Staying Balanced When We’re Hyper-Focused on a Particular Project

Raise your hand if you can relate to this statement:

“I can easily get so caught up a project that it becomes the only thing I think about all the time.”


  • You’ve started a new personal project, and when you’re at your work or when you’re with your family, all you can think about is when you’re going to get back to working on your project.

  • You’re buying a house, and it’s all consuming.

  • You’ve just met someone special and he or she is all you can think about. (Not that a person is a project.)

  • You usually “bring work home with you”.

* * *

I know that for me, my tendency is to do a project in sprints. I’ve usually got one or two major work projects going on at a time. Each one takes between 1-3 months to complete.

George Leonard, in his book Mastery, might call me a dabbler.

The Dabbler approaches each new sport, career, opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of newness.

Or an obsessive:

The Obsessive is a bottom-line type of person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn’t matter how you get them, just so you get them fast. In fact, he wants to get the stroke just right during the very first lesson. He stays after class talking to the instructor. He asks what books and tapes he can buy to help him make progress faster.

There is also the hacker, who, after sort of getting the hang of a thing, is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. Meaning, he or she doesn’t bother going to conferences to learn more; in tennis she is the player who develops a solid forehand and figures she can make do with a ragged backhand; etc.

While I know that I certainly have little bits of all of these traits, I feel like I’ve taken my “dabbler” and “obsessive” characteristics and put them to good use on the overall-path of what Leonard calls “mastery”.

Meaning, my 1-3 month project sprints fit in line with my big-picture goals for my life (in business, relationships, and personal).

I’ve always been like this. And I think it’s one of my greatest strengths. Being able to have a laser-sharp focus on just one or two things means I can quickly build something that is high-quality, interesting, fun, has a lasting value, and I can actually complete the project through to the end.

But at the same time, this has its disadvantages: namely, that the tendencies of a dabbler and/or an obsessive — with that laser-sharp focus on just one or two things — means that I am oftentimes thinking mostly about the top idea in my mind.

* * *

In last week’s episode of the Weekly Briefly, I talked about rest and workaholism. That healthy work can keep our mind invigorated — especially when it involves learning and expanding our skill set.

But workaholism is also an addiction.

In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey writes about how our roles will sometimes become “imbalanced” — meaning, there is a particular project or area of responsibility that we focus on at the expense of others.

And that, sometimes, this imbalance is healthy. He writes:

There are times when imbalance is balance, when a short-term focus contributes to our overall mission in life. […]

However, he also says that:

it’s easy to get caught up in imbalance to the point that it no longer reflects mission or principles. Rather than being mission-driven, we become urgency driven.

In short, it’s okay to be ramped up about a particular role or area of responsibility, but it should not be our perpetual way of life.

For me, as a husband and a father, one of my biggest challenges is leaving work at work when I’m spending time with my family. My wife is extremely generous and gracious, and she is always interested in talking about the projects I’m working on. But what sort of husband would I be if I let the work-centric top ideas in my head be the center of my marriage?

It’s important to let those ideas be at rest when I’m somewhere other than work. As Dr. Barbara Killinger writes, wisdom comes from balance.

* * *

And so I want to present a few ideas and suggestions for how to maintain that “balance”. How to keep ourselves from becoming imbalanced and obsessive about one particular thing to the detriment of many others.

  1. Consider if you have an addiction to urgency and/or to your inboxes. If you are frequently checking in on email, twitter, Facebook, and other such services then you’re not actually putting those things to rest. You’re not letting go. Mentally, you’re keeping a foot in both camps and you can’t be two places at one time.

    So let the inbox addiction go. Let the urgency addiction go. Be in one place at a time, and trust that there is “wisdom in the balance”. Trust that if you let yourself take a break from working on that project, when you do come back to it (and you will), if you’ve truly rested from it, then you’ll have more to contribute when you next come back.

  2. Turn off those outside notifications that can interrupt you when they have no right to. Don’t let your phone buzz you with an email from your boss at 8pm at night.

  3. Understand that there is no “division” or “separation” between our personal life, our work life, our relationships, etc. All of who we are is all of who we are. This is good news because it means healthy relationships contribute to meaningful work, and a healthy body contributes to a happy heart. If we’re freaking out about a work project and are anxious that we’re not making meaningful work — trust that there is the “side door” approach: keep the other areas of your life healthy and balanced and it will “raise the water level” so to speak, on the project you’re working on.

    This is easier said than done at times. It takes experiential knowledge to realize its truth. So maybe keep a journal and log your progress and feelings, reminding yourself about that time you were stuck on a problem at work, took a break to hit the gym, came back to work and the solution suddenly seemed so clear. That’s no a coincidence, that’s how things work.

  4. Speaking of journaling — this can be invaluable tool to helping your mind “put work to rest”. Record your daily progress, acknowledge your victories, etc. De-brief yourself about the project, and do a brain dump of all the things your excited about, anxious about, still working on, etc.

  5. Give yourself a buffer to transition. For me, I work at home, and sometimes I have about 10 seconds to transition between work and done. That’s not enough time. So I try to quit early so I can let my mind shift gears before I go do something else. This is also when I’ll journal about my progress for the day.

  6. Plan — if you’ve got a plan of attack for how and when you’re going to work on your project, then that can help alleviate some of that stress. You know when there will next be a time to tackle it, and so you don’t have to stress out about “why am I not working on it right now?”

  7. Consider focusing on the meaningful outcomes at a weekly scale rather than a daily one. This 7-day timeline can help free you up from the urgency of feeling that you need to get all the meaningful work done “right now”, but also a week is short enough that you can keep a brisk pace of meaningful progress.