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First understand the do-or-die importance of focus.

“If you don’t learn to focus, you will have a shallow and unrewarding life without any meaningful achievements.” Derek Sivers 

That is worth repeating.

“A shallow and unrewarding life.”

That’s bad.

You Need to Learn to Focus

So make it a priority.

Yes it’s hard.  The world is designed to distract you.  Facebook is a research laboratory focussed on human distraction.  They invest billions and are excellent at their work.  When facebook slip up, hard on their tails come Apple, apps, youtube, caffeine, bored friends, problematic neighbours and general office bullshit.

Apps are designed to be as addictive as possible.

Assume you are dealing with crack cocaine.  If you can see it, you will use it.  If you can hear it, you will use it.  Willpower is not going to get you through this.

There are many reasons why we delay work.  I think the most insidious is that I have a belief that the person I will be in future will be better than the person who I am today.  I have a consistent inner belief that I will be smarter, better, faster in the future.  The work that is hard today will somehow become easier for the better future me.  But, what if’s not?  I will only be better in future if I do the hard work of pushing through distractions today.

Who is Good at Focus?

I have spent a lot of time interviewing high performance athletes. My goal was to understand their motivations, how they train, how they prepare mentally, and how they face anxiety.  These successful athletes have an ability to focus on the one next step and, in the words of Nike, Just do it!

Josef Ajram, one of Spain’s top endurance athletes, tells himself “I will run another 15 minutes. Come on. Anyone can run another 15 minutes.”  In Josef Ajram’s words, he has completed the Marathon de Sables – 243km across the Sahara desert in 6 days – by only ever allowing himself to think about the next 15 minutes.

How to Learn Focus?

Simple, noisy timer

Use The Pomodoro* Method.

Here are my simplified instructions for following the Pomodoro method.

Ingredients:

Instructions:

  1. Pick a specific project you would like to work on.  For example “Write a blog post on focus”.
  2. Set a timer for 20 minutes
  3. Work only on this project until the timer stops.  Stop completely no matter where you are when you hear the timer.  Mid sentence is excellent (it makes it easier to re-start this work later).
  4. Repeat.

Count how many timers you can complete in a day.  I bet you will not complete one single complete timer the first day you begin this habit.  I didn’t.

Some clarifications…

*Any interruption*, you must reset the timer to 20 minutes.

If you need a drink of water, go get the water, then reset the timer.

If you need the bathroom, go, then reset the timer.

If you must check wikipedia to find out a fact, check wikipedia, then reset the timer.  (better… resist the need to check facts now, and use a future timer to work on the project “research focus and collect sources”)

If you must respond to a phone alert, respond, reset the timer.

I think you get the idea.  Only by working on 1, and only 1 project for the full 20 minutes = you get to count it as 1 timer.

* You can find the original Pomodoro Method described here: Pomodoro Method.

This week’s Rhetorical Journey video is all about the Ability to Focus

If you are viewing this via email, watch the video on the blog here: the Ability to Focus

Inspired by Derek Sivers..

This was inspired by Derek Sivers in his frequently asked questions.  I recommend a quick read.  It is lots of content in a short bullet point list.

Derek on focus: He shares 3 further tips for improving your focus…

  1. Read the book “Deep Work”.
  2. Read “Trying to pursue many different directions at once?”.
  3. Practice meditation.  Maria Popova of BrainPickings listens to this guided meditation by Tara Brach every morning…

Tara Brach Guided Meditation

Gratitude

Personally, this video about Gratitude is one of my favourite ways to Meditate for a few minutes.  If you are reading via email, check out the video on the blog here: Nature, Beauty, Gratitude.

How many Pomodoro timers can you do today?  Reply in the comments if you get 1 full timer done today!

If you liked this post, you will also like Focus and The Urgent and the Important.

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In a 1954 speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, former U.S. President Eisenhower said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

jp-kantorRobert Glazer shared this simple but powerful life management tool on his blog today – Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important matrix.

The image to the right shows a 2×2 matrix using the two axis of Important and Urgent.  This gives us 4 types of task:

  1. Urgent & Important
  2. Urgent & Not Important
  3. Important & Not Urgent
  4. Not Urgent & Not Important

In an un-disciplined person, category 2 tends to be completed before category 3.  In a disciplined person, category 3 is completed before touching category 2.

Success is rarely Urgent

Jim Rohn gives one of the most powerful definitions of success:

“Failure is a few bad decisions repeated every day.  Success is a few simple good habits practiced every day” Jim Rohn

There is a saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”.  Health success is an apple a day.  Failure is a donut instead of an apple each day.  You can say “what difference does 1 donut make?”  You won’t notice the damage today, you won’t notice tomorrow… but over a year: a donut a day starts to extract a price.

The urgent is often the result of avoiding the important.

By the time the painkillers are needed, it is too late for the vitamins.

Vitamins are important.

Practice Saying “No”

If you wish to spend more of your life on the important things, and less on the urgent things, there is a tool…

Warren Buffett’s definition of integrity: “you say No to most things”.  If you are not saying No to most things, you are dividing your life up into millions of little pieces that are being given to other people’s priorities.

Learn to say “No”…

…without the word “no”.

The most powerful ways to say “no” do not involve the actual word “no”.

  • Here is one powerful way: Strategic Unavailability.
  • Another is to raise the cost of your “Yes”: If someone wants to meet for coffee, I say “yeah sure, I am free on Friday at 7am at my office in Sabadell [25 mlles away]”. If the person still wants to meet then it must be important.  90% end up not following up.  The few that do, will come prepared and have done their research.  They know what they want from me.  They know whether it is worth their time.

Celebrities and Politicians have entire staffs dedicated to restricting access.  Bono, the singer of U2, has 25 people who review requests for his time, his money, his attention in order to allow only the important requests to reach Bono himself.  Barrack Obama has a whole White House staff whose mission is to ensure that he only spends time and energy on important things, that only he can deal with.

If you don’t start developing methods of saying “no” now, it will only get harder as you become wealthier, wiser, more famous, more experienced and more resourceful.

What urgent task will you say “No” to today?

Some other great posts on Robert Glazer’s blog Friday Forward:

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 13.50.41Here’s a video I shared recently on my YouTube channel.

What is the underlying structure of your life?  What habits are made easy because of the layout of your home, your office, the friends you hang out with?  How might you change the structure of your life in order to make certain positive habits more likely to happen?

Our surroundings affect us more than our intention and our discipline.

Making Changes that Stick, Building Good Habits

Right or wrong? 😉

“Inbox zero?”

I haven’t seen anything near zero for a decade.

I think email is a hugely useful tool, and also a massive black hole that can suck up my time and energy.  I haven’t tried to manage email for the last few years on the view that almost nothing of great value ever arrives or is achieved purely through email.  Anything important for me is achieved by getting face to face with the key person.

I have found a simple email idea that is working for me.  It is not complex – which was often the failure of the “Getting Things Done” type systems for me.  I think if I already had the systematic disciplines that you need to follow the process, then I wouldn’t need the getting things done system anyway.  I am not organised.  I never have been.  It takes enormous effort on my part to keep things tidy.

Ari Miesel shared this one simple idea for email management that I have been using successfully now for 2 weeks.

The Optional Folder

I have 1 new folder – called the “Optional” folder. I have some rules that automatically move new email to this folder if they contain anything similar to the word “unsubscribe”.

Here are the actual rules that my Apple Mail program uses to move email into the optional folder:

Basically anything that has the word “unsubscribe” anywhere in the email is probably a newsletter, an offer or something that is not urgent.  In my own case I have various versions of unsubscribe in spanish and english and have been tweaking these rules so that today the only emails that remain in my inbox are ones that are sent to me from a specific individual. It allows me to focus on the emails that do really need my attention.

I often do a scan through the optional folder, but with an open, curious mind that is not stressed by the thought that an email might be important and require my full attention.

Thanks to Ari!

https://instagram.com/p/3_w8G8wSBr/ Ari Miesel describes the plan here on his blog.  Ari is on a mission to be efficient with our time.  Check out Ari’s TEDx talk for more.  I met Ari when I was at the Growth Summit Europe for my annual dose of inspiration, wise ideas and reflection at IESE Business School a couple of weeks ago.

Do you have any email tips that are 1) extremely simple and b) help you focus on the important emails?  I would love your thoughts in the comments.

First, you may ask, what is “Strategic Unavailability” anyway?

What is Strategic Unavailability?

If you say “yes” to every request for your time, money or attention you will have none for the areas that are your own personal priority.  If you want to achieve success, you must retain most of your resources and dedicate them to one to three areas of your choosing.  Thus, you must learn to say “No”.

Saying “No” is hard.  It also has several negative consequences in polite society.

Far better than the use of the word “No” is the use of a series of tactics that come under the general concept “Strategic Unavailability”.

At the very simplest, the idea is to avoid being there when someone might make a request that will take away your time, money or attention.  The key is to retain “plausible deniability” during your use of the tactic.  Some tactics require greater acting capacity than others.  Beginners would be best avoiding these high acting requirement tactics.

The aim is to keep time for the important 1, 2 or 3 priorities that you have decided for yourself in your profession.  It is a total waste if you use the freed-up time to watch CSI Las Vegas or re-runs of Downton Abbey.

Some simple ideas for achieving “strategic unavailability”

  1. Go to the toilet when you know someone is approaching your desk
  2. Work from coffee shops, other people’s offices or meeting rooms during dangerous periods
  3. Return phone calls when you can see that the person is away from their desk (go to voicemail)
  4. Return phone calls after work hours
  5. Delay email responses until tomorrow morning (you can write them today, but don’t let them leave your outbox until tomorrow morning)
  6. Receive an important phone call just as a meeting is reaching the moment where actions will be assigned to people (either phone a friend style, or develop your acting abilities)
  7. Use an old iPhone that regularly runs out of battery (this is a highly plausible tactic, mine is down to about 2 hours of battery)
  8. Always ensure that you are involved in at least 3 projects, and demonstrate massive productivity in the first week of exposure to any new manager or colleague.
  9. “Forget” to switch off the direct to voicemail setting on your phone
  10. Tell your colleagues/team that you have an open-door for them – but that you request that they batch their problems into groups of 10…  they can’t interrupt you unless they have accumulated 10 specific issues that they cannot address without your input (usually #1 gets resolved before they get to #5…)
  11. Regularly ask “what could you do to move this forward that does not require anybody’s approval?”
  12. Work with headphones in (whether you are listening to music or not, this also works on airplanes when your neighbour aims to talk for 14 hours)
  13. Keep a charity box on your desk and ask for donations whenever anybody approaches (if you have kids, then ask visitors to your desk to sponsor your kid in a race or something).  Bonus edition is to have stickers so that when one person donates, you give them a sticker and then they let others know to avoid your desk unless you wish to donate.
  14. Cultivate a freakish interest in Star Wars, or World Wrestling Foundation, or ancient Greek philosophy, or NLP, or furniture upholstery and engage all visitors in a deep discussion about the merits of your hobby.  Freaky hobbies with a plausible connection to your work are ideal.
  15. When asked if you are available to meet, say “yes, I am free this Friday at 6:00am” – puts off all but the most keen time thieves.  You will very rarely have to do it.
  16. Bring a regional speciality food to work – I recommend any Icelanders to use “rotting shark meat in vinegar” – and request that anyone who comes to your desk try it.
  17. Have a large audio recorder device and make a big show of switching it on when anyone comes to interrupt you – tell them that you are on a personal efficiency drive and are making a detailed study of all your interactions and all requests
  18. Cultivate a mysterious illness with unclear symptoms
  19. Remove all other chairs from your office (this made a massive improvement on my meeting time when I was running an airline); another variant is really uncomfortable chairs (especially very low seats)
  20. Eat a rich curry or garlic dish for lunch in your office
  21. Keep saying “that would make a great tweet!” and write down some banal saying from the other person

Advanced Strategic Unavailability

I need your help.  What else works for you?

PS You better be very good at establishing a great reputation before you engage seriously in these tactics.  If you are not viewed as a strong performer, if you are not delivering measurable results and if you are not gaining good exposure to senior influencers – fix that first (check out The PIE Model).  These tactics only work if you are perceived as an “A” player

I know plenty of financial advisors who would love to spend a few hours reviewing my investments, cash position, investment goals and helping me make a realistic plan.

I know how much I spent on food, travel, housing, school in the last month, year and if I did the sums I could calculate a rough lifetime spend.

Money.

You can always earn more money.

Organisations spend small fortunes developing capital expenditure budgets and operational budgets and auditing the cash of the business.

My time, in contrast, goes un-managed. Most organisations have no systematic procedure to eliminate time wasters. They place clear objectives for the use of every dollar, but no barriers on the expenditure of another hour.

My first girlfriend used to tell me that time is like money but with one major difference – at the end of every day, everything you have left unspent is taken away from you. Imagine if you started every day with €240 and you knew that at midnight, any left unspent will be taken away.

Imagine Managing Time Like Companies Budget Capital

Imagine if every month, instead of receiving a bank statement, I received a time-statement: a detailed breakdown of where my hours have been put, how many were invested and how many just dripped through the cracks.

Would it change how I spend my time? Would it reduce facebook and increase playing with my daughter? Would it reduce email and increase face-to-face meetings? How would the measurement change me?

I have been writing this month for the Lifehack blog.  They have published 4 of my blog posts so far.  It’s challenging and helpful to get pushed to improve my ability to explain my ideas, work with editors and pitch story ideas 😉

6 Item Checklist for Running Impressive Meetings

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.47Our first board meeting was chaos. There was a paper agenda, but I failed to keep people focussed on the agreed discussions. Each board member would throw their own opinion in for every small point. We spent almost 4 hours sucked into petty administrative details. It was tiring. Over the next 2 years, I learnt how to run meetings that get volunteers engaged, proud, active and delivering big results. What works for volunteers also works for corporates, universities and professional associations.

Read the 6 Item Checklist for Running Impressive Meetings

Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.36Before we dive into Richard’s wisdom, let me give my 20,000 mile high summary: If you want to live a life that matters, it is necessary to do something outstanding, otherwise it will all be taken away from you. This talk is not a talk about living a happy life, nor a helpful life. Richard himself says: “I am really trying to get you to think about doing significant things…”

Read Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)

3 Reasons why Work Life Balance is a Stupid Ideal

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.11Balance is an ideal. It doesn’t exist. When we are walking, we aren’t in balance. We fall to the left, we fall to the right.  When we are running, we aren’t in balance.  We fall to the left, we fall to the right.  When we are cycling, we aren’t in balance… I think I’ve labored the point.

All natural forward progress by humans comes from imbalance.

Read 3 Reasons why Work Life Balance is a Stupid Ideal

Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.47.57My entire life can be divided into 3 phases.
Blissful Avoidance; Lucky, and Avoiding Responsibility; and Realisation
I know what an unproductive day looks like. I can recognise the features of a zero day. What’s the opposite? What is a productive day? What’s in a ‘Get Things Done’ day?

Read Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done

Stop Doing Stuff that Doesn’t Serve

168 hours in a week.  24 hours in a day.  I haven’t done the math to work out how many in a year or a lifetime, but however large the number, it is still finite.  It is limited.  We get so much, and no more.  This leaves you with a choice.  My friend Verne Harnish is fond of saying “we can do anything we want, but not everything”.  He is in great company:

  • “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Warren Buffett
  • “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” Tim Ferriss, author of the best-seller ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’
  • “Prioritization is as much about what we choose not to do as what we do.” Jonathan Becher, Chief Marketing Officer at SAP

Creating Your Not-To-Do List

My own notebook right now
My own notebook right now

You already have a to-do list (Come on, you are reading this blog…  you must have a list somewhere in front of you?)  It may not be enough.  In my workshops I ask people to create a do more and do less page.  Big sheet of paper, top of the left side write: “Do More” and top of the right side write: “Do Less”.  What tends to go on “do less”?  TV, facebook, attending meetings with no agenda.  What tends to go on “do more”?  Lots of great stuff.  It is a powerful exercise.

Tim Ferriss argues that there are 9 habits we must eliminate to free up time for more important activities:

  1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don’t know
  2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night
  3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
  4. Do not let people ramble: “Small talk takes up big time.”
  5. Do not check email constantly
  6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers
  7. Do not work more to fix being too busy
  8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
  9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

Check out the original list by Tim here.

What’s on your “Do Less” list?  Any clear “Do More” ideas?

I was prompted to write this post as I am finding the post-holiday return to discipline quite challenging.  I heard somewhere that it takes 30 days to build a habit, and 1 day to lose it.  Time to get the habits back again for 2013.

14 Ways to Get Things Done

  1. Start the day slowly – Ken Blanchard told me how here.
  2. Do in sprints – The Pomodoro technique is explained here. (Page 2, Self-Discipline)
  3. Say No More – Say “No” to most requests.  Often the best way to say “no” doesn’t use the word “no”. More on saying “no” here.
  4. Double up on Priorities (throw in the €50) – Life gives you little nudges, but you must choose the sacrifice.  More on chosen sacrifice.
  5. Create barriers (email, phone, social media) – Jim Collins keeps away from all digital devices before midday. More on Jim Collins 3 tools for productivity here.
  6. Remove Waste – Stop doing stuff that is no longer relevant.  Close the chapters.
  7. Read – You must out-learn the competition.
  8. Rest before you Need it – Ernest Hemmingway would always stop his writing mid-sentence to take a break.  When he returned, it was much easier to get started again.  Stop before you are finished.
  9. Take proper breaks – Walk away from the computer.  More on rest and sleep here.
  10. Use the right tools – Hammers work on nails, not on screws.
  11. Ask Questions – How to ask better questions here.
  12. Work with A Players – Your scarce resource is not time, it is energy.  You have limited energy.  Some people suck it, some people are neutral, and some help you find even more.  Florian Mueck helps me find more.  How to find A players?
  13. Use the gaps – Do your little admin tasks in the 5 minute gaps.  Productive people get the necessary crap done in the 10 minutes waiting before a meeting, in the 4 minutes waiting for a friend to arrive for lunch.  If you call your bank in the gap, the 2 hours of time for productive creation can really be spent on creation.
  14. Ship when done, not when perfect – This is my Achilles Heel.  I don’t know how to solve it.  Any ideas?  I will be most grateful.  My book project is often blocked by the search for perfection, not the acceptance of good enough.

What else am I missing?  What gets you into productive mode?  What signals help you see when you are becoming un-productive?