Most people start their year imagining it will look like this:
You have the big thing which you are going to make a ton of progress on.
You are going to finish the book.
You are going to get the promotion.
You are going to launch the project.
You are going to 10x the business.
It’s exciting. There are big changes in store!
At the end of the year, most of those same people look back and the year looked more like this:
You started the book but didn’t quite get done with the draft before that other project came up.
You were on track for the promotion but thought that maybe you wanted to move departments, so why bother?
You were going to launch the project, you had the website built, but you decided it wasn’t as good of an idea as you initially thought, so you let it sit on the server.
You started growing the business and had a plan that was working but a few opportunities came up that seemed like they might be even better, so it stalled out.
Why does this happen? There are a few reasons, some good, some bad:
The good reasons people change focus:
- You didn’t actually want the thing you thought you wanted. You thought you wanted to grow your current business but you realized that you were tired of working on it. You realize that promotion wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be.
- A better opportunity came up. You were working towards the promotion and a headhunter reached out and offered you an even more enticing position.
- You miscalculated the opportunity. You thought the book would only take you six months to write but you realized two months in that it was actually going to take two years and you needed to get some other pieces of your life in order before you could devote that much time.
The bad (and the ugly) reasons people change focus:
- Poor prioritization, lack of focus and clarity. You don’t know what needs to get done so you do whatever seems most urgent. Your days, weeks and months are marred by constantly changing priorities based on whatever seems most urgent in the moment.
- Setting unachievable goals or milestones — The thing that you think you should be able to get done in a month actually takes a year. You become discouraged and quit.
- Procrastinating — You know the thing that needs to be done but just don’t do it.
- Shiny object syndrome — You know the thing that needs to be, but are attracted to many other things. You “have many interests.”
- Fear and lack of confidence You know the thing that needs to get done but it’s emotionally challenging work, so you avoid it.
Does something in the latter group strike a chord?
For years, I’ve been researching and trying out different solutions with myself and with clients I’ve worked with.
Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to publish a series of articles offering some new ways of thinking about this problem of staying focused and propose some solutions that I’ve personally found helpful and that hundreds of people who have used my method have as well.
Today, I want to start by showing how changing the timeline you plan on can help address some of these problems.
Next, I’m also going to look at the three most common mistakes that I see people make which sabotage their focus and explain how to avoid them.
Finally, I’m going to walk you through an exercise which will increase your motivation, improve ability to spot opportunities as well as let you set bigger, more ambitious goals and have the confidence you can accomplish them.
I know this system works. It worked for me first. It helped me launch a best selling book, The End of Jobs, and grow an eCommerce business 500% in 18 months. At this point, hundreds of other entrepreneurs have adopted the system and seen improved focus and the results that come with it.
I started teaching it to others in 2015 and within a few months, others were getting good results as well.
If you’ve ever felt that the planning methods which you have been taught for years are incomplete, don’t fit you or are overly simplified, then I think you’ll find this approach refreshing.
First, we need to look at three fundamental reasons most people’s systems fail so we can avoid them.
Why Most People’s Planning Systems Fail:
1. It doesn’t teach you how to choose what to focus on, it teaches you how to focus on what you’re told.
When someone asks me questions like “Am I working on the right thing for my career?” or “What’s the best way to prioritize goals?”, my first question is how do you define “best?” or “right?”
The first step to getting focused is deciding what to focus on. This seems east, but is often the hardest part.
Most of us went to schools and worked for companies where someone above you told you what to do and what “best” or “right” meant. Everyone knows that an “A” is better than a “B.”
However, as you get out of school or acquire more responsibility and control over your career, the task of defining your priorities falls on your shoulders.
If you are trying to get new clients for your consulting business, should you write a white paper? Should you make cold calls? Should you try to get speaking gigs at conferences? Should you just focus more energy on your existing clients and then ask for referrals when you overdeliver? Should you do all three? In what order? How much time should you devote to each? How do you know when one isn’t working and when it’s time to switch?
You need a process to make these decisions and get better at making them over time.
2. It doesn’t let you distinguish between “shiny objects” and legitimately better opportunities
There’s a phenomenon colloquially called Shiny object syndrome. A reader, Syed, had never heard the term before, but understood the symptoms perfectly:
Perhaps you can relate. You go from one project to another without ever finishing.
The problem is that a 50% finished project is about as useful as a 50% roasted turkey. It’s either finished and usable, or it’s not.
The reaction some people have is to get super focused on one priority and block out all other options. They get committed to taking the roast out of the oven no matter what the costs.
While that may seem to work in the short term, it also means ignoring legitimately better opportunities.
In a study of salespeople who made over $250,000 a year from their sales. Researchers found that the most successful salespeople had one trait in common:
Speed of Implementation: The time it took them to go from thinking of an idea to actually putting it into practice.
That is, they chased shiny objects. I’ve found this to be true for myself and clients I’ve worked with: the people who identify better opportunities and act on them the fastest usually win.
Yet, people who chase every new shiny object and never focus on one thing never make meaningful progress.
Sometimes you do need to be ready to pounce when big opportunities come up. Or to change course quickly if one tactic stops working, or another proves more effective. But how do you know when to pivot and when to keep plowing?
The final problem is something that anyone who has ever done creative work will be familiar with.
3. You know what you need to do, but you find yourself avoiding it anyway.
Have you ever joined a gym and not showed up after the first month? Ever given up on a diet, yoga, or meditation practice? Have you ever had a vision of the person you wanted to become, the work you want to do? Are you an entrepreneur who doesn’t launch? A writer who doesn’t write?
Then you know what The Resistance is. The Resistance is a concept from Steve Pressfield’s book The War of Art. It’s that voice in the back of your head that tells you the article isn’t good enough to publish and that you really don’t time to work on that important project until you get the kitchen spotless.
In Pressfield’s words:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
The Resistance crops up when you have to do emotionally challenging work.No one has a voice in the back of their head telling them they aren’t good enough to do the dishes. It only crops up during the emotionally challenging work of sticking to a diet, writing a book or launching a project.
It’s not technically hard to make a speech in front of a room of people, you just stand up there and say some stuff. It’s emotional work though because it’s terrifying.
A friend who served in the military in active war zones told me that when he published his first blog post, he was more scared than he had been when he was patrolling enemy occupied territory in Iraq.
That feeling is not a logical fear, it’s The Resistance.
Most planning systems don’t help deal with this emotional fear. How do you know
The people I’ve seen be most successful are not the ones who work hardest or even smartest, but the ones who work most courageously, in spite of The Resistance.
What to do?
Does any of this sound familiar? Have you felt the Resistance? Chased Shiny objects or someone else’s definition of success?
It’s one thing to know these things are important, right? You might be thinking “great — now what do I do about it?”
Having now laid down problems with existing systems, over the next few days I’m going to be publishing a series of essays seeking to answer that pesky “what do I do about it” question.
Today I’m going to start with a new foundation: the difference between goals (which should be short term, like 90 days) and a vision (which should be long term, like 25 years).
In the second essay later this week, we’re going to look at why systems are so powerful. You’ll learn a simple one you can use everyday to improve your physical well being, get clarity on priorities and decrease stress.
Finally, we’re going to cover how to actually put together a vision for yourself that will increase your day-to-day motivation by connecting your actions with a big, exciting vision that lets you spot new opportunities and set bigger, bolder goals.
Now, let me back up for a second and talk about why 25 years and 90 days are the two time frames you need to be operating on.
How Does having A 25 Year Vision Make You More Productive?
1. Motivation: Connect Your day-to-day actions with a bigger future
A traveller was walking through a medieval town and saw three stone masons working on a stone wall. He asked the first what he was doing. The first mason spat back, “cutting stones.”
Still curious about what they were actually constructing, he asked the next stone mason, who replied “building a wall,” before going back to work.
The traveller went on and asked the final stone mason what exactly they are building. He replied, “a monument.” The mason went on to talk about the historical significance of the monument, explaining that it represents someone who saved the townspeople. He talked about how people will come from miles around to visit the monument, which will bring prosperity to the village.
All three of the answers are equally correct. The only difference is the time frame. The first stone mason is “cutting stones” (short-term); the second is “building a wall” (medium term); and the last is “building a monument” (long-term).
A study by Vallacher and Wegner (1987) found that higher levels of meaning and motivation were consistently marked by longer time frames.
By starting with a longer time frame, you can connect the work you are doing today to something more meaningful and inspiring.
2. Priming: Identify New, Better Opportunities
Have you ever noticed that if you are considering buying a car, you suddenly start seeing that make and model of car everywhere? This is an effect called priming, which was discovered by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s not that the car is actually more common than you realized, it’s that you suddenly start to notice it because you are primed for it.
By having a clear long-term vision that you can review every morning, you are effectively priming yourself to spot opportunities that would move you in that focused direction. Without changing your environment, you’ll start to see opportunities you could be missing right now.
The mason that is building a monument as opposed to cutting stones sees the world differently, they are looking for inspiration to make their work better not just something to serve as a distraction.
3. Set More Ambitious Goals
The other beauty of 25 years as a timeline is that it feels downright spacious. When you set 1 year or even five year goals, there is a sense that time is running out. 25 years does not. You could build and sell a business, write a bestselling book, become a blackbelt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, learn to surf, raise a family and still have time left over.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when setting goals to get focused is that they start to think about how to accomplish the goals before just laying out what they want.
The result is that they subconsciously think “Oh I could never do that” and don’t even write it down. If they’d written it down, they might have seen it was more achievable than they realized.
By giving yourself 25 years, you’re more likely to be honest about the things you really want to do out of your head.
Once you’ve got a 25 year vision that is motivating and primes you to look for bigger opportunities, you’re going to set an immediate goal that you can start working towards.
Conveniently, 90 days is 1% of 25 years.
If you can get 1% of the way to your goal every 90 days, you’ll realize a 25 year vision. That feels pretty achievable, doesn’t it?
The area where a 25 year goal comes up short is that it’s hard to take action on today. If you want to write a book, start a business, raise a family and become a blackbelt, where do you start? Do you start all of them at once? One at a time? Is there a proper sequence?
Enter: The 90 Day North Star
Why a 90 day North Star?
1. 90 Days is right at the intersection of overestimating and underestimating
Do you ever look back over your day and think, “did I even get anything done today?”
Do you notice when you look back over the last few years of your life though, you often think “wow, I got a lot done over the last few years.”
Most people feel like they are unproductive on a day-to-day basis, but feel they get a lot done on a year-to-year basis.
We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but underestimate how much we can get done in a year. This is a well-researched cognitive bias, which applied to technology is called Amara’s Law.
By setting a 90-day goal, you are right at the intersection of the two. You can make more accurate predictions about what you can accomplish and then actually accomplish it.
2. 90 days is enough time to make meaningful progress but still lets you adapt
Netscape founder cum venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen offered this career advice: “The world is an incredibly complex place and everything is changing all the time. Trying to plan your career is an exercise in futility that will only serve to frustrate you, and to blind you to the really significant opportunities that life will throw your way.”
If you look at people (perhaps yourself) who planned out their careers five years ago, the world looks vastly different today than it did then. Not only does planning your career blind you to new opportunities, it can also lock you into a sinking ship.
However, not planning at all has its own peril that we looked at earlier: shiny object syndrome. Have you been bouncing from project to project and task to task every day, never making meaningful progress in any one endeavor? We all know someone who has.
By setting 90-day goals, you give yourself enough time to make meaningful progress. You can launch a product, write a book draft, or land five new clients in 90 days. That’s a pretty good few months.
You also give yourself room to adapt. If you’ve been hesitant to commit to something in the past for fear that it’s the wrong choice, or because you have many different interests, 90 day sprints are a way to manage your hesitancy while still making progress. If you have another 25 years of working life ahead, 90 days is only 1% of that, so if you don’t make the perfect choice, it’s OK.
3. 90 days gives you a sense of urgency
In a study of companies which gave bonuses quarterly versus those which gave bonuses at the end of the year, researchers found that salespeople who were rewarded yearly made over 50% of their sales in the fourth quarter. Why?
They all got to October, realized they had only made half the sales they needed to hit their yearly bonuses.
Salespeople who were rewarded quarterly had relatively even sales throughout the year and made more sales overall. Because they always felt the deadline coming up, they were consistently making sales.
Using shorter timelines creates a sense of urgency to get things done today, not tomorrow.
The same time bias which affects our ability to estimate correctly also affects us when setting goals. When we set yearly goals, they feel so far off that we think, “no worries, I’ve got plenty of time.”
By combining a 25 year vision and a 90 day north star, you will get the best of both worlds. A big, motivating future AND a clear, actionable goal to focus on.
You’ll avoid the purgatory between the two — having a goal that isn’t big enough to be motivating, but too big to take action on right away.
The benefit of having a clear 90-day goal is a high level of clarity and confidence. If you’ve never established a 90-day goal before, you’ll feel more certainty and confidence than you’ve ever felt in your life. Every time you set a new 90-day goal, it’s like fog clearing and the path suddenly becoming visible. The North Star becomes a focal point.
In the next article, I’m going to look at common problems with most planning and task management systems people use and why they fail to help you focus. I’ll also talk about how to avoid those mistakes so you can stay clear, confident and focused on your top priority.