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Pick Your Top 3 Focus Areas… and Drop Everything Else

with 13 comments

Click for photo 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:

  1. Family (spending as much quality time with my family as I can)
  2. Career (building best in class software and leading a great team)
  3. 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?

Written by Mike Torres

April 5th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Goal Setting

Tagged with , ,

  • Sam

    I really enjoyed this post. Almost anybody who is truly world-class at something has decided to be world-class. I think a lot of people are under the assumption that you have to be born with “talent” to truly be good at anything. As I get older and the more observant I have become, I place much less credence in “talent” as I do hard work and focus.

  • I totally agree Sam. People frequently have self-limiting beliefs about their level of talent and leave out the obvious “hard work” part of the equation. Thanks for stopping by!

  • I’ve found myself cheating attempts to focus in the past.

    I set broad focuses, similar to your goal of “Self-Development”, and then within that goal I manage to place preposterous numbers of sub-projects, justifying their addition by conceptual fit. Ultimately I find my attention diluted despite efforts to focus.

    Lesson learned? Don’t just define 3 focuses. Define 3 narrow focuses and agree with yourself the shape and confines of these focuses beforehand.

  • Thanks Jack – that’s a good way to look at it.

    I’ve used the 12 Goals approach I’ve been writing about recently (although I usually don’t limit myself to 12 anymore) to take three broad areas and then break down into specific goals.

    I’ve found that the broad areas are most useful when I’m frustrated about where and how to focus on things in the “micro” sense. Meaning: how I’m going to spend a Saturday afternoon vs. the “macro” sense of setting up a goal structure. I always ask myself how important the current activity is in relation to my three main focus areas. It helps me say no to things more often than I otherwise would.

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  • Dave

    A relevant anecdote on world-class athletic focus that I read a few years back…

    A top-level competitor (can't recall his name, let's call him Bob) in the upcoming Tour de France was celebrating Christmas Day drinking with his friends at his favorite pub in England. During the festivities he decided to call Lance Armstrong and wish him a Merry Christmas. He dialed Lance's cell number, spoke with him for a minute, then hung up and immediately sank down into a chair, despondent.

    When his buddies asked him what was wrong, he replied: “Lance is biking over the Rockies. I just lost the Tour.”

    And he did.

    Sidenote: One can only wonder what Tiger's game would have been like if he'd actually been focused on golf…

    • I love that!

    • Jmgwash

      Yeah, and now we really know why Lance Armstrong won!:)

  • Wendylewweldon

    Wow – only 3? with perfectionism and ADD I find it hard to focus at all – let alone only 3 things – and one at a time!! lol! this will take some thought/practice!

  • great article “Pick Your Top 3 Focus Areas… and Drop Everything Else” tahnks & Regards

  • Aditi

    Great post Mike, but am just wondering wouldnt everything do or want to do in life fall under the three categories of family, career and self development. I mean what else is there? or do I sound like  cynic?

    • Where do sitcoms fit? 🙂 In truth, the power is just as much in the order as it is in the fact that there are three things.

      • Abirami

        damn sooo useful, sir.. do keep writing !!