I love having a lot of balls in the air. The idea of focusing on just one thing at a time sounds terribly boring. I get such a high out of starting new ideas, and I thrive on the challenge of juggling projects across a vast arena of interests.
At any given time, I might be training for an olympic triathlon, taking an online course on marketing, starting a new business idea with a friend, interviewing contractors for a home improvement project, going through a Tony Robbins personal growth seminar, researching real estate investment options, doing pro bono consulting work, working on my film documentary project, and taking piano lessons. All while holding a relatively-demanding day job at a Fortune 500 company.
My wife looks at this and thinks I’m crazy. She is of the disposition that you should “do one thing, and do it well.” While I love my way of doing things, I have to admit that lately I’ve been feeling a bit scattered and dissatisfied.
I want to do all these things, but I’m not sure that I’m doing any one of them very well. And all the time, I’m feeling guilty for the loose ends I’ve left.
This has led me to my current exploration of Focus. Reading Margaret Lobenstein’s The Renaissance Soul (highly recommended for you multi-passioned people out there), I’ve concluded a few things. First, there is nothing wrong (and in fact many things right) with thriving on many interests. Second, it’s possible to focus while still maintaining variety. Third, you need to focus if you actually want to get anything done without losing your mind.
Why focus will make you happier and more effective, even if you’re the type of person who loves variety:
- Focus generates momentum. When you focus on getting something done to completion, you don’t waste time/energy switching between projects, you feel more in control of the situation, and you feel satisfaction at seeing achievement. All this helps make progress happen faster. Podcaster Pat Flynn calls the ability to take one thing to completion at a time the most powerful (and toughest) productivity tip to implement. Furthermore, if your project requires support from other people, your own focus will spur them on and generate even more momentum.
- Focus offers relief. Once you choose your focus areas, you can let everything else go for the time being. That’s a tremendous relief. If triathlon racing is not my focus, I can stop feeling guilty about not getting enough miles of training in each week. I might still exercise for my daily well-being, but I can let go of the need for achievement in this area and put away my time sheets and training plans. If any guilt comes creeping in, I remind myself that it’s not that I’ve given up on these interests – I’m just focused on other priorities for now and I’ll come back to them at another time.
Okay so how do you focus, when you’re curious about anything and want to try everything?
1. Look at your past and identify what’s made you lose focus as well as what’s helped you stay focused. If you want change your behavior, you need to understand how you’ve done it in the past.
What causes me to lose focus:
- I hit a plateau in progress and it feels like hard work to get better (e.g. learning guitar beyond the initial 8 chords)
- The initial thrill is gone and I’m getting bored (e.g. snowboarding same runs over and over again)
- I’m afraid of failure, and I doubt whether any of my efforts will lead to anything worthwhile (e.g. starting a business)
What causes me to stay focused:
- Make myself accountable to people: When I raised money from friends for my film documentary, I had to follow through.
- Set hard deadlines for myself: In order to make progress on my business idea, I would set up meetings with my partners before the work was done so it would force me to do it.
- Reaffirm why it’s worthwhile: I’ve stayed focused on investing and personal finance because I know that they’re the keys to financial freedom, which I deeply want.
- Find a way to derive immediate benefit out of it: Establishing a fitness routine required immense willpower at first. But now that I feel immediate improvement in my mood and energy each time I work out, I’ve had no trouble staying committed to it.
2. Categorize all your interests into buckets, and understand why you’re interested in each bucket.
My interest categories:
- Personal Growth: I want greater self-awareness and better relationships with others.
- Financial independence: I want the freedom to spend my time as I please.
- Music: I want to enjoy playing music for myself and for others.
- Fitness: I want to have the physical energy and capability to enjoy life.
- Learning: I want to grow in my knowledge about the world so that I can enjoy it more.
- Adventure: I want to enjoy the beauty of nature with my own two legs (and arms, if I’m kayaking).
3. Choose a small number (I’m going with 3) of specific interests to focus on for the next 90 days. It’s also helpful to articulate why these are important to you now. The why is always more critical than the how, and it’s these reasons that will keep you committed when the next shiny object comes around to tempt you.
4. Build a 90 day action plan around those interests. Olympic athlete performance coach Todd Herman talks about making goals inevitable with 90 day sprints. The gist of it is to choose process goals (e.g. run 15 mi a week) vs. outcome goals (e.g. be top 20% in my triathlon age group), while still measuring for performance (e.g. improve my running pace by 10%). This way you’re focusing on what you have 100% control over (process goals).
5. Build in safeguards to keep you focused based on what you identified in #1
- Make myself accountable: Promise a deliverable to someone, track your progress on a chart tacked to the fridge, write a blog to publicly share your journey! Whatever works.
- Reaffirm why it’s worthwhile: In addition to accountability, this blog also helps me work through all the mumbo jumbo in my head and gives me greater clarity about the purpose of my goals.
- Derive immediate benefit: Make sure you get something tangible out of your diligence right away. While FI is a long-term goal, I get the immediate benefit of a surge of excitement whenever I look at my net worth figure in Personal Capital because I know that freedom is truly within reach!