In any job, no matter how mundane, there are always goals, tasks, and areas of focus. The difference is in scope. A job may have three or four main tasks, and focusing on your job is merely a matter of concentration, staying on task and avoiding distraction. But once you start to set ambitious goals for yourself, staying focused becomes a much bigger issue.
A company works by delegating tasks, and low-to mid-level employees have a predetermined range of responsibilities that they execute. But not so for the manager, who has many more things to think about. Instead of the three or four tasks that an administrative employee may have domain over, maybe you have thirty or forty, and you have a constant stream of distractions. How do you stay focused in that type of environment?
It’s not easy, and overcoming obstacles is a constant battle. It’s not as easy as just shutting the door and putting up the “do not disturb” sign. Good management is open management, and a manager with a closed door will be considered aloof, and won’t get the cooperation of his or her staff. But keeping that door open is a challenge, and it’s going to multiply your multi-tasking responsibility exponentially.
Besides the requisite open door policy, distractions also come as a result of new technology. The state-of-the-art in communications has given us unparalleled ability to stay in touch and collaborate, but it also gives us unparalleled distractions on a constant basis. When I’m sitting at my desk trying to get a task done, what do you think happens first? The phone rings. And not just one phone—like most people, I have a landline, a mobile, and a fax line. And if that’s not enough, there is email coming in every five or ten minutes, instant messaging, and Skype. There is of course, also the smell of fresh coffee wafting in from the break room after somebody puts on a new pot, and you suspect there may even be donuts in there. You have to go look, you can’t resist.
We all have a lot to do, and a lot of different things begging for our attention, but here’s where we separate the serious players from the wanna-be’s. A very common complaint I hear from people, especially when they have set aggressive business goals, is “There are so many things to do, I have to divide my time and it’s hard to get any single thing accomplished.”
I understand how hard it is to stay focused when you have ten or twenty tasks on your desk, and they all need attention right away. But here’s the simple truth: Winners are able to stay focused, and losers are not. This principle needs to drive your entire business day, your strategy and day-to-day business tactics, and every decision you ever make. What is it that makes you succeed? Great ideas? The availability of investment capital? Spiritual faith? All great things, but not enough. Success is based on focus—without applying that intensity to your goals, everything quickly falls apart.
I know a man who had a goal—more than anything else in the world, he wanted to start his own auto repair shop. He wasn’t particularly intelligent, had no education, and I’m not even sure he was that great of a mechanic. He didn’t have any money, just a garage full of used tools, most of which he got from the junkyard. But he stayed focused on his goal, worked at it every day, and thought of nothing else. He made a plan and didn’t let anything distract him from it. And it worked: he owns a highly successful repair shop!
It’s almost always a given that when you have an ambitious goal, there are going to be obstacles. Things will get in your way, and you can count on there being more tasks to do than you have time for. How do you stay focused? Here are a few tips:
- Create a balanced life. Even the sharpest minds will wander, and if you sit at your desk for 12 to 14 hours a day, you can count on some unproductive downtime. Balancing work and life helps you become more productive—and it helps you stay focused on your tasks. If all you can think about is going outside for a break and strolling down to your favorite coffee shop in the afternoon, then set some time aside and do it. When you get back, you’ll be ready to focus again. And what’s perhaps even more important—make sure that you allow your employees to do the same (within reason, of course).
- Set an ambitious but realistic goal. Some goals are so all-encompassing that they just may not be possible, at least in the short-term. Aggressive, ambitious goals are important, and you shouldn’t sell yourself short—but at the same time, pick a goal, or a series of goals, that you think you can reasonably achieve.
- Have a goal setting template. Most of the time, even a single goal can be broken up into multiple smaller goals. Goals and tasks have a way of multiplying when you’re not looking, and as a result, some of them get lost in the shuffle. Create a goal setting template to keep track of your progress on each one.
Most importantly, establish a weekly and daily plan. Everybody has experienced the Monday phenomenon—you sit down on Monday morning, and your workload seems insurmountable. It’s hard to know where to start. Select two or three desired outcomes per day, and focus on those outcomes. Pay attention to other tasks as needed, if only to send a note to say, “I’ll get to that tomorrow.” Then return your focus to those two or three stated outcomes. Yes, it’s true you may not get all of the tasks on your list accomplished, but you will get those two or three outcomes accomplished, and that gives you some momentum to go forward and tackle the rest.
And of course, while learning to master the power of focus will help you get more accomplished, the fact remains that if you’ve set an ambitious goal, you very likely are going to need help. Nobody ever succeeds in isolation, so your next step is to multiply the power of focus by learning to delegate. If you’re able to delegate, you can relieve some of the pressure, and have a more realistic and achievable set of goals on which to focus.