The Value Of Focus

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"When do you have time for all of the things that you do?"

How often do you get asked this, exact, question? People who seem to be doing a lot of things often get asked this question. It is the kind of question that makes me laugh (mostly because there is a misconception that I am busy doing a lot of things). The truth of the matter is that I’m not doing a lot of things, but there is a good chance that the things that I am doing are the types of things that others wish they could be spending their time on?

Make time for the things that are important to you.

I don’t care if it’s loosing weight, doing community service, getting a promotion, Blogging more often or starting that business that you have been dreaming about. You will always have (and make) time for the things that are important to you. The output of that means that you won’t see them as something you have to add into your schedule or routine, because it’s the work you were meant to do. While it may be challenging and extremely difficult work, even the toughest of moments will give you both joy and satisfaction. That’s the truly amazing thing about doing the work that you were meant to do: it doesn’t feel like work and you rarely feel like you need to take a vacation from it. Why? Because a vacation is break… and who needs to take a break from doing something that they love? In fact, isn’t the ideal vacation one where all you’re doing are the things that bring you joy and fulfillment?

Enough of this, what does it take to make this all become a reality? 

In a word: focus. You can read every best-selling business book ever published, then move on to every motivational book ever published and from there start reading every diet book ever published and you will net out with the same, exact, one word, at the end of every book: focus. You (and no one else) must make a decision about what, exactly, you are going to spend the very few days you have on this pebble we call Earth focusing on. If you read the biographies of the world’s biggest brains and artists – across a myriad of disciplines – you will also uncover that each and every one of them was obsessively focused on their area of interest. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Three ways to re-think about focus:

  • Urgent. Focus is not about dragging your feet and staring out of the window pondering about your area of interest. True focus happens when you create a sense of urgency about your work. Things must get done. It’s the type of focus and sense of urgency that says, "if I don’t get this done right now… in this very moment, there may not be another chance." While you don’t want to take this sense of urgency to an unhealthy state of compulsion, you do need to have it to not only succeed, but stay the course. Being and staying focused needs to feel like you’re constantly on deadline.
  • Empathy. This one may surprise you. I believe that people who are extremely focused on what they’re trying to accomplish often have a lack of empathy. It doesn’t mean that they lack empathy as people, but simply that they’re so focused on what they’re doing that anything else is both a distraction to them (and often an annoyance). It’s important to frame this concept in the right context: think about a pit crew during a grand prix car race. Each member has their task and is focused like a laser to get it done. While the race car pulls into the pit, each crew member must lack empathy to get their jobs done. They must be solely focused on their task. This doesn’t mean that they’re not working as a team or thinking/supporting their other pit crew members (they are), but they don’t have time – at that moment of focus – for empathy. It’s the "getting things done" moment compressed.
  • Future. In the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, there is a section about the time that Apple started making serious money. Steve Jobs laments about some of his peers at Apple for becoming virtually unrecognizable to him. He talks about how some of his co-worker’s wives suddenly had breast implants and how some of the guys suddenly had hair. HIs overarching comment on all of that was: "there is no yacht in my future." In order to be focused on his passions, Jobs constantly reminded himself about why he was doing his work in the first place. For him (and for most of the successful people that I see), it’s the focus on the work that matters most and not the nice things (like money) that comes from doing it well.

I realize that this list is both small and may seem counterintuitive to others who discuss focus, so what’s your take?


  1. Focus is critical as is recognizing distractions and being able to avoid them or rapidly put them in their proper place.
    I disagree about needing to toss empathy-sometimes you need that sense of feeling to keep
    Things focused. What I would say is that you need a healthy sense of selfishness instead- knowing when you need to do your job to the exclusion of popular opinion or the competing needs of others.
    A healthy bit of self-protection and selfishness makes purpose and focus much more clear.
    (happy holidays :). )

  2. I agree with most of this although I have learned not to ditch the empathy completely. I don’t see the non-empathist Steve Jobs as the best role model for leadership. You can’t train yourself to be brilliant let alone expect others to be. Brilliance is inherent.
    One additional factor is that people don’t learn how to spend less time at activities they have to do. Meaning that while they prioritize the important stuff well they don’t learn that you might be able to spend ten minutes on something they always spend an hour on, and get similar results. The OCD crowd has a hard time with letting go and understanding that less could be more. Trial and error can show that to be true, yet they are afraid of the error part such that fear of failure is a barrier to improve their efficiency. Accepting failure is not part of our business culture.
    Happy Holidays!

  3. Like the post. I would add another ingredient – commitment. Way too often I hear someone say they will “try something out.” They end up dabbling around and then moving around to something else. It takes commitment to get over the initial hard part to where things start to flow. Not having a solid focus initially will usually end up in someone quitting way too early.

  4. Hi Mitch,
    This is the first time, I am reading your blog.
    I don’t know whether you are right or wrong about empathy. But you surely ruffled some feathers. πŸ™‚
    Sometimes empathy drives urgency and future. Sometimes your true focus is adding value and helping people. And empathy of people is the missing ingredient that keeps them dead focused on the work they are doing.
    Is empathy selfish? Perhaps it is in our interest to feel about someone or help someone. Perhaps it is our own biases about a lot of things.
    But is the feel good factor and satisfaction about doing something generous selfish?
    Maybe it is. Maybe it is a kind of “Selfish Altruism”.
    Thanks for the blog post, Mitch. Nice to meet you. And you seriously made me think a little deeply.

  5. You have a point with your section on urgency, but I think you have to frame it in the right context. In ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, the author talks about people who put priorities on things that are considered urgent (as in, “We’re in crisis, I must fix this now.”). The key is to put emphasis on things that important, but not crisis-related tasks that seem essential. The key to efficiency is not thinking in all the things I have to get done today, but thinking in bigger buckets of time (higher-level thinking for goals, rather than minute tasks and busy work).

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