We are in the middle of some difficult times.  Rather than belabor that point, I’d like to come to the heart of the problem.

What do we do?  We need to answer that question in an immediate, urgent basis: What do we do right now?

We also need to answer the question in a strategic, ongoing way.

What do we do this week, this month, this year?  How shall we wisely and prudently arrange our activities – not just for this moment, for the next few months?  Ultimately, as we sort through our lives, as we think about our careers and guide our businesses, we need to confront and answer that question.

Confusion

It’s easy to be confused.  First, we have all these competing responsibilities:  spouses and children, extended family, neighbors, business associates, employees, customers, vendors, our communities, and the nation as a whole.  If we are not careful, we can flit from one responsibility to another without making an impact on any.

In addition, we have all the media, including all the cable networks, the traditional media, and social media, all shouting at us with everything from heavily tainted, agenda-driven broadcasts, to silly solutions dreamed up by simple-minded social media contributors. It’s easy to allow ourselves to flounder in the fog created by unlimited media messages.

Before I offer a solution, let’s take a bit of a mile-high view.  We have been here before.  As a nation, as individuals, and every level of society in between, this level of confusion and anxiety is not new.

Now, it may be new for you.  Depending on your age, this may be your first encounter with life that hasn’t gone according to your plan.

But it certainly isn’t unique for many of us.

I have lived through many similar circumstances.  In addition to three major financial reverses in my life,  I have lived through the oil embargo in the 70s; Jimmy Carter’s malaise and inflation in the teens; the 911 attacks and the resulting tailspin in the economy; the dot com crises, and the 2008 real estate crisis.  I’ve seen my business so devastated that I had to tell my staff that I could no longer make payroll. I got to the point where, with a cast on my leg, no cash in the bank and no prospects for new business, I closed my office door and burst into tears.

In all of this, I have learned some lessons and gained some wisdom that may be helpful to you. I have some advice to give regarding guiding your family, shepherding a sales force, and directing business through these difficult times.  I will talk about those issues and more in follow up posts, so stay tuned.

For now, however, I want to focus on that which should be the top priority.

A Word About Focus

I was once asked by a seminar participant if I could reduce my advice down to one word.  “I can’t reduce it to one word,” I said, “but I can reduce it to three:  Focus, focus, focus.”

What is focus?  Here are a couple of dictionary definitions:

1. A point at which rays (as of light, heat, or sound) converge or from which they diverge or appear to diverge
2. A central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity:
3. A center of interest or attention.

The easiest way to understand it is to think of the camera in your smartphone. When you take a picture, you focus on something and take a picture of that.  Note that focus requires something to be the center of your interest.  You need to center in on an object.  In photography, that thing becomes the object of your attention and the point on which you focus.

The principle applies in business and our personal lives as well.  Focus requires a thing on which to focus. Without a thing to focus on, our efforts and those of our businesses will become easy prey to distractions, limited attention span, and unlimited opportunities, and we’ll lurch from one urgent attraction to another, expending energy and money with little return to show for it.

When we focus, we stick to one thing at a time and apply our resources – time, energy, money, and emotions – to accomplishing that thing.

I think Richard Swenson laid out the case for it in his book, Margin:

“The spontaneous tendency of our culture is to inexorably add detail to our lives:  one more option, one more problem, one more commitment, one more expectation, one more purchase, one more debt, one more change, one more job, one more decision.

We must now deal with more ‘things per person’ than at any other time in history.”

It’s easy to be distracted — to flit from one superficial use of your time and energy to another. At the end of the day, you discover you have been incredibly busy and accomplished nothing of substance.

The antidote for distraction is focus.

Prioritizing

So, how do you decide what you should focus on?  That brings us to the discipline of prioritization. Not everything that presents itself to you is of equal importance. Many of the challenges and opportunities are just not worth your time.

Peter Drucker once said this:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

The solution to competing responsibilities, multiple opportunities, and a tidal wave of ‘things per person’ is to develop the discipline of regularly stopping and deciding which you should focus on first.

It is a discipline.  That means that you do it, even if it doesn’t feel good, even if you have other things to do, even if it interrupts your routines, you still do it.  You understand that it is worthwhile and that it will produce a future of greater impact and fulfillment.

There is a body of knowledge having to do with the processes, tools, and techniques used to prioritize, both individually and in groups.  For now, the simple solution is to set aside some time (hard to imagine much less than 30 minutes) on a regular basis, and, in that time, rationally and mindfully think through the answer to this question:  What should I focus on first?

In the systems that we teach salespeople and sales leaders, we recommend a monthly review and prioritization session. A monthly formal, disciplined prioritization session fits with our schedules.  We’ve found it to be, from experience with thousands of people, a useful time schedule.  Thirty minutes to an hour, once a month, on a regular, formal disciplined basis, will keep you focused on the most important things.

You can, of course, repeat the process for smaller time increments: weekly, daily, even hourly.  In our time management training, we teach salespeople to use a variation of that question several times in the course of a day.  That variation is this: “Am I doing right now the most effective thing I can do?”  If the answer is no, change it, and focus on that which is more effective.

In these incredibly challenging, difficult times, what should we focus on first?  What should be our highest priority?

You

Now, before you accuse me of promoting selfishness, let me explain.  Because of the nature of our difficult times, you must be at the top of your game. If you are going to be an effective leader, if you are going to guide your family, if you are going to shepherd a sales force, if you are going to be effective in your career or profession, if you are going to direct a business through these difficult times – you can’t afford to be operating at less than 100%.

If you don’t take care of yourself, you will do an injustice to all those around you who are depending on you.

Here are some ideas to help you.

1. Control the input into your mind.  

It is easy to become obsessed and overwhelmed with hundreds of daily messages of gloom, doom, and pending trauma.  As those messages take hold in our brains, they produce feelings of fear, dread, and anxiety. You will not do anyone any good if you are operating out of fear or anxiety.

So, stop that at the source.  Take control of what comes into your head. Don’t watch the news.  Stop reviewing the stories on your cell phone news apps.

The best way to prevent the negative from taking root in your brain is to substitute positive thoughts for the negative.  So, find sources of positive, affirming thoughts and substitute them in place of the time you would have spent.

I once changed the trajectory of my career by creating a packet of index cards, on which I printed positive thoughts and Bible verses, and then reading them to myself several times a time.  I tell the story here.

2. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

The times are too perilous to go it alone.  On the other hand, you can’t afford to waste your time with people who will bring you down or suck the energy and strength out of you.

So, find a group of people who you can meet with regularly. Encourage each other, learn from each other and support each other.

Most cities have group meetings like this regularly (yes, they will meet virtually too.)  In addition, there are national companies that organize and administer local groups.  Do a Google search.

If you are a Christian, consider my Christian Business Impact Groups.  I facilitate two such groups of people who meet via video technology once a month, and at the moment, have an opening in each group.

3. Invest in your own development.

Now is the time to take that management training course you’ve been eyeing.  Now is the time to read those books that have been recommended to you.  Focus on improving your skills or gaining new competencies so that you will be more effective and of greater value to your employer and to the people who are looking to you.

Remember Steven’s Coveys great advice to ‘sharpen the saw.’  The saw is you, sharpening it means to hone your skills, advance your competencies, and gain new knowledge.

For salespeople and sales leaders, I highly recommend a couple of training programs that I have authored.

4. Exercise daily.

I know, you are thinking, “Where did that come from?” The answer – from experience.  We have all read about the positive impact exercise can have on us.  From my experience, a good workout session can clear your mind, flood your body with endorphins, release lots of tension, and fill your stores of emotional and physical energy.  It’s a discipline that will help keep you at the top of your game.

5. Increase your giving.

This is another one of those concepts that are outside of the mainstream. You’ll find this interesting and radical.  In every one of my most challenging financial crises, I increased my giving.

There is something about giving that helps put your situation in perspective.  No matter how dreary and depressing your situation is, there are multitudes of people who are worse off.  When you step up and intentionally give, you acknowledge that.  You take a life-affirming action that recognizes your place in the greater scheme of things and demonstrate faith in the future.

It is a fear-demolishing, future-affirming action that reveals you as a leader and influencer who has the strength of character to take confident action.

6. Proactively plan for the future.

Now is the time to make those proactive plans for the future, to revise your personal and organizational mission and vision statements, and to visualize and articulate your view of what you can become in the future.

There is something about a well-conceived vision statement that attracts and compels people and energy, that says to the world around you “It doesn’t matter what is going on right now.  That’s just a bump in the road. We are going to become something significant just down the road a bit.”

Once you have articulated that positive, impactful future, you can harness your personal and corporate energy, your people, your emotional power to creating that future.  You have provided, for yourself and those around you, a vision of a future that will keep you positive and engaged.

You will know what to focus on first!