“Thank God for the French Army” Churchill announced confidently in early 1939 to the British people.
The Maginot Line, established along the French/German border, mirrored the same strategy that kept the Germans out of Paris for the length of the First World War. Equipped with state-of-the-art fortifications, it was impenetrable from tank attacks and air raids.
A few months later, in June 1940, the German Panzer Corp rolled into Paris. A feat not accomplished in half a decade and millions of soldiers during the First World War, Hitler and the Nazis managed in a few weeks.
French president Reynaud admitted, “The truth is that our classic conception of the conduct of war has come up against a new conception.”
I recently went through almost two hundred books that I’ve read over the past half decade.
Going through my notes for each of those sixty seven books, I realized it acted as a meta-analysis of books which have on their own merit alone deeply impacted me.
Just as a book itself has a central narrative thread, I started to see a single, specific thread emerge across dozens of books.
On the Primacy of Focus
Darren Hardy, the publisher of Success Magazine, concluded that after years spent interviewing some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs trying to differentiate between super achievers, people who have made a tremendous impact, and overachievers, people who may work just as much and just as hard yet achieve less, it came down to a single element:
Reviewing my notes over the past half decade, I reached much the same conclusion.
Diversification is protection against ignorance. It makes little sense if you know what you are doing.
— Warren Buffett
The good-to-great companies did not focus principally on what to do to become great; they focused equally on what not to do and what to stop doing.
— Jim Collins in Good to Great
Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
— Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
The “x” factor: identify the chokepoint in your business model and industry and then gain control of that chokepoint.
— Verne Harnish in Mastering the Rockefeller Habits
In John Rockefeller’s biography, Titan, he was prolific in his ability to identify and relentlessly focus on the X factor. Perhaps the most important decision he made in his career was to double down on the oil industry at a time when the only known source on Earth was located below a small city in rural Pennsylvania.
As others hedged, fearing the well would run dry and they’d be left with a useless supply chain, Rockefeller went all in. Now we’ve got national parks, centers, foundations and who knows what else named after him.
In the House of Morgan, JP Morgan was famed for his short bursts or productivity in which he would, in a single negotiation session, re-write the rules of international banking. While his impact for vast stretches of his career was marginal, individual, focused bursts created a banking dynasty.
Eliyahu Goldratt elaborated on the importance of focus in The Goal, a parable explaining his theory of constraints, in a system any resource now spent on the constraint is a waste.
Though it traipses around under many different names from ADD to Shiny Object Syndrome, there appears to be a natural, human tendency to divide our most valuable asset: time.
The Stoic Seneca recognized this almost two thousand years ago:
Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.
Seneca – On The Shortness of Life
It would appear we haven’t made a great deal of progress.
Time is just as scarce of a resource now as it was two thousand years ago. With the insidiously subtle pressure of modern technology on our time, it’s increasingly difficult to hold onto.
Our time is more loosely spent than ever, doled out as though it sprung from an endless font.
The proliferation and popularization of the 80/20 Principle over the past half century is yet another way of getting at the importance of focus.
Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week is really about how focus lets you dramatically increase results but packaged up in clever positioning about leading a jet-set lifestyle.
Perry Marshall’s 80/20 Sales and Marketing is the same lesson applied to sales and marketing.
The message is the same:
Focus. Few activities create the vast majority of results.
In the past few years, it’s no longer necessary to cleverly dress up a book about focus with any other trappings.
I read them both and it would likely behoove me to do a re-read.
I could go on for another fifty books or so, but it seems the issue is less that we don’t know we should focus, but that it’s just damn hard to do.
While it’s easy to intellectually understand, it’s emotionally difficult to say no. The dopamine hits from refreshing facebook and Gmail are real and feel much better than yet another hour reinvested into a large, difficult project.
Writer James Clear, in an article on The Buffet Principle, details a strategy Warren Buffett taught his friend Charles Flint:
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down.
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
The first piece of advice Buffett gave to Flint is the one we hear all the time: start working on those five most important goals.
The second piece of advice was as absurdly simple as it was hard to follow.
Don’t spend a minute working on the next twenty.
Those are the insidious one. The ones that are good but not great. If you told someone you were working on them, they wouldn’t look at you like you were crazy, it would make sense.
But it would split your focus.
It’s hard to see the effect of focus. You concentrate on one thing over and over and still it takes a long time to see results, even if in the long run those results are outsized.
Making the Micro, Macro
Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning and the chess prodigy behind searching for Bobby Fisher has found that in teaching chess, it’s much easier to start with just a king and pawn on the board.
All the fundamental principles of chess can be taught with nothing more than a king and pawn and then you can pattern match on the full board. Starting with the full board is overwhelming, obscuring many of the fundamental principles with clever tactics.
In the same way, when you look at an individual career or company trajectory, there are so many variables over so long it’s unclear what makes the difference, but making it smaller is clearer.
In smaller scenarios we see the power of focus, the Force Multiplier Effect.
If you have a four hour block of time and you spend it doing four different tasks of one hour each or a single task for four hours, what creates the greater impact?
Everyone I’ve worked with has said the latter. It’s my experience as well.
During the First World War, Englishman Frederick Lanchester calculated that the power of an army is the square of the number of members of that unit so that the advantage a larger force has is the difference of the squares of the two forces.
If the English had a hundred soldiers and the Germans had fifty, the advantage and ability to inflict damage on the other side wasn’t 2x, it was 4x.
One hundred may be twice as much fifty, but the calculation which accurately predicted results of the encounter wasn’t linear. It was quadratic.
A force of twice the size, inflicted four times the damage.
The difference was quadratic.
Churchill should have listened to his countryman. The reason the Germans rolled over the French in the Spring of 1939 was the now-famed Blitzkrieg tactic. As the French established long lines of defense, covering all possible points of attack, the Germans came through Belgium and then picked critical points on the battlefield on which to concentrate all their efforts against.
Reviewing in greater detail almost six dozen books, this phenomenology came up over and over: in biographies, in management books, in Philosophy books, in marketing books.
The phenomenon has masqueraded under many a different name in many a different domain, but the fundamental principle is that the most effective individuals and organizations can categorize everything they do using a binary system:
- Figuring out what to focus on
- Focusing on it
All else is waste.
There are few activities, few decisions and few people who make all the difference.
This is more true now than ever. We are the first generation that will be defined not by what we say yes to, but by what we say no to.
I got off a mastermind call a few months ago with a friend who just hit his annual revenue target less than five months into the year.
It was ambitious to begin with and he hit it in less than six months.
“What’s your secret?” we pestered him.
After every mastermind call, he got off the phone with a dozen new ideas to implement, excited by the opportunity and he looked down the list and asked if each one lead towards his highest priority.
Few of them ever did: including a 90% finished website that had cost tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of time.
It wasn’t what was driving the business. And so it sat.
But the business grew. About twice as fast as he imagined possible.
Focus is so difficult because it means saying no to legitimately good opportunities.
I had another two thousand words I wrote about what the four most important things to focus on were at the end of this article. I threw them out.
And yet, it’s embarrassing in our culture. When people I see on a weekly or monthly basis ask me what I’m working on, not much has changed. Same stuff, different day should be a badge of pride yet culturally it seems to be a mark of shame.
We are plagued by FOMO, in a world where people that create disproportion results embrace JOMO.
When in doubt, do less. Focus.
Did you like this essay?
It’s often easy to tell yourself that you need to focus more in order to get things done. But sometimes it’s a little bit more complicated, and it can be harder some days than others.
I know it is for me.
That’s why I have a collection of tools that help me to stay on task and get things done.