The Real Reason You Don’t Focus on What’s Important

Bruce Lee said, “The successful warrior is the average man, but with laser-like focus.”

What he should have added is, laser-like focus on what’s important.

Because, it’s not enough to just know what actions are most important. We need discipline and systems to not get caught up in things that are urgent and demanding immediate attention, but aren’t important in the long term.

Like one of my CEO clients who ran a real estate development firm and was having conversations about what size dogs should be allowed on the properties. Having “dog” conversations became shorthand for tasks he shouldn’t be working on.

Or the visionary CEO who answered the phone to take a (small!) customer order and then got caught up in sending the W9 form instead of delegating the follow-up to someone on her team.

Or the public speaker who stresses out about what to wear for a presentation instead of preparing her leave-behind material.

Or, the entire cockpit crew of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 back in 1972 who got caught up in fixing a defective bulb in the signal light and didn’t notice that the plane was losing altitude, until it was too late and crashed, killing all 100+ people on board.

Okay, that’s an extreme example.

But still, checking email, attending to other people’s emergencies, going back and forth to schedule meetings – there are so many ways we get caught up in urgency and feeling like we’re “getting things done” while not focusing on the actions that are critical to our important goals.

This is normal and human. First, our brain reacts to urgency as if it’s a survival threat. It doesn’t make much distinction between “email from client!” and “hair is on fire!”

Second, our brain loves the feedback of instant gratification. When it perceives that something is “done,” it releases serotonin, the “feel good” hormone. And it doesn’t distinguish between unimportant “done” — downloaded new app!— and important “done” — outlined strategic plan! It just likes the feeling of “done.”

Third, our brain is all about conserving energy so it’s going to avoid the deep, strategic or creative thinking that’s cognitively demanding.

So you can stop beating yourself up for struggling to focus on doing what’s important. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If you have a big vision or goal, you need to get vigilant about the basics: get clear on your “top three” for the day, set micro-goals and use time as a tool.

And if you’d like daily support in getting better, check out the three-day free trial of my 21 Days to a Mental Six Pack program, with short — less than five minute — daily mental training exercises.

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