Principles of Focus

Focus is the continuous, iterative process of keeping the main thing the main thing.

The verb and noun forms of “Focus” mean different things. For simplicity, I’m going to call the the noun form “intensity.” So, intensity is the ability to be 100% engaged in what you are doing at any given time.

Focus and intensity are analogous to effectiveness and efficiency or leadership and management. The former is about doing the right things and the latter is about doing things right.

As a result, the whole point of focus is to ensure that we’re optimizing for the entire-ity of the main thing or goal or how we will measure our life. It is easier to understand this with a manufacturing analogy. It is useless for a car manufacturer to produce more doors than a chassis requires. Similarly, it is pointless to optimize on one part of our goal (say, our career) if all else is suffering. Making progress on the main thing in its entire-ity is productivity. Everything else is activity.

So, focus is how we stay productive. That’s exactly why the process of doing so is continuous and iterative – it is hard to stay productive as life happens.

Finally, it is helpful to think of focus as we think of balance in our lives. We are always in the act of balancing, never completely balanced. Focus is no different.

People leverage and System leverage

Leverage means using something to maximum advantage outside of the financial world. It is often used to describe human capital. For example, new hires in a company ideally provide leverage to their managers. And, supporting functions provide leverage to their sales teams.

I find two kinds of leverage in organizations – people leverage and system leverage. The underlying concept is similar. Leverage provides for a stronger support system for execution. However, while people leverage focuses on people to provide the support system, system leverage relies on processes and systems.

Imagine you are the one woman customer service center specialist. Your company is growing quickly and you decide to hire someone. The guy you just hired provides you immediate leverage. He takes all the basic stuff off your plate and allows you to focus on more strategic stuff. Soon, you could expand this to a team of three. This is a classic example of people leverage.

However, let’s assume your first hire does a little more than you asked him to do and creates a really good FAQ resource for your customers. All of a sudden, you may not need to hire three people. That resource has helped provide system leverage. It allows you to operate at a higher level without adding people to the organization to solve the problem.

There are a couple of important takeaways once we understand this difference. First, most organizations intuitively understand people leverage. However, there aren’t enough that get system leverage. The best organizations and teams have fantastic processes and systems that enable their people to perform at a high level. This is often what makes large corporations tick. There are many large corporations whose human capital potential are definitely not being utilized. However, thanks to the strength of their systems, they still deliver impressive results. Of course, the truly great corporations have both.

Second, when you and I are hired to a new job, we provide automatic human leverage. We might even provide our manager the leverage created by two hires if we were very good. However, there is no better multiplier than when we build systems. Looking for inefficiencies in how we operate and solving them by putting systems, tools and processes in place is among the highest impact things we will do.

Redefine deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted periods with full concentration on a single task free of distraction. Let me start by saying – I love Cal’s work. I just thought I’d offer a counter point to his notes on productivity while adhering to similar principles. I think the principle of intensity that governs the deep work idea as spot on. However, I’ve long contended that the deep work idea is less applicable in many roles in the modern workplace. My push is that we must all think about and redefine deep work for ourselves.

There are two principles we need to keep in mind as we redefine deep work for ourselves –

1. Our productivity = Focus x Intensity x Time 
The focus referred to here is focus as a verb. It is the continuous prioritization process we use to pick the best thing to do with our time. While deep work does focus on focus (there’s an idea), it is biased to increasing intensity over increasing focus. The idea emphasizes the act of full concentration on one task over picking the task itself.

2. There are two kinds of work – research work and connection work. The difference between the two is the number of coordination required with other human beings.
If you are a researcher in a university, you don’t need to coordinate with more than a few people – your research associates and collaborators. For maybe 3 months in a year, you add students to the list. If you are working in most “matrixed” organizations, however, you are dealing with at least 10 stakeholders on any given day. This may not apply as much if you are a programmer or a brand researcher but certainly applies if you are an Engineering manager or Brand manager. The difference in the nature of the work is that your days have a large number of small tasks – typically proportional to the number of co-workers with whom you need to coordinate. And, a big part of your effectiveness is your ability to focus on the most important small task at that point of time. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a large task for the week. It is just likely that it won’t be as important a component of how your success will be measured. Intense focus on just one task is likely to hurt you more than it’ll help you on most days.

This, then, brings with it a big associated challenge – how do you keep up intensity? The third principle that makes connection work hard is the principle of attention residue. Every time we switch tasks, we reduce our ability to be intense. We are more prone, as a result, to let our minds wander and be distracted by social media. However, going back to basic principles, intensity is still incredibly valuable.

Here are 3 ideas that might help –

1. Start the day and week with your top priority items for your day and week. On most weeks, this will be a fairly long list. Most coordination jobs have 2-3 key components (tracking numbers, coordinating with people, thinking about the longer term, etc.) and it is normal to have a few things to get done across all components on the list. The act of writing it down enables us to keep committing to focusing on them.

2. Be proactive about managing your time – schedule “deep work” days and batch process meetings. If you are part of a couple of recurring larger team meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, batch most of your other meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep large swathes of time open for you to dive in to the chunkier tasks. As you take control of your calendar, I’d also suggest committing to a time when you get out of the office. A little bit of pressure brings out the best in us.

3. Redefine deep work based on the nature of your job. My job has a much higher connection component now than it did in most projects as a junior management consultant. My “job” as a graduate student attempting to learn, on the other hand, was largely research work. Each of these required me to redefine deep work. As I see it in my job now, deep work is the ability to work for large swathes of time without interruptions. No interruptions = no social media, no notifications, no checking personal email. The difference is that I don’t penalize myself for switching tasks. If I get 5 important small things done within an hour, then that’s great. If that involves writing 3 thoughtful emails, then that works too. The most important thing is keeping a focus on what is important. Deep work should still push you – it will just push your ability to focus over your ability to be intense a lot of the time.

As I do this, I’ve also learnt to keep an eye out for other variables that effect my ability to both focus and be intense – sleep, food, exercise, work location, etc. The way I design my life directly affects my ability to work deeply.

My belief is that – if there’s one thing that we must all take away from the deep work idea, it is that we must purposefully and intentionally design our lives for maximum productivity. We won’t be able to get there without the necessary mindfulness that the deep work idea requires. However, productivity is the act of moving toward a goal. And, for our goals, we must redefine our deep work as necessary.

Today’s sacrifice

When a close friend and I started playing tennis a few week’s back, the quality of our game was woeful. We had both learned a bit of tennis a few years back but were very out of touch. Since we both were competitive, we chose to play with points. However, our rallies were short and full of unforced errors. A few week’s later, our games are much better. Playing once a week goes a long way in bringing about a certain rhythm and activating our muscle memory. But, a factor that I’ve realized helps my improvement is one I call “today’s sacrifice.”

Right from our first game, I picked one aspect of my game to sacrifice. For example, on day one, my serve didn’t work. But, instead of going for a tame serve that gets the ball in, I focused on making it better and lost plenty of points in the process. This didn’t work in the first game and through most of the second as well. But, come the third game, my serve began working a fair bit. Now that I’d climbed the steepest part of the serve hill, it was time to work on the next shot.

It sounds incredibly simple – as you jump into play, set a learning goal (Anders Ericsson would call it “purposeful practice”) and sacrifice a bit of today’s productivity for tomorrow’s growth. But, its applications can be mind blowing if applied to everything we do.

This is the goose and golden eggs fable all over again – easy to understand but nowhere as easy to apply. We know that today’s investments will lead to more growth and productivity. But, caught in the throes of the day-to-day, it is so easy to push today’s learning away and just focus on maximizing current production. Perhaps the way to do it is simply to implement this idea in every aspect of our lives – in a way we think nothing of it when we do it. Perhaps we do this by scheduling 30 minutes every day to do one of the following – learn something that might be useful or, if you haven’t done so, getting a bit of sleep, getting some healthy food, going to the gym, or picking a book that will help us grow. Over time, maybe we’d expand the sacrifice time to an hour, maybe even two.

After all, today’s sacrifice is tomorrow’s reward.

Thanks to Kidsworldfun for the image

Batch processing meetings

One of the first things to do when you get some semblance of control over your schedule is batch processing meetings. The worst days are those where you have 6 meetings with 30 minute gaps between them. The attention residue alone will prevent you from getting anything done. This isn’t easy to avoid because most places tend to have 3-4 standing meetings that involve a larger group of people that can’t really be moved.

There’s a 3 step process that I’ve come to rely on to get more out of the week –
1. Assign meeting days. Depending on the larger group meetings, assign 2 (or 3) days of your week as meeting days. Every time a new meeting comes up, schedule it on these 2 days.
2. Schedule meetings yourself. As far as possible, take charge of scheduling your meetings so you can batch process them. When you schedule them, look to do them either side of your larger meetings so you do them back-to-back. Where possible, try to find ways you can do that for the other person too. If not, don’t worry – take it as your reward for doing the work. And, when in doubt, schedule them for the back end of the day so you keep your mornings free.
3. Protect your deep work days. As time passes, begin putting in blocks on your deep work days so no one schedules meetings.

If this works well, you will soon find 2-3 days in a week where you have large stretches of time available to you for deep work. And, during your meeting days, you will find smaller extended stretches to dive in. While it helps greatly to develop a mentality where you use every block of time available to you to dive into deep work – perhaps simply by putting your headphones on -, I’ve realized that it works much better when you build a schedule conducive to it.

And, as you might have guessed, the principles surrounding batch processing meetings can work just as well if applied to admin work, email, etc., etc.

One of the simplest ways to find value is to look for what is scarce. In our age of distraction, focus is scarce. And, the onus is on us to build schedules that enable us to focus and get the most out of the day. It isn’t the hours we spend work that counts, it is the work we get done in those hours.

batch process meetings

The success measure

Ever since my frustration with a day of 100% activity, 0% productivity 2 weeks ago, I’ve been starting the day with a small addition to my day’s to do list. I call it the “success measure” box and add 2-3 items whose completion would mark a successful day.

Success measure

This little box has changed everything. It helps that I do this first thing in the morning as I start the day with a clear understanding of what success looks like. I have just one rule – there can’t be more than 3 items in the box. As a result of this –

1. I can almost feel a bit of stress when I find myself mucking around with items outside the success measure box. That’s great as it clearly distinguishes activity from productivity.
2. I do everything possible to be efficient through the rest of my meetings and non-essential tasks so I can carve out blocks to complete these.
3. It helps with the idea of “focus as a verb.” Focus as a noun is being able to buckle down and get work done. Focus as a verb is a trait I consider more essential. It means being able to go through life with a clear idea of what is important at a given point of time.

Finally, it is my belief that we are happiest when we’re making progress towards our goals. And, the joy from ticking off the success measure items at the end of the day is one that makes the challenge worth it.

PS: And, of course I fail from time to time. But, the big difference is that the reasons and learnings are very clear, e.g, I typically realize I just have to do a better job scheduling everything else / building in enough slack time the next day.

The double whammy principle

Let’s imagine 2 situations –
– You have an important interview tomorrow and are trying to get through as much of the preparation as possible
– You are going through an incredibly busy time and there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do the things you want to do

In both situations, you could justify an impulse to stop doing one or more of the following “basic” things – sleeping, eating healthy, or taking time to stay organized.

This is where the double whammy principle comes in – The return-on-investment of the “basic” things in our life goes up exponentially in times when doing them feels against the flow. Essentially, not doing them will feel like a double whammy.

So, even if you did pull that all-nighter for your interview and went a bit more prepared, your lack of sleep will ensure you don’t perform to the best of your ability. And, if you did compromise on taking the time to organize yourself before or during a crazy day, there is a very high probability you will lose a lot more time due to the disorganization and lack of planning.

So, what does that mean for you? Very simply, avoid the double whammy. The busier you feel, the more important it is to carve out time for the basic things in your life. In tough times, the time taken to sleep, eat healthy, to reflect and to stay organized will pay themselves forward many times over.