What It Means to Be Focused: A Personal Story

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Here we are, in the 2nd month of 2021. I have been super busy in January, not really because of work, but because of the things I am doing outside of it. And so, this month I've decided to step back and reflect why was I so busy last month that I never had time to watch movies or sleep for 8 hours. And the conclusion was simple: I was not focused.

Hello everyone, in this article, I want to discuss on the topic of 'focus' - what it really means and how to practice the art of focus. I'll be sharing a personal story too so warning: long read.

What is Focus?

At a glance, you probably think that being focused looks like:

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And while that's not wrong, it is just the day-to-day kind of focus that lets us do some productive work. But there is, in fact, a higher-level and more big picture definition of focus. And no one defines this better than Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.

Before I share his definition, let me share a short story about him.

Story Time

In 1997, Steve Jobs was brought back to Apple after being fired for over 10 years. Apple at that time, was struggling and management was on the verge of giving up. Hiring Steve Jobs back was the company's last hope before declaring bankruptcy. And Steve Jobs' task was simple: make Apple great again.

And that's exactly what he did. As soon as he returned, he closed numerous ongoing products and rejected hundreds of ideas that Apple employees have spent years on. At least he gave an apology for saying 'no'.

"I know some of you spent a lot of time working on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of," said Jobs. "I apologize. I feel your pain."

But his decisions to say 'no' and significantly shrink Apple's product lines made Apple into what it is today. And his secret is to focus, which he defines as:

"When you think about focusing, you think, well, focusing is about saying yes. No. Focusing is about saying no."

Saying No

So with that definition in mind, let's go deeper to find out what saying no really means. After all, we often say no in our daily lives. "No sugar, no MSG, no whipped cream" (I'm thinking too much about food). But here's what Jobs really meant about saying no.

"What focus means is saying no to something that you think - with every bone in your body - is a phenomenal idea. And you wake up thinking about it. But you say no to it because you're focusing on something else."

The reason why Apple was struggling in the 1990s was not due to lack of good ideas or engineers. It was due to poor decision-making, management and focus. So there were many, hundreds, of brilliant ideas by those engineers at that time, but Jobs had to focus on Apple's vision and rejected them all with a heavy heart.

And that's how I concluded that I was unfocused in January. I had too many ideas, all seemed too good to not act upon at the time. That led to 3 hackathons in a row since December 2020, without much break in between.

Struggling to Say No: Personal Story Time

When Hashnode announced their Vercel powered hackathon, I was so excited because that would be another opportunity to make another idea come to life. But I was in the middle of the 3-week Postman API Hackathon and I didn't realize that doing 2 hackathons simultaneously would be too difficult. On top of that, I want to continue blogging consistently. So what happened?

I tried to do it all... I stayed up late, trying to finish the product for Postman's Hackathon quickly so I can get started building on the Vercel app. Then on the weekends, I made some designs and planned out the pages in my sketchbook and Photoshop. Doing that, all while keeping up with work and blogging, I thought it was possible. And most ridiculously, I thought that was 'focus'.

Thanks to reading an article, which inspired me to write this article, I realised that I had to say no to Hashnode's Vercel hackathon.

But saying no was not easy, because my ideals conflict with my reality (i.e. what I want to do vs. what I actually can do). The gap between these 2 makes me rationalize back and forth.

On one side, my brain goes:

"I want to participate in this community hackathon too! Let's build another awesome app! If you work harder and manage your time better, you can definitely finish on time!"

On the other:

"By the time you finished the Postman hackathon, you only have a week left to work on the Vercel hackathon. And you've been in 3 hackathons back-to-back since December. You should not push yourself too hard."

So how did I manage this inner conflict? I started to practice 'focus'.

Practising Focus

1. Shrink Your 'Product Line'

Just like how Steve Jobs reduce Apple's product line to just 4 computers, shrink your current commitments. First, list them all on a paper or somewhere. Activities you think are important to your personal goals, and you are doing often outside of your job. Then, next to the activities, roughly estimate how important they are, how frequent you do them and how long it typically takes in a day to do them.

For me, that's:

  • Blogging (very important, 6-10 hours/week)
  • Reading new/books/blogs (very important, 1-2 hours/day)
  • Social media engagement (important, 1 hour/day)
  • Building side projects (important, 2-4 hours/day)
  • Participating in hackathons (quite important, 1-2 times/month = 48-80 hours/month)
  • Meeting friends (quite important, 3-6 hours/week)
  • Exercising (important, 1 hour/day)

Next, say no to the activities that you can afford to let go a little by reducing its frequency. Be prepared to experience some sadness and difficulty when shrinking them. So back to my example, I said no to:

  • Building side projects (2-4 hours per week not day ๐Ÿ˜ญ)
  • Participating in hackathons (once every 2 months ๐Ÿ˜ญ)
  • Meeting friends (3-6 hours every 2 weeks, social distancing season๐Ÿ˜ญ)
  • Exercising (1 hour/day only Mon-Fri, sleep in on weekends ๐Ÿ˜Š)

So my 'product line' is now narrowed down to 3 items, which are activities I'll be committed in doing frequently, so I can increase its duration and frequency a little:

  • Blogging (1-2 hours/day)
  • Reading new/books/blogs (2-3 hours/day)
  • Social media engagement (1-2 hours/day)

The strategy is to stick to a small number but high-priority commitments while doing the rest occasionally. This is one way to stay focused.

2. Simplify Processes/Choices

When you start on an activity, do you need to prepare a lot of things? For example, if you are going to read a book, do you need to find a comfy chair, adjust multiple lights, choose which book to read, then you can finally get started?

A way to stay focused longer is to simplify processes and limit choices from the beginning. Using the example, we can simplify the process by setting up a reading corner at home, with all the good chair and lighting set up. Then limit the book choices by only putting the book you want to read in that reading corner. That's the only book you will see when you want to read and so you will not spend time choosing a book from the shelf.

And because you've made a conscious decision to put a single book in the reading corner beforehand, that must be a book that you want to focus on completing. So there will be less impulsive "I think I'll read this book today instead" moments, and you'll stay on track with your reading goals.

You can apply this simplification mindset to any type of activity. Be creative in simplifying processes and coming up with solutions to reduce choices. That's how you can train your problem-solving skills too!

3. Continuously Assess Yourself

If you are always busy doing your "productive" activities day-to-day, it is easy to slowly lose sight on your goals, and you might even forget why you are doing the activity in the first place. Hence, a key habit to stay focused is to continuously assess and reflect on yourself.

  • Are your daily activities contributing to your desired goals?
  • How has this activity affect your life? Positively or negatively?
  • Is there any process in this activity that you can further improve or even automate?
  • Is there any innovation or changes (i.e. frequency or duration) you would like to implement in this activity?
  • What is the next step you should take to reach your goals?

Your personal goals will always change as you enter different phases of life. Continuously assessing and reflecting on yourself is like refactoring and updating code. It is for sustainability and efficiency in the long run.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, you can do anything, but not everything. That's the number 1 key takeaway on what being focused really means. Thanks for reading such a long article! I hope it has been insightful or helpful in any way. Please like, share it around for more reach and feel free to comment on some tips on how you define focus or stay focused. Take care, cheers!

P.S. I also really like this quote from Stephen Covey about focus so here it is:

"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courageโ€”pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say "no" to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger "yes" burning inside.

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Rutik Wankhade's photo

Who needs self-help books when Victoria Lo is here to help us grow ourselves through such helpful posts.

๐Ÿค— I don't know how to say thank you but reading such personal stories and helpful advice makes my day.

Victoria Lo's photo

Haha aww thanks Rutik Wankhade, so glad it helped you! You made my day!

Ndagi Stanley's photo

๐Ÿฅ‚Cheers to having a bigger YES.

Keep up the writing streak. Clearly, your focus on writing is evident!!

Tapas Adhikary's photo

Haha.. I can relate to the lots mentioned by you.

I liked the product line concept. So do you track these regularly?

you can do anything, but not everything

I agree. Initially, I used to regret not being there or missing something. But realized it is very stressful. It's far satisfactory to meet the planned prioritized items.

Thanks for sharing Victoria Lo.

Victoria Lo's photo

Thanks Tapas Adhikary! Yes, I do try to track my 'product lines' these days to keep reminding myself to focus on those and say no to the rest :)

It's definitely more worth it to do a small number of high-commitment items and a large number of commitments with no prioritization.

JC Lee's photo

Point taken! I'm not going to start hackathons and meet friends! Not like I was doing either ๐Ÿ˜‚.

Victoria Lo's photo

Lol what I meant was you can do things that matter most frequently and reduce less important ones. Don't try to do everything at once because moderation is key. You don't have to completely quit...

JC Lee's photo

Victoria Lo I know I was just kidding ๐Ÿ˜‡.

Skate Byrne's photo

Thank you for the much needed reminder & different perspective!

Victoria Lo's photo

My pleasure Skate! Thanks for reading!

Michael Adebambo's photo

Thanks..... Throughout January I wasn't really productive until I learnt to say no....

Anita Ihuman  's photo

This is so relatable, sometimes I cloud my thoughts with the illusion of being busy that in the end I achieve very little after all the busy boss I am putting up.

Joy Nwaiwu's photo

Hi Victoria, this is one of the most beautiful piece I've read this week. Thanks a lot for putting this out, I can relate on so many levels.

Victoria Lo's photo

Thanks for reading! It's great to hear that you enjoyed it ๐Ÿ˜Š