Hang on, I need to climb down from my high horse for a second.

OK, I'm here on the ground. I'm not planning to sound smug or moralistic. Are you with me? Good. I know what it's like to be the recipient of smug, impractical advice.

In the pursuit of business success, we all know there's a fine balance. It's easy to say: Put family and friends first and keep your job separate. Then, you start thinking about someone like Elon Musk and how he has ( allegedly) said he works 100 hours per week. Or, how Marissa Mayer has advocated for working longer hours to build success.

We balance those extremes with the fact that yes, we have jobs. We have careers. As one reader pointed out over the weekend (quite fairly, actually) that working in the early morning hours is not an option if you need to pack lunches and walk the kids out to a bus stop. All good. Yet, the fundamental truth of any business venture, proven again and again in my own life and from covering startups and technology for the past 15 years, is that your area of focus will become your greatest area of success. Do you really, really want to make a new mobile app? Focus on it. I'm not saying you should stop packing lunches for the kids or get divorced so you can attract an audience on iTunes. The goal is not to work 100 hours and end up in a hospital from exhaustion.

However, there are valid ways to find success through focus for anyone trying to build up a career, start a company, and attract an audience for a new product. It is true that your focus equates directly to success. And, lack of focus is also one big reason for failure. The challenge is in deciding how to make that work in practical terms and everyday life, not as a cerebral ideal (e.g., you smile and nod, then ignore it).

To bring up my garden project one last time, when I finally decided to have a successful garden this past summer and spend the time educating myself, planting, weeding, cultivating, and focusing on the project, it turned into a raging success. (If you want a few cucumbers and some zucchini bread, let me know. I'm serious, it's a problem.) I had to make some sacrifices, namely in not pursuing any other hobbies at the same time and avoiding a few distractions.

As a writer, I know focus is incredibly important. It's impossible to write a novel and test smartphones at the same time. You have to pick one or the other. Anyone who has made a successful app knows you have to start out making one really amazing app, not six. When you try to make six amazing apps, you lose focus and they all fall flat. You can't be the accountant and the marketing guru at a startup. Focus is the key to any of these activities, particularly when you are first starting out.

Emphasis is more important than effort. Effort is a push, a drive--it's the hours in a day. It means you are spending a lot of energy on something. Yet, you can spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort into a project and still discover you've failed because you lack emphasis. For emphasis, you have to stop doing everything else.

We can only handle a few areas of focus. We're not wired for multitasking.

Let's take an example from the world of public relations.

Ironically, I know this field pretty well primarily because I've been the recipient of good (and bad) PR over the years. I know when a PR representative has dozens of clients, and when he or she has only one client. It's so obvious. When the rep lives and breathes Dropbox or Sonos or Amazon, they emphasize that client. When I think of the person who reps those companies, I think of those companies. It's almost comical because, to those reps, every answer is Dropbox or Sonos, or Amazon.

It's why there are phrases like spread too thin and too many plates spinning. The PR rep who has dozens of clients might put an incredible amount of effort into each one, but it won't turn out the same. The person who emphasizes Dropbox could be working 20 hours per week, who knows? Yet, removing all other distractions means we put our best work, our greatest brain power, or best time, our most creativity into that one area of focus. It might be one hour of effort but a week's worth of emphasis, and everyone around us knows it. We become known for our emphasis.

If I had tried to learn pottery and gardening at the same time, and split my free time after work evenly (say, five hours each), neither of those activities would have worked out. Instead, I spent five hours only on gardening. We have limited bandwidth; success travels along one main artery. There may be two arteries available of the exact same size, but success works best when it has fewer options (and only one path).

Another example of how this works: When I travel, I try as hard as possible to arrange a direct flight. Why? If I stop in Denver on the way to San Francisco, I'm traveling roughly the same number of miles. I even get a break to refuel on coffee. Yet, the added stop causes more of an emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual drain. I expend more effort. Instead of emphasizing the one destination, I add a secondary destination and arrive tired and fatigued. My trip is not as successful.

How about you? Are you adding too many destinations on your route to success? Are you splitting up your hours evenly and fairly between projects, but forgetting that the process of splitting up is the very thing that's causing the failure? What could you do to change some of the distractions that are preventing you from finding success? I'll say this: Keep making those lunches for the kids. But prune things away that are not that important, clip away the superfluous activities. When you do, success finds the main artery and flows smoothly to its final destination.

It's not easy, and I'm here to help. Let me know how you have been blocked in success and where you can prune, and I promise to give you my feedback on what might work.

Published on: Aug 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.