Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

The pace of change has increased, the growth in complexity has multiplied, and information has proliferated at an unprecedented pace.  We are in extraordinary times.  And unprecedented times call for unique and disciplined approaches if we are to survive and thrive. In this next of a series, I unpack a set of recommendations for strategies, processes, attitudes, habits, and disciplines to build into your lives and businesses in order to help us survive and thrive in these unprecedented times.

We need to make sure that we are building into our lives and businesses the proper infrastructure to help us survive and thrive – both personally as well as organizationally.

It’s like building a sailboat designed for treacherous seas – we need to create the proper sails that propel us forward, and, at the same time, build in the proper keels that keep us on track.  This dynamic tension between the forces that propel us forward and those that hold us back is what allows us to live a life of balance and fulfillment and guides our businesses to realize the potential they have.

So far, we have examined these sails:

We’ve also looked at these keels:

In this article, we’ll look at the next sail: The habit of continuously prioritizing & focusing.

Before we unpack this, let’s put it in perspective. Let’s revisit this passage from the book, Margins, by Richard Swenson.

“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.”

Clearly, we are living in a world of unprecedented ‘things per person.’  Note that Margins was published in the year 2000. If we had historic levels of ‘things per person’ then, imagine what that means for today.  “Things per person” has reached a historic level and continues to expand.

What to do?  There are only two approaches:

1. Work longer and harder to try to get more things done.

2. Prioritize & focus.

Working harder and longer will eventually result in burn-out, health problems, and all sorts of other negative consequences. It is not a sustainable long-term strategy. So, that leads us to ‘prioritize & focus.” That’s something that most of us understand, and we do on a hit-or-miss basis.  But, since the influx of things has reached historic levels, we have to refine our skills to a level equal to the challenge.

It begins with focusing.

This is one of those routines that is best defined by its absence.  What happens when we don’t focus?

In our economic environment, potential opportunities and ‘things to do’ continually confront us like a swarm of gnats in the middle of a field. Any half-way effective executive or sales professional is overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time in which to do it.  The issue isn’t identifying new opportunities, the issue is determining which of the opportunities that present themselves are worthy of the investment of our time.

Mindlessly chasing after every opportunity that presents itself and tackling every task on our ‘to do’ list is a recipe for exhaustion, burn out and ineffectiveness. The tidal wave of distractions that fills our days robs us of the time and quiet that allows us to focus. As a result, our businesses and our careers linger in mediocrity; we never attain the potential that we have because we don’t focus properly on the most important, highest priorities.

And we don’t focus properly because the noise distracts us and dissipates our energies. There are so many demands on our time, so many tasks calling for our attention, so many opportunities available to us, that we can easily become scattered and dissipated. As a result, we squander our energies on tasks of little impact, and, at the end of the day, we are exhausted, having accomplished very little of any importance.

We complain about being overworked, we’re irritable and haggard, all because of our inability to focus.

The activity becomes addictive and we become automatons, forever pursuing the satisfaction of accomplishment but rarely assessing the value of that accomplishment.  We do it because it’s there, not because we have decided to do it. Intentionality suffers as activity prospers.

When we do focus, we produce better results.

Ultimately, our ability to accomplish anything of substance requires that we focus our intellectual and emotional assets on that project.  To accomplish the things that are most important to us, we need to focus, intentionally and methodically, on them.

What it means to focus

Focus means “to give your main attention to one thing.”  In this age of sound bites, video games, instant messages, and cell phones, the ability to focus our attention on one thing is becoming a rare commodity.  We consider ourselves multi-taskers, instead of one-taskers.  Multi-tasking is a great way to accomplish a lot of little things, while focusing (one-tasking) is a far more effective way to accomplish something meaningful.

“There is no greater enemy of effective thinking than divided interest.”

John Dewey

Some tips and techniques

1. First, decide upon what to focus on.

By its very nature, focusing causes us to invest mental energy in one thing at a time.  It necessarily follows that we can’t focus on everything. This brings us to the necessary precursor of ‘focusing’ – prioritizing.

Just like focus, so too the incessant noise and competing calls on our time require us to use the process of prioritizing up to a higher level.  In order to successfully deal with the overwhelming amount of stuff, we need to prioritize at a pace and level of execution that is up to the demands.

Prioritizing, then, is not a one-time event, nor something you engage in half-heartedly when the mood is right. Rather it is a necessary habit to which we adhere and apply at regular intervals.

Not everything that presents itself to you is of equal importance. Many of the challenges and opportunities are just not worth your time. The enemy of the best is the good or the urgent. 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. That’s called prioritizing. This is a whole lot bigger than it seems.  To do it well involves a set of routines and disciplines that you adhere to on a methodical basis.

It begins with an annual retreat, in which you assess last year’s efforts and results, and project forward to the coming year.  You can do this for your business, with a group of executives at an annual strategic planning meeting, or you can do it by yourself in a dedicated half-day.  (See Keel Two:  The discipline of regularly reflecting and planning.)

Start with a list of all the things you have to do. This should be in writing, either hard copy, electronically or any other medium.  Writing it down forces you to be precise and turns what is often an intention or feeling into a specific, tangible idea.

The list should contain all the things that you could possibly invest time, money, and energy in this year.  That list is usually the result of a SWOT meeting at the organizational level or a brainstorming session at the individual level.

Once you have a long list of possibilities, the next step is to turn that list into a set of FOFs.  FOFs are statements articulating the things, the people, the challenges, and the questions that we decide we should ‘Focus on first.”   They are similar to goals but without the quantifiable aspect. (If you’d like to learn more about FOFS, click here.)

The purpose of the FOF is contained in the title.  They are statements of those areas of your business, or your life, on which you have decided to focus your time and resources.  These ‘FOFs’ are produced by an annual exercise and can vary by the level, geography, and function of the group.  The ‘FOFs’ for the sales department, for example, may be significantly different from those guiding Accounts Receivable. The ‘FOFs’ for one branch may differ from that of another branch.

Regardless, the function of the FOF is to provide guidance to each individual in the organization in making daily, maybe even hourly, decisions on how to invest his/her time.  Given the choice of several possible things to do, the FOF-guided individual asks, “Which of these fits into one of FOFs,” and pursues that.

You can’t do everything, so you have to decide which things you ought to Focus on First.  Keeping in mind that you should not have more than five, you’ll find it helpful to ask these questions to help you identify those top five FOFs:

“Of all the things that I/we have to do, which brings me closer to my/our ultimate goal? “(Typically expressed in your Mission statement, vision, and values)

  • “Which has the greatest potential for success?”
  • “Which moves us toward greater excellence and greater influence?”
  • “Which can be accomplished most quickly?”
  • “Which are we most passionate about?”
  • “Which would be the easiest?”

Because this is an annual exercise, the statements should reflect a year’s long worth of effort.

So, for example, “Reply to the urgent request of customer X” may be the most urgent item on your list, but it is hardly a year’s long worth of effort.  “Create a system that allows us to quickly become aware of, and respond to, customer requests” may be an annual effort.

At this point, you’ll have a tentative list of the five FOFs for the year.  Before you cast them in granite, take a deep breath, maybe even sleep on it for a day, and review it one more time from an intuitive level – Does this list feel right?

After some possible modifications, you have now prioritized the top five things your organization, or you can focus on this year.

Let’s review the process:

1. Create a list.

2. Subject the list to a set of questions.

3. Use the answers to those questions to bubble up the top five items.

4. Review it one time – does this feel right?

The Sequence

Having prioritized in a big picture annual FOF level, you’ll need to repeat the process at specific intervals throughout the year.

You can break the annual FOFs down into action steps, for example, and repeat the process, at a bit more granular level, each quarter.

Every month, you can take those quarterly action steps, and break them down into monthly increments.   There is something about a monthly cycle that seems to fit easily into our psyches.

In the systems that we teach salespeople and sales leaders, for example, 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.

Regardless, at every level, the process is designed to offer up to you the most important thing you can do right now. As you can see, this prioritization process becomes not just an academic exercise, but a habitual way to attack every day, every week, every month, and every year in such as way as to keep you operating at the top of your game.  Prioritizing 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 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.  It becomes our first step in approaching any opportunity, any person or project.

Prioritizing allows us the confidence to say “no” to projects, people challenges, and opportunities that just aren’t worth our time and energy today.  With our overwhelming noise, it may be more important to develop the habit of saying no than it is to say yes.

Focusing on the highest priority tasks that are most worthy of our time and energy is an age-old strategy for living successfully.  You may recall the sage advice from the Apostle Paul, writing in the New Testament book of Philippians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,      whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

It is impossible to think about the “true, noble, right and pure” when we too busy reacting to the latest kitten video on YouTube. The point is this: Our decisions and our actions bring us our results and shape the quality of our lives and our businesses. Those decisions and actions proceed from our thoughts.  If we think about the right things and do so deeply, we’ll make better decisions, enjoy a more successful life, and have a positive impact on people around us. If, on the other hand, we allow noise to occupy our thoughts, then we’ll think superficially about whatever presents itself, and we’ll make poor decisions and initiate ineffective actions.  The result will be dull lives, insipid businesses, and a society mired in mediocrity.

Some thoughts about the details of focusing.

If we are going to focus, we need to intentionally…

1. Create a space that eliminates and prevents distractions.

Now that you are convinced that the thing you are about to engage is the single most important thing you can do right now, and you understand that you’ll need to focus – do one thing at a time – you’ll be ready to focus as well as you can.  And that means creating a place and time when you eliminate distractions.

So, find a place where you can be free of distractions.  It may be your office with the door closed, or you may need to make more difficult arrangements.  We teach sales managers, in our Kahle Way® Sales Management System, to hold the annual meeting with their salespeople off-site – at a hotel, or maybe even their home, so that they can devote all their time and attention (focus) on the individual without other distractions.

One time, when I was one of two people heading up an organization, the two of us took a conversion van, equipped with a table and heater in the back, to a state park in the middle of a Michigan winter.  We parked in a deserted parking lot and sat at the table in the back of the van focusing on the tasks at hand.  No one was going to interrupt us there.

An, of course, turn off your cell phone. In a meeting, you may even require people to surrender their phones at the door, so that they cannot possibly be interrupted

“When a person is absorbed, the subject carries him on.  Questions occur to him spontaneously; a flood of suggestions pour in on him…”  ~ John Dewey

2. Begin by articulating the anticipated end result of the focused time.

Before you begin to work on the issue, decide what the outcome should be. What is the purpose of this effort?

For example, at a meeting, it’s one thing to say we are going to discuss this issue.  It is quite another to say, “We are going to resolve this issue, and create an action plan to implement the solution.”

Taking a moment to articulate the end results is a powerful way to harness the thoughts and conversations to more productive use of time.

3. Dig in.

You have decided, in a very defendable way, that this is the very best use of your time and effort.  You have created a space and a time to allow you and your team to focus with minimal distractions.

You have articulated the end results.

Now, get to work!



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