One of the greatest keys to success in modern business is focus. Let's think about it for a bit.
First, notice that the word is primarily a verb. Focus. Even the noun form is an action word. Focus is something you have precisely when it’s something you do. And I think there are three basic imperatives involved with attaining and keeping great focus.
1. Ignore Distractions. Ask What Matters.
There’s an old saying that the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. That could be true. And if there’s a third, it just may be distraction.
We’re always surrounded by distractions – news, gossip, emails, texts, phone messages, the never ending streams of social media, the various forms of old fashioned media, and people stopping by to shoot the breeze or tell us about their problems. The buzz of distraction is incessant. And it’s all around us. We have to learn to block it out and ignore it.
We need to question things. What’s relevant to our concerns, and what’s off target, even if just slightly? What can advance us along our path, and what would just detain us and hold us back? We can draw this crucial distinction only if we have clear targets, clear goals around which to structure our focus, and guidelines for properly getting there. Those organizing aims, ideas, and principles then become the test for anything that enters our consciousness: Will this thing or idea or opportunity or conversation help us properly to attain our goals, or not? Is it useful, or not? Will it keep us on the road, or detour us off course?
2. Select. Eliminate.
Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs would often say, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” He would then usually explain that, “Good things have to be set aside so that we can do really, really great things.”
To select is to eliminate. We all have limited time and energy. Choice allows us to cut through the thicket of what’s possible and carve out a path we can follow. The famously groundbreaking modern painter Piet Mondrian claimed that the most difficult brush stroke in any painting is the very first one. Prior to that, the blank canvas presents to the artist infinitely many possibilities. The first stroke begins a process of elimination. To choose is to exclude. When we do this, we can’t also do that.
Without elimination, there is no selection. You may think you’ve made a new choice, and set a new goal, but if that hasn’t resulted in the exclusion of other contrary behaviors, you really don’t have a new goal at all. “No” is just as important than “Yes,” and must be much more frequent.
3. Use the Perspective of Purpose.
How then can you be properly selective? You can use the perspective of purpose.
I’ve suggested that clear goals help us to identify and eliminate distractions that would get in the way of our progress. But how do we set the right goals in the first place? By having a solid sense of purpose and mission for what we’re doing. Why do we exist as a company or department or institution? What’s our purpose? Why am I doing what I'm doing? Those should be questions that everyone can ask and answer, in their own context. A strong sense of purpose brings with it both a motivation to focus and a power to do so well.
Aristotle understood long ago that we humans are essentially purposeful beings. When we have a purpose we can believe in, then it will by nature guide our behavior in a way that external forces can never threaten or replicate. Buying in to a purpose is just setting your heart and mind in a particular direction, and on a specific road, and one that inherently involves the strength of focus.
I think we can say even more. Focus is destiny. What we focus on determines what we become and accomplish. Vagueness is the enemy of excellence. Focus is its engine.