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.”
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?
Use The Pomodoro* Method.
Here are my simplified instructions for following the Pomodoro method.
Pick a specific project you would like to work on. For example “Write a blog post on focus”.
Set a timer for 20 minutes
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).
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.
*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.
Do you plan your days, or do your days run as a reaction to what pops up? In Washington DC, one of our EO leaders at the EO Leadership Academy was Christoph Magnussen – here in this he shares a tip we learnt about how to take control of your day.
This is a lesson that was shared with the group by Warren Rustand. Warren Rustand was a White House scholar back in the 1970s and spent 4 years as the appointments secretary to President Gerald Ford. This meant that for 4 years, he controlled how President Ford spent his time.
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.”
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:
Urgent & Important
Urgent & Not Important
Important & Not Urgent
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”.
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:
I have learned 3 things about getting good work done:
There is no magic app: My lack of productivity was never down to a missing app, or not implementing Dave Allen’s GTD system correctly, or not having the right colour pens and post-it notes. I have everything I need to be productive with a keyboard and a text editor (I write).
Willpower is weak: I have good willpower days (few) and bad willpower days (many). Willpower depends on a good nights sleep, an absence of urgent messes to deal with, nobody letting me down and the Irish rugby team delivering a stunning performance. These days are rare, and the likely self-flagellation and frustration from feeling like I am an especially lazy human being are very painful. Willpower doesn’t work over the long term.
Triggers matter: Instead of storing my good intentions inside my head, I write them down and put them around me. Instead of waiting for motivation, I have a list of people to call who will leave me inspired after 5 minutes of conversation. Instead of rethinking every day why I do this, I have a 1 page description of why my work matters. I write blog posts when I see my blog window open. I write in my notebook when I see it with a pen next to it on my desk.
I wrote a long series of posts on Productivity back in early 2014, with a tongue-in-cheek inspiration from my favourite childhood movie. Here’s the full list of posts.
Do you know what is the worst question that you can ask yourself?
It is a powerful question If you intend to avoid living a life that is fulfilling at all the levels: safety, risk, connection, significance, growth and contribution.
What big goals do you have for yourself? (You do have them, whether you have taken the time to write them out or not.) What is the next step? The step that takes you from where you are today towards where you need to be for your goal to become realised.
Now, when you look at that step, there is a question that is guaranteed to kill the chance of you achieving the goal.
It is guaranteed to stop you taking action.
It might be fitness action, it might be relationships action, it might be learning reaction, it might be better eating action… but this question is guaranteed to stop you.
The Kill-Joy Question
It is a simple question, it seems a reasonable question to ask oneself.
I hear it all the time.
It gets into every nook and cranny of our lives, it seeps in to every effort.
I use it too often myself.
The Small Life Question
What is the question?
“Do I feel like doing this?”
Each day is an opportunity to make an incremental difference in how your journey in life pans out in the long-term.
Every day that you do “what you feel like doing” is a day that doesn’t build you a better platform for tomorrow, nor does it give a sense of a day used for fulfilment today.
Do I feel like writing now? No.
Do I feel like going for a run before lunch? No.
Do I feel like calling my accountant and getting our accounts closed before year end? No. (Definitely no).
Do I feel like making a detailed plan for 2015? No.
Even the things that make me happy, are things that I don’t feel like doing just before I start.
PS You probably already know this, but this is an important reminder to myself this morning…
Ed Stafford walked the length of the Amazon, from the source to the sea. It took him 860 days. 860 days hiking in remote jungle, hacking his way through mosquito-ridden rain forest. I would have given up in the first week. After 3 or 4 days sleeping in the mud, I’d have given up. Why did Ed keep on going? There was a deeper purpose for Ed.
If you have a tiny vision, then any obstacle will stop you. If you have a deeply compelling vision of what you intend to achieve, no obstacle will stop you. Your resourcefulness will open new paths over, through, around and past the obstacle. Ed must have a deeply meaningful sense of what walking the Amazon would mean to his life.
Exercise: Imagine standing on top of a very tall building. There is another building about 10 meters away. There is a wooden plank laid between the two buildings. What would have to be on top of the other building for you to risk your life to make the crossing?
Your habits aren’t serving you
Practice doesn’t differentiate good or bad habits. Practice distraction: become a master. I have returned from the summer with a tendency to check facebook several times during the day. This habit stops me from pushing into the hard stuff. As soon as I face a tough decision, my habit of facebook checking rears it’s ugly head. I have practiced this habit over the last 3 months – it will take me at least a month to get back to the discipline of writing 500 words at a sitting, to take 10 minutes each morning to silently reflect on the day that is ahead. I have been practicing poor habits. I now need to practice better habits, and accept the frustration and annoyance of regularly falling back onto the poor habits. I want to practice concentration.
Exercise: Identify one poor habit and create an "if-then" rule for dealing with it. If I feel the urge to check facebook I will immediately write 100 words of content. If I feel the urge to go to the kitchen for a snack, I will get a large glass of water.
You haven’t invested in improving yourself
My first corporate job was with Accenture. They spend at least 2% of revenues on training and development every year. This meant that I did an average of 12 full days of training every year. In my first few years as an entrepreneur, do you know how much time and money I spent on professional training? None. I did not invest in myself. In the last 6 years I have committed to at least 10 days of professional training each year.
How much training and development have you done in the last year? How much have you paid to get great teachers? Have you reached out to mentors?
Exercise: Pick an area for development for 2015. Identify 3 books you will read, 3 wise mentors you can reach out to and 1 professional training course that you can commit to attend during 2015.
Improve your Communication: If you’ve adopted some good habits BUT feel like you need more accountability and guidance check out my online communications coaching program here: http://cono.rs/practicespeak
If you want to be thin, eat your meals with skinny people. If you want to be fit, spend your time with fit people.
If I want inspiration I have some great friends that get the best out of me: Florian, Eka, Mathieu, Brian, Stefan, David, Raul, Al, Adrian. A phone call, and I have the desire and discipline to be the best version of Conor.
Exercise: Write down the names of 5 people who inspire you to be the best version of yourself.
You don’t invest in yourself. The world is changing fast. You are either learning 1 hour per day, or you are depreciating your main asset – your own capacity to serve the world, your skills, your connections. Coursera, EdX, Udemy, NovoEd, Apple University – it is accessible and online; and a quick search will find you valuable institutions in your local area.
Exercise: Pick an area you would like to improve and do an online course. Languages - duolingo is a great app. Programming - code.org. History, philosophy, culture - Coursera.
You’re worried about your weaknesses
You will make mistakes. It is the human condition. Language learners cannot learn without many, many mistakes. I know people who have spent years learning a language, but will never open their mouth at fear of making a small mistake. They know that mistakes make them feel guilty. They hate the feeling of guilt. I hate the feeling of guilt. Making mistakes is the human condition. We were not born to be perfect. We are here to learn, to grow, to become better versions of ourselves.
Japanese artists used to start by making a mistake with their very first brush stroke. It had something to do with establishing that they were men, not gods, and that only gods could strive for perfection. I think it is a great way of starting. Once you have made an error, you no longer are staring at a blank sheet… and the next step is guaranteed to be better.
Exercise: Start each activity by deliberately making an error. I write a bad draft of a blog post first before going back and improving it. Go for draft quality first and get it complete, then go back and look to improve the quality.
You’re filling your time
I love being busy – it allows me to ignore the anxiety I have for areas of my life that are not going well. Tony Robbins talks about “safe problems”. Each of us has a safe problem – something that we almost enjoy explaining showing how difficult the problem is. You can tell when someone has a safe problem – they enjoy sharing it with you; and they hate when you try to help them solve it. They love this problem. They love this problem because this problem keeps them from having to deal with the bigger, deeper problem that is the real challenge in their life. If you take away their safe problem, it is like taking away a child’s teddy bear.
Exercise: Write a list of energy drain activities that you do. What are the activities that drain your energy, but do not provide a clear benefit? I ask myself "is this making me happy now or is this making my life better in the long run?" If the answer is not an easy yes, stop doing it. Do nothing instead.
You’re managing the wrong things
As a blogger I love seeing page views, facebook shares, retweets. I love watching the numbers. I love reviewing detailed statistics. However, none of this is helping me write good content. Good measures of that might be number of words written, or hours spent on re-writing content.
Exercise: Measure only what matters and helps and is under your own control. Number of words produced per day is something that I control and that matters. Number of page views or facebook friends is not something that I control.
You’re asking “do I feel like doing this?”
My emotions are ancient tools that helped with survival, but not with living a fulfilling human life. If I am scared, my whole body and attention is directed towards urgent action that can avoid being eaten. If I am angry, my whole body and attention is directed towards demonstrating that I am not to be messed with.
This morning I thought “I will go to the gym”… but almost immediately another thought came into my mind “I don’t feel like it.” I know that I will enjoy it once I am 20 minutes in, but very rarely do I “feel like” doing the important things for my health, wealth, wisdom and empathy for others. Great ultra athletes always have some form of “I will decide whether to keep running after 1 mile” for their training. They get out and get started each day, and after an
Exercise: when you find yourself asking "do I feel like doing this?" change it to "I will ask myself if I still feel like doing it after 20 minutes of action, then I will decide".
Living The Intentional Life
This final point is important. I spend a lot of my life working on how to live more intentionally, and how to teach others the benefits and practice of living more intentionally. This is the creation of rituals of practice in your life, and these 9 elements of being stuck tend to come from a loss of intentionality in the way you live your days.
Nobody ever climbed Everest by accident, only through intent and years of practice and influence.
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”
Go to the toilet when you know someone is approaching your desk
Work from coffee shops, other people’s offices or meeting rooms during dangerous periods
Return phone calls when you can see that the person is away from their desk (go to voicemail)
Return phone calls after work hours
Delay email responses until tomorrow morning (you can write them today, but don’t let them leave your outbox until tomorrow morning)
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)
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)
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.
“Forget” to switch off the direct to voicemail setting on your phone
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…)
Regularly ask “what could you do to move this forward that does not require anybody’s approval?”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Cultivate a mysterious illness with unclear symptoms
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)
Eat a rich curry or garlic dish for lunch in your office
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.
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
Our 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.
Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)
Before 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…”
Balance 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.
Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done
My 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?