One example Drucker cited was a pharmaceutical executive who’d spent several years focusing his company on research, then several more on international expansion, and the final five on strategy to adjust to the changing nature of healthcare. Surely, though, the executive balanced such concentration with all the daily obligations that go with running a company.
Drucker, for his own part, juggled roles as teacher, consultant, columnist and book author—all while stressing the importance of taking on one thing and one thing only.
Several of those interviewed for this article pointed out that raising children requires intense focus, too, yet ordinary people don’t put everything on hold for 20 years while they raise their kids from infancy to adulthood. In short, there’s rarely a simple answer to what “one at a time” should mean concretely.
So what do those of exceptional achievement report?
The seven luminaries who follow—from the worlds of business, the social sector and government—differ significantly in how they’ve maintained a sharp focus. One takes a shut-the-door approach; another edges very close to what we would call multi-tasking; a third marks up her calendar so as to know what level of energy she’ll need to bring to bear at any given time of day. They have in common only that they have achieved far more than the average soul and that they have relied heavily on concentration, in one form or another, to do it.
WILLIAM FOEGE: KEEP AN EYE ON THE LAST MILE
Early in William Foege’s career, long before he had brought about the eradication of smallpox or had buildings named after him or picked up all manner of medals and honors, he worked as one of the “disease detectives” in a Center for Disease Control program called the Epidemic Intelligence Service.
The task of EIS was—and is—to investigate outbreaks of disease and seek ways to control them. It efforts are highly focused.
“The director, Alex Langer, used to say that the reason the EIS had such success is that a problem would come up, a person would be assigned to it, and all that person had to do was solve that problem,” Foege recalls. “They were able to concentrate in a way you couldn’t ordinarily do.”
Foege adopted that same ethos after he left the CDC in the mid-1960s and went on to manage a medical center for a church group in Nigeria. While there, he settled with single-mindedness on a task that many viewed as impossible: to eradicate smallpox in the region. Within six months, by using a technique that came to be called “surveillance/containment,” Foege had wiped out the disease in the eastern part of Nigeria. This was a seeming miracle that Foege, contrary to the expectations of many, wound up replicating in India several years later.
With Foege’s advice and leadership, many countries once plagued by river blindness have now seen the disease diminish nearly to the point of elimination. Foege is given to modesty and suggests that some people he has known, like Jimmy Carter, seem to be able to do many things at once. “But I very much had to concentrate on one thing at a time,” he remarks.
William Foege, who was able to eradicate smallpox in parts of Africa and India, says that clearly defining what matters most can help to keep a team highly focused. Photo: Tom Paulson, Humanosphere.org
You might even say that for Foege, focus has been contagious. While he has held a number of top positions, including director of the CDC and executive director of the Carter Center, he has often operated without a formal title yet managed large and disparate groups of people by getting everyone to see the value of concentrating their efforts on the same thing.
“If you define the last mile, rather than what your current interests are, then everyone that signs into the coalition knows where they’re headed,” Foege says.
Concentrating on the last mile—that is, what really matters most—has served Foege well himself.
“Other people will forever be trying to figure out how you should use your time, asking you to do this or that,” he says, offering as an example those who would ask him to participate in debates during the early 1970s over whether eliminating smallpox in Africa could be imitated in other places. “Then I thought: Look, I’m not going to debate whether it’s possible. I’m going to get involved in trying to make it possible.” That’s when he moved to India and repeated his success.
In some cases, resisting distractions can offer more than a boost in productivity. It can be a lifesaver.
ANNA PATTERSON: COLOR-CODE YOUR CALENDAR
Anna Patterson, the founder and managing partner of Google’s AI-focused investment fund Gradient Ventures, sustains her focus in large part by splitting her orientation into two.
“I really try to balance action with learning and contemplation,” says Patterson, who is also a Google vice president of engineering. “An all-action approach is bad because there isn’t thoughtful direction. An all-contemplation approach is bad because then there’s no action.”
To get the balance right, she codes her daily calendar with a spectrum of colors, giving herself a visual cue as to the energy level she’ll need to bring to each task. “I’m really revved up if it’s action,” she says. “And if it’s contemplation … then I bring my energy level to a more peaceful place.” She rarely allows her blocks of action to exceed 150 minutes in length.
Patterson’s division of action and contemplation offers a useful reminder that focus can come in different flavors.
In contemplative mode, Patterson is thinking deeply about matters such as long-term goals and strategy. (She estimates that quiet learning and reflection take up about a quarter of her day.) In action mode, Patterson might be listening intently to colleagues in meetings or talking purposefully to executives at companies in her portfolio.
Contemplation and action aren’t the only things that Patterson keeps separate.
For those hoping to tame their multiple obligations and stay focused during the day, she offers an extra pro tip: Acquire a personal phone and a work phone—a one-two approach that allows you to focus on family matters as required and work matters as required.
“When I see people on the ragged edge of getting burned out, that’s my advice,” Patterson says. “You get two devices and you learn when to turn off one or the other.”
NARAYANA MURTHY: TAP INTO THE QUIET OF THE EARLY MORNING
Narayana Murthy, founder of Indian software giant Infosys and, in the judgment of Fortune magazine, one the 12 greatest entrepreneurs of our time, says that the mindset of tackling one thing at a time is “exactly right.” But it must be adjusted in the face of extensive and varied responsibilities.
“Once you become a senior management person or CEO, the job requires you to become multi-dimensional,” Murthy says, noting that as CEO of Infosys he had to ensure that his engineers were developing software, his marketers were selling it, the finance department was settling all accounts on time and investors were earning decent returns.
“However,” Murthy adds, “when there is a strategic issue, one that has the potential to take the company to the next objective or to wound it mortally, that is the time when leaders must remember the words of Peter Drucker and focus all their energies on ensuring that the strategic initiative is executed properly.”
This is what Murthy did when he was preparing to get Infosys listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market in 1999—the first Indian-registered company to do so.
Each morning, starting at 6:20 a.m., uninterrupted and alone, Murthy would review emails from department executives about their progress and challenges on different Nasdaq-related tasks. For the next two hours and 10 minutes, until 8:30 a.m., Murthy would focus all of his attention on these efforts, reviewing his managers’ headway against their targets and looking for solutions to problems. Later in the day, he would sit with each executive for 30 minutes to an hour and talk through his responses.
Those two hours of focus, says Murthy, were the critical ones—when the workday, with all its obligations, hadn’t yet really started.
“I find that I am best in early morning,” he says. “That’s when I’m fresh. I’ve had good sleep in the night. I can focus well, I can concentrate well, and I can read and understand the issues.”
STEVE REINEMUND: SHUT THE DOOR
Like Narayana Murthy, Steve Reinemund is a big believer in the virtues of using quiet time, outside of official work hours, for concentrated thinking—be it in the early morning or later at night.
“Ninety percent of the time that I spent on that type of activity was done between 4:30 and 6:30 am and between 7:30 and 9:00 p.m.,” says Reinemund, who was CEO of PepsiCo from 2001 to 2006. “My best thinking time is 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. anyhow.”
Yet it’s Reinemund’s ability not just to dig in, but also to step back, that has proven indispensable.
My best thinking time is 4:30 to 6:30 a.m.
Former CEO, PepsiCo
There needs to be “a consistent recalibration on whether you’re spending time your time effectively in that month, in that week, in that day and that hour against the key things that are most important,” he says. “And then constantly asking during the day, ‘Am I spending my time on the issues that are most important—and if not, how do I get off what I’m doing and back on the highest priority items?’”
This level of focus was especially crucial when Reinemund was a fledgling executive with Marriott in the early 1980s and the company was acquiring another business over which Reinemund was going to be put in charge, requiring him to wear several new hats. It was likewise crucial when, as Pepsi’s president, he led the acquisition of Quaker Oats in late 2000.
“There are many times when you just throw out the plan of your time and your calendar … and close the door,” Reinemund says. “Usually, it’s obvious to the people around you when something of significance for the organization demands that. Of course, if you’re doing it for something that isn’t of significance for the organization, then you’re wasting your time, and you lose your effectiveness. But if it is of significance, then people recognize it and adjust their schedules.”
Eyes on the Prize
Physicist Richard Garwin credits his ability to concentrate intensely—as well as join forces with others who’ve maintained a similarly obsessive focus—for much of his productivity and achievement.
RICHARD GARWIN: CONCENTRATE BUT COLLABORATE
It is reported that Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the architect of the nuclear age, called Richard Garwin the only “true genius” he had ever met.
Fermi’s opinion was formed while he was supervising Garwin’s PhD, which Garwin obtained in 1949, when he was 21 years old. Shortly afterward, at the request of Edward Teller, Garwin worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and created the design for the first hydrogen bomb, tested in 1952.
Garwin continued to spend summers at Los Alamos but until his retirement in 1993 he worked primarily at IBM’s Watson laboratory. There, he helped to pioneer touch-screen monitors and laser printers, earning more than 50 patents and publishing hundreds of papers (many of which can be viewed online at the Garwin Archive).
Intense concentration is something that Garwin has always viewed as essential to his productivity. And it helped, he says, that he married young and enjoyed a home life free of turmoil, allowing him to pursue his scientific obsessions.
Two other things also assisted him in retaining focus. The first was competition, which was a spur to intensity. The second, which he learned from Fermi, was a willingness to jump in and build something rather than wait around for a machine shop to complete it. This separated Garwin from most of his colleagues.
“I would just come in early in the morning with tin snips and pliers,” he says. “So we could move a lot faster than other people.”
Still, even while moving fast and making things, Garwin was never hermetic.
He stresses that some of the biggest breakthroughs come from the obsessive focus of one person cross-pollinating with the obsessive focus of another. For example, when Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize for his research on radioactivity, came into contact with physicist Leo Szilard, who had been focused on how to create a nuclear chain reaction, they together patented the idea of a nuclear reactor and built both that and the bomb.
In the 1950s, when Garwin’s genius at mechanical improvisation and interest in the muon, a subatomic particle, met with a similar muon-related preoccupation of Columbia physicist Leon Lederman, the two men spent 43 hours devising and conducting a groundbreaking experiment that demonstrated a phenomenon known as parity violation.
The lesson: Stay resolutely focused—but look for opportunities to collaborate. After all, you don’t have to remake the field of physics for the right connection to produce tremendous energy.
KAREN MILLS: ZERO IN BY WALKING AROUND
When Karen Mills led the Small Business Administration during Barack Obama’s first term, she spent a lot of her time poring over data. She also traveled extensively, visiting with small business owners and employees.
Getting out in the field, she says, often gave her insights that the numbers alone couldn’t.
“Small businesses all across the country were anxious” in the wake of the Great Recession, she says. “We were on the road to recovery, but the recovery wasn’t happening for them. They didn’t think the American Dream was available anymore.”
Mills mentions this to illustrate that solitude is excellent for providing the kind of focus it takes to write a book, but it can be limiting when it comes to leading an organization.
When you know the questions and are seeking answers, that’s business as usual. When you don’t know what the questions are, that’s where the best deep thinking comes.
President, MMP Group
An executive who is focused on generating transformative ideas must be gathering both hard data and soft data, meeting with other people and allowing serendipity to strike.
“When you know the questions and are seeking answers, that’s business as usual,” says Mills. “When you don’t know what the questions are, that’s where the best deep thinking comes.”
Whatever her workplace has been—manufacturing businesses early in Mills’s career, government agencies in more recent years and, currently, Harvard Business School and a venture capital firm called MMP Group—Mills has found travel, conversations and semi-structured meetings to be excellent complements to concentrated work.
Indeed, Mills has actually found little use for doing only one thing at a time. Instead, she says, “You have to be able to be in the present, dealing with issues, conducting your business and, at the same time on a different level, taking in information and comparing it to other patterns in your mind and experience for insights, and allowing those moments when you see something interesting in the patterns to register and become part of the underlying process of doing deep work.”
WHERE IDEAS SPROUT
If it weren’t for manual labor, says the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson, “I’d never have thought of certain things.”
WES JACKSON: WORK LIKE A FARMER
In 1976, geneticist Wes Jackson gave up a full professorship at California State University at Sacramento to pursue a vision that many viewed as quixotic.
In place of familiar grains, all of which are annuals (corn, wheat, etc.), Jackson hoped to develop perennial grains—plants that would stay rooted and hold the soil with less dependence on fossil fuels.
In Jackson’s words, the vision was one of “bringing the economics of the earth over its long evolutionary history to the modern farm,” creating new mixtures that would “mimic the vegetative structure of the prairie.”
Moving back to Kansas, where he’d grown up, Jackson and his wife Dana founded a nonprofit in Salina called the Land Institute to combine scientific research and daily farming. In the decades since, he has published several books, won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and overseen the creation of several strains of perennial grains, including one, trademarked Kernza, that has gone to market and made it into a beer offered by Patagonia Provisions.
Jackson, who remains active at the institute but stepped down as president in 2016, sounds in many ways suspiciously like a multi-tasker. As he observes, that’s part of farm life.
“I grew up on a farm in the Kansas River valley,” Jackson says. “I think there were some 20 to 27 crops, and Dad was taking data on all of them—irrigation, water usage and so on. We also had to get our cows milked and chickens fed. You don’t think about being disciplined. You think about doing what needs to be done.”
How, then, did Jackson grow a penniless nonprofit with a few dozen acres into 936 acres, with 32 full-time employees, including nine PhD scientists—even while continuing his own research and writing books?
The answer is quintessentially Midwestern: by working incredibly hard, all the time.
“You didn’t think, ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’ which is one of the most awful sentences ever uttered by a human,” says Jackson. “If your life is your work, you can accomplish a lot. You don’t think about vacations and you don’t think about being rewarded. You’re engaged.”
In Jackson’s view, daily obligations of manual labor such as fixing a fence or replacing a roof aren’t an impediment to focus, either.
“You’re thinking when you’re working on those things, too,” he says. “Some of my best thoughts have come when I’m physically working. If I’d never been doing certain things I’d never have thought of certain things.” *
What will you do on Monday that’s different?
CONCENTRATE ON THE FUTURE
Analyze which of your priorities are geared toward making the future and which are stuck in the past. Then figure out how to abandon the latter, knowing that, as Peter Drucker pointed out, “yesterday’s successes … always linger on beyond their productive life.”
SET YOUR “POSTERIORITIES”
Systematically decide which tasks and activities you won’t participate in—and then find the courage to stick to your list, no matter how fierce outside pressures become.
FOCUS ON WHAT’S MEANINGFUL
Be honest with yourself about which of your priorities can make a truly big difference and which are safe and easy to do—and focus squarely on the former.