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Focusing on what matters most to you is the only way you can make material progress towards your goals. Typically when you talk to people who are so stressed out they can’t see straight, they complain that they simply have too much to do and feel overwhelmed. When you dig a little deeper, you almost always discover that they’re trying to do too much to begin with and are trying to be too many things to too many people. They don’t have a North Star to keep them moving towards their goals and may not even know what’s actually important to them. They just feel like they’re failing at everything and need help.
A while back I was at a conference with a senior executive of one of the most successful companies in the world. An audience member asked him how he got to where he is, expecting an answer along the lines of “I work all the time”, “This company is my life”, or “I’m on email at midnight and then again at 5am”. His answer was simple. He said, “I realized early on that I couldn’t do everything if I wanted to be good at anything. So I thought about the three things that were most important to me and pretty much eliminated the rest. This means I can excel in those three areas without any guilt since I know these are the most important to me. And I don’t spend time regretting what I’m not doing because it’s a choice I made.”
He called it ruthless focus. He probably used the word ruthless because it was as much about the things he wasn’t going to do as it was about the things he was doing. Some of the other things he wanted to do just weren’t going to get his attention if he were going to buckle down and focus on his top three things. And he had come to terms with that.
When you think about this in context, it makes a lot of sense. People at the top of their fields have ruthless focus. I’d bet you wouldn’t find Tiger Woods perfecting his knitting skills on a Sunday afternoon no matter how much he may love to knit. Bill Gates loved running Microsoft, but realized that in order to take the next step in his philanthropic mission, he was going to have to step down and narrow his focus. Barack Obama is probably happy just getting some time on the basketball court every week; you won’t find him practicing his jump shot in the White House gym until the wee hours of the morning. But (according to articles on his typical day) he never misses his daily workout, and he always has breakfast and dinner with his family no matter what craziness constitutes a “day at the office” for him. He knows what his top areas of focus are.
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama also made an interesting observation of the priorities of an administration. He said (paraphrasing), “Don’t tell me what your priorities are. I can determine what they are just by looking at the budget and seeing where you’re choosing to spend your money. Where you spend your money is what your priorities are.”
So how does this translate to focus? Simple: where you spend your time is what your priorities are. If you claim your family is your top priority but you only get to spend a couple hours with them each week, how does that compute? If you say your health is important to you but you haven’t hit the gym in over a month, you probably have some things to think about.
You don’t have to be an insanely gifted athlete, the richest person in the world, or the leader of the free world in order to figure out what’s most important for you to focus on. You just need to figure it out, write it down, and then pivot the bulk of your activities around those things.
If you had to pick three things, what would they be? Write them down somewhere and then take a look at how you spent your time last week: do you feel like your top three got the attention they deserve? Are things showing up that aren’t a part of your top three? How would you shift around your time allocation to make sure you’re excelling at the top three and dropping all the unimportant things?
For reference, my top three focus areas are:
- Family (spending as much quality time with my family as I can)
- Career (building best in class software and leading a great team)
- Self-Development (ex: reading, writing, meditation, martial arts, fitness)
Almost every second of every day is spent on one of those three things.
There are a dozen things I would love to add to this list if I had more time. If I could I would join a baseball league, become a better photographer, become a better skier, live in Europe, study another martial art, and learn to race my car on a track. But none of these things are more important to me than excelling at my top three… so they get limited attention, and that’s OK. I try and get to the batting cages a few times per year, I ski a couple times each winter, and I try and take as many photos as I can given the time I have. And that’s good enough! No regrets.
Those are my top three focus areas. What are yours?