How do we choose what to focus on, and have the conviction to say “no” to everything else?
We are all encouraged to believe we can do anything.1 It’s a powerful and important message. But many of us mistakenly interpret that to mean we can do everything.
We want to have our cake, get lots of likes when we share a photo of our cake, eat it all, and still have visible ribs afterwards.
Unfortunately, it’s just not true. We can’t do everything. That’s impossible. There are multiple constraints we all have to live within - time, money, space or opportunity.
These things force us to choose. But how?
It’s not enough to say “we need to focus” or “we need to prioritise”. Those are just intentions. Telling somebody who is busy to focus is as unhelpful as telling somebody having a panic attack to calm down. Unfortunately, being focussed or having well defined priorities isn’t something that just happens by accident. It requires constant work.
What are the tools and techniques that help us get there - or at least closer to there?
Have you ever bought clothes while traveling, and been unable to fit everything in your suitcase when it was time to go home? That suitcase is what my days are like now.
Are we “Default No” or “Default Yes”?
These are really different schools, and a common source of conflict when a team is trying to find consensus about what to focus on.
One of the mantras I have written semi-permanently on my office whiteboard is a shamelessly borrowed idea:
It’s easy to assume that focus means saying yes to the small number of things that need our attention. Actually it’s about saying no to the hundreds of other things that would be distractions.
We need this mindset when we have too many good options, or when we’re feeling overwhelmed, and want to make time to complete things.
It requires us to have a high filter on anything new. We should only do things that we are genuinely excited about, or things that are really important.2
It forces us to be specific about the evidence we need before we would say “yes”?
It means being willing to miss out on something that might be good, while we search for something that could be great.
Consider the Latin origin of the word decide: de = off, caedere = cut (same root as incide/incision, to cut into).
Deciding means cutting off other options.
But we can also think about decisions very differently, simply by asking: “why not?”
Or, perhaps more specifically: “what do we have to lose?”
Rather than looking for evidence that might convince us to say yes we simply look for red flags that might warn us to say no. And when we don’t see them, we keep moving.
We need this mindset when we’re not constrained by time or resources and want to maximise our opportunities.
It allows us to deal with the uncertainty that can paralyse us when we’re tentative. It frees us to make a start even when plans are incomplete or we’re not yet 100% confident about the assumptions we’re making.
While “yes” or “no” might seem like a binary choice there is a third option that is very common: “let’s wait and see”.
It’s so tempting to defer difficult choices because it feels like we are keeping our options open. But deferring is neither a decision nor a commitment.
We should ask specifically what we are waiting for. It could be evidence (if we’re “Default No”) or it could be a red flag (if we’re “Default Yes”) but it has to be something. Once we’ve defined it then we can take the steps required to get to a decision.
There are risks on both sides of “Default Defer”. Spending too long searching for evidence or red flags leaves less time and resources to actually do the thing if we decide to go ahead, or results in a slow “no” if we decide to not go ahead. Neither of those outcomes is desirable.
The difference between successful people and really successful people is understanding when it’s time to say “yes” and when it’s time to say “no” and hardly ever falling into the trap of saying “let’s wait and see”. 3
It’s also very helpful to have somebody in our lives who is the opposite - if we’re “Default No” somebody who is more optimistic and stops to ask us “why not?” and if we’re “Default Yes” somebody who is brave enough to say “stop!” when required.
We need to understand the shared values we have which can inform each decision, so these don’t need to be renegotiated each time.
In 1999 Wired Magazine published a Howard Rheingold essay about an Amish community in Pennsylvania in the US. He described their unique approach to using technology in their day-to-day lives and specifically their general criteria for what technology is accepted in their community.4
The question they ask is:
Does it bring us together or draw us apart?
For example, buttons on clothes are frowned upon, because they are a sign of individuality, but telephones are allowed, as long as they are located outside of the house, where they don’t interrupt conversation between family members.
He described the drawn out process these communities use to answer these questions. Interestingly they allow for experimentation and for people to change their minds. Something new comes to be commonly used not because it’s been approved in advance but because somebody in the community tries it. Then they see what effect it has and debate whether or not that is net positive.
We can agree or disagree with the Amish view of the world (and there are some problematic aspects, for sure), but we can’t fault them for having a values-based way of making decisions.
We all like to pretend we are in control of the technology we use and that the impact it has on our lives is positive.
Think about this:
Or are we mostly responding whenever those things demand our attention?
Here’s one simple test: when we are talking in-person with somebody else and our phone rings or buzzes, do we pick it up immediately and look at it? If so, what does that say about our priorities? Are we choosing to be present with the people who already have our attention or assuming that whatever is triggering the notification - which could be anything - is more interesting or important?
Or another: switch our web browser into “Reader Mode”. If the site we’re reading is improved - less cluttered with adverts, easier to navigate and without multiple distractions - then we’re probably the product the site is selling, rather than a customer they are serving.5
The reality, for many of us, is we are not mindful about how we use technology and as a result we end up being controlled and manipulated.
We’re in an asymmetric battle for focus. The technology and media companies employ large teams of highly qualified people and spend millions on R&D to capture and hold our attention. But on the other side of that, we’re all just individuals, mostly without any tools or techniques to help us claim it back. It’s a fight we’re almost guaranteed to lose.
I’m reminded of this every time I’m in a supermarket and consider all the time and money that has been spent on designing the layout of the shop, on making the product packaging as attractive as possible, placing each item in the optimal place to increase the chances that I’ll pick it up, and on tracking my movements through the store and across visits using data from credit cards and loyalty schemes etc so that every decision can be analysed and optimised. Meanwhile I’m just me - wanting to buy some milk and bread, but inevitably getting a chocolate bar too, because … it’s right there.
There are quite a few historic examples of people who have thought about this much more deeply than we seem to in the modern era.
For example the Luddites.6 They became famous for damaging machines at new textile factories in the early 1800s, angry that these developments were destroying their craft and resulting in unemployment and poor working conditions. Now we just use their name as a word to demean somebody opposed to anything new.
It’s easy to look down on the Amish and Luddites and say they are just fighting the tide of progress. But we’re all fighting the tide of progress - some of us just put up more resistance than others.
I used to mock my dad for his slow but conscientious two finger typing. But now I watch myself fumble around in virtual 3D-spaces that my kids navigate so easily and realise that history has repeated, it’s just the tools that have changed.
The difficult reality is there will be more and more of these decisions for us to make, individually and collectively, as new technology waves break: smart devices; social media; robots, drones; artificial intelligence; machine learning; virtual and/or augmented reality; remote and distributed work; “smart” assistants; plant-based meat + milk; machine vision; autonomous vehicles (cars, trucks + boats); genetic modification and biohacking; etc.
In other words, all the things I’d be reading about in Wired if I still read magazines.
How confident are we that we will make mindful decisions about which of these things bring us together and which draw us apart?
Don’t say you’re busy, say you’re getting lots done.
If the latter isn’t true, the former is irrelevant.
Here is a little thought experiment…
Imagine somebody who fills their house to overflowing with stuff, shuffling clutter from one room to another as each space is needed during the day, leaving no spare room to fit in anything else?
How do we judge them?
Then, imagine somebody who manages their finances right on the edge, spending every last cent of their credit card limit, transferring money from one bank account to another just in time to cover repayments, never quite sure if their next purchase will tip them into the red?
Neither of those sounds ideal, right?
Now, imagine somebody who manages their time like this, filling their days with work, constantly juggling their to-do list as urgent tasks come and go, and leaving no spare time to do any one thing well?
That’s also not ideal. But it might sound familiar.
One thing nearly all of us have in common is: we’re busy.
The really curious thing about this is how we romanticise it.
Somebody will ask:
How have you been?
And we reply, beaming with pride:
Oh, you know, busy busy!
We constantly boast about having no spare time, in a way we never would if we had no space or no money. Why?
It never feels like there is enough time.
Maybe we’ve just normalised it. Is this now what we expect each other to say? Like the exhausted and knowing nods exchanged between two parents of newborns, safe in the knowledge that neither is getting enough sleep, perhaps we take comfort from connecting with others in the same tough situation.
Maybe it’s just less work for us to focus on inputs, than to look for evidence of outputs? It’s easy to count the number of hours we spend at work, the number of meetings in our calendar or the number of emails in our inbox. We often assume that if we are busy then lots of things must be getting completed. It is easy to confuse activity for progress.
Or maybe we’re just reluctant to be honest. As an experiment I tried to consciously swap out the words I used. Rather than flattering myself with negatives (busy, stretched, slammed, etc) I looked for positive alternatives (focussed, engaged, full - as in “days full of interesting and awesome things”). But it just made me sound like a try-hard, and I was only really kidding myself I suspect. It at least forced me to reflect on how excited I was to say that I’m “busy”.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we’d all be working 15 hour weeks.7 He was actually correct, but not in the way he expected. Most of us struggle to do three hours of productive work per day. How else would we find the time for social media and reality television otherwise?
The more interesting question is why we fill so many hours with non-productive work.
I wonder if the goal of always being busy is actually part of the problem. The cake is a lie.8
Focus means doing less.
We can be busy or remarkable, but probably not both.9
Which do we choose?
We don’t have to think too hard about our priorities. We can just pay attention to what we do first each day.
Our real priorities are revealed, not stated.
A stated preference is what we say we want to do.
A revealed preference is what we actually do.
Often what we do betrays what we say.
Our stated priorities are hopeful, but our revealed priorities are honest.
I want to play tennis.
I want to learn te reo.
I want to get more sleep.
I want to be a good manager.
I want to spend more time with my kids.
But I’m also very busy.
When we design and build a product or service that we hope others will use and pay for and tell their friends about, it’s helpful to listen for stated preferences, but it’s much more important to watch for revealed preferences. It’s dangerous to base our optimism entirely on kind words. We need to always cut through and find some action that demonstrates that people mean what they say.
And we should apply that same filter to how we choose to fill our days. We can say we’re busy or full, but if we’re not getting lots done those are just meaningless words.
Being busy is the default and by far the most common choice. It’s easy to assume that in order to be remarkable we need to be busy first. But being busy all the time makes it less likely there is any time and space to do remarkable work, which nearly always requires larger blocks of dedicated focus. Focus has a wide turning circle.
More often than not our busyness is self-imposed and contagious.10 The cure is to measure the outputs: how much progress we made, what we created or learned in the process. In other words, what was the return on the time and effort invested?
It’s incredible, but simply getting things completed and out in the world is a huge competitive advantage, because it’s so uncommon.
If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out. That’s totally fine. After all, greatness is not for everybody.
Here’s another mantra worth repeating:
Predicting rain doesn’t count. Building an ark counts.
It’s not enough to know what to do, think about doing it, or put it on a list. It turns out those things are all very common. They are prerequisites, but insufficient by themselves.
The only thing that separates us from the pack is actually completing things, despite distractions.
But what does this cost?
In 1964 The Beatles played a long series of concerts at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. Eighteen days straight. Two or sometimes even three shows per night.
At the same time, they were preparing for the filming of their first movie and were under pressure from their record label to come up with a new single to follow I Want to Hold Your Hand, which had just reached #1 in the US.11
John Lennon arranged for a piano to be brought to their hotel room, so they could use the small amount of free time they had to work on some new songs. Somehow, amongst all that distraction, Paul McCartney composed their next hit Can’t Buy Me Love.
It’s remarkable that as a group they were able to create something so iconic under that amount of pressure and within those time constraints.
It’s easy for each of us to feel overwhelmed by the existing commitments we have and it’s hard to focus on the things we know are important. And yet, most of us constantly soak, and often drown, in distraction.
Stories like this make me wonder: what other things didn’t The Beatles do during that time in order to focus on the things we all remember?
All the things we stereotypically associate with being a rock star, I suspect.
Focus is difficult.
It’s easy to list new things we could do, and to fall into the trap of thinking that is focus. But actually the key is consciously choosing what not to do. And that’s hard.
The top five are important - we’ll come back to those.
But the others are the things we need to manage first. They come to mind when we’re asked what our priorities are, so it would be easy to justify spending some time on them. But they are also distractions - any time we spend on them will be at the expense of our real priorities. If we try to do everything we end up with a long list of barely-started or half-done things, rather than a shorter list of things we’ve completed and can be proud of.
In other words, this is our do not do list.
This exercise can be used to prioritise time but can also be used in situations where we are restricted by cash, or energy or opportunities.
The hard part is identifying the things that would be distractions. Then the really hard part is not doing those things.
Here are two techniques that might help:
Talk to the hand
I learned the first technique the hard way when I was managing the product team at Trade Me and I now recommend it to anybody struggling with overwhelm. The good news is you already have the “tools” you need to use it, literally at your fingertips - you just have to remember it.
In those days I would regularly be bombarded with new ideas for new features. And they were often great ideas. But we could only do so much, and eventually trying to keep everything in my head became exhausting. So instead I would just keep in mind the top five current priorities. Then whenever a new project was suggested the question wasn’t “is this a good idea?” but rather “which of our existing priorities gets bumped by this new suggestion?”
I would sometimes hold out the palm of my hand and spread my fingers when asking this question of anybody suggesting a new priority - partly to emphasise the constraint of five things, but also because it helped me to remember what the five things were.
More often than not the decision was that the current priorities were correct. We were able to continue without adding new distractions. And in the rare situations where we did choose to swap our priorities, because the new idea was just too good to delay, we did that consciously and the costs were explicit.
The second is a variation of the same concept, but applied to personal priorities: 13
(The actual number of things doesn’t really matter - I choose three rather than five in this case because that’s the most I can usually get done in one day, but your mileage may vary.)
It’s an elegant and simple idea, and pretty much the polar opposite of every other productivity system and to-do application I’ve ever used. Rather than combining more and more complex ways of capturing, storing, sorting and retrieving lists of tasks it’s all about narrowing focus and completing important things.
But don’t confuse simple with easy. I’ve tried to use this technique for many years and it’s depressing how often I get to the end of a day or even the end of a week and realise that I didn’t complete even one of the three things I had prioritised.
The immediate feedback loop from this repeated failure might be the secret that makes this technique effective over the longer term, because it highlights the distractions that get in the way of the important things. And the beauty of it is that each day we get three new slots to fill - so unlike more complicated productivity systems it doesn’t accumulate distracting cruft.
We don’t have to be awesome at everything to succeed, we often just need to identify the right niche to focus on.
Shortly after he took over as CEO at Apple, Tim Cook said that the number one lesson that he learned from working with Steve Jobs was: focus.14
A number of people shared that insight online at the time. But this much more cynical response was by far my favourite: 15
As opposed to all of the people who think being unfocused is the key?
That’s right, of course. We all know focus is important. So then why is it so uncommon?
Focus is hard to describe.
We often don’t recognise when we’re not focussed until afterwards.
Perhaps if we name the things that cause us to repeatedly lose focus then we could be more conscious and try to avoid those traps.16
For technical people a common reason for losing focus is boredom - we feel we need to be challenged by the technology we’re working on, so we keep adding unnecessary stuff to keep it interesting. We need to be constantly reminded that what matters is not what the software does but what the user does.
For sales and marketing teams it’s more often simple flailing - i.e. lots of activity but not much progress towards any clearly articulated goal. We can’t just keep thrashing and splashing and hoping for the best, we need to work out what moves us and our team closer to the destination.
Whether we’re a designer, developer or sales person, the more satisfaction we derive from shipping something, and making that one thing as great as we can, the more our success will be correlated with the success of the venture we’re working on. The best leaders realise that’s true not only for individuals but for the whole team. We need to narrow our collective focus to those things that move us forward.
It’s true that being super focussed makes anybody a bit annoying. Annoyingly successful, maybe … but still annoying.
Frustratingly for people who believe that startup success comes from an ecosystem, there is a recurring pattern: the most successful founders are the ones who focus almost exclusively on their own venture and who meanwhile remain politely uninterested in others’ ventures.
It’s very difficult to assess opportunity cost.
Just like capital, both time and energy are precious and rare commodities. Spread too thinly across multiple things they barely make a dent.
Enough of the ventures I’ve worked on are great companies. I’m proud of the contribution I’ve made to all of them, both in terms of capital but also support and advice. I try not to think too much about the other opportunities that I’ve missed by deciding to focus on those.
When working on a startup there is a long long list of possible external distractions, which take time that could be otherwise spent working on the business.
Perhaps even more important than those things are the internal distractions within the business itself. As soon as we have customers, we have customer feedback, which inevitably tries to drag us in a number of often contradictory directions. As soon as we have a market, an adjacent market will reveal itself, if only we make one small change to our sales strategy or product (all product changes are small, right - just a SQL query!)
We don’t have to design a product or service for everybody, as long as there is a big enough group of anybodies who find it compelling, we have a good way to make them aware that we’ve solved a specific problem that they have, and we can sell it at a price they are willing to pay.
Those things, by themselves, are hard enough without the additional pressure of trying to please everybody.
It takes conviction to have confidence about the bird already in the hand, or at least within sight. It’s hard to fight the fear of missing out. But it’s important. Otherwise we are “beating ourselves up for being unable to count to infinity”. 17
Focus is exhausting.
It always takes longer than we think, even when we know that it takes longer than we think.18 Trade Me was seven years from start to sale. Vend was 12 years (12 years and one day to be precise!) Timely was 9½ years. Xero took just under six years to go from IPO to a $1 billion valuation. The scarcest resource at most startups isn’t cash, it’s time.19 We’re all lucky that most founders don’t appreciate this reality in advance, otherwise they might not bother to start at all.
I was once put on the spot in an interview when asked to talk about my failures. I blurted out a list of all the times when my effort fell short.
It would have been much more useful to make the distinction between the failures which have left me with valuable lessons to apply in the future vs. the failures which just hurt. It’s a good question and the answers are more interesting than entertaining stories of unrepeatable successes.
Warren Buffett, when asked a similar question remarkably said his biggest mistakes are mistakes of omission.20 In other words, his bigger regret is not the investments he made that turned out badly, but the investments he didn’t make that could have been amazing. He used the Google IPO in 2004 as a specific example: he said he had enough information to understand the potential gains, but was focussed elsewhere, so missed out. The retrospective in his 2014 letter to shareholders gives several other billion dollar examples of companies he chose not to invest in.21 It’s easy to give him credit for those choices with the benefit of hindsight (he’s done okay despite all those “failures”), but maybe there is still an important lesson in the conscious decisions he made:
Focus is expensive.
Choosing to be focussed means happily paying the related opportunity cost.
It’s wonderful to believe that anything is possible. Please don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can do everything. At least not if we aspire to do anything well.
We have to choose what we’re going to focus on, then have the conviction to say no to other lower priority things. And every time we do that there is an opportunity cost.
So best make them conscious choices.
How baby boomers screwed their kids — and created millennial impatience, Salon, 4th January 2014. ↩︎
This is an amended version of a Warren Buffett quote, where he puts himself clearly in the “Default No” camp:
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
As Charlie Munger says:
All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.
This column will change your life: the joy of missing out by Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, 17th October 2014. ↩︎
It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
The Scarcest Resource at Startups is Management Bandwidth by Mark Suster, Medium, 29th April 2012. ↩︎
How would treating time as a variable that we can influence change the way we behave and the choices we make?
Here is some unusual advice for people working on a startup, or thinking about it: swim.
Try to complete as many loops as possible, getting a little bit better each time.
To be considered successful we just have to do those things that most people don’t.
M3: The Metrics Maturity Model
Use these simple steps to improve how we measure and report our progress.
To encourage more people to work on startups, we often try to make them fun. How does that hurt?
A portfolio approach to early-stage venture investment doesn’t really help and probably hurts.
Why is it so hard to articulate and document shared team values?