Knowing what to focus on is a Super Power
The outcomes someone who is good at focussing, and knows what to focus on, can generate far outweigh the horsepower of their input. In fact, input effort isn’t really a good predicator of success at all.
You hear phrases like ‘busy fool’ and ‘just spinning their wheels’ to represent people that are working hard, but not achieving anything. You know they are putting tons of effort in, with a long list of tasks to get through (that list just keeps getting longer, by the way), but yet never really moving the needle and having the impact they could have.
Focussing on a small number of high impact activities is the solution!
While that sounds obvious, it’s not easy. How do you decide which activities will have the highest impact? It’s even more difficult on the other side — choosing focus areas means saying no to other things. This is the real issue — over-achievers are not good at saying no or leaving things on their task list that could be ‘checked off’ quite quickly.
Focus means being able to prioritize. Focus means being able to say ‘no’ to distractions, requests, and non-prioritized work. Focus means scheduling your time wisely and being outcome-driven.
It’s incredibly hard for a diligent person to not work on their immediate task list, inbox, and the list of seemingly important requests that flood in every day. It feels irresponsible, borderline lazy, to not do the low-hanging fruit work. But yet, if you’re not focussed on the big-picture, you — and your team — are not going to make progress (at the pace you want) towards it. You could risk spinning your wheels all the way to being replaced by a competitor that has been more focussed.
I made up a basic quadrant for this — let’s call it the Impact Effect. Lazy people are the bottom left — low focus and low effort. Busy fools with low impact are the top left. People with the ability to focus, but who don’t put tons of hours in are bottom right — they move the needle and are effective, despite with what seems like a lackadaisical commitment. Then there’s the people we all admire — who put high effort in, are laser focussed, can say ‘no’ and avoid distractions. They are the top right — consistently moving the needle on multiple fronts. These people are rare!
If you are self-aware enough to figure out where you are on the chart, there’s probably some simple things you can do to move further up and to the right. Maybe you oscillate between sections depending on your energy and focus levels. Most of us would do well with more focussed work, more deep work, better prioritization, and more ruthless adherence to our priorities.
Also — multitasking is a myth — the reality is multitasking is just doing a few things slower, and at lower quality.
Let’s talk about shallow work and deep work. It’s easy to confuse focus with deep work. It’s very possible to do deep work on completely the wrong thing! It’s also the case that a lot of shallow work is productive. The real distinction is — do you know what you should be focussed on, is it a small list, and are you actually working on it with the majority of your time — saying no to everything else?
There’s a great story about Warren Buffet’s advice to his pilot on achieving his goals. First — write down all your goals. Second — circle the top 5. Then, crucially, consider the second list the ‘TO DONT’ list, the ‘avoid at all costs’ list (as oppose to the — ‘these aren’t as important as my top 5, but every now and then when I have a few minutes, I’ll try move them forward). Until you have succeeded in your top 5, all other goals are the enemy of focus.
I think this is a great mental model — it’s not just prioritizing, it’s actively saying NO to other goals. It’s easy, or easier, to say no to things you don’t actually care about or want to do, but much harder to say no to things that are on your list.
We all know a few high-focus needle-moving people. Elon Musk runs multiple high-growth, extremely difficult businesses — you can bet the only way he manages this is through ruthless focus on what matters most. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet again, all individuals whose single-minded focus enabled them to achieve outsized results.
One way to think about your day and task list is through three categories: consumption, administration, and production.
Consumption is listening, learning, reading, digesting metrics and finances, and attending lots of meetings. There is nothing wrong with a healthy amount of consumption!
Admin is what people often consider productivity and what so many productivity tools are for — making lists, managing email (I try to practice Inbox Zero!), processing and weighing in on ‘stuff’.
And then there’s production — the work only you can do, when you are creating and your willpower is driving a project forward. Whether it’s writing, thinking, communicating and implementing decisions, or meeting with the marketing team to work on your next campaign — it’s not that it’s deep or solo work only, it’s that its focussed work — the time spent definitely moves the ball forward on your big goals.
Like the cliché — what gets measured gets managed —the same is true here — what gets focussed on gets done. Do things that are important, not things that are urgent!