In his book Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It, marketing consultant Al Ries gives a tremendous illustration:
The sun is a powerful source of energy. Every hour the sun washes the earth with billions of kilowatts of energy. Yet with a hat and some sun-screen, you can bathe in the light of the sun for hours at a time with few ill effects.
A laser is a weak source of energy. A laser takes a few watts of energy and focuses them in a coherent stream of light. But with a laser you can drill a hole in a diamond or wipe out a cancer.
Focus can bring energy and power to almost anything, whether it’s physical or mental. If you’re learning how to pitch a baseball and you want to develop a good curveball, then focused thinking while practicing will improve your technique. If you need to refine the manufacturing process of your product, focused thinking will help you develop the best method. If you want to solve a difficult mathematics problem, sustaining focused thinking helps you break through to the solution. That’s why philosopher Bertrand Russell asserted, “To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” The greater the difficulty of a problem or issue, the more focused thinking time will be necessary to solve it.
Does every area of your life deserve dedicated, focused thinking time? Of course, the answer is no. Be selective, not exhaustive, in your focused thinking. And once you have a handle on what you should think about, you must decide how to better focus on it. Here are five suggestions to help you with the process:
1. Remove Distractions
I’ve found that I need blocks of time to think without interruption. So when necessary, I make myself unavailable and go off to my “thinking place.” As a leader, however, I am aware that I need to remain accessible to others and to withdraw from them to think.
But since one lets us connect with people and know their needs, and the other lets us think of ways to add value to them, we need to value and give attention to both.
2. Make Time for Focused Thinking
Once you have a place to think, you need the time to think.Years ago I realized that my best thinking time occurs in the morning. So whenever possible, I reserve my mornings for thinking and writing. One way to gain time for focused thinking is to impose upon yourself a rule that one company implemented. Don’t allow yourself to look at e-mail until after 10 a.m. Instead, focus your energies on your number one priority. Put non-productive time wasters on hold so that you can create thinking time for yourself.
3. Keep Items of Focus Before You
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great transcendental thinker, believed, “Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short in all management of human affairs.” To benefit from that concentration, keep important items in front of you. Ask a colleague or assistant to keep bringing them up. Or keep a file or a page where you see it every day as you work. That strategy has successfully helped me for thirty years to stimulate and sharpen ideas.
4. Set Goals
I believe goals are important. The mind will not focus until it has clear objectives. But the purpose of goals is to focus your attention and give you direction, not to identify a final destination. As you think about your goals, note that they should be
- Clear enough to be kept in focus
- Close enough to be achieved
- Helpful enough to change lives
Be sure to write down your goals. And if you really want to make sure they’re focused, take the advice of David Belasco, who says, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.”
5. Question Your Progress
Ask yourself, “Am I seeing a return for my investment of focused thinking time? Is what I am doing getting me closer to my goals? Am I headed in a direction that helps me to fulfill my commitments, maintain my priorities, and realize my dreams?”
From the How Successful People Think Workbook