How to WIN

There’s plenty of trite “wisdom” offering platitudes like “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. Even if there is truth to the statement, it isn’t immediately actionable. How, exactly, am I supposed to figure out “the main thing”?

In the early 90s, Billy Crystal starred in the movie City Slickers which involved a group of middle aged, city dwelling, men going on an adventure. They signed up for a trip that inserted them in an actual cattle drive in the American West. No sooner did they arrive at this adventure just to see all manner of mishap and folly. Our poor heroes struggled each step. Later in the movie Billy’s character is travelling with the lead wrangler, Curly, played by Jack Pallance. Curly was a crusty cowboy, a man of few words. He said to Billy’s character, “you know what the secret to life is…” Billy’s character was desperate to find out, this was the answer he was seeking, he looked beseechingly towards Curly just to see Curly holding up his index finger. Curly says “it’s this…one thing…” 

As in many parts of life, there isn’t a simple, single answer. As General Patton said, “You must be single-minded. Drive for the one thing on which you have decided.” It is up to you to determine what your one, most important thing is to allocate your focus to. Then, as Josh Billings suggests, you should “Be like a postage stamp—stick to one thing until you get there.”

Why should we decide on one thing, then focus on it? Because:

“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.” –Og Mandino, and

“To follow, without halt, one aim: there is the secret to success.” Anna Pavlova

In the work world, if a team doesn’t have clear roles with goals, people become confused, frustrated, and apathetic. Problems will pursue. It seems few things positively predict outcomes like a clear purpose. Not only is success more likely, but people crave clarity and certainty. Not giving someone a clear role with goals is like having a hockey team while assigning no positions. It just doesn’t make much sense.

If you asked most folk in your office, “what do you really want out of your career over the next five years?”, you may be shocked by how few can actually answer this question. Clarity is the key to empowerment.

What are some of the reasons why we don’t commit to a singular focus?

We believe that being busy is the point. We need to get better at understanding the difference between being busy and being effective. Effective equals getting results. This is more valuable than just running in circles. Canadian comedy legend, Leslie Nielson, reminds us in the movie Airplane “What’s your vector victor?” We may recall the difference between speed and velocity from our high school physics class. You may recall that velocity was speed in a defined direction. Whereas speed was just movement. Movement in a known direction, a vector, is more important than just movement.

We believe the myth of multi-tasking. We falsely think we can do lots of things concurrently. Business author, Jim Collins, has recognized that a key reason for business failure is “the undisciplined pursuit of more. Steve Uzzell observed, “Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”

It’s easier to be passive and just do what falls on our desk instead of being responsible for developing a plan for ourselves. Setting our own goals and calling our shots is scary. It puts us out there, forces us to be accountable and responsible. This is about making choices which always imply trade-offs. A key question to consider is “Which problem do I want?” This helps us get past our delusions of being able to have it all and that there aren’t consequences or difficult downsides associated with being focused. There will be sacrifices.

At the end of the day, we can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others to decide for us.

It’s the ability to choose that makes us human. –Madeleine L’Engle-  My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. –William James.

The key is to own responsibility for determining what your one thing is. Once you’ve decided that you need to isolate one area of focus, one main thing, one task, you’ve leaped in front of most folk. You are now taking charge of owning your time, owning your schedule, deciding what to do instead of being a passive leaf blown by whichever wind is present. 

Once we realize we are not just able to set our own priorities, but that it is our obligation, what should we do? The art of decision making really does begin with knowing what to concern yourself with. If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?

US President, Dwight Eisenhower, was said to run his entire administration based on an idea that became known as the “Eisenhower Principle” which sought to sort problems into two buckets: the urgent and the important. The urgent aren’t important and the important are never urgent. His job was to determine what is important and not react to what others and the press presented as urgent. President Eisenhower recognized that it was his responsibility to determine what was important now. He wasn’t going to leave the priority setting to others to determine for him.

The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule or Law of the Vital Few applies here as well. Much of our actual results come from a smaller portion of our efforts. Whether it actually is 80% of results from 20% of efforts or a different balance, we should be asking ourselves: What’s the most valuable result I could achieve in this job? Warren Buffet, who has spent a lifetime being the “best” investor in the world has himself observed he owes 90% of his wealth to just ten investments. Whereas, business author John Maxwell, has noted, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

We’re not looking for a bunch of things to do, not even a top 10 list. We are looking for the one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution.

“In determining your wildly important goal, don’t ask “What’s most important?” Instead, begin by asking “If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?” (Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling, The 4 Disciplines of Execution)

If we could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be? Author Doug Stone, in his book Thanks for the Feedback, writes “if I had to pick a single core principle for success in business, it would be this: choose one thing, focus on that one thing, and execute it to the absolute limit of your abilities.”

Great Resources:

The One Thing by

Essentialism by Geoff McKeown

Measure What Matters by John Doerr

Smarter, not harder. How to Succeed at Work

Understanding Speed and Velocity The Decision Matrix – How to Prioritize what matters