Is it better to focus on what you want or what you would be willing to give up?

Ok. I know what you’re thinking:

“What does Super Mario Kart have to do with focusing on what you want vs. what you would give.”

Well, bear with me for a few minutes and if you still feel that way, please flame away in the comments below.


As a species, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want. Maybe it’s a better job, a new relationship, a fancy car, a dream vacation, more (or less) time with kids, friendlier in-laws; you get the picture.

All this thinking takes a lot of time and energy and often at the end of it we just feel less fulfilled than we did before.

“Ok Hermann, thanks for telling me what I already know.”

Sure thing! I think we all know that this is a giant waste of time and what we should be doing is acting on all those constructive things we know we want to do: grow a garden, learn calculus, take our kids out for a walk, eat healthier and exercise.


…not that we don’t know what we’re SUPPOSED to do; but rather that we can’t seem to do it; at least not consistently. So we beat ourselves up over and over again.

Now we’re double wasting energy. We’re wasting energy thinking about stuff we want AND we’re wasting energy beating ourselves up over it. Imagine if we could just harness that energy into constructive activities.

As a species we’d probably we mining asteroids and colonizing space by now!

But we’re not.

“Wait a minute, I’ve been reading for a bit now and you still haven’t said shit about Mario Kart.”

Ok, Mario Kart.

As a game it can teach us a lot about this problem.


Well Mario Kart requires you to focus on what you are doing, where you are going and being able to respond to rapid changes. It punishes lack of focus. But the designers put a fun little mechanic in the game to unknowing thwart your efforts here. It’s that little  box at the top that contains special items you pick up on the road and that can, hopefully, help you win.

The problem is you can only have one at a time.

So while you’re racing away (or fighting away) part of your brain is thinking about which item you need next. Worse, if you HAVE an item part of your brain is also trying to figure out if the item you have is better than one you might see in the world somewhere. So you’re doing all this comparing and evaluating and thinking instead of paying attention to the road and the things on it.

Now in Mario Kart the options are the same over and over again and so you gain mastery through repetition. Real life is a bit messier unfortunately… and also way less cool and colorful.


So I think a great way to approach this is to focus on what you are willing to give up rather than on what you want. This helps in a number of ways:

1) The list is shorter.
2) You have a lot more control over what you will give up.
3) It’s way easier to commit to NOT doing things than to doing them :P.
4) Over time you will put much more energy into fewer things rather than less energy into more things.

Let’s assume you think this might be a neat idea, how can you try it?


Once you’ve finished reading this post, break out a piece of paper or type “notepad” on your computer or use some app. It doesn’t matter… some way you can write.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about what to write on for God’s sake or we’ll never get anywhere!

Then write down all the things you are currently doing in your life. Maybe you’re writing a book, learning how to cook, taking tennis lessons, learning how to invest, etc etc. When I did this at first it was kind of hard because it wasn’t obvious that I was doing much. That’s the point. Don’t think about projects that you are regularly doing and making huge progress on. Include ALL those projects you thought about, kind of started, think about doing again, but they don’t really go anywhere. Especially if you think about them at night or in the bathroom when you tell yourself “I should really write more of that novel tomorrow.” That’s the meat we’re after.

Once you have that list, start removing things from it. Commit to stopping those things.
That new garden. Forbidden from doing it.
Learning Spanish? Not anymore.
Becoming a master pizza maker? Nope.

Then allow yourself to pick one thing from the list that will survive. That’s the new thing you’re going to do.

But we’re going to make it easy on ourselves. We only have to commit for a month and we only have to commit a small amount of time. Try 30 minutes a day. Or maybe an hour 3 times a week. It doesn’t matter. Something that feels easy so that there’s little chance of failure to commit. Then schedule that time.

STEP 5: MAKE A SPECIFIC COMMITMENTDon’t say “I’ll write my book this year.”

Instead say, “every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:00-9:30PM I will do nothing other than write. I’m not allowed to pursue any other things on my want list. If I have time to pursue other things, I’ll write.” 

Then hang up that list of things that you aren’t doing; that’s your forbidden list of things you said you wanted but you never acted on. If you feel yourself wanting to do those things, look at that list and instead work on the thing that survived the giving up exercise. Don’t fret! In a few months those things will get their time if you like.

STEP 6: REPEATThen at the end of the month take a look and re-evaluate. I bet you’ll have achieved more than you thought and you’ll be much more hesitant to switch your focus.


If you can find a “buddy” or someone to do this with, it’s even better. A spouse can be great, but also bad. I suggest someone who is interested in your growth as a person, but doesn’t have a relationship that will be directly effected by your choice. Back when I was trying to lost the “last 15 lbs” I used dietbet and it worked very well for this.


I SUCK at this. I am an incredibly scatter brained and unfocused person. I love random things and I can spend vast amounts of time on obscure things and then completely switch at a moment’s notice. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m trying to improve it all the time. I’ve found by having a list of things I am forbidden from doing it helps me focus my time and energy a little bit better and, over time, hopefully form better habits.

What about you? Do you have this problem? What do you do to make progress on things you want?