Why Focus Is the Number-One Element of Business Success
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
My favorite scene in the Pixar movie Up is when the old man Carl and the boy Russell get stranded near Paradise Falls and meet “Dug the Talking Dog.” When Russell asks Dug to speak, he actually does: “Hi there! My name is Dug. I have just met you and I love you!” Dug jumps on Carl and excitedly continues explaining as the two humans stare, shocked and incredulous, “My Master made me this collar. He is a good and smart Master, and he made me this collar so that I may talk. ...”
Dug suddenly stops, shoots his head distractedly to the left, and shouts “SQUIRREL!” Anyone who owns or has even seen a dog understands the joke, which becomes a running bit throughout the movie. Even in the most important and direst situations, “squirrels” distract Dug and the other talking dogs. I’m certainly guilty of Dug-like behavior on a regular basis, but I'm also maniacal about focusing when it matters.
As a business leader trying to think big and act bigger, if you don't relentlessly focus that ownership on what drives your business, create a culture that reflects who you are, and stay grounded as you make things happen, you'll never see the true rewards of thinking big and acting bigger.
Sure, we all like to do different things and get caught up in this project or that idea, but we must ensure we—and our teams—can answer these questions easily and directly:
- Beyond our conditions of satisfaction, what’s the one thing driving our business, and what are we doing to drive it further?
- Is doing that thing going to lead to things you really want and need to get done?
- What is the behavior we want to drive?
- Why are we doing what we’re doing?
That last question is one too many people don't take the time to ask out loud. Try it, and see what kind of answers you or your team give. More likely than not, you’ll be surprised at what they and you say. Asking big questions is easier than thinking about and acting on them. But you must, because you can’t go in if you don’t know the way out.
My business family gets very annoyed with me about the choices I make very quickly for my business. The conversation then goes something like this:
“You answered too quickly!” they tell me.
“Would you like me to say it slower?” I reply.
“But you didn’t consider the other possibilities,” they say.
“Sure I did. I considered the possibilities, and I don’t like them.”
“You didn’t give anything else a chance,” they say.
“Yes, I did. My chances just come a lot faster. Wait, wait . . . let me think again [pause, look up]. . . . No! Does that make you feel better?”
Perhaps I'm being a little pigheaded, but that’s not the point. My point is, I've filtered the noise to focus quickly and efficiently on what needs to be addressed. I don't want to waste time thinking about the thousands of choices I could make when the choice I make is good enough. These decisions aren't what matters to thinking big and acting bigger. Since I have a constant awareness of and real clarity about what drives my business and me, I'm able to focus quickly on easy answers, which is good because focus can be a real problem for people like me, who look at a blank wall and see opportunity.
The only thing no one in the history of the world has learned to make more of is time. Without managing your time, anything you do, no matter the size or importance, can cause you to fall victim to Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to take up the time available to finish it. I had to learn to filter my projects through the time I had, not the time I dreamed I had, to get through the day, week, month, and year.
My solution was to get in shape—a triangle, that is. I drew an inverted triangle (with the base at the top of the page). I then divided it into even thirds horizontally, so the biggest space was at the top. Finally, I filled in my list of tasks as follows:
- In the top, or biggest third, are the things I need to spend most of my time on.
- In the middle are things I spend some of my time on.
- In the bottom are the things I should spend the least of my time on.
The key to the triangle, however, isn't simply dividing tasks into time: It's leaving tasks off the triangle completely. As I said, I see everything as critical, important, or a moneymaking opportunity, but if everything is important, then nothing is. Now I may be spending less time on some things, but they were still important enough to make the triangle, and I can plot my way through them.
Pushing some things off or crossing them off completely no matter how passionate I am about them is always the hardest part of this exercise. I still fail at it occasionally. But understanding the limits on my time forces me to address the important questions and focuses my ongoing pursuit and completion of the biggest, most important things.
This focus not only helps me complete the things in my triangle but also makes me say “no” much earlier than I ever have, both to the things I shouldn’t do and the things I desperately want to say yes to and know I could kick ass on but just can’t right now. If I'm already busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest, can I really kick any more ass? This is why I take vacations—to do those things not on my triangle, so I’m not consumed with that desire daily.
Now, you might ask: Is all this a moving target? Of course it is! I constantly need to change the focus of what things are in my triangle, and I need additional triangles to focus on different parts of my business. My “triangle scheme” may not be right for you, but the important thing is that you find a similar (and equally adaptable) way to plan your time and resources so you spend time on the most important things at once, especially when it comes to your clients and customers.