3 Ways to Stay Focused on What Matters Most

Today I’m on it!  For many of us, the day begins with the best of intentions.  We may even have a morning routine that clarifies priorities and plans for our day.  But despite good planning and best intentions, too often our day ends with us feeling weary and not sure that we have made progress, let alone made a difference.  After 8 or 9 hours of responding to urgent report requests, emails and attending meetings and calls we often feel like Sisyphus - we have rolled the rock up the hill but tomorrow it feels like it is right back where we started.

The Problem - We Have Confused Activity with Productivity.

We often feel like this is a time management issue - “if I just had another hour”.  And yes, there is plenty we can learn to better manage our time.  Better yet, there is some great work by Tony Schwartz and The Energy Project on how we can learn to manage our energy (rather than focusing on time).  And despite learning these new skills and applying our best intentions to our day, many people still find it difficult to stick to the plan.  

What’s happening here?  We are up against some significant challenges in our own brains and our environment.  First, we have to pause from all the activity and get clear on what is important.  Somehow we have lost focus on what matters most.  Second, we have to understand our brain and better manage ourselves.  In particular, we need to overcome our natural tendency toward reactivity and distraction.  And third, we need to manage the distractions in our environment.  In particular the challenges associated with working in what is increasingly a culture of urgency.  An environment where everyone seems to thrive on being ‘busy’, reactivity and quick fixes.  A culture where non-urgent, but proactive activities like communication, relationship building, team building, planning and learning are routinely interrupted or postponed for more urgent matters. 

What can you do?

  1. First - Get Clear on What is Important

Vilfredo Pareto had it right over 100 years ago when he defined the 80/20 rule; which in this context means that 20% of what you do with your day will generally contribute to 80% of your results.  The key is pausing long enough to get clear on what your‘20%’ activities are.  A simple test question to identify your ‘20%’ activities is “What is the one activity that I’m not doing enough of now, but if I did regularly, would make all the difference to my work or the goals of the business?”  Almost everyone can answer that question if allowed a few minutes to reflect on it. For entrepreneurs in the early stages of their start up, it may be something like‘setting up client meetings’.  For technical experts, it may be something like ‘writing papers’ or ‘presenting papers’.  For people managers, it may be something like ‘spending time connecting with my team or providing coaching and feedback’.   

All of the above ‘20%’ activities are classic ‘Quadrant 2’ activities - which means they are important (they have significant leverage), but not urgent (they can easily be put off for another day).  Things like exercise, relationship building and planning. The concept of Quadrant 2 was popularized by Stephen R. Covey in his books The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First.  Covey proposed that to achieve greater effectiveness and productivity, we need to eliminate the time we spend in Quadrant 3 (activities that seem urgent, but are not important - like the ringing phone) and Quadrant 4 (activities that are neither urgent, nor important - like mindless internet surfing). Then wisely use the time we recover from these two quadrants by investing it in Quadrant 2 activities.  And by being more proactive on what is important we ultimately will spend less time in the future putting out fires in Quadrant 1 (urgent and important - like restructuring workload due to a resignation or termination).  If you want more information on the four quadrants check out the book First Things First. 

As Covey makes clear, the main problem with important but not-urgent activities is that no one is demanding them (hence they are non-urgent).  They sit with us to act on.  Thus, even once we get clear on what matters most, these activities are easily bumped by our tendency toward distraction and responding to other people’s urgent needs and agendas.  Our basic brain wiring makes it difficult to resist these demands.  Which is why it helps us to understand how our brain works and learn techniques to manage our habits and tendencies.

“It’s possible to be very busy and not very effective.  You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage - pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically - to say no to other things.  And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
                                Stephen R. Covey

2.  Understand Your Brain and Manage Yourself

Understanding our brain and what we are up against starts with understanding that we are naturally wired to scan our environment for things that are novel.  Communication and marketing efforts are by design aimed to catch our attention, to leverage our tendency to pay attention to something new.  We are also naturally wired to pay particularly good attention when there are variable rewards; i.e. where we sometimes find something very worthwhile amidst a sea of less useful finds (think about your inbox, your social media feeds and searching the internet).  In these environments we can quickly find ourselves searching endlessly, almost compulsively, subconsciously hoping to hit ‘gold’ yet not making much progress.  The truth is we are up against very old biological hardware (our limbic brain) and powerful emotional drivers.  

I have written a previous post (5 Tips to Mindfully Improve Your Focus in The Age of Distraction) on managing our minds amidst distractions.  One of the tips in that post is worth highlighting here: 

Given how much effort it takes to maintain focus in the first place, the first thing you need to do is assess and anticipate what will be distracting for you.  What is disruptive or shiny to each of us is different.  Learn what takes you off of task and then pre-emptively remove it as you sit down to focus (such as turning off your email, closing windows of other programs and closing your door).

For many of us, our challenge to stay focussed on what is important doesn’t stop at simply turning off distractions.  Many of us will still find ourselves going back to the old habits.  Why is that? Leo Babauta, in his free e-book Focus: a simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction suggests we are really fighting a form of addiction.  And that “Letting go of addictions to information and distractions is, well… hard. We might want to let go, but when the rubber meets the road, we balk. We have urges. We falter and fall and fail.” 

This is why it helps to understand the level of challenge some of these habits represent.  If we really look at our habits we realize that information, news and updates can become more than a bad habit, they can become an addiction of sorts. We need to identify what our triggers are for a specific habit and become mindful of those triggers and our urges.  Wecan then create rules and structures to give us more ammo than just our willpower.  We can create a rule for when we will take care of email and when we won't.  We can create a rule for when we will check social media and when we won't.  We learn to notice our habits and mindfully create rules that make the new habits easier. 

It can also be empowering to recognize that at the root of our triggers and bad habits lies an underlying emotional need.  Many of us have unconsciously conditioned our minds to seek pleasure over joy.  To put off the hard task in place of the easy task.  New email or social media gives us a sense of satisfaction - a little dopamine reward for every surprising message.  This is pleasure.  While pleasure plays an important role in our lives it is also very short-lived, and can leave us unfulfilled and looking for a new fix.  And it can be very unproductive.  Once you understand this, you can shift your emotional fulfillment to focus more on the joy of accomplishing a meaningful (and often challenging) activity. Ideally one of those ‘20%’ activities that leads to 80% of your results. 

3.  Manage Distractions in Your Environment

Even once we have identified what is important (80/20 rule) and established rules to manage our focus, we may still find ourselves being pulled away from our Quadrant 2 activities by external factors.  In this case it is important to understand that we are naturally wired to respond to the urgent in our environment, often whether it is important or not.  We are wired to belong and thus react to social cues (i.e. someone at our office door).  

We also live in an unprecedented age of abundance, which allow us to fill our days with countless desirable activities.  All of which leads to people being exceptionally ‘busy’ yet feeling proud of how they are managing the level of busyness they endure.  How often do we hear ourselves or others say “Things are crazy right now”?  And who hasn’t felt like they were in survival mode when the fast pace of life blurs into the “insanely busy”?

The trouble is that many organizations have unconsciously created cultures that mirror the trends in society - fast-paced and often highly reactive.   Unless leaders (by which I include people at all levels who exercise leadership) pause and ask the question “Is this really important or am I just reacting to its apparent urgency?”  the frenzy continues.  The requests continue for reports on progress for activities that aren’t adding value.  The requests continue to attend conference calls or meetings that are peripheral to truly advancing the organizations goals, feeling more and more like Sisyphus and his rock. 

Our goal is to become aware of the influence our environment has on us.  Urgency and reactivity around us can be very distracting.   Our goal is to pause and ask the question - “is this really important to what matters most or is it just busy activity wrapped up in a package of overwhelming urgency that makes it appear important?”  And then to respectfully and courageously have that conversation with those around us, even if that might include our boss!

“There is nothing more wasteful than making something more efficient that shouldn’t be done in the first place.”
                                    Peter Drucker


While it may seem daunting, it rests with each of us to do our part to constantly assess and refocus back to what is most important.  What are the ’20%’ activities “that I’m not doing enough of now, but if I did regularly, would make all the difference to my work or the goals of the business?”  Then we can keep these proactive activities front of mind and plan them into our week.  To make sure they happen, we need to understand our own brain and why we are easily distracted by less important tasks.  Lastly, we need to exercise leadership and courage in our environments and organizations to push back against a growing culture of urgency and lead others back to focusing on what is most important.

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
                                Winston Churchill

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I welcome new connection requests.  If you are in the Vancouver area and want to learn skills to be more mindful and less reactive, the next public offerings of the Mindful Wisdom program begin at the end of March.  Please contact me at scott@mindfulwisdom.ca to learn more (limited seating available).