We are in the middle of some difficult times. Rather than belabor that point, I’d like to come to the heart of the problem. What do we do? We need to answer that question in an immediate, urgent basis: What do we do right now?
We also need to answer the question in a strategic, ongoing way.
What do we do this week, this month, this year? How shall we wisely and prudently arrange our activities – not just for this moment, for the next few months? Ultimately, as we sort through our lives, as we think about our careers and guide our businesses, we need to confront and answer that question.
It’s easy to be confused. First, we have all these competing responsibilities: spouses and children, extended family, neighbors, business associates, employees, customers, vendors, our communities, and the nation as a whole. If we are not careful, we can flit from one responsibility to another without making an impact on any.
In addition, we have all the media, including all the cable networks, the traditional media, and social media, all shouting at us with everything from heavily tainted, agenda-driven broadcasts, to silly solutions dreamed up by simple-minded social media contributors. It’s easy to allow ourselves to flounder in the fog created by unlimited media messages.
Before I offer a solution, let’s take a bit of a mile-high view.
We have been here before. As a nation, as individuals, and every level of society in between, this level of confusion and anxiety is not new.
Now, it may be new for you. Depending on your age, this may be your first encounter with life that hasn’t gone according to your plan. But it certainly isn’t unique for many of us.
I have lived through many similar circumstances. In addition to three major financial reverses in my life, I have lived through the oil embargo in the 70s; Jimmy Carter’s malaise and inflation in the teens; the 9/11 attacks and the resulting tailspin in the economy; the dot com crises, and the 2008 real estate crisis. I’ve seen my business so devastated that I had to tell my staff that I could no longer make payroll.
I got to the point where, with a cast on my leg, no cash in the bank and no prospects for new business, I closed my office door and burst into tears.
In all of this, I have learned some lessons and gained some wisdom that may be helpful to you. I have some advice to give regarding guiding your family, shepherding a sales force, and directing business through these difficult times. I will talk about those issues and more in follow up posts, so stay tuned.
For now, however, I want to focus on that which should be the top priority.
A Word About Focus
I was once asked by a seminar participant if I could reduce my advice down to one word. “I can’t reduce it to one word,” I said, “but I can reduce it to three: Focus, focus, focus.”
What is focus? Here are a couple of dictionary definitions:
1. A point at which rays (as of light, heat, or sound) converge or from which they diverge or appear to diverge
2. A central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity:
3. A center of interest or attention.
The easiest way to understand it is to think of the camera in your smartphone. When you take a picture, you focus on something and take a picture of that. Note that focus requires something to be the center of your interest. You need to center in on an object. In photography, that thing becomes the object of your attention and the point on which you focus.
The principle applies in business and our personal lives as well. Focus requires a thing on which to focus. Without a thing to focus on, our efforts and those of our businesses will become easy prey to distractions, limited attention span, and unlimited opportunities, and we’ll lurch from one urgent attraction to another, expending energy and money with little return to show for it.
When we focus, we stick to one thing at a time and apply our resources – time, energy, money, and emotions – to accomplishing that thing.
I think Richard Swenson laid out the case for it in his book, Margin:
The spontaneous tendency of our culture is to inexorably add detail to our lives: one more option, one more problem, one more commitment, one more expectation, one more purchase, one more debt, one more change, one more job, one more decision.
We must now deal with more ‘things per person’ than at any other time in history.
It’s easy to be distracted — to flit from one superficial use of your time and energy to another. At the end of the day, you discover you have been incredibly busy and accomplished nothing of substance.
The antidote for distraction is focus.
So, how do you decide what you should focus on? That brings us to the discipline of prioritization. Not everything that presents itself to you is of equal importance. Many of the challenges and opportunities are just not worth your time.
Peter Drucker once said this:
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
The solution to competing responsibilities, multiple opportunities, and a tidal wave of ‘things per person’ is to develop the discipline of regularly stopping and deciding which you should focus on first.
It is a discipline. That means that you do it, even if it doesn’t feel good, even if you have other things to do, even if it interrupts your routines, you still do it. You understand that it is worthwhile and that it will produce a future of greater impact and fulfillment.