you can increase your output, without increasing your hours, by upping…


Pareto efficiency is a concept everyone should understand. Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the idea refers to situations where you can (or can’t) improve something without trade-offs.

Consider designing a car where you care about speed and safety. You have one design that’s fast but dangerous, another that is slow and safe, and a third that both moves like a tortoise and has the tendency to spontaneously catch fire.

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How should you compare these three designs? The third is obviously worse than the first two. Nobody wants a slow, dangerous vehicle. But between the other two is a question…


Recently I read Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman’s The Mathematics of Poker. Using sophisticated game theory, the duo analyze poker setups to figure out the optimal betting strategy.

One thing that jumped out immediately was simply how aggressive the correct betting strategy can be. There are common setups where it makes sense to go all-in, regardless of what is in your hand.

This runs counter to a common stereotype — that the people who know the most play it safe. It’s out of ignorance that most people make risky bets. …


This week, in anticipation of the second session of Life of Focus, I’ve been sharing lessons about centering your life back onto what matters. For those who missed the previous lessons, check them out here.

Today, for the final lesson, I want to talk not about making changes, but about making them last.

Productivity is especially prone to bursts of enthusiasm followed by burnout. You get an idea for a new working routine, schedule or system. Maybe you even stick with it for a couple weeks. But, before long, everything has regressed.

How can you make focus last?

Why Focus Fails

Part of…


You’re not working, but you’re not truly relaxing either

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Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

We spend our workdays in constant pursuit of focus. We invest in courses, test out the latest distraction-eliminating tools, and try various productivity strategies—all with the hope of maximizing our time. But when it comes to our personal time, it seems that we’re perfectly fine with letting it go to waste.

It’s far too easy to get caught in what I call the “low-quality leisure” trap: We tell ourselves we’d like to spend less time on our phones, be more present with our families, exercise regularly, and finally learn French. But when the end of the workday finally arrives, we’re…


Peter Drucker, the renowned management thinker who first coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ perfectly summarized the problem of focus in work:

Most discussions of the executive’s task start with the advice to plan one’s work. This sounds eminently plausible. The only thing wrong with it is that it rarely works. The plans always remain on paper, always remain good intentions. They seldom turn into achievement.

Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.[1]

Drucker’s…


Next week, Cal Newport and I will hold a new session of Life of Focus. The course is a three-month training program to help you achieve greater productivity and peace of mind.

We held our first session last fall. It was a resounding success. Students reported making major strides in their work, wresting back control over time and reducing their stress.

I even put myself through the same training regimen. It was a major factor behind me finishing my most research-intensive essay ever. …


How you’re strategically avoiding the important work that will lead to success

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Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Success largely boils down to one piece of advice: Do the real thing. But people keep finding ingenious ways to do anything but.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Ultralearning. Since then, I’ve received many emails from people trying to learn new things. One woman recently wrote to me saying she turned down a job working in French. She didn’t feel her French was good enough yet. So instead, she planned to listen to podcasts at home every day until she was ready.

You know what would have helped her get good at French? Working in French.


Ideas are powerful. Arriving at the right time, they can alter the entire direction of your life.

But ideas also hide in the background, acting as assumptions. Quietly influencing your decisions, whether they’re true or false.

Looking back, I can think of a number of ideas that shaped my life. Some are only obvious in retrospect. Others I took great pains to learn. Below are the ten that had the greatest impact on me.

1. Reality is Malleable

Steve Jobs, here in a 1994 interview with the Santa Clara Historical Society, presents one of the ideas that changed his life:

Most of us…


Recently, I’ve had an interest in learning more biology. Some of that curiosity is pandemic-inspired. Biology is playing an outsized role in all of our lives these days.

Yet much of the interest predates our current crisis. As a teenager, I really enjoyed books like The Selfish Gene and The Red Queen. Evolutionary biology revealing a hidden pattern in the universe.

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Last year, I stumbled across a course in Systems Biology taught by Uri Alon. Biology is often portrayed as something unfathomably complex. Yet this course showed it in a different light — clever systems for performing particular functions.

My…

Scott H. Young

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning www.scotthyoung.com | Twitter: @scotthyoung

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