How to focus on what matters - 7 approaches

How to focus on what matters - 7 approaches

🎙️ Podcast

About the episode

In this episode, I explore the topic of how to focus on what matters most. The reason it's so difficult to answer: it's not 1 question, it's several questions.

So, let's break it down and peel away the layers one by one:

  • Where to Direct Our Attention
  • Defining What is Important to You
  • How Do You Know What Matters to You
  • Understanding the Meaning of Focus
  • Applying the 80-20 Principle
  • Prioritizing with a 25-Item List
  • Focusing on Different Life Areas
  • Shifting Perspectives to Find Focus
  • Building Habits and Systems to Maintain Focus
  • Learning Through Doing

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Episode transcript

AI transcription, with some human edits 😄

Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of PoliticWise. It's the first time I'm doing this also as a video. So if you're just listening to it on your favorite podcasting platform, know that there is also a video version out there. And as I'm experimenting, feel free to also let me know what you think of also having a video. And if you see that I can do anything differently or better, that would help me much appreciated. Today, I'm doing a podcast episode on my own.

And it is because I wanted to talk about a topic and give you my ideas on a topic that's been coming up a lot in the people, with the people that I've been talking with, with my clients, but also my own life. And that is the big topic of how do we focus on the things that matter most to us? There are all of these distractions around us. There's information overload. How do we really focus on what matters most to us in our context?

'How to focus' is not 1 question

Now, and on the flip side also, how do we ignore everything else that doesn't really matter to us? So it's a big question and it's a really difficult question. And my insight recently has been, it is such a difficult question to answer because it is not just one question. It's not just one question how to focus on what matters most. There are actually a couple of questions packed into this or hidden within the seemingly one question.

And I want to break this down. There are seven aspects to answering this question. And what we're doing, in a sense, is we're drilling down. We're drilling down and peeling away the layers of an onion. And you might find that peeling away the first layer will already give you an insight, an answer to that question for yourself. But you also might find that you need to peel away a couple of layers.

And at the end, you get an insight on how to answer that question for yourself. So let's start.

Layer 1: Where to Direct Your Attention?

I think the first layer here is, I think, quite an obvious layer. It's where to direct our attention, our focus. And typically, you will get here tools like the Eisenhower matrix, for example. You've probably seen it already. The idea that we've got two dimensions and we can plot whatever is coming up for us, our tasks, our big projects on that matrix. And the two dimensions are what is urgent and what is important. And if you think about it, some of the things that come to us are really urgent and are also really important. But there are things that are perhaps only important, but not really urgent. Typically, those are the things that we don't spend much time on, right? Because...

Yes, they might be important, but we have time, right? And so we postpone them over and over again. And so a matrix like this, this Eisenhower matrix is really helpful to plot all of the things that are coming up for you right now where you need to make a decision onto the matrix and gain an insight on where they actually lie. And not just an insight on where they lie, but what it means for you, right? Because...

The big insight here of that matrix is that because we're not often taking the time for the things that are not so urgent but important, well, maybe we should, right? And so it helps you get a clear visual on that. There are other ways to approach this beyond the Eisenhower matrix. You can think of the impact feasibility, for example. So...

out of all of the projects and to-dos, what's the impact going to be? And how feasible, how easy is it for you to do those things? There's some things perhaps that have a massive impact and that are easy to do. So it suggests perhaps to start with those first. And so those matrices have helped me and I know they help some people, but...

Layer 2: Defining What is Important to You?

Here's the thing, that's the first layer and often it's not so easy to fill those in. And I think one big reason why it's not so easy is that you need some way to assess, for example, what impact means. Or you need some way to assess, if we think about the Eisenhower matrix, what is important. What is important to you in your context.

And how do you define that? And I think this is where we need to peel away another layer and go a little bit deeper into this question. And I think where we get to is not the question where to put your focus, but, hey, what is really important to you? What matters to you? Right? So we are asking, in a sense, perhaps a why question. What's your why here? What is important to you?

And a couple of ways to tackle this, probably some things that come to your mind as you hear this is things like your purpose, like a deeper understanding of where are you going and why are you on this journey? So you could think about defining that, have perhaps a purpose statement ready for you. Perhaps the angle of personal values is helpful for you. So...

Like what are those core aspects of what is really important to you in life? It could be perhaps a sense of adventure. It could be a sense of independence. It could be family and friends. Those are typical things that come up. But, you know, the key here is to find a way to put a word to it so that you can grasp it easily. And whenever you say that word, you immediately feel something.

And when feeling something, it's a good indication that this really is important to you. And it's not just a generic value that you copied from somewhere. It's like liberty, fraternity, and so on. These big claims, it's not so much about making them big and grandiose, but really very personal to you. So add whatever word, idiosyncratic, detailed word matters to you.

This is your value. It's nothing that you need to communicate, at least at this point. So values is another way to go about it beyond the purpose statement. You can think of goals. What important goals do you have? Perhaps midterm, long term goals. And perhaps a final way to answer this question of what is really important to me is to figure out when are you in flow, right?

So what are those things that you find interesting, challenging, but you know, they are still within your skill set. When are you having this experience of forgetting everything around you? And like those activities or those contexts might be really important to you. You might want to be in those contexts more often. And when you've got all these kinds of requests and projects and possible to -dos to do, and you need to focus on them, you know, thinking of,

What of these is most likely to put me into a state of flow where I feel happy, where I perform at an exceptional level, where I grow up as a person, could be another way to approach this. So what do we have? We have where to focus, where to put your attention to. We've got the second layer is the criteria. It's what really matters to you.

Layer 3: How Do You Know What Matters to You?

And I think there is a third layer here. It's...

How do you know this really matters to you? And I think I've given some indication of how to answer that. But this is where I'm over and over again thinking of how do we know something is really important to us? And there are essentially two ways to approach this, two ways to answer this. And this is where I think the work from Kahneman comes in: "Thinking, Fast and Slow".

And what they say is that we've got system one thinking and system two thinking. System one thinking is the fast, the automatic intuitive way of thinking about something. System two is the slow thinking. It's the analytical, rational thinking side of it. And so if you hear this and you ask yourself, okay, where do I put my focus on? What is really important to me? You can answer that.

Through the fast automatic intuitive or through the slow analytical thinking aspect. And both really make sense. Both can make sense. And I think here is a matter of how do you typically approach an answer? Are you the person who's more intuitive? Are you the person who really takes time to really go through it analytically?

And I think my take here would be if you are one but not the other, perhaps if you're stuck with this question, try out the other. And I think for many of us, for me at least, it means often that I'm fine with the analytical part, but to perhaps to tune in a little bit more into the intuitive. How do I feel? What's my gut feeling about something? A little exercise you can do here is to flip a coin:

To really convince yourself, not just up there in the head, but also just in terms of feeling, to really convince yourself that whatever choice you need to make, the choice between two things, that, you know, head you make a choice A and tail you make a choice B, and then you flip the coin, and whatever you get, that's what you're going to choose. So you, in a sense, what you're doing is,

It's not you who makes the decision, but it's fate or luck. And the key here is whatever happens to be the side of the coin is you're going to make that choice. And the key here is to feel how are you reacting to that? Are you happy with how the coin landed? Are you unhappy with how the coin landed? And that gives you some indication to how you're actually intuitively feeling about it. There's some data there, right? Like perhaps rationally, cognitively, you were really on decision A, but then the coin flipped to decision A and you were a little, you felt a bit disappointed. Might be an indication that there's more to option B, something to perhaps think about a bit more or feel about a bit more. So that's a third layer. How do you really know this matters to you?

Layer 4: What Type of Focus?

There's another layer here, a fourth layer, and it's to really think about what do you mean by focus, right? When you've got this sensation that you really want to focus, what does that look like, that kind of focus? Typically, you know, things come up like, okay, so what's the one thing to do? What's the one big thing? That could be focus, focusing on something. What's the one thing to do today, this week, this month?

You could also approach it like a camera, like a camera lens of, yes, a camera lens is focusing in on some aspects, but it doesn't mean that everything else is blacked out. No, it's blurry, but it's still there in the background. So perhaps what would it look like if you focused not on one thing, but like a camera focused on something, but keeps the rest in the background?

80-20 Principle

Another way to go about it is not just to ask the one thing, but to apply the 80 -20 principle of what are the 20 % of the things I can do that give me 80 % of the result. Typically, we observe this in the normal world. We observe a lot of these phenomena where only a very small minority, like the 20 % of the input, gives me a huge 80 % of the output. And then the question obviously here is, is it really worth it to: expanding the extra effort, the remaining 80%, to get the last remaining 20 % of the output?

So this could be one way to approach it. What are the 20 % of the input that give me 80 % of the output?

Warren Buffet's 25-Item List

And another way to go about this that I have heard from copying from Warren Buffett, apparently there's the story, and I think he said he can't remember if he ever suggested that idea, but that he would agree with this approach, is A 25 item list where Warren Buffet suggested, okay, so you're struggling to really find what are the core things to focus on. Well, make a list of 25 things that you could focus your attention on. Then what you do is circle the five items on that list that are really important, really stand out for you.

And so what you have now are two lists. You have the top five and you've got the remaining 20. And the radical approach here is to say, only do the five things. The 20 things are not secondary. They are actually something to actively avoid. That's your avoid it all cost list. If they didn't make it to the top five, they are those things that actually distract you, that pull your attention away.

You're thinking: 'okay, you know, some of those 20 things that can add here and there in my day, but they end up messing up your day.' That's the approach.

Life Areas

And a last way in which focus could mean something is not the one thing, but we all have different life domains and life areas. So it's about thinking, what do they mean? What does that look like for you?

You know, they're probably typical things that will come up, you know, and based on, well, you know, how most of us live our lives, but also on what we know is really important to our sense of fulfillment in life. So typical life areas could be something like your family and friends, perhaps family and friends are two categories for you. Perhaps it's the same category. Career.

Perhaps if career is separate for you from contribution, then contribution outside of your work. Learning, personal growth, health, fitness. So whatever those areas are for you to define those, personalize those for you. And then all of a sudden focus could mean something like within each of these areas, what is your focus? Or it could mean, okay, these are my areas, but right now,

I want to balance to really focusing on one of those areas, health, for example.

So here's, you know, those are some ideas for how to approach this question of, well, what kind of focus are we talking about when we say we want to focus?

Layer 5: Shifting Perspectives to Find Focus

There's another layer. And that layer is asking yourself a few questions, I think powerful questions, that can shift your perspective. Sometimes it's not easy to answer that question of what to focus on, even with everything that we've just run through from your current perspective.

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Albert Einstein

This is where the typical Albert Einstein quote comes in. That we cannot solve a problem on the same level of consciousness or perspective from which the problem was created in the first place. So if you want to answer a difficult question, perhaps step away from that to a totally new perspective. And so here are a few questions that I think can achieve that.

The first of those questions, which I really enjoy, it's a question from Tim Ferriss. Tim Ferriss asks himself, or used to ask himself that question. And it's:

"If I could only work eight hours per week, what would I do?"

Second question is from a book, "Both and Thinking." It's this one:

"What if this is not an either or decision?"

And it's a bit counterintuitive because it suggests, well, I do want to make a choice between this or that in order to focus. But here the idea is perhaps, you know, it is not a decision between either/or.

There are two ways how you could respond to that, broadly speaking. One is the mule approach, right? The mule in the sense of this is a creation of two different species, two different animals. And so what we're trying to do is, is there a way to creatively integrate these competing demands? It's not option A or B, it's

In what way can we creatively combine them? Very difficult to do usually, very difficult. So perhaps a second way in order to answer that either or question is, well, perhaps it's just like the tightrope walker, right? So a person on a tightrope, what we see is they're constantly, they look like from high level, they are balancing, they're not falling at least, but really what they are doing is they are, balancing to the left and then to the right and shifting. So they're always seemingly out of balance, but that's how they gain balance over the long run. That's how they make it to the other side. And so here the idea is how can I not make an either or decision permanently and forever and absolutely, but how can I live with consistent inconsistency? So sometimes it might mean that I'm shifting to one side of my life. I'm focusing, for example, on one life area, but then I'm over time focusing on another area, balancing out to another area.

Another question, and this is from a person called Gary Keller, author of 'The One Thing':

"What's the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?"

I think this is looking for the leverage: what's the one thing that gives me leverage on everything else that makes my life easier or things unnecessary? I just can simply delete a lot of those things that I think I still need to do.

Next question is this one. This is really about shifting perspective:

"When I look back in five years, which of these options, projects, tasks will make the better story?"

Or a similar question is:

"How will I feel about today's decision, the decision I'm about to make in 10 days versus in 10 months versus in 10 years?"

So shifting perspective across time.

A last question, similarly shifting perspective, but not across time, but to another person. It's asking yourself, "What would X do?" And replace X by people, random people, e.g.:

"What would Winston Churchill do? What would The Dalai Lama do? What would a five -year -old do..."

Layer 6: Building Habits to Maintain Focus

There's a last layer that suggests that you've found actually the thing that you want to focus on. So, you know, congratulations, you found it. But then life happens and we get distracted from that. And so the last aspect of that question is not so much how can I find it, but how can I stick to, how can I keep at...

that that focus, keep focusing on things that really matter to me. This is where habits come in, this is where systems come in. So how can I actually do it and not get sidetracked? Here, I think I only want to point to one book, I think which is the book on building habits by James Clear, Atomic Habits. And broadly thinking here, there are two ways to think about this whole topic of habits and systems is,

What habit systems do I need to root out? Those habits and systems that really distract me from my focus. And then the second question is, how can I build habits? How can I put systems in place that support my focus?

Layer 8: Doing First. Focus Second

There's a very last aspect to, I think, the onion of how to focus on what really matters. And that's the approach of doing first and then learning second. Or doing first and only after that, figuring out what really matters to you.

Maybe you don't answer that question by sitting down somewhere and reflecting or by talking with someone. Perhaps you answer the question by just going out and doing something. And it's the first concept here that I thought of was a concept called Polanyi's paradox. I think, believe Polanyi's mathematician who pointed out that...

There are a lot of things that we know, but we can't express. We can't put into words. We don't know that we know them, consciously at least, but we know them, right? Tacitly, they are there. And the big way how, you know, the key way how we make implicit knowledge explicit is through doing stuff, through trying things out, through learning from doing.

That's how a lot of the things that we tacitly know, we are able to point them out and put them into words.

Layer 8: Doing First. Focus Second

And then I think also in line with this, just do something first and then things you will figure out things rather than the reverse of, you know, just thinking, thinking and, you know, running circles in your own mind or by talking with people and never really just going out and trying things out and perhaps getting an easier, much quicker that way. It's a quote from Francis Assisi who said,

"First, do what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And before you know it, you are doing the impossible."

And what resonated really with me is the first one, is the first to do what is necessary. Start there. And then things will, you know, don't need to figure out everything else. Just take that first step of what is obvious and what is really the necessary thing right in front of you.

So I hope I've unpacked a little bit this onion of how to focus on what matters really to you. I think it's not one question to ask. There are a couple of them. And I think out of that, whatever resonates most with you, perhaps there is something there in one of these layers. No need to go through all of them. But whatever layer resonates most with you, perhaps, well, start there. And...

I hope this helped. am thinking of is there a decision tree logic behind this? Is there a sequence behind answering these questions that would make it ultra rational? But perhaps that's just my analytical side to it. I'd be interested to hear from you what you think of that. Is there something else to the question of what to focus on and how to focus on what matters that I haven't seen?

And what do you think of that decision tree logic of answering one question after the other to get ultimately to an answer to this question? I'd be really interested to hear from you. So let me know. And until the next time, next time with another guest.