How to Improve Our Focus
(Episode 2 of 2 with Erik Qualman)
Welcome back to another episode with Erik Qualman. In the last episode, we discussed Erik’s book Socialnomics, Erik’s journey and lessons he learned in his career, and leveraging voice to text. In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss another one of Erik’s books, The Focus Project, and how we can better focus on the most important things.
Why is it hard to focus in today’s world?
There is so much going on in the world; it pulls our attention this way and that, and we often have trouble focusing on the things that are important because we are constantly bombarded with notifications.
Erik noticed he was struggling with this, and he realized that he wasn’t the only one. He met people from all over the world who said they were experiencing this. He spent 1,000 days trying to figure out how to focus better. He looked at institutional research and applied it in his life.
A lot of us, especially in the Western world, are always trying to do more and more. But we can’t do it all at once. Erik found that he needed to do “less, better.”
How to Choose What to Focus on
To choose what to focus on, we have to figure out what makes us happiest, what our passions are. If we don’t know what our passions are, one way to find it is to write down the things that made us the happiest every day. After a few weeks, we will notice a pattern, and the things that make us happiest are usually our passions and the things that will give us the most fulfillment.
It will likely be easier for us to focus on the things we are passionate about because we are naturally drawn to them. Those who are deemed successful often take another step to stay focused on their passions. “They’ve become good at saying no to almost everything, so they can say yes to the big things,” Erik said.
How to Say No
How do we say “no” more when most of us are people pleasers and want to say “yes” to as many people as possible? “When you say yes to everyone, you’re saying no to everyone . . . you’re actually doing everyone a disservice,” Erik continued. “If I said yes to everyone, I’m going to do terrible for everybody. I’ve got to respect [my] capacity.”
There is also a more tactical approach to saying no. “If it’s not an emphatic yes, it should be an emphatic no,” Erik said. If someone asks Erik if he wants two tickets to the superbowl, he’s going to say, “Yes! I want those!” However, if someone asks him if he can open a cocktail reception in a couple of weeks, he’ll say, “I should probably do it.” Erik said, “Whenever you say, ‘I should probably do it,’ that’s a no.”
We often think we have more time in the future, so we’ll be tempted to say yes to things that are weeks or months away, even though it’s not an emphatic yes. But then when that day comes, we’ve committed to something that isn’t a high priority and we have to do it when we’d be better spending our time working on things that are our highest priorities. We must have the foresight to commit only to things that are a high priority or that we want to do.
Sometimes when people decide to start saying no, they don’t give hard nos; they’ll say, “No, not right now.” When we do this, we think we are protecting the person asking, but really we are just wasting their time because they have to come back and ask again. If we know it’s a no, we should do that person a favor by just saying no.
How to Improve Our Focus
In Erik’s book, he gives many different ways to improve focus because everyone is different, and some things may not work for some people. Here are two ways to focus that work well for Erik and most people.
1. Write Down the Highest Priority
Before Erik goes to sleep at night, he writes down the most important thing he needs to do the next day, the task that, if he does it well, will make everything else easier or unnecessary. This tricks our brain in a good way. We likely won’t spend the night worrying about all the things we need to do tomorrow. Then when we wake up in the morning, we know exactly what to do.
2. Utilize Our Power Hour
When we know what our highest priority for the day is, we need to use our power hour to attack it, before the day attacks us. The power hour is the optimal hour for our brain when it is the freshest. This is usually the hour that we would naturally wake up if we didn’t have an alarm or any responsibilities.
For me, if on a Saturday I didn’t set my alarm and didn’t have any responsibilities, I would probably wake up at eight or nine in the morning. Erik said this time is my power hour. Regardless of what time I set my alarm to wake up during the week (usually 5:30 a.m.), that hour will still be a very productive hour for me. I shouldn’t spend it answering emails; I should spend it doing something that is very important.
It doesn’t matter when this hour is, it’s different for everyone, as long as we are using this hour to help us work and focus on the most important things.
How to Help Our Teams Focus
We can make sure our team members are focused by asking them what they are working on and what their top priority for the week or the day is. If we work together in person, we can do a quick huddle or if we work remotely, it can be a simple spreadsheet.
We can help them break down their goals into manageable chunks so they know exactly what they need to do each day. We can also help them from a support standpoint by asking, “Did you finish everything you needed yesterday?” We can collectively hold everyone accountable, which leads to more fulfillment in the long-term.
Erik explained that we can treat our teams like focus groups or accountability partners. When I make a goal in my mind, there is a 10% chance I will accomplish it. When I write down that goal, it becomes a 50% chance that I’ll achieve it. If I set a date for when I’m going to do it, the chance goes up to 65%. When I tell someone about my goal, it jumps to 90%. So, when we meet periodically with our teams and share our goals, we will have a higher chance of accomplishing them.
How to Prioritize the Most Important Things
How do we narrow down our to-do list to the most important things? We want to be doing the things that we are passionate about, the things that will give us the most fulfillment. “At the end of the day, the thing we want to do as humans is be fulfilled. The way we’re fulfilled is through growth,” Erik said. Growth can be running a better time in the marathon, learning a language, expanding the business, etc.
We need to make sure the tasks we need to do align with our passions and growth. If they don’t, they’ll just be tasks we should do instead of tasks we must do or tasks we want to do. We should look at our lists and circle the task that will give us the most fulfillment and the biggest return on investment.
Throughout the day we can check in by asking, “What am I doing, and why am I doing it?” This will help keep us on track because we can look back to our list and see if what we’re doing is related to it or not.
Thank you so much Erik for sharing your stories and insights with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:
- We often have trouble focusing on the things that are important because we are constantly bombarded with notifications.
- To choose what to focus on, we have to figure out what makes us happiest, what our passions are. It will likely be easier for us to focus on the things we are passionate about because we are naturally drawn to them.
- If it’s not an emphatic yes, it should be an emphatic no.
- At night we can write down the most important thing we need to do the next day to help us sleep and help us focus on that in the morning.
- We should use our power hour to help us work and focus on the most important things.
- In our teams, we can collectively hold everyone accountable, which can lead to more fulfillment in the long-term. When we periodically meet with our teams and share our goals, we can have a higher chance of accomplishing our goals.
- We can narrow down our to-do list by focusing on the things we are most passionate about and the things that give us the most fulfillment and growth.
Connect with Erik
To learn more about or connect with Erik:
- Connect on LinkedIn
- Visit his website at Equalman.com
- Check out his books Socialnomics and The Focus Project