If the first thing you do in the morning is check your email, you’re setting yourself up for a day filled with reactive work. This can easily lock you into a cycle of dealing with pseudo-emergencies well into your evenings, leaving you drained and with little to no control over your larger priorities.
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek offers some simple advice on how to focus on your goals:
Define your one or two most important to-dos before dinner, the day before.
Dan Pink, the NYT bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, gives similar advice:
Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each workday the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.
By spending some time the night before to write your goals down for the following day, you’ll return to the driver’s seat.
Almost half the people you’ll run into today are suffering from some level of sleep deprivation. This is largely because we don’t know when (or how) to call it a night. Tethered to our devices, work more often than not spills into the precious time that we need to decompress and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).
As the story goes, Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett at a dinner. Gates’ mother (and dinner host) asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed to be the most important factor in their success. The two moguls gave the same answer: “Focus.”
Focus as a Noun.
When people speak of focus they usually mean having a single goal. It is a static thing, a thing you have. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Roger Bannister relentlessly pursuing his goal of breaking the four-minute mile, John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put a man on the moon within a decade or, coming back to Bill Gates, a vision of a personal computer on every desk. The upside to this kind of focus is clear and compelling: you pursue a single objective and don’t get distracted along the way; you build momentum as many different people aligned behind achieving this one goal.
Focus as a Verb.
Focus is not just something you have it is also something you do. This type of focus is not static; it is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Steve Jobs saying to Jony Ive day after day, “This might be crazy, but what if we…” until once in a while the idea took the air out of the room. It’s the constant exploration needed to see what is really going on and what the “noun focus” should be.
Focus is a powerful attribute, especially in a world that is tirelessly trying to compete for your time, energy, and attention. McKeown says that if we want to direct ourselves toward what’s essential, then we need to develop both kinds of focus. It’s the only way to confidently answer the question, “What’s important now?”
Introductions are crucial. As the adage goes, “first impressions are lasting impressions.” Neuroscientists even found that 7 percent of what people think of you is cemented upon meeting you for the first time.
This explains our aversion to name-droppers, ramblers or the people making it rain business cards at networking events – the “dirty” networkers. Bernard Marr, author of Doing More with Less recommends a simple adjustment to our personal introductions to make a good impression:
Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.” Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.
Human beings make snap decisions – our brains are hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism. However we can use this to our advantage by focusing on how we help others, rather than flaunting how well we’ve helped ourselves.
You can’t force inspiration, but how do you cultivate an environment where you are open to it? When the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s breakout artist Jennifer Moon was looking for a new source of inspiration, she unexpectedly found it on her 5 a.m. drive from Los Angeles to Big Bear. She noticed the dreamlike, half-conscious state of mind was not only soothing and meditative, but allowed her mind to be open to new ideas:
When I’m driving and things come to me, it’s definitely not forced. The times when I try to force it, it usually doesn’t happen. Really, my only job as an artist is to remain as open as possible and as aware as possible, so for ideas to enter me I have to be open. That’s the only thing I really need to focus on.
As we learned from Moon’s experience, our mind requires moments of rest to collect, organize and connect the abundance of information from our busy lives. This information is supplied through new experiences; in Moon’s case, driving at 5 a.m. has a completely different ambiance than 5 p.m. And lastly, she found inspiration in the everyday. When on vacation, it’s easy to fully engage in every aspect of a new environment.
The challenge is to keep that wonderment alive in the day to day.
Architect David Rockwell, in his soon-to-be-published monograph What If…?: The Architecture and Design of David Rockwell, describes how he distills his creative process down into one phrase: “What if?”
A recent FastCoDesign feature quotes Rockwell on his penchant for curiosity:
The central question the firm asks on any project… is “what if?”—a query that opens up what could be cut-and-dry design projects (say, the firm’s umpteenth collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisa) to unexpected possibilities, like “what if a restaurant became a hotel?”
“I’m interested in hybrids—what happens when you sort of have various things rub up against each other and infiltrate each other?” [Rockwell] explains. “I think this is a time where barriers between what a hotel is, what an office is, what a restaurant is, what a cultural event is, those are all merging.”
This question powers each of Rockwell’s projects. For example, his current undertaking is something called Chefs Club, a Manhattan restaurant he’s designing that will feature a constant rotation of chefs hosted by Food & Wine. If it weren’t for wondering “what if?” Rockwell would not have opened his mind to the possibility of transforming an airport terminal into a “food theme park” or making the cavernous Kodak Theatre into an elegantly intimate supper club for the 2010 Oscars.
Sometimes in the creative process, the right question is the answer.
It’s easy to feel like making tiny tweaks has minimal overall impact. That’s because we often feel pressure to achieve something concretely noticeable, in so doing overlooking the value of minor victories.
In his newsletter, James Clear shares the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve every minute thing that relates to a project, goal, or product by just 1 percent, all those small gains add up over time to a massive win:
Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.
When you’re making agonizingly slow progress on a project, remember that even just 1 percent improvement across the board can make the difference between total inertia and a breakthrough. After all, 1 percent times 100 is 100 percent.