Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” ~Cal Newport
Our culture celebrates the image of being able to get it all done. Having it all. Juggling work and life, while being a massive success at both. Having the big house, the shiny new car, the wife or husband, kids, and pets waiting for us with big smiles at the end of each and every day. Always being happy. Feeling constantly fulfilled. Living a life packed full of sunshine, light, and adventure in every single moment.
It’s a nice image. It’s pretty intoxicating. It’s also largely a myth. A myth that can lead us down a dangerous path. In response to the message that we can have it all, many of us try to do it all.
We try to get too many things done at once. Chasing many goals at the same time. Multi-tasking, mental juggling, plate spinning, and general tail chasing soon follows. As it does, we begin to live in a state of constant distraction, getting further away from achieving anything of real value.
Starting is so much easier than finishing, so we take on more and more, even though we are already overloaded. We exhaust ourselves. We start to feel flat. We know there must be a better way, but we’ve lost our sense of what that may look like along the way. We’ve gotten lost in busyness.
A Different Way – Narrow Focus
What if we tried going in a different direction? Instead of chasing more, we could choose to intentionally concentrate on less.
We could commit to focusing on things more tightly. Shutting out the noise and discarding the distractions as best we can. We could focus on one thing at a time, get it done, then start on whatever’s next. Replace multi-tasking with single-tasking. Stop chasing the shiny and new and pursuing variety, for the sake of distraction, as we reconnect with the ability to focus deeply.
The narrow and deep approach is becoming rarer in a world so attracted to distracted. Many of us are losing touch with our ability to sit and truly focus on one thing at a time. Instead of an inch-wide, mile-deep approach we go in the opposite direction. Spreading ourselves wide but rarely deeply.
We face an overwhelming amount of information each and every day. Just switching on our smartphone opens up the world—quite literally. Alerts and pings tell us another incoming message is here, and we feel a mini-endorphin rush with each one. We meet friends for lunch but can’t resist the impulse to check our tiny screens every five minutes. We rush from this commitment to the next, never really feeling like we’re truly on top of things or present.
We’re busy, no doubt, but what exactly are we getting done?
The truth is these distractions are here to stay. If anything, they are likely to increase. We need to tap into our ability to focus deeply, in spite of the distractions. We need to take control back and appreciate the power of positive constraints.
My Story: Hitting the Wall and Coming Back
I appreciate the innate power of narrowing our focus because for a large chunk of my life, I lived another way.
I worked long days. I kept a to-do list that got longer and longer. I covered the workload of ‘team’ members, either too lazy or incapable of doing their own work, and I definitely started earlier and stayed later.
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the next deadline. I lived in urgent mode, a constant state of reaction. Caffeine helped fuel this state. Like a 100m sprinter waiting for the gun to go, I’d anticipate and be waiting for the next bang. And then, as you may have guessed, I suffered something of a burn out!
I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. Not just tired but spent. Externally, I projected a sense of calm and being in control, but underneath I had been paddling too hard for too long. I needed to reset. I was on a path that definitely did not feel like my path.
I knew there must be a better way. I knew this had become my life but couldn’t be my life. I wanted something different. More than that, I needed something different to thrive. So I took action.
What followed was a paring down period. A commitment to simplifying my life and my approach to my work.
I cut my to-do lists into pieces. Instead of trying to get everything done at once, I focused simply and purely on one or two main tasks a day. Once I got those done, I then gave myself permission to move on. I batched repeat tasks (phone calls, meetings, email, etc.) but refused to be imprisoned by inboxes any longer. I really started to purpose my days. I focused on less but ironically got more done.
I was so committed and determined to make this new path, and the associated changes, stick that I went all in. Normally habit changing ‘experts’ recommend making small changes over time to let new habits ingrain. While this is sound advice on the surface, I knew I needed more immediate change. I had tried the other way and it had led me here. Here (at the time) was not where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to live my life constantly burnt out and stuck in reactive mode.
So I continued down the rabbit hole of simplifying my commitments.
I learned and used the power of “no.” I coached, mentored, and supported team members but stopped short of doing their work and thinking for them. I learned that doing the right things (and sometimes the tough things) up front, can mean other tasks no longer need doing at all. I realized someone else’s urgent doesn’t always make it my urgent.
I embraced the power of 80/20 thinking and realized not everything needs doing. That means I concentrated on who and what means the most to me—the 20 percent of my life that provides 80 percent of the value—and let other demands on my time go.
I got the white space back in my days and no longer felt I needed to rush from this to that. I got time back, I got energy back, I got my life back.
And a funny thing happened in tandem. More so than ever before, other people started to notice that I was someone who got things done. Words like “organized,” “focused” and “takes his responsibilities seriously” regularly appeared in feedback.
I became known for meeting deadlines with minimal fuss, someone who was trusted to prioritize my own workload and the workload of others.
I became known as someone who could navigate complex projects and environments, focusing effort on where it matters most.
Emboldened, I began to double down on my approach. I became self-employed and started using these skills to help organizations achieve their goals. I enjoyed my work more, and my rewards for that work increased. My freedom and flexibility in my work increased. I now had much more say in how I worked, my time and labors no longer completely at the mercy of others.
My health, mindset, and outlook all improved. I got ‘me’ back.
That was nearly ten years ago. If I can do it, I’m sure you can do it. Your journey will be your own, of course, but if you’ve hit the point where commitments are crowding in on you, and your time no longer feels like your time, it is time to pause and reset.
Words will not do justice to how tough this process can be, depending on your circumstances. However, I promise you something, the effort will be worth it. If you do this, you’ll never want to look back.
Letting Go of Having It All and Chasing It All
Narrowing our focus means we have to give attention to a select few areas of our lives, at the expense of others.
We identify the handful of things that mean most to us in life (relationships with loved ones, our health, our work, self-improvement, contribution) and we prioritize them. We let some of the other stuff go, or set very clear boundaries.
In our working space, we identify the areas where we can offer our best point of contribution and we try our best to focus on those areas. Maybe that means less time in our inbox and less time in meetings (if that’s an option) so we have more time to plan, strategize, or create. Maybe it means something else.
In our lives, it means we make time for those that matter most to us. We make this quality time and turn up truly present and fully invested. We listen, we share, we love, we contribute. We also make time for our passion projects and hobbies. We invest in our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. We challenge ourselves but are also kind to ourselves.