Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals

I was in the gym one day, training like usual, when my coach made an important observation. It didn’t take me long to see how this discovery applied to other areas of my life as well.

Here’s what happened.

We looked across the gym and saw someone performing lateral raises with dumbbells while standing on a Bosu ball. (This is an exercise that focuses on smaller muscles in the shoulder and doesn’t do much for the rest of the body.)

My coach watched for a moment and then said, “Imagine how good you have to be for that exercise to be the thing that gets you to the next level.”

His point was that this person was focusing on an exercise that improved a few, tiny muscles in their body while ignoring the more important foundational movements. Even an Olympic athlete who had mastered the basic movements (squats, bench press, etc.) could not honestly look in the mirror and say, “You know what’s holding me back? I’m not doing enough lateral raises.”

In other words, the problem is that too many people waste time on the details before mastering the fundamentals. And I’d say the same in true outside of the gym as well.

The Courage to Master the Fundamentals

Everybody has the same basic body and needs, and we have to have the courage to train the fundamentals, the basics, at least 80% of the time. Sure, add some spice in there now and again, but focus on the basics.
—Dan John

Committing to the basics and mastering the fundamentals can be hard. And I get it. I’ve struggled to fall in love with boredom and focus on the basics many times.

For example, as an entrepreneur it is very easy for me to spend my days working on the details. Should I make a small tweak to my website design? Should I answer these 50 emails? Should I switch my payment processor so that I can save an extra 2 percent on fees?

All of these things have a place, but that place should not be at the top of my to-do list. Instead, my time would be better spent focusing on the fundamentals. For example, writing two really good articles each week.

Avoid the “Edge Cases”

In the words of my friend, Corbett Barr, people waste too much time debating edge cases. Edge cases are the what-ifs, the could-bes, the minor details — the things that might make a 2 percent difference, but mostly distract you from the real work that would make 80 percent of the difference.

  • If you’re considering a new diet, but you’re worried that you might not be able to stick with it when you go out with your friends on Thursday nights, then you’re worrying about an edge case. Thursday night isn’t going to make or break you. It’s the work you put in during the other 20 meals of the week that matters.
  • If you’re starting a business and you’re debating over business cards or shipping methods or a thousand other things that could delay you from finding your first paying customer, then you’re stuck on the edge cases. You can optimize later. Meanwhile, delaying this decision is bringing in exactly zero dollars.
  • If you’re trying to “get all of your ducks in a row” or figure out “the right way to do this” then you’re probably giving yourself an excuse to avoid the hard decisions. Research is only useful until it becomes a form of procrastination. In most cases, you’ll discover better answers by doing than by researching.

The greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. And for that reason, most people don’t need more time, more money, or better strategies. They just need to do the real work and master the basics.

Don’t Fear the Fundamentals

Most people avoid the fundamentals because they don’t have the guts to become great at them. When you eliminate everything that is unnecessary, there are no details to hide behind. You’re left with just the basics and whether or not you have mastered them.

It’s easier to tell people that you’re “working on a new strategy” or you’re “doing more research.” It’s hard to say, “I’m focusing on the basics, but I haven’t made much progress yet.”

Do you have the courage to simplify and become the best at the basics? Stop wasting time on the details that make the last 10% of difference.

What good is a lateral raise if you can’t do a proper press? What good is a fancy business logo if you haven’t found your first paying customer? What good is a better guitar if you haven’t built the habit of practicing each day?

Without the fundamentals, the details are useless.

Published on

31 Comments

  1. Hi James,

    I have heard this principle enough times in my life. But nothing resonates with me more now than the way you have written, and the examples you have quoted. I absolutely love the last line, without fundamentals, the details are useless. Thanks for such inspiration.

  2. Thanks for the dose of reality at 11:30pm! I’ve spent more time than necessary deciding on business cards/business name change and have earned $0.00 during that time. And none of the ‘details’ have gotten me closer to achieving my goals. Spot on James.

  3. Fantastic article James. I enjoy the direct approach and the simplicity of your articles (aside from Tim Ferriss’, your articles are the only regular ones I subscribe to). Your approach is aligned with my own views and approach to both soccer coaching and life in general.

    As it happens, ‘master the fundamentals’ was one of the chapters from my new book, Simple Soccer, which I released only last week.

    Too many people spend time working on the tiny details when you absolutely need to master the fundamentals, the basics, before you can make any real progress.

    Keep up the brilliant work, it is inspiring.

    Paul

  4. Awesome post, I look forward to your weekly posts more and more every week. They are motivators and help keep me focused on my goals. Keep up the good work, it’s definitely appreciated.

  5. Thank you so much for this entry, you’ve nailed it on the head about mastering the basics instead of wasting time and energy on the fluffy embellishments. When people make excuses other than focusing on the fundamentals, it is so easy to put the blame on the small things than to take responsibility of owning up to not being able to do the basics properly. Thank you again for hitting this home.

  6. Ahh! James! you are making me less fearless every time I read your posts. Thank you for so much inspiration, you truly are cog that moves my motivation when needed.

    Jen :)

  7. I do get your main point, I really do. It makes sense, it resonates, all that.

    But from just the first four paragraphs I get a very damaging message, one that strikes fear into the heart of every nerd: If I go to the gym I will be judged. Unless I shell out the money for a coach and do what everyone else is doing. There is no room for making mistakes and trying anything new. I will be judged. If I get a job that require me to work on ladders I dare not go to the gym to try improve my balance in a non-approved way, because I will likened to a bird flapping on a water bed, and that mental image will be blasted all over the internet. I will be judged if I go to the gym, so I’d rather not go at all.

    • Niel,

      As somebody who isn’t particularly athletic, I can relate to what you’re saying on some level. I do think that something we all have to get past is that sense that somebody else is watching and we are being judged by them on what we’re doing or how well we are doing it.

      I think this is an effective distraction for ourselves from the real issues, of not getting out there and doing things, and it’s an easy excuse for us to not do things or try new things.

      The bottom line is that not going to the gym or starting a company or whatever because we might be judged, it’s not the judging that hurts us. It’s the not doing that hurts us.

      • James — I’m glad you thought about it. You don’t come across as an insensitive bloke.

        Jude — I have, through experimentation, found a routine that deliver the results I desire.

        Of course, I’m not above judging people at the gym. In particular I judge the gorillas that hog the equipment without actually working out. But because of the power disparity I wouldn’t dare comment on it.

    • Niel — I was so worried about this very issue when I published this article. I’m glad you brought it up, but I hate that you feel that way.

      In my original version, I had a longer explanation of the situation and mentioned how I think it’s ridiculous that fingers are pointed and people are made fun of in the gym. (In my eyes, if you are in the gym giving an effort, then you’re already a winner.) I ended up cutting that longer intro out to make this piece more readable and succinct.

      Anyway, I just want to say two things.

      1. As you said, the main point of my article was far different than this little discussion, but I want to be clear that it was never my intent for this article to make you feel that way.

      2. The best ideas I can offer for dealing with criticism and judgement are in this article: http://jamesclear.com/haters

      Thanks for reading!

  8. This is very Inspirational. I have never been a fan of motivational speeches, but is different because your reasoning is practical. Kudos!

  9. Hi James,

    Another great post and excellent last line. I agree with Leo’s quote as well. I think most of the time i am worrying about the edge case. Any practical suggestion as to how to overcome this worrying about the edge cases?

    Thank you,

    Regards,
    Prasanna

  10. You put this so well James! Niel, I’m sorry you took such a harsh message from this post as it wasn’t intended that way. James wasn’t saying it isn’t ok to experiment or be different, only that if you want to make good progress you need to spend the majority of your effort on the basics!

  11. As somebody who works with people and their money, I see this happening every day. People are so concerned with trying to get an extra 0.2% of return on their portfolio, they’re too busy to bother with tracking their spending, which is the real culprit in their financial struggles. Excellent stuff James!

  12. You know how you say that you don’t always produce great content, but that great content emerges by always producing? Well, this was great content today! Well done. We’re now teaching 5 “Rules” for creating and sustaining high performance at work, and Rule #1 is Measure the Fundamentals. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.

    The only reason we didn’t say “Master the Fund…” (another of our favorite expressions) is that we don’t want people to think they can quickly master something and be done. Rather, focus on measuring the fundamentals and mastery will develop in time. Focus on mastery and you might be tempted to shortchange the process.

    You’re on a roll, James! Thrilled to see your community growing.

  13. First time commenting…I’ve been reading your blog for about 6 months.

    I love the content, the energy, and the positive influence all around, but this post in particular struck a chord with me.

    I liked the line about worrying about dinner with friends Thursday night ruining a healthy eating plan. How did you get inside my head?

    Anway, keep up the good work James. This is a great community you’ve built, and I love getting a little boost on Tuesdays and Fridays (you always post after I’m off the computer for the day ;) )

    -Mel

  14. Great post – very true, to the point, and as a business owner I have noticed that I can get caught up in edge cases as well.

    One way that I have found to help with this is to block off one day, two max, per month that I set aside for “Improvement Projects”. This way when I find myself wanting to work on an edge case, I can table it for that specific day. Often, when enough time has passed and I get to these days, if I have five projects listed, I pick two, forget the other three, and find the two I choose are actually valuable (e.g. implemented electronic signing for customer contracts – helped to reduce overall time I spend sending contracts around through e-mail and gives me back more time on a recurring basis to go after new business – the fundamentals).

    I would not have that clarity though if I did not table “edge cases” for a dedicated time.

  15. “Do you have the courage to simplify and become the best at the basics?” This is the question that resonates with me right now. It currently applies in all areas of my life, including the gym. Trying very hard to simplify. It is scary but so freeing when you have the courage. I really like the idea of being really good….really good at the basics. Huzzah!!!

  16. Great article for someone like me who has (is) the victim of “Analysis Paralysis.” This a refreshing way to look at getting back to the basics!

  17. Hi James,

    Great article again!

    I am also facing this problem. I have a specific case that I wonder if you can analyze for me? Here it is:

    I got many improvement ideas, such as 5 steps to be great, 10 steps to be successful, 10 things successful people do at night, in the morning or on the weekend. Over time, steps add up and became hundreds of steps. :o Just look at those one of those life help hack websites. ;-)

    It is easy to tell what is important to do in your gym exercise example, but it is hard for me to tell which steps are fundamentally important. How can you tell what is important and what is not among those “successful steps”?

  18. Hi James,

    This is such a great post! I couldn’t agree more with this concept. I struggle with this in everything from my business to my diet and to my photography.

    This couldn’t come at a better time for me.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    Chris.

  19. Interesting post, James. I can say this: most people spend much time on details instead of concentrating on fundaments, especially when it comes to starting a diet, or a business, because they are:
    1. inexperienced
    and (therefore)
    2. fearful

    In my opinion, focusing on details is just a pure procrastination to delay the execution, to delay getting out of the comfort zone. Sometimes it is lack of strategy, I agree, but more often than not it is a lack of confidence, experience and knowledge.

  20. I read this post yesterday and it stuck with me. So much so, I found my point-of-view altered, at work. This is helpful.

    Several times a week, I walk 3 or 4 miles, often listening to audiobooks. Today was no exception; for the last several weeks, I’ve been listening to Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” I’m not sure that you or your readers would agree with this, but I’ve been thinking that Tolle’s book is in the vein of this posting of yours. It seems that we should be working on the fundamentals of living in the present.

    What are the thoughts of you and your readers?

    I look forward to your email on M & Th’s. Thank you.

    Rich

  21. James, Thank you so much for this post. I have been trying hard to do the same since last few days and realised we actually get productive only by learning and practising the fundamentals. Thanks for hitting the bull’s eye and a beautiful way of presenting the stuff. Really stuck a chord with me. :)

  22. Hey James, read the post and I thought it was useful.

    As a product designer (for printers), I have to live “avoiding edge cases” daily.

    Do I add an icon on the back of the printer to support external feeding so that the minority know it exists, but that the majority would find meaningless (and even find the design less beautiful)?

    I would rather design to satisfy the majority target user consistently even if it means that minority users don’t get what they want.

    In my personal life, I practice carb cycling. I used to agnonise over when to cheat, what GI my foods should be, how much carbs/protein to eat etc etc.

    But it’s just not sustainable after a few starts, I’ve just stuck to (Clean Mon to Fri, Easy Sat and Sun). It’s been >1 year now and the effort has ‘disappeared’.

    The question I often ask myself is ‘Will this work AND is it easy enough for me to do while not thinking about it?’ If yes, it’s at a high enough level.

    Keep up the writing!
    Wei

  23. James,

    Nice article on the fundamentals. However, with over 40 years of working out in both the military and civilian life, I believe your gym example is lacking. First a question; have you ever worked out on a BOSU? If you have, you should agree that it is a great piece of kit for balance and stability, working a myriad of core muscle groups. For individual to be standing on a BOSU doing lateral raises, he working much more than a tiny group of muscles. He is getting a great leg, ab and upper body workout. In that sense, I would say he is definitely working on the fundamentals!

  24. James,

    I just discovered you in a twitter post by Mladen Jovanovic. Your writing is refreshing in its wisdom and simplicity — thank you, I enjoyed it and shared it!

Leave a comment (or read them below)

Close