Founder Diary

August 23, 2022

Concentration of force

Concentration of force

So used to multitasking that going all-in is barely ever an option? Enter military strategy.

A hamster holding mirrors in three of its four paws, trying to concentrate light at a single point above him.
A hamster holding mirrors in three of its four paws, trying to concentrate light at a single point above him.
A hamster holding mirrors in three of its four paws, trying to concentrate light at a single point above him.
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

X (formerly Twitter) logo

Up for a couple of not-exactly motivational quotes today?

"Compel the enemy to disperse his army, and then concentrate superior force against each fraction in turn."

This is a war postulate, first distilled in fifth century BC by Sun Tzu (his wording was very different), that militaries around the world have ubiquitously incorporated in their planning. It sounds almost self-evident today.

Here’s another:

Employ all available combat power in the most effective way possible, allocate a minimum of essential combat power to any secondary efforts.

In other words, “go all-in where it matters most but don’t suck elsewhere.”

And no, this isn’t a crash course in military strategy (which I know little about); however, the concentration vs. economy of force dilemma comes up all the time, far beyond armed conflicts. We face it every single day, most notably at work.


  • You have an important presentation to make in a week. Do you crush all preparation in one sitting or spread the effort evenly across, say, five sessions throughout the workweek?

  • You come up with a new product idea. Do you attack it head-on and don’t let go until it flies (or fails), or do you gently incorporate it into your schedule already packed with other commitments?

  • Or, for an out-of-office example, maybe you want to see Germany for the first time. Do you plan a short trip to Berlin for a few days just to get a taste and leave the rest for later (if you enjoy it at all), or do you plan a three-week tour around the whole country for a comprehensive experience right off the bat?

It’s not hard to see the advantages and drawbacks of both approaches. You either chip away at a problem gradually or zero in on it relentlessly for a quick breakthrough.

There isn’t one universally “right” way. But the real question is: why has military “science” come to strongly favor the latter? And in that, are there any lessons for the rest of us?

Competing pressures

The default decision-making approach usually aims to balance all the commitments we have. In a packed work landscape, this means you don’t really ever get a chance to accumulate strength for a focused, outsize-force commitment to one thing unless it’s an emergency.

As a result, a preference for step-by-step (or even haphazard) planning becomes subconscious; it doesn’t involve any “strategic” thinking. “Going with the flow” by definition favors a piecemeal approach. In the end, there’s little chance for a sustained burst of energy to even be considered an option.

To counter this mindset, I think it makes sense to understand the pros and cons of concentrating “firepower.” Here’s my shot at identifying them.

Go all in:

  • Project fatigue. If work is spread lightly over a long time, it takes more energy compared to when done promptly and in fewer sessions. You get tired of getting back to it again and again, of hammering the same nail over and over and over. Novelty gets lost, routine sets in, and motivation drops without visible progress. The longer it drags on, the higher the probability you’ll put it on the back burner and the passion will fizzle out (not that passion is always a requirement). No wonder writers that work on a book for years often burn out before the finish line.

  • Refocusing cost. Opting for many smaller sessions as opposed to fewer deep dives forces you to take time to reacquaint yourself with the game every single time and remember what it is you were doing and how. Switching costs are real. Shallower involvement takes extra time and energy that wouldn’t have been wasted if we made an all-out push.

  • Going stale. Life keeps going on, inputs fluctuate, and people change their minds. A gradual approach involves more of a risk that parts of what’s already completed might become outdated and you’ll need to refresh them. Market conditions change. You, your clients, your bosses, or other stakeholders may develop new preferences or come up with a different spec. That’s a factor that lengthens a project’s lifetime considerably.

Don’t go all in?

  • Focus fatigue. “If only I could dedicate a whole day/week/month to this, I’d make such a breakthrough.” Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Sure, but remember that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy — you can’t possibly keep focused on one thing forever. Concentrate long enough, and the process inevitably becomes monotonous and numbing. You need to change activities to find new energy. For example, I can’t write for hours. Some people do, but when I pass the roughly 90-minute mark, I bump into drastically diminishing returns. Creativity drops, words just don’t come, and the result is more bleating than story. Switching gears is often a necessity, rather than a choice.

  • Interdependency. However hard you work, you’re inevitably going to need other people’s help. And when that happens, you’ll probably have to wait for them to take care of their part of the deal before you can make further progress. And the more moving parts and people get involved, the likelier you are to get stuck in a “pending” state now and then.

  • Juggling. You can’t often narrow down your whole commitment landscape to one project. Like in actual juggling, if you spend too much time on one ball, the rest are inevitably going to fall. Some efforts may be “secondary,” but it doesn’t mean they can be disregarded. Unplug too freely and mundane to-dos become emergencies which by definition take all your focus and energy whether you want it or not.

  • Subconscious thinking. This is perhaps the biggest reason quality ends up better for longer projects. When you detach yourself from a particular work for a time, your brain keeps working on it in the background. I’m sure you know the feeling: new ideas pop out of nowhere when you’re disengaged. Want better results? Disregard this phenomenon at your own risk.

As I said, the choice isn’t so cut and dried at all!

Why concentration of force is still underrated

I think it comes down to two things: prioritization and motivation.

First, the concentration of force mindset forces you to unequivocally determine what your priority is. When there’s one clear objective, there’s no weaseling out. You know where to push as hard as you can to achieve results. This approach challenges you to clearly define the status quo and then decisively break it.

Besides, taking care of one priority faster unlocks resources to tackle other objectives sooner and with better focus. “…concentrate superior force against each fraction in turn,” remember?

Second, just as importantly, the motivation part of the equation depends heavily on visible progress — when we see it, we eagerly demand more; when there’s none, we get discouraged. A gradual approach might eventually produce just as much forward movement, but it remains stored, not manifested, for much longer. Sure, there are all sorts of issues with motivation. It’s not always straightforward. But just as troops gain morale when they see decisive action and advances on a concentrated front, so do you observing tangible progress in one clear direction.

Here’s a down-to-earth example.

Let’s say you’re making a salad. Cutting cucumbers, bell peppers, and tomatoes is arguably a nice step forward, but you still don’t have a complete dish. No breakthrough. Do you often say “that’s enough” and go about your business? I bet you also take care of the chicken, blend it all in, and add a dressing. Now that’s a salad! That’s visible progress, your motivation to keep going and get the entrée started.

So imagine that instead of finishing up, you just leave all the cut ingredients on the table. Not only do you risk letting them go stale, but also you’re now left with an unfinished task hanging over you. And once you do get back to them, you’ll take time to remember what was next, you’ll need to find the right tools again, and get up to speed.

Of course, real work is no salad. It’s never that simple. But a lot of it IS. If your whole work planning (or lack thereof) is designed around giving roughly equal attention to all its parts, it’s just not well suited for breakthroughs. When all we do is manage crises or deal with whatever the demands of the day throw on our plate, we remain unable to reap the benefits of a concentrated approach. Making a leap opens up new opportunities sooner while eliminating causes for some of those emergencies down the road.

So what?

Always doing only one thing until it’s completed is impossible. But consciously clearing up space for your priorities (especially those unburdened by deadlines) for them to leap instead of inch forward, can go a long way.

  • You get more progress more frequently.

  • Motivation is easier to come by.

  • Routine feels less numbing.

Concentration of force is not a cure-all, but it both cuts emergency potential and maximizes change potential. I think meaningful work benefits immensely when we create more opportunities for focused attacks.

So my point is, maybe if you choose to “overwhelm it” a little more often, you might get more breakthroughs faster. Set aside a couple of hours in a day, or a couple of days in a week, or a week in a month for the sole purpose of jump-starting a project. It might well change everything.

So what if other objectives get deprioritized for the moment? They actually benefit too, because once you’re done with the current one, they’ll get all the attention they need to take off instead of dragging on in default mode.

Sure, you can keep the other balls flying, too, but maybe just throw them higher up from time to time so that you can focus on each one for longer. Or, who knows, maybe this approach will even give you ideas on which balls to throw away for good?

Be the first to know what's new at Brick: