Here’s a 16th Century Lesson on Focus

Sundays are useful touchstones for our goals.

Last week, I told you about my maniacal focus for 2012. At the beginning of the week, I stuck carefully to my plan.  But after two consecutive 15-hour days at work, I let my mind wander a little. I’m sure you know how that goes.

Well, Sunday is a great touchstone.  And who provided my guidance and support?  A 16th century saint and Doctor of the Church.  Moreover, he’s the patron saint of bloggers.  (They called bloggers “writers” in his day, though.)  And my favorite church is named after him.

Stand up and give yourself a round of applause you said, “Saint Francis de Sales.” 

StFrancisDeSales

A truly wonderful friend and noble warrior for liberty gave me a book by St. Francis for Christmas. I treasure it. 

And I’m thrilled to see that this great saint and Doctor of the Church agrees about focus.

I get a fair amount of requests (sometimes demands) to do more stuff. “Bill, why don’t we have a weekly protest here?”  “Why don’t you post more events on the calendar?”  “When is the Tea Party going to hold another big rally so Dick Morris can sneak Roy Blunt up on stage so people will hate you for years to come.”

The big answer is simple: if we try to chase after every opportunity, we will accomplish nothing.

Here’s what St. Francis had to say:

The enemy often tries to make us attempts and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished.  Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work that we would have easily completed. He does not care how many plans and beginnings we make, provided nothing is finished. No more than Pharaoh does he wish to prevent the “mystical women of Israel” – that is, Christian souls – from bringing forth male children, provided they are slain before they grow up.

That pattern sounds familiar to me. I am so easily distracted by new things.  I worry that my focus on the sails of the boat I’m on will cause me to miss some other, better ship that I’d rather sail. 

But the more shiny objects we chase, the more fools’ gold we mine. 

In 2012, let’s focus on building a network of friends. Activists friends who share a love of country, liberty, and decency.  We will work together, learn together, recruit together, campaign together, laugh together, and celebrate victory together.

In this mission of The After Party, I believe the enemy is fragmentation.  Fragmented teams, fragmented minds, fragmented projects.  So, with many other intentions, I pray now for unity of purpose, integrated effort, and singularity of purpose. 

And if you don’t believe me, just ask St. Francis de Sales.

A Maniacal Focus for 2012

I’m almost finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple co-founder and genius Steve Jobs. Jobs’s life left insanely good lessons. Some lessons instruct us on how to do things. Others warn us of bad things to avoid.

One of the good things Steve Jobs taught us:  focus.  Maniacal focus on things that mattered, and a pathological aversion to distractions.

One example.  When Jobs returned to Apple after 10-year exile, he took stock of all the projects underway.  He found dozens of development and research efforts.  Most of them were, in his words, “shit.”

The product review revealed how unfocused Apple had become. The company was churning out multiple versions of each product because of bureaucratic momentum and to satisfy the whims of retailers. “It was insanity,” Schiller recalled. “Tons of products, most of them crap, done by deluded teams.”

--Isaacson, Walter (2011-10-24). Steve Jobs (p. 337). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Jobs killed 70 percent of those products.

Jobs was famously direct, blunt, rude. When people on an Apple product team heard Steve Jobs call their work “shit,” it stung. Not only that, the project cancellations put people’s jobs in jeopardy.

Finally, Jobs gave one of the insulted teams a great reason for his harsh assessment of their work.

“You are bright people,” he told one group. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products.”

--Isaacson, Walter (2011-10-24). Steve Jobs (p. 337). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

To help the people focus, he drew a simple diagram on a whiteboard.

JobsProductQuadrant_thumb-300x196

From dozens of projects, the new Apple would focus on only four, one for each quadrant in this simple drawing.

I know a lot of bright people who get lost in a sea of good ideas. We’re taught from birth to look for opportunities everywhere, to never tell others “no” when they ask us to pitch in and help.

But if you say “yes” to every good idea, you’ll never ship the great ones.

I don’t believe in New Years’ resolutions, but I do believe in using milestones as checkpoints. And the start of a new calendar year is as good checkpoint as any. So here’s my focus for 2012.

Spiritual: Say the Rosary every day.

Work: Create one insanely great new thing in 2012, all the way to market.

Civic: Through The After Party program, begin a new era of effective citizenship in St. Louis

Family:  Be present in the precious little time I spend at home

Four areas of life. One focus for each.

None of these is new. But reading the Jobs biography reminded me that it’s critically important to remain focused.  Yes, I’ve deviated from Jobs’s two-customer model. For good or ill, my life includes four customer types, each holding a warrantee that I must honor.

How to Achieve

When a family’s children are small, the family has such unity of purpose. Mom, Dad, and all the kids climb into the mini-van or the SUV and head to the store. From there, they visit her parents. Then stop at McDonald’s on the way home.  If one of the older kids is involved in an organized program, the whole family attends. Achieving_Happiness[1]

At bath time, the younger ones are bathed in batch.  Everyone eats together. Bed time comes for all of the kids at once, although older ones might get to read a while before turning out the light.

Young families have unity of purpose.

Then the kids get older.  Activities overlap, so the family must divide to accomplish them all. Soon, neither Mom nor Dad can stay and watch Trish’s volleyball game, because other kids need to be shuttled from event to event.

Before you know it, Trish is catching rides with the older kids who have their own cars. In a blink, the kids’ afterschool jobs prevent them from eating dinner as a family. Now, even Grandpa’s 70th birthday becomes a hassle to schedule.  And, yes, life is so complex the anniversary of a man’s birth has to be scheduled around other activities.

This is like any new organization, whether it’s a business startup or a grassroots movement.  At first, there’s such excitement about the next event or milestone or release date that everyone focuses on that.  Then teams get larger, and we divide our attentions.  Some focus on the next milestone, while others engage in longer term planning. Before long, we have not one but three or four immediate milestones, and we’ve divided the labor among specialists.

At this point, we no longer feel the excitement of the startup.  We feel like we’re in a big corporation with titles and departments.  And we notice that we’re missing a lot of targets and struggling for ideas.  Worst, there’s personality conflict and turf battles.  Everything is hard work, and nothing feels like an achievement.  Everything feels like a pain in the ass.

The way to combat this situation is three-fold:

Know Your Intended Outcome:  Have a single purpose around which everyone rallies, and make sure the whole organization understands why you exist.  For example, the first Tea Parties in February 2009 had perfect unity of purpose: Repeal the Pork or Retire.  That message was for Congress.  The pork was TARP, Stimuli I and II, the massive Budget Plus bill passed to redistribute wealth from us to Obama’s largest campaign donors.  That’s why this whole thing came about: government spending and borrowing for things that we never gave government permission to do.

Eliminate the Unnecessary:  Many activities should have been temporary but became permanent.  Kill all of those.  Weekly status meeting that came about because Project Y was behind schedule?  Kill it when Project Y ships and fix the reason it was late.  (Hint, meetings make projects later.) Is one project two generations behind because resources move to the other projects? Kill the feeder project. No one’s interested.  Any activity or project that does not directly address the Intended Outcome needs to stop immediately.

Do One Thing at a TimeThe human brain cannot multitask. Give it up. Don’t ask others to multitask unless you’d ask them to be in two places at once.  Once you’ve eliminated the unnecessary and established a clear, constant reminder of your intended outcome, you should have only one important task before you. Do it.  Then do the next.  Then one after that.  Trying to do two or more things at once will result in two or more crappy pieces of work.

If you feel that you’re busier than ever but nothing’s getting done, chances are you that you’ve taken on too much, lost sight of your intended outcome, and divided your attention among too many things.  Stop.  Write down that intention, write down a list of everything that’s in flight, then cross out every activity except the one that’s most important to the intended outcome.  You make a new list tomorrow.

For more information on achieving your goals, read my latest book, Zen Conservatism.

2 Paths to Focus

target I had a small revelation yesterday: there are two paths to focus.

One path requires constant vigilance against distraction.  This path also demands great awareness of many things, knowledge, and outlandish tenacity.  This is the path we recognize as heroic.

The other path gets less notice, less acclaim. Those how follow this other path to focus don’t seem to try hard. These are the “naturals.” Things seem to come easy for them.

But the second path requires a lot of work, too. 

The first path focus makes your eye (or eyes) hurt.  You strain to place all of your concentration onto one tiny speck. You squint and squeeze your eyeball. That speck could be a planet billions of miles away or it could be a subatomic particle.  Both require massive, focused concentration. The person achieves this concentration earns praise as a hero and hard worker.

The second path to focus requires learning to eliminate everything but the target. Instead of mastering concentration, you master release and surrender.  You let go of everything that’s not the object of your study or the target of your arrow. You think, see, and understand less and less until, at last, there is nothing in your universe except you and the target.

Then you release the arrow. It has no choice but to strike the target, because nothing else exists. 

Following the second path to focus will earn less praise for hard work and genius because it looks easy. But when the paths cross, those on the second path will triumph every time.

How to Focus for Better Living

I once thought that focus meant you never got distracted. I was wrong.

A person with a powerful focusing ability gets as distracted as the next guy. The difference is that the Focus Master has learned to recognize distraction and gently guide his thoughts or actions back to the intended task at hand.

That simple skill is rare and remarkably powerful. Pay attention to every word of this two-step process:

1. Recognize that your mind has wandered, and

2. Gently let go of the distraction and return to your intended thought or action

Practice this skill once a day for twenty-one days, and you will gain a tactical advantage over ninety-nine percent of the population.

Here are some practical ways to practice:

At the computer:

1. In a fairly quiet place with your computer, go to http://www.online-stopwatch.com/ and select the countdown timer.

2. Set the timer to three minutes for the first week, and increase by 2 minutes each of the following two weeks.

3. Before you start the time, think of the word that best describes what you need most. Choose a single word, like “freedom” or “perseverance.”

4. During each session, try to feel what it would be like to have what you’re asking for. Don’t think about it or describe it: feel it.

5. Start the time, and close your eyes, focusing on the feeling of your word.

6. As your mind wanders, recognize the wandering. Acknowledge it. Let it go. Gently guide your feelings and thoughts back to the word and the feelings associated with achieving that word.

7. Repeat step 6 until the timer sounds.

8. Open your eyes, silence the timer, and write yourself a short note about the experience.

Variations:

1. During breakfast, try focusing exclusively on every aspect of the food you’re eating. Enjoy the crap out of every bite. As other thoughts intrude, let them go and gently return your thoughts and feelings to the food that fuels your body and mind.

2. While driving, turn off the radio and your cell phone. Concentrate on the act of driving, the sound of the car, the activities of other drivers. Focus on the variety of sensations and driving styles you witness. If you start to get angry or distracted with thoughts of work or home, acknowledge the distraction and guide your mind back to the rich world of driving.

You can probably come up with your own ideas for variations. In any event, practice for three, then five, then seven minutes every day for twenty-one days. You’ll become a master of focus. You’ll make decisions faster and more effectively. You’ll find that you can accomplish more work in less time. And you’ll feel far less stress in everything you do.