90-day Focus Plan for the overly ambitious

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!


Why you need to change your beliefs about rest

What if I told you that there is something you could do that would lead to weight loss, improved creativity, and better performance – if only you could get over your guilt and let yourself do it?

I only came to this discovery through a recent session with my therapist (which I highly recommend getting, because an objective listening ear is an invaluable resource in life):

Me: I feel like a lump on a log.
Therapist: Why is that?
Me: I haven’t done anything this morning and it’s already 11AM. I should have responded to work emails. I should have researched those real estate questions for my parents. I should have at least gone on a run.
Therapist: How does that make you feel? (typical therapist question)
Me: I hate wasting time. I feel bad. I’m actually rather angry at myself for not being more productive.
Therapist: What would it feel like if you told yourself: “I needed the rest, this is good for me.”
Me: I don’t believe it. I don’t have time to rest.
Therapist: But what if you could believe it? How would it change things?
Me: What if I believed that rest was actually good for me, and I let myself do it?
Me: …I think I would be a lot happier.

So at this point, I recognize that my inability to give myself any downtime is causing me unnecessary stress. The self-beratement I experience for “wasting time” is neither helpful to my life nor fun for anyone around me. I blame this on the fact that I was parented by a Chinese tiger-mom.

But, hasn’t my productive drive lead to much success in my life? If I let myself rest, won’t I lose my edge?

As it turns out, quite the opposite is true.

I did a bit of research and it turns out that real rest (versus mere distraction, like TV or People magazine or a glass of wine) has all kinds of benefits that can make you even more productive and help you live a fuller life, which ultimately is my end goal. What is real rest? While distractions seek to temporarily tune out life, real rest turns inward and anchors your awareness on the present.

Top 3 benefits of letting yourself get rest:

1. It stops you from resorting to unhealthy distractions to get a break: How often do you get up from your desk for a coffee or a pastry to avoid dealing with an unpleasant task? I’m pretty sure that this is a leading cause of my prediabetes. We need breaks, but because we’re not willing to allow ourselves to close our laptop without having another task to go to, we end up distracting ourselves with bad food, frivolous errands, and mindless Facebook browsing. If you just give yourself permission to rest for a few minutes whenever the desire to procrastinate comes a-knocking, you may find that you end up skinnier and wasting less time.

2. It restores you to perform at much higher levels, so you can achieve even more: In the must-read book The Art of Learning, chess champion Josh Waitzkin talks about the importance of pulsing between stress and recovery in order to achieve peak performance. Josh would use all kinds of techniques to relax between matches – stretching, deep breathing, play, washing his face. He writes, “By conditioning ourselves to move fluidly between intervals of tension and serenity…we become more able to rally our powers of intuition and creativity and call on our knowledge and skills at a moment’s notice.”

3. It facilitates insights and breakthroughs that only come when you step away from the problem: This one is really counterintuitive to me because my tiger-mom upbringing says that when I face a tough problem, the only way to solve it is by grinding through and not giving up. There’s no doubt that grit is critical for success (as proved in this TED talk by a Chinese-American psychologist), but there’s a difference between staying committed and bashing your head against the wall. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you are giving yourself a chance to step away and find another perspective. I love this quote from essayist Tim Kreider: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Okay all this is great, but how do you actually rest? This sounds like a silly question, but when I tried to think of an answer I drew a complete blank. The last time I could remember experiencing rest was at a spa day with my wife one year ago. This made me realize that I have a serious case of rest deficit. I turned to the internet and searched for “how to rest” for some ideas, and I found all kinds of advice from “go walk a labyrinth” to “try laugh yoga.”

I settled on experimenting with these 5 strategies that appealed most to me:

1. Have a private listening party: Listening to music with your full attention, as if you were at a concert, has been scientifically proven to bring all kinds of well-being benefits. Last night after dinner, the wifey and I set some mood lighting, snuggled up on our couch and listened to a Krishna Das album (we figured if we’re trying for rest, we may as well go for some mellow yogic chanting, but I’m sure this will work just as well with ‘regular’ music that you enjoy). I can’t remember the last time I just listened to music without doing something else, so it was quite a novel experience. And with a partner, it can be quite romantic as well.

2. Do an activity that brings you into “flow”: When you’re completely involved in an activity for its own sake, you are in a state of flow. Getting to flow takes effort, which seems at odds with rest, but when you’re in flow you forget yourself and begin to act effortlessly with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now. I plan to explore this topic more in a later post, but for now I’m trying a couple of activities that I think might get me flowing: Playing guitar, going on a run and writing this blog post. Results vary, but I intend to experiment until I find an activity that can regularly get me there.

3. Get a massage or take a bath: This one’s an easy sell. Yet, how often do these things fall off your list of priorities when the to-do’s stack up? I’m back on my once-a-month regimen of massages, and I’m committing to more bath time in 2015.

4. Practice yoga and meditation: I already have a (relatively) regular practice of yoga and meditation. But to be honest, I’m not sure how restful they are. Most of the time, I’m struggling to keep my brain from wandering off into the wild blue yonder. A couple of tips that I’m trying out to stay more present: Take a deep breath. Feel every pose from head to toe. Focus on the small movements. And above all – be compassionate on yourself.

And above all, the most important strategy for getting rest:

5. Change your beliefs about rest: What is it about your beliefs that’s stopping you from closing the laptop and taking a break? For me, it comes down to self judgement. If I’m not striving and achieving, who am I then? If I’m not moving forward, where would I be? I’m afraid that if I sit with myself in the now, I might be sorely disappointed. The relentless inner critic mutters in my ear: I should be better; I should have done more. To combat the self-judgement, I’ve started repeating this mantra to myself: I am enough. I do enough. I have enough.

I’ll admit that this is extremely difficult for me. But what if I could truly believe that I’m good enough just as I am now?

…I think I would be a lot happier.