Meaning of Focus
The important goals in life are not easily achieved. They require a full hearted commitment by the individual, to invest the necessary energy, time and other resources to make them happen. These goals define then the top priorities in our life. Nevertheless it is possible that despite all enthusiasm and willingness we are not progressing as planned, struggle on our way forward and eventually even stop our efforts and give up on our great intentions.
Focus is required to achieve the main goals in our lives as they compete with other less important activities for the limited energy and time that we have.
Let’s first think about a little activity. In front of us is a glass jar surrounded by three containers. The largest was filled with sand, another contained polished pebbles, and a third held nearly a dozen fist-sized rocks. The task is to place all the material into the glass jar—the sand, the pebbles, and the rocks. We can take all the time we need to think it through. An approach could be to pour the sand into the jar and smoothing the layer with our hand; the pebbles would form the next stratum, and then come the rocks. Regardless of how we arrange the rocks, we always have four left over. By all means the approach is wrong. The solution however is to start with the big rocks first. Once they were all in the jar, the pebbles could be placed in the spaces between them and the fine-grained sand could be shifted into the smallest crevices. The connection to our personal planning doesn’t need to be explained. If we start with the big rocks, we will find space for the pebbles and sand in our life.
People fulfill different roles at the same time, as a professional, as a family member, as a friend, as a part of a community, as member of different projects. All these roles come with related obligations and goals that need to be carefully balanced. Therefore focus is of the essence to meet our own and others expectations in each of the respective roles.
Focus (cognitive process): selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus of focus
A strong focus is demonstrated by athletes before competition. A swimmer, a tennis player, a high jumper shuts everything off but their next moves – how to pull through the water, to cross the bar, to hit the ball. There is a clear priority, nothing else matters. They visualize their success; every part of their body is directed towards their goal.
Focus doesn’t mean to give up on flexibility. We live in an ever faster changing world; we operate in volatile markets, which unexpectedly present new opportunities, hurdles and risks. These dynamics affect also others in our network and let them change as well, leaders, employees, business partners, friends and loved ones. Flexibility has to come from a safe space for reflection, to evaluate changes relevant to achieve our goals, review intermediate achievements and make adjustments as far as needed.
However flexibility in this sense is not the reaction to the growing distraction in a world, which has become more connected, more global, more complex.
We often hear comments like these: “There is so much going on !”, “I am so busy !” or “Times are crazy !” and we don’t hear from our best friends for too long as they are reacting to all requests at work and other obligation until we get an e-mail starting with the words “Sorry for the late reply..”. People are a permanent target of distraction, which is becoming more frequent, more aggressive as modern technology makes us almost always reachable- anywhere, anytime. Information travels fast, it pushes us, we feel obligated, almost addicted to react immediately because it’s so simple.
Once we open the door for distraction, clutter comes in, as does the temptations to change course. When this happens we are driven by other’s agendas and will be permanently chased by them.
Clutter: a large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way; a crowded or disordered collection of things (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clutter)
Sources of Clutter
A few causes for clutter are fairly common and stand out even though the reasons in each case might be much more specific.
Clutter can be generated by our underlying beliefs. We don’t want to disappoint anybody, are ‘too friendly’ and react to any favor we are being asked for. We also might believe that most requests brought to us need an immediate reaction and we find ourselves constantly replying to the stream of e-mails or Facebook posts reaching us.
In other cases clutter is a result of fear. We might see changes brought about by our goal only over time and are suddenly afraid and can’t let go of the past. Once we also see all the detailed actions leading to our goal we feel a fear of failing, not being able to make some of the small steps necessary to go forward to the aspired destination.
Sometimes it is our behavior that lacks structure and doesn’t support what really matters in our lives, which then causes clutter. If we don’t have a personal action plan, no written agenda, if we are just going with the flow and set our priorities unconsciously and spontaneously; we’ll face difficulties to achieve what we are striving for.
We need clear agreements with others and ourselves.
Focus in Practice
We have a choice not to become a victim of clutter. Once our long-term goals are clear in all aspects of life, such as profession, family, health, hobby and finance we need to identify those that will get the majority of our energy and attention. These main goals really matter to us, they determine our daily priorities and they have to dominate our agenda. It is almost impossible to focus on more than two / three goals with their respective sets of action. Trying to focus on everything at once means to focus on nothing !
In order to achieve our goals we first need to determine the sequence of milestones that will bring us to the desired destination like a stopover on a longer trip. The approach to each milestone requires multiple activities which can be grouped into monthly, weekly and daily actions. The effort related to those actions is our anticipated investments in our goals.
We need to be clear on the most important tasks of a day before we start to act. They usually are connected with the main goals and need to be addressed first, like the big rocks in the glass jar. Importance comes before urgency !
“Urgent tasks are those requiring immediate action, or those with the earliest deadlines. However, we all have differing priorities, and someone else’s urgent deadline may not necessarily be an important one for us. Our important actions and tasks, by contrast, are those which assist us in achieving our own goals or priorities.” (http://www.pocketfm.com/general/important-vs-urgent/)
Our plans don’t have to be complex, but they are better written down. On one hand we don’t want to know by heart all the smaller tasks with lower priorities and on the other hand it’ll help us to internalize the bigger picture.
People have a tendency to overcommit, so that they end up doing too much at the same time. Times are not crazy but our plans are ! The time we have for our goals is limited and a certain portion of it is already reserved for consciously created routines, e.g. workouts, meditation, errands, meeting friends. Short breaks need to be accounted for in our daily plans as well, they are a powerful tool to mentally reenergize. The kind of breaks and their frequency differ by individual; some like to take a look in the newspaper, some like a light exercise others enjoy a chat with a colleague or a friend. The available hours after all these routines constitute our net capacity. By checking our action plans against our net capacity we can prevent over-commitments.
Requests brought to us by others could impact our plans. The first and most important question to be asked is: Am I the right owner of this task or is somebody trying to let me do his work ? However, there will be cases were adjustments of plans are necessary after conscious and careful reflection.
As soon as we notice an overload of activities and tasks we can proactively adjust our plans starting from the low priorities. The following questions will lead us to a solution:
- How can we negotiate the timelines with our partners ?
- Who else would be in the best position to take over ?
- What would happen if we completely cancel the task ?
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.
But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other
good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud
of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.” Steve Jobs
A solid plan provides an excellent baseline to see progress when reflecting on a day’s activities, to detect learning and growth, to recognize successes before maybe challenging oneself. Success breeds success, the plan becomes a source of satisfaction and confidence.
A coach can support a client to move from clutter to focus. Monitoring and recording the expenditure of time for certain activity clusters can be a good start. The result might be surprising and a critical review will open new opportunities.
Some clients might react: “I wasn’t aware that I dedicated so much attention to social media. I will drastically change that as of tomorrow”. The social media can be good tool to stay in touch with close friends, to reenergize after a hard day’s work but also a waste of capacity. Others might conclude “The lion share of my workday is for meetings and telephone conferences. I will be more selective and ask myself what my expected contributions and takeaways should be”. In some cases it is more effective to receive the respective information by e-mail instead of attending a meeting or telephone conference. .”
The deep dive into the time analysis will lead client and coach to the general root cause of clutter and lack of focus. They will then be addressed in the next steps of the coaching engagement.
When the client’s clutter is obvious; the related triggers have to be investigated. Somebody ends up doing all kind of tasks for others, because he/she believes that rejecting requests or even challenging given timelines would violate the relationship with another person. In other cases a belief that every request needs an immediate response leads a client to delay other, much more important tasks.
The coach can help to gain clarity, shift the client’s perspectives and re-establish his/her vision.
Even if a client is fully committed on the overall goal fear can creep in somewhere along the way with clutter as a result. It is possible that single tasks seem to be heavier, their impact more massive when they come closer and the client might feel a fear of failure or change.
In cases like this the coach can work with the client to fully understand his/ her emotions and brainstorm different solutions and re-enter a state of positive action.
Often clients act without the structure to focus on their goals and the related actions. They permanently underestimate their time and effort; they do the easy or quick stuff first before they come to their important tasks. This will add up if done every day and will result in a serious delay or even worst in an uncompleted mission, in a broken dream. It is the same as in the activity with the glass jar; some of the fist-sized rocks will surely not fit if we start with the sand.
Some clients might just increase their focus by turning off their email for three hours in the morning and in the afternoon. A simple test can prove a positive result ! “Participants in a study who completed tasks in parallel took 30% longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence” (McKinsey, Quarterly 2011)
There is a lot of research about people not being able to work without breaks. Creating ‘time off’ in the morning and afternoon can be a highly effective routine.
The coach can encourage a client to think about a better self-management and change a behavior. The client will find a multitude of tools and techniques to remain focused: action-list, prioritization, time-recording, capacity checks, dedicated time slots to respond to e-mails, etc. The coach will support to find the most effective routines and help the client to make them stick.
Clutter can easily takeover someone’s life. Focus is an option; however it takes conscious actions to move from one to the other. Knowing the own goals and committing to them is essential to start the process, becoming aware of fears and underlying beliefs will open opportunities for change and introduce a supporting structure will lead to suitability. An experienced coach can be great resource, helping the client to achieve confidence, success and satisfaction.