3 Strategies To Stay Focused And Accomplish What Really Matters

Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” Like him or not, the man knew where his priorities were and was able to devote his energy and attention into making his aspirations a reality. Isn’t that 80% of the battle? Knowing what’s important to you, personally, and then focusing your effort there and not being diverted.

I’ve been spending a bit of my time the last few years helping people to identify who they aspire to be in their lives, so that they can focus their energy and effort on the things that really matter to them. The process usually involves helping them to identify their key stakeholders and to operationalize exactly what it is they want their lives to be – how they aspire to live out their hopes and dreams and values.

A common issue I’ve heard from many of the people I’ve worked with is just how challenging it can be to stay focused when other people – colleagues, friends, family – attempt to involve you in their issues.

You know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you? I call it fighting other people’s fires. They have an issue, an idea, a problem, a question; they have something they need – or think they need – from you. There’s nothing wrong with their intentions. I’m sure that the issue matters to them at that moment. However, you have your own goals and priorities, don’t you? But they ask for your help and like a good co-worker or friend or whatever, you put aside what it is that you are working on and try to be responsive to their needs. That’s fine – once in a while. But for the people I work with, it’s a constant source of interruption throughout the day. Every time you are interrupted, not only do you lose the time it takes to provide the answer or the assistance, but you also lose the flow and focus for the goal or project you were working on. By the time you reestablish that flow and focus, it seems as if someone else needs something from.

The Cost Of Not Saying No

The process loss involved in stopping work on one thing and beginning work on a different issue (someone else’s fire) is called the switching cost. There is a mental process that we go through. We have to:

1) Mentally shift our goal focus – “I’m not going to do this anymore, now I’m going to do that”

2) Mentally change our paradigm and cognitive rules – I’m turning off the rules and mental maps that pertain to what I was working on, and I’m booting up new rules and mental maps for what you are asking me to do.

Those cognitive switching costs are like interest compounding on a credit card balance. If you use the card sparingly, no problem, you can handle the interest. But if you are using that credit card day in and day out, the interest will add up quickly. If you are getting interrupted from your work on tasks that are important to you, to fight other people’s fires on a regular basis, those switching costs will eat you alive. You won’t accomplish the things that matter most to you. Or you’ll find yourself up at 2 am trying to work on something that really matters, after a hard day of solving other people’s problems. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to have the physical or mental energy that you need to do it successfully. According to the American Psychological Association, repeated switching costs can tally up to 40% of an individual’s productive time. Again, that’s not even counting the time that you aren’t working on your own goal. Who can afford that? We simply can’t say yes to everyone.

Disclaimer: Relationships are an important part of life – personally as well as professionally. Building and maintaining them should be a priority. It’s when we fight other people’s fires – mindlessly, or because we are afraid to say no – that it can become dysfunctional and a hindrance to our effectiveness.

We need to be able to use a positive No to maintain our focus and accomplish the things that matter most to us. My clients tell me that it’s hard for them to use that No. They feel uncomfortable with it. They wish they could do it better.

I want to offer some ideas.

Why we have difficulty saying no

Our discomfort with the word No is emotional. If we didn’t experience emotions and empathy, it would probably be pretty easy to say no, wouldn’t it? There are different flavors to how our emotions may affect us.

You may:

  1. Have the need to please
  2. Equate saying no to being rude
  3. Be uncomfortable with conflict
  4. Believe that saying no will damage the relationship
  5. Not want to disappoint the other person
  6. Believe that it’s your responsibility to say yes

I’m tempted to go into a long-winded analysis of each of the possible reasons, but instead let me just cut to the chase. GET OVER IT! Whichever of those reasons resonates with you, let it go! Saying no doesn’t automatically create conflict, disappoint or damage the relationship. It doesn’t have to be rude, and having the need to please can end up being highly dysfunctional if you take it too far. Recognize what’s preventing you from saying No and make a conscience choice to put it aside. You can actually control your emotional state. Shift yourself to a set of internal emotions where you feel more comfortable setting boundaries and staying focused.

Once you’ve decided to start using No more regularly, there are some strategies to do it more effectively.

1) Say No Without Ever Having To Say No

Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” You are facing a war for your time and energy. Wouldn’t it be great to win that conflict without having to say no or turn someone away?

  1. Set Boundaries – Establish a time when you will be available each day to deal with questions and requests. I’ll call that time your Office Hours. You can call it whatever you like. Let your network know. Encourage them to wait until that time each day – if they can. If you are really in demand consider briefer Office Hours in both the morning and the afternoon.
  2. Turn Off Email notifications – Email is a fantastic tool for communicating. Use it, don’t let it use you. Set a few times each day to check and respond to email. Turn off your notifications. Turn them off on your desktop as well as on your mobile device. Choose when you will do email, don’t let the tail wag the dog. According to a variety of studies, many of us have formed an unhealthy habit of checking our email too frequently – around 200 times a day. What are the switching costs of that?
  3. Batch Phone Calls – Much like with email, the phone can be a source of unpredictable, intermittent interruptions. Or you can use it. Let your phone go to voicemail and set a time on your calendar during the day to return those calls. Don’t use the phone as an excuse to break your flow. The exception to this rule is, of course, if your job is to answer the phone and provide service to clients and stakeholders. Other than that, let it go to voicemail.
  4. Schedule One On One Meetings – If you manage others you need to be there for them. But that doesn’t mean that they should have 24/7 unfettered access to you and your energy for every trivial thing under the sun. Set up a regular meeting time – once a week – to discuss whatever they want. It’s their meeting. They get to set the agenda. Explain to them that you’d like them to save any issues that can wait, for that meeting or for whatever hours you set for daily Office Hours. Also explain what types of issues will require immediate communication.

2) Use A More Positive Approach: Yes – No – Yes

Even with well-defined boundaries, there will always be unexpected interruptions. The way we say No will have an impact on how it is received. William Ury, in his book The Power of A Positive No, points out that our focus when we start our response matters. All too often we start from the perspective of being against the other person’s perspective or request. That type of reactive response can create animosity and negative feelings. He recommends a more proactive response based on what we are for rather than what we are against.

Consider using a three-part process:

  1. Begin by saying Yes to yourself and safeguarding what matters to you – in this case your time and energy. Be clear in your own mind about your priorities – what are the key roles and goals in your life? If you are legitimately spending time working on one of those key roles or goals (Which you should be!) then it will be easy to say Yes to yourself and to shift to an emotional state more conducive to saying No to the other person’s fire. Then say Yes by telling the other person about your current priority.
  2. Then offer a straightforward, matter of fact No. Tone of voice matters. Be assertive, not aggressive or dismissive.
  3. Finally, close the loop by following with another Yes. Say Yes to the relationship and – hopefully – provide an alternative solution. In many cases you are not saying “Never”, you’re saying “Not Now”. So, if not now, when? If the answer really is Never (The issue clearly is their fire and you want nothing to do with it) try to point them in a direction that you believe will be helpful. Affirm the value that you place on the relationship.

It sounds more difficult than it is. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process.

Request: “Joe, do you have a few minutes to talk about the project?”

Yes (to yourself) I’m currently working on writing a new Post for my Web Site. It’s important to me and I don’t want to lose my flow.

Response: “Hi Susan. Unfortunately, I am right in the middle of something important right now. So I’m going to have to say No at this moment. But I do want to talk with you about the project. Are you available at 2?

Not every interruption or request will be as obvious and straightforward. More often, you will have to ask a few clarifying questions to really understand that the person isn’t asking about a fire burning uncontrollably, in your own back yard.

Saying No can be a withdrawal from what Stephen Covey called the Emotional Bank Account. When you do say No, look for opportunities to begin to replenish that relationship bank account as soon as possible. Ask yourself, what would be a deposit for that person? As soon as possible after the No, follow through and make that deposit to help affirm the relationship.

3) Say NO to Yourself

I’ve been focusing on saying no to others, but there is another part to the process. You have to be able to say No to yourself as well. Every time you move from one task to another you incur those switching costs. Even when you move on your own initiative. If you work for ten minutes on a key goal and then pick up the phone because you remember you need to call a colleague – or you check your email, – or you surf the web or you do whatever – you’re losing productivity. How often does that happen for you?

Saying No to yourself is also about saying Yes, isn’t it? It’s about knowing what is most important to you – your key Roles and Goals and Stakeholders. It’s about ensuring that you spend most of your time and energy focusing on those key parts of your life instead of responding to other people’s fires or letting yourself become distracted. Those self-initiated distractions may be an even larger hindrance to your personal effectiveness than requests and interruptions from others.

According to Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, the subjects she studied switched tasks – on their own – on average, every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. In the hour and a half that I’ve been writing this Post, I’ve gotten up for a snack, answered the phone, watched 4 innings of the Phillies game (they’re losing) and gone to the bathroom (twice) Maybe it’s time to start saying No to myself.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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