“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” said Steven Covey, recognizing that the path to true significance lies through disciplined focus and determined perseverance.
And yet, the majority of us struggle to maintain this discipline in our daily lives. The pull of urgent requests and new opportunities dilute our focus and distract us from making a significant impact. We rationalize that we can do it all. And we pile further priorities and commitments on top of an already overwhelming list of responsibilities.
But reality eventually catches up. The promises and commitments become unsustainable. And by diluting our focus across a wide range of pursuits, we’ve not only sacrificed our sanity, but our ability to make a meaningful impact in any of them.
It’s a problem that many of us struggle with – a lesson that many of us insist on continuing to relearn. Despite knowing where this road inevitably winds up, we still find ourselves pulled in too many directions – eventually disappointing everyone involved when quality versus quantity trade-offs become unavoidable.
Why? Why do we insist on relearning this same lesson, often with the same painful consequences? Because while we may recognize the issue, we haven’t implemented a system to manage it. Simply recognizing the problem isn’t enough. Or as Derek Sivers once said,
“If information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
Live by Design or Live by Default
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.” – Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Living by design, not by default. If there’s a better six word phrase to describe a fulfilling life, I haven’t heard it.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of drifting through our days, allowing situational demands and every new request to drive our actions. As a result we find ourselves not choosing but reacting. Not living by design, but living by default.
Today’s level of connectivity exacerbates the problem. Not only are we connected 24/7, we’re exposed to an unlimited number of new opportunities. And while many may be worthwhile, the unfortunate truth is that most aren’t. And diluting our focus across too many of them sacrifices our ability to be effective on any of them.
The alternative is to make a choice – to consciously consider our options and choose which path offers the best opportunity to make a significant impact. To pause, stop ourselves from making an emotional, impulsive decision, and replace it with one that’s based on logic.
And while there’s no guaranteed formula for success, I’ve often found the best protection against emotional decisions is to run through a simple three-step process before chasing any new opportunities. And one way to start living by design instead of default.
1. Have a Clear Purpose
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” – Alexander Graham Bell
Warren Buffet, once offering advice to his personal airplane pilot, suggested a simple method to better focus and pursue your critical life goals.
- Write down the top 25 things you want to do in your life.
- Take the top 5 and separate them from the bottom 20.
- Refuse to look at anything on the bottom 20 until you’ve succeeded with your top five.
We want to do the bottom 20. They’re likely good opportunities. And if we keep them around, we’ll work on them intermittently. Maybe switch over to some of those when we start to struggle in other areas.
Which is why we need to ignore them. Because ultimately, they’re a distraction from those top five. And they represent an almost certain risk of diluting our focus and jeopardizing our critical goals.
Without the clarity of focusing on our absolute top priorities, it’s easy to be distracted by all of the other things that are bound to come up. The company that simultaneously tries to be the best technical solution, quickest delivery, and lowest cost often ends up doing a poor job across all three.
I continue to be surprised by the amount of employees who haven’t considered their long-term career goals. Similarly, it’s troubling how many people can’t pinpoint the specific way that they plan to make a significant and unique impact to their company.
Without a clear objective, we end up drifting through our days, allowing our precious time to be filled by other peoples’ priorities. Until we realize that we’ve invested our life in chasing various distractions and have failed to sufficiently invest in making any one significant contribution.
Just as a strong company mission statement simplifies all subsequent decisions, having a clear purpose in life helps us quickly evaluate future opportunities in a much more effective way. If you could be excellent at only one thing, what would it be? Or put another way, what’s your ultimate destination in life? As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it,
“Remembering that destination will help you make the single most important distinction in life, which is to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted.”
2. Set a Decision Criteria
“Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life.” – Victor Hugo
When a new opportunity comes up, how do you decide whether it’s worthwhile or not?
Most of us are excited by the new so we bias the potential upside when considering new opportunities. And as a result, we pursue a model that keeps us chasing flashy new distractions without building up any real depth.
We perpetuate a decision-making process ruled by impulsive emotions rather than rational consideration. To protect against this tendency, we need to establish a more objective decision criteria when considering new opportunities.
Kyle Maynard, one of the most inspiring people in the world, ranks new opportunities on a scale of 1 – 10, with the stipulation that he can’t use the number 7. As Kyle explained,
“If I thought something was a 7, there was a good chance I felt obligated to do it. But if I have to decide between a 6 or an 8, it’s a lot easier to quickly determine whether or not I should even consider it.”
Once you start doing this, it’s easy to see how many of the things we do – yet aren’t really thrilled about doing – end up with a 7 ranking. Eliminating this option forces us to choose between critical efforts and those that don’t fall into our top priorities.
Greg McKeown offers similar advice, suggesting that we score the single most important criterion in each decision on a scale between 0 and 100. Then, for anything rated lower than 90%, immediately change it to a zero. As he reasons,
“This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s. Think about how you’d feel if you scored a 65 on some test. Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?”
Whatever criterion works for you, the important thing is to have some method of assessing how well new opportunities align to your mission. And move from making an emotional, impulsive decision to one that’s governed by logic.
3. Recognize the Trade-offs
“I can’t give you a surefire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.” – Herbert Baynard Swope, first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize
Whenever I see a company quickly take on new work without considering the trade-offs, I’m immediately suspicious of whether they’ll follow through on their promises. Not only is it unlikely that they have a plan to succeed in the new scope, they’ve also shown a lack of respect for their previous commitments.
After all, if someone’s willing to shortchange their existing responsibilities to chase a shiny new opportunity, how confident should we be that they’ll remain focused on our work when that next distraction comes along?
It’s an easy behavior to spot in others, but how often do we do the same thing? How many times do we quickly accept new opportunities without weighing the trade-offs?
We all inherently know that there are fixed constraints on both our time and attention. Yet we conveniently forget these limits when a new opportunity comes up. In the excitement of something new, we’re quick to ignore the fact that we simply cannot do everything.
The majority of us grew up with the mindset that more is always better. That it’s wrong to turn down new opportunities. Accept now before it’s too late. We’ll figure out how to manage things later.
The downside to this path is, of course, that nothing ever gets done.
Which shouldn’t be all that surprising when you think about it. Who can accomplish anything meaningful if they’re always switching focus across a parade of changing priorities?
Instead, before accepting a new opportunity, consider what you’ll need to sacrifice in its place. Consider what responsibilities you’ll need to delay or cancel to support this new opportunity. Is it still worthwhile? Is the benefit worth the cost? As McKeown wrote,
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”
Don’t ask yourself how you can do it all. Ask yourself what you want to go big on. And then do it.
Pause. Then Choose.
“Someone with a coherent philosophy of life will know what in life is worth attaining, and because this person has spent time trying to attain the thing in life he believed worth attaining, he has probably attained it, to the extent that it was possible for him to do so.” – William B. Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life
We all want to have a fulfilling life – one that’s in spent in pursuit of meaningful goals. There’s few people who reach their deathbed and wish they’d spent more time chasing trivial distractions.
But we shouldn’t expect to lead a meaningful life without actively making choices in that direction. So pause. Take a moment to think. And move away from the impulsive reactions that lead us down that familiar path of trying to do it all.
- Have a clear purpose.
- Set a decision criteria.
- Recognize the trade-offs.
Whether it’s this system or any other that helps instill more rational thinking into your decisions, remember that we all have this choice. What are you going to do with yours? Or as the poet Mary Oliver asked,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life”