Your Time Follows Your Focus

Your Time Follows Your Focus

James Frank Dobie was born in Live Oak County, Texas in 1888. He was a writer who focused on folklore. He once wrote…

“There are just three essentials to a good story; humanity, a point, and the storyteller.”

Between 2005 and 2015 podcasts were likely to go just 12 episodes before fading. Since then I’m fairly certain the number of episodes before podfading has shrunk. Stick-to-it-ive-ness strikes almost every human endeavor. Including podcasting, which is largely a platform for digital storytelling. Starting is easy. Staying with it isn’t.

Why do so many podcasters quit?

Why do so many people quit anything?

Because quitting is easier than sticking around.

Because the focus required to have a point in a story is the focus required to make a go of something. Anything. Like that friend who rambles when telling a story…he hops down every bunny trail all along the way. It exhausts us. It distracts us from whatever point he may be hoping to make.

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.”           ― Zig Ziglar

I regularly catch myself asking people to go back in a conversation. They begin to tell a story when some point of the story reminds them of a detour, which they happily take. Minutes later I say, “What about that first story you started telling? What happened?” To which they’ll respond, “Oh, yeah…” and then continue to finish that first story.

We all struggle with focus…some more than others.

Staying on point is one thing. Having a point is something else. But both share the same DNA.

Time management is always popular. Largely ineffective, but popular.

How did you spend the last week?

What did you do with the 168 hours of last week?

It wasn’t last week, but it was a couple of weeks ago – Rhonda and I took a trip. A getaway. To our favorite place for such retreats, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. I love it so much I decided to do a podcast about the place almost a year ago – Hot Springs Village Inside Out.

There’s a particular place in Louisiana we enjoy going to just get away, too. And like this favorite place in Arkansas, it’s not a place with much excitement or a long list of things to do if you’re looking for exciting nightlife or high-level entertainment (whatever that may be). The fact is, Rhonda and I are not attracted to such places.

There’s some history in both areas. A few plantations to see in Louisiana. Old southern live oak trees to marvel. Imagination to spark at how difficult life must have been for the slaves of early America. Gangster legacies in Arkansas. Miles of trails. Waterfalls. Big, big trees.

Stroll the grounds of old Louisiana plantations and see how the slaves lived. Well, more accurately try to imagine how they lived. I remarked to my wife on our last trip, “Our very worst day is vastly better than their very best day.” It’s not hard to be grateful in those moments. Focus was easy as I looked around a place I had visited before – and where I had always had similar thoughts. Thoughts of how hard life once was in early America. Thoughts of how even the plantation owner’s family endured a harder life than the average American does today. And slaves? Well, it’s unimaginable to me how tough life was.

Getting away from our routine can do this for us. Focus us. Help us concentrate on things that may be more important than the seemingly urgent matters that often consume us.

While on a Louisiana trip I did a podcast via my iPad – something I never do, but it was my only option at the time. It was another podcast I was doing at the time with a co-host. In the episode, which had a thanksgiving theme, we talked briefly about how as we approach a new year, people resolve to accomplish various things. Most will fail. They’ll give up. I admitted that an ongoing challenge for me is focus. Specifically, narrowing down the focus on business ideas. I tend to have too many mental irons in the fire and it’s problematic until I finally ditch some and get very narrow in my intentions. I almost always do figure it out, but only after a considerable amount of wasted time. Some argue I’m not wasting time, but rather taking the time to figure it out. I think they’re being kind because it doesn’t feel as much like “figuring it out” as it does not being as disciplined as I’d like to be. Not focused.

The temptation is to go broad thinking that’s the best path for an opportunity. It’s that whole “leaving our options open” thing. Some promote the notion of “just say YES.” There’s magic, they tell us, in saying, “Yes.” True.

Years ago I joked with friends, when I first started doing consulting and coaching, that I needed to just wear a sandwich board sign – you know, the kind you see from historical pictures of sidewalk promotions where front and back signs are hawking some retail store. My sign, I joked, should say, “Anything for a buck!” 😉

It speaks to how many of us behave though. We’re chasing generalities, not specifics. But I agree there’s power in saying yes to opportunities.

There’s also magic in saying, “No!” I could make a strong case that the power of saying, “No!” could likely more easily best saying, “Yes!”

There’s a line from novelist Elmore Leonard that I rather love.

“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
― Elmore Leonard

Which prompted my memory of another good quote.

Focusing is about saying No.”   ― Steve Jobs

Jobs was right. It is about what we reject. Good writing is about what’s left out, not what’s included. Good art and good music…same thing.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.       – Michelangelo

It was the elimination of the marble that gave us Michelangelo’s David.

The elimination of other things gives us focus. 

Sounds easy, but it’s not. This is why focus is tough for many of us.

Sometimes I feel like that little kid on Sixth Sense. Everywhere I look I see opportunities. No, they’re not all created equally, but many of them seem worthy of some consideration. There’s an acid test that kicks in though. Eventually. Time.

What I stay focused on grows. More often than not.

I don’t often quit too soon. If anything, I likely don’t quit soon enough. Especially when the endeavor involves others. I’ll lean into keeping the thing going in hopes things may gain traction. Usually, they don’t because over time I realize I have a vision and ambition that may not be congruent with whoever I’m working alongside. It happens. But I love the relationships and the promise that something special might happen as the result of our work together.

Some things bore me so I move on. Other things don’t bore me so I hang with them longer. The things that linger through whatever thick and thin may happen, tend to get a renewed and deeper focus.

Or is it the other way around?

Maybe so.

Maybe I’m pushing more time to some things and less time for others. Does time move focus or does focus move time? In my life, it seems to work both ways. At the same time.

Fear plays a role.

Fear of missing out. Fear of losing out. Fear of failure. They’re all in play.

We have 8 irons in the fire because we think it’ll improve our odds of getting one hot one. Fear of missing out on a hot iron.

Fear of losing out on an iron that would get hot if only we put it in the fire. So we put as many in the fire as we can.

Fear of not having a hot iron. Thinking more is better, improving our odds.

It sounds wise, but it’s not. Not only is it foolish, but it’s also stupid.

I once had a business acquaintance famous for saying, “I’ve scratched every itch I’ve had.” He even told my now-grown son, who was a teenager at the time, “Unlike your dad, who is a rock steady guy, I’ve scratched every itch I ever had.” Some people can’t resist scratching every itch. Others of us don’t have that many itches. Still others don’t scratch every itch they have.

Lots of irons in the fire can work for some, but history and experience have shown me that it’s extremely rare. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve seen it work, but I may be overlooking some.

Specificity works. And it requires the elimination of other things. Even worthwhile things.

When Tom Peters and Bob Waterman wrote “In Search Of Excellence,” we were introduced to a phrase that Tom Peters would commonly use in his public presentations, a phrase in the book.

“Mono-maniac on a mission”

We see it over and over again. A person with the single-minded pursuit of a dream, a goal – an ideal outcome.

The challenge is we often see highly accomplished people pursuing multiple endeavors. Think Elon Musk. Tesla is THE thing, but then there’s Space X and more than a handful of other endeavors. Underachievers and ordinary folks pursuing greater success can look at that and conclude, “See, the path forward is to be involved in many things. Multiple streams of income and all that.” Just Google “multiple streams of income” and you’ll get recommendations on all kinds of books, videos, and courses on how it’s THE path toward financial prosperity.

What we’re not told is that most achievements and success happened because the person was a mono-maniac on a mission. When that mission achieved success, the other pursuits erupted. Because of the success of that first endeavor. We may incorrectly assume that success was the result of multiple streams of income when the multiple streams of income were mostly the result of success in a single pursuit.

Sometimes I ponder this question too much (mostly in the context of professional pursuits) –

What do I want to be known for?

We’re all going to be known for something. Not a long list of somethings. Henry Ford is noted for Ford. Edison for electricity. Getty for oil. Jobs for Apple. Gates for Microsoft. Michael Dell for Dell. What about you? What about me?

Specialization works. It demands we avoid generalization. Being well-rounded sounds like the way to go. We incorrectly assume specialization means eliminating being well-rounded. Not so. It just means going deeper into something specific. You experience this already. If you’re a sports fan you likely have a favorite sport – one you know more deeply than the others. If you’re a history buff you likely have some favorite time period. We’re all acquainted with going from a broad topic to a more narrow portion of that same topic. Specific.

College students do it when they declare a major and earn a specific degree. Sure, some earn multiple degrees simultaneously, but that’s not the norm. And mostly, their degrees tend to be somewhat closely related. If not, it’s likely they earned the degrees at different times so they could focus on one specific subject at a time.

In 2017 I recorded this video entitled, “Too Many Irons In The Fire: Going From Start To Finish.” It’s a video-only presentation (there is no audio).

Years ago an article appeared on Inc. magazine’s website entitled, Successful People Answer A Question Which Most People Are Afraid To Even Ask.

I want you to stop and imagine the unthinkable; you’ve just found out that you only have 24 hours to live. There are no second opinions needed. In 24 hours you’ll cease to exist in this mortal plane. Let that sink in for a minute.

Now, imagine that you are going to write your own eulogy and in it is the following closing sentence, “Of all the things [your name] did, the one thing that s/he was absolutely more committed to than any one else was __________.”

What would you fill in the blank with?

One caveat, for the purpose of this exercise you cannot include being a parent, spouse, son, daughter, etc. Each of those is absolutely important to have at the top of your list. But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s agree that you are all of those things. What I’m looking for is something even deeper, something on which even the success of your most personal relationships was built upon.

That statement expressing the one thing to which you were most committed speaks of your focus. It’s deeper than that though. Much deeper. Which is why it’s a hard question for most of us because it has a comparison element.

What’s the one thing you’re absolutely more committed to than anyone else?

Than anybody else? Is that even possible? There’s the rub. Most of us can’t fathom being committed to something more than anybody else. That depth and intensity of focus is hard to comprehend.

Here’s how the author concluded the article…

Coming up with a good answer to the question is tall order, isn’t it? Again, I said at the outset that this would be uncomfortable.

I can tell that you want to push back. Well, if you’re doubtful of ever coming up with an answer then you either aren’t trying hard enough or you’ve already let yourself off the hook. If it’s the latter then there’s little I can do to get you to buy into your unique core competency; welcome to the mass of mediocrity, which far too many people are comfortably inhabiting.

That’s exactly why successful people often have an answer; they’ve been forced into the discomfort of having to answer it. Only by doing that have they been able to pull away from the complacency of the crowd. Success demands an answer.

What I can tell you, unequivocally, is that one of the greatest sources of personal growth comes from answering that question and identifying what it is that your unique past and pathology have prepared you for, and then dedicating yourself to being the absolute best at whatever that is.

Will that guarantee that you’ll end up being the best at it? Of course not. But what it does guarantee is that you’ll be better off than the overwhelming majority of people who have never thought to even ask.

You have to discriminate.

You have to leave things out. You have to say, “No” to some things. Maybe many things.

Vetting these things is tough because we’re not discriminating against things that don’t interest us. Or things we could care less about. We’re having to wrestle with things – many things – that we’re interested in. Now we have to measure the degree of interest. Which ones do we care more about? Which ones do we care slightly less about? The quantification game isn’t often fun. It is necessary though.

Worry. Fear.

These 2 things hamper our ability to properly discriminate.

What if we get it wrong?

What if we quit something too soon?

What if we rob ourselves of success in something?

What if we’re wrong in thinking narrow is better? What if many irons in the fire are the right approach?

Self-delusion is so easy we don’t need to be super salesman. We can convince ourselves of false truths with little effort. As we listen to our inner voice we begin to question one thing, then another, then another until we get stuck. Paralyzed by maintaining a tight grip on every option, every choice or every whatever-it-is.

I’ve seen it for decades in business building. Entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs wrestle with a wide variety of ideas. Frequently they just won’t narrow them down. They’re afraid if they commit to one, then they’ll neglect some opportunities that might occur in another one. They don’t want to turn loose of any of their ideas. As a result, they’re like that proverbial monkey reaching into a jar to grab the peanut. They won’t let go…so they’re stuck with a jar on their hand. Unable to pull the peanut out to eat it. Unable to let go for fear they’ll lose the peanut. Stuck. In every sense of the word.

One small move helps us get past the fear, worry, and anxiety. The challenge is to stop long enough to get in touch with ourselves. Long enough to ask, “What am I feeling right now?” Then to ask, “Why?”

Follow the money. That’s what “Deep Throat” – that secret informant to the Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate fiasco – advised. Follow the money. They did and sure enough, they unearthed the truth that led to the resignation of President Nixon.

We need to follow the fear. Why would we do that? Because that’s where the focus is. More importantly, that’s where the action happens.

If there’s anything more fearful than fear it’s following fear. We’d rather avoid fear. Run from it. Hide from it. Anything but face it. That temporary respite we get when we refuse to face it disappears quickly though. Hiding from our fear is the best thing we can do to increase our fear. If you want to grow fear, run from it. Turn around and you’ll see it’s getting bigger by the minute. Stop, turn around and run toward it and watch it shrink.

Here’s the thing…you’re not unarmed. You’ve got the weapons necessary to defeat fear. They’re the same weapons that empower the fear to grow, too. Your thoughts.

I’m an overthinker. In recent years I’ve learned one of the primary reasons for it – I’m independent. Creatively so. I’m wired to look for solutions. Put it all together and I can gear up in overthinking a million ways to make it work. Or to make it work better. Before you know it I may be leaning into what would be a strength too much – so much it becomes a weakness. A BIG weakness.

Fear can grow when that cycle beings.

The solution? Get quiet. Silence the noise in my head that starts the cycle. Recognize that I’m looking for better solutions instead of taking action. Opt-out of thinking and opt-in on doing. Realizing that while I’m taking action I can (and naturally will) adapt. I’ll iterate all along the way and it’ll only speed up my problem-solving abilities. By going slower I can go much, much faster.

Fooling ourselves is the game we need to avoid.

Spreading our schedule too thin is something else we must avoid if we want to hit the land of high achievement.

Keep doing what you’ve always done and you’ll always get what you’ve always got. But that’s the best-case scenario. You may not be able to achieve as much as you once did if you keep doing the plate spinning routine of scratching every itch.

Randy Cantrell

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