Every four years or so, I seem to go through this period of self-renewal where I drop a big part of my old self and spend some time adrift, not sure exactly what I want to do. This period typically lasts about 6 months to a year, and the calling I end up finding always comes as a surprise.
For instance, I never realized after high school that I’d soon get into sales or that I’d start making music. Neither of those struck me as fields I’d ever have much interest in, nor much ability in. I hadn’t even listened to music throughout much of junior high and high school. And while I’d kicked some serious butt on the debate team in 8th grade, my overall experience steering and selling and cajoling left something to be desired.
The first and second year are always the hardest years of the cycles. The first year I’m not really sure if what I’m doing will work; I’m terrible at it and I don’t know what I’m doing. The second year I’m starting to see some success, but I’m also beginning to run out of steam. It’s harder to get focused than in the first year when everything was fresh and I was bursting with enthusiasm for my new endeavor.
For instance, with making music, I was on an absolute tear turning out track after track my first year. I ignored the people who told me my music was atrocious and all the hatemail I received to my website, I thrived on the people who told me I had a special spark, and I just kept producing. Somewhere around Year 2 though, I hit a wall; I realized I wasn’t all that good, and I realized I had a long way to go. And that’s the point with learning or doing something where I have to sit down, figure out exactly what I’m trying to do, and get focused.
Why People Lose Focus
People lose focus and it sucks. You’re working on something hard, you’re totally 100% confident it’s going to be a runaway success, and then… you end up doing something else. You get sidetracked by schoolwork or catching up with email from your job. You feel a little tired and watch a movie. You put whatever it is off until tomorrow and figure you’ll do it then.
And before you know it… BAM! Focus lost.
What happens at that point most of the time for most people is the project gets shelved. “I’ll finish planting the garden next week,” the housewife says. “I’ll figure out which school I want to transfer to after finals,” the college student tells himself.
Then it never happens.
Or maybe it does, but it takes forever to get going on again and you’ve wasted a ton of thought cycles on getting the project kickstarted once more. Way more time and energy spent on it if you’d finished it in the first place.
Well, this seems like a terribly wasteful maladaptation to the modern world. Why the heck do we do this to ourselves? Certainly we aren’t masochists. There must be something else at play.
The more I’ve studied motivation, the more I’ve come to the conclusion there are three (3) chief factors at play that influence nearly everything you think or do:
- How much you believe in what you’re doing,
- How immediate the reward is of what you’re doing, and
- How much more work you think you have to do to get there
Let me talk about these.
1. Belief in what you’re doing
What if I told you we were going to go beat up some guy because I happen to know he’s planning to spit on the ground and I don’t think that’s mannerly? You probably wouldn’t be too excited about that plan. But now what if I told you we were going to go beat up some guy who’s planning to bomb a school filled with children near your home? You’re going to come, and you’re going to bring everyone you know along with you.
That’s the difference between riding for a flag you believe in and riding for a flag you don’t. You don’t really care if the guy spits on the ground – maybe it’s annoying, but it’s not worth the work or the risk of going to go get in a fight with him. But if he’s about to go wage war on a bunch of innocent children not far from where you live, hell yes that’s something you’ll get on board with stopping, every single time.
Imagine if you had the same level of passion about something you were working on that you had about saving those children from that horrible man. Most people don’t – instead, they have about the same level of passion as what you felt when I asked you to help me beat up the guy planning to redecorate the sidewalk with his saliva. They lack belief in what they’re doing.
2. What the immediate reward is
Here’s another scenario. What if I told you right now that I wanted you to do 50 push ups right now in your living room and I was going to give you $200, no strings attached? You’d go and do it, even if you hate push ups as much as I do.
But now what if I said I wanted you to do 50 push ups spread out one a day for the next 50 days, and I was going to give you $350, no strings attached, another 50 days after you finished. 50 push ups over 50 days to get $350 in 100 days. Would you do it?
That one comes down to temperament. Some people love winning and achieving even small amounts of money and are willing to discipline themselves hard to get there. Most people aren’t though. Most people are going to forget to do a push
up somewhere along the line in those 50 days – or even more likely, they’ll give up, or not start in the first place. 50 days is a long time to remember to do something every day, and unless you’re hard up for cash $350 in 100 days just doesn’t sound terribly exciting.
Without immediate rewards, most people lose focus. Problem is, the most rewarding things in the world don’t naturally come with immediate rewards.
3. How much more work you’ve got before you’re done
This one’s the killer. If you’re like me – and I think most people are – you tend to start a brand new project with the assumption that you’re going to instantly be good at it and magically get new results. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started learning Spanish or Chinese or Korean or French with dead certainty that this time, I will learn this language. And then I start working on it and I’ve learned about 10 new words after an hour. I don’t usually make it more than a couple of sessions into a new language before my focus drifts elsewhere.
Why? Because suddenly, it seems like a mountain of work. It feels like you’re going to have to grind your willpower out for years of work, and you aren’t even sure how good you’ll get. And do you really even need to learn that language?
Before you know it, the mind starts making excuses and justifying reasons for why you ought to quit. And then, you take the path of least resistance and – you quit. It seemed like there was too much work to do, and that robbed you of your ability to get focused.
If you examine how all three of those things interact together, you get a deadly focus-killing combination that thwarts even the most valiant of efforts of some of the most valiant people in the world.
You start doing something with a bit of belief in what you’re doing.
You expect some kind of immediate reward.
You think it won’t be that hard.
So far so good. But then-
You find out it’s actually a lot harder than you thought it would be.
You realize you’re probably not going to get any rewards out of it for a long time.
Your brain starts coming up with reasons not to do it, which kill your motivation and sap your energy.
And then you lose focus and give up.
Man, that’s depressing, isn’t it? How many noble new ventures have died within the first 10 or 20 hours of someone working on them? The vast majority of them, that’s how many. And many others die a quiet slow death over time as they become gradually abandoned and people release their hold on their dreams.
But what if there was a way to get focused again? What if there was a way to stick to the plan and make the things happen that you need to have happen to get success? Wouldn’t you want to start using a tool as powerful as that one to change your life for the better?
9 Ways to Get Focused
You can probably guess what these 9 ways revolve around:
- And work
Here’s something you probably didn’t guess and that most people get terribly wrong:
You can’t just handle one or two of these areas.
If you have belief in your cause and it doesn’t seem like too much work, it’s still never going to be something you’ll ever get focused on without reward.
And if you see some realistically immediate reward and the work seems manageable, but you don’t believe, you might get going but your outcome is only going to be mediocre at best.
And if you have the belief in your cause and the reward seems reasonably achievable, but the amount of work required seems like an impossible task, you’ll give up before you’ll even have gotten started.
You need to address all three factors.
Therefore, I’ve broken down this section into 3 distinct subsections: belief, reward, and work. Addressing all 3 of those with at least one way from each of these categories is going to make you get focused fast, and help stop you from losing focus as you progress toward building your business, learning your skill, or achieving your goal.
#1: Take up a new flag
This one’s huge for belief. Why’d Bob Dylan become so legendary in music? Because he found a flag that no one else was waving and made it his. Black American recording artists are particularly good at this – see everyone from Aretha Franklin to Tupac. They found powerful, impassioned flags to ride for and rode those flags to the top of the charts. When I made music I picked a good flag, but one that ultimately caused me to stop too soon: I wanted to prove I could do it. And once I reached the point where everyone who heard my music started going ballistic, I felt like my mission was accomplished and I moved on.
Avoid selfish flags. Something like, “Make a lot of money,” or, “Get a lot of girls (or guys, depending on your gender),” won’t take you far unless you’ve got powerful internal drive for it and you put yourself in the right position to win. Find something that you really, deeply believe in – and ride for that flag. Examples might include, “Create a better record keeping system for hospitals and put a dent in the 90,000 accidental deaths in the US hosptial system each year,” or, “Figure out a way for teens to tell parents difficult secrets they need to tell them but don’t know how.” Something that really motivates you, calls you to action, and makes you want to, as Steve Jobs used to put it, “make a dent in the universe.”
#2: Join an existing flag
Not everyone’s a born leader, nor does everyone like the spotlight. So don’t think that inspiration necessitates leadership. Far from it – leaders are nothing without the hordes and hordes of impassioned contributers they show the way to who actually pave the path to success.
Would America have won World War II if the American people never really got behind the flag? Of course not. Alternatively, would America have lost in Vietnam if they had? Certainly they would have. This is the power of throwing your weight behind a flag you really believe in: you can marhsall incredible strength and do more than you thought you could do to push your flag over to victory.
One fascinating recent example was the online fight against SOPA. I’m not entirely sure that I oppose SOPA myself, and I think a lot of the frenzied reaction to it was mostly a lot of fear-mongering and scare tactics, but you’ve got to be impressed by what a legion of people on their keyboards did to a major piece of political legislation. Joining a flag that you really believe in can kick your productivity into overdrive.
#3: If all else fails, ask yourself what you’d wished you had done if you were suddenly 85 years old right now, looking back at your life, and too frail to do anything further
When I ask people what they believe in and what they’d really like to do, they usually can’t tell me. And when they can, usually it’s a half-baked answer that’s more a regurgitation of what the TV tells you you should want to do than what you actually want to do.
But when I ask people what they’d regret having missed doing if suddenly right now they were 85 years old and looking back at their life so far and capable of doing no more, they suddenly pour forth with thoughts and ideas. “Oh, I’d wish I’d have taken a motorcycle ride through South America!” they say, or, “I’d wish I’d have
worked harder to get that book out I always meant to,” or, “I’d wish I’d have had children.” Whatever your answers, those are your core beliefs – and if you aren’t working on things to get you to them, you’re a fool. Start today.
#4: Pick your short term goals
I had a sales guy recently who I gave some leeway to plan his own projects. He gets paid primarily on commission, so he only makes money really when he gets sales. Well, he came up with some great projects – but all of them didn’t start coming into fruition until 3 to 4 months down the road.
“These are great,” I told him, “but we’ve gotta get you working on some shorter-term wins as well.” So we came up with the idea of him recruiting a few of his own people to be team leads, and he’d train them each in HR and get the recruiting a team of 5 to 6 sales people apiece. The best part was they’d all be paid entirely out of our 10% referral fee – my sales guy came upon the brilliant idea to just give the 10% fee to the team lead and let him decide how much he’d pay himself and how much he’d pay his salespeople. My sales guy started building teams right away and now he looks like he’ll be selling in weeks instead of months.
The problem with long term projects is that you lose motivation without reward and constant feedback. Like my sales guy, people often have these great plans and visions, but the plans and visions lack any kind of short term feedback or reward system, so the brain doesn’t know if the plan is working or not. And even the most patient among us have very impatient reward centers. Result? I bet you anything, if I just left my sales guy alone to do long term projects, he would’ve become less and less interested in them as time went by and eventually he would’ve dust binned them altogether.
Pick short term goals for yourself. Figure out how you’re going to get immediate reward and immediate feedback out of what you’re doing. That’s how you make sure you continue learning and growing and remain interested and invested.
#5: Break projects into stages
If you decide to paint a masterpiece that Picasso would be proud of, or design an entirely new financial reconciliation system that’s going to overhaul how your company keeps its finances up-to-date, you’re going to burn out before you ever get close if you don’t break that gigantic goal into some far more achievable stages.
For the masterpiece, the first stage might be draw the outline. For the financial reconciliation project, the first stage might be to outline the process you’re going to build. Next you can get the rough colors down for each section of the painting, or figure out the parts you need to make your process outline work right.
You need steps along the way in any big project where you can say, “Ah, good! Stage 2 is complete.” Otherwise, your brain will start feeling like you’re doing a lot of work and it isn’t getting you anywhere, and it’ll start to rebel. Tear off bite-sized chunks and you’ll fare far better.
#6: Make it fun
Why do babies learn so damn fast? Because they make learning fun! I don’t know why humanity hasn’t figured this out yet – it’s one of the most gigantic unmet needs in the history of unmet needs.
Take something you want to do. Figure out how to make it fun. And then – wow, suddenly instead of it being something you have to do, it’s something you LOVE to do!
How to do this? Take a look at video games. They use achievements and rewards to get people involved. You really, really want to move up from being just a low level petty thief to being a master thief when you’re playing some random game. Why? Just because. So what if you set achievements like that for yourself? Martial arts classes do this – they use the belt system to keep people motivated. Just imagine how fewer people would train in martial arts if everybody wore the same color belt.
It’ll take you 20 minutes to do this. Pick a project you’re working on, figure out what milestones warrant a reward or an achievement, and then figure out what reward or achievement you get. Maybe you’re drawing a blueprint for a new building your architecture firm has been contracted to design. So you set the major milestones: you get a rank upgrade from Toady to Made Man when you go from conceptual design to drafting and detailing, and you move up to Mastermind when you get to finalization and implementation. In between, you set little rewards that get bigger with each rank – maybe you get a different candy bar for each floor you complete in conceptual design, and maybe you go out to dinner at a different restaurant for each drafted and detailed portion of the structure you complete in the Made Man phase. It sounds silly, but you’ll be a lot more motivated and you’ll have something fun to focus on.
#7: Start with easier tasks and move to harder ones
Another lesson from the world of games – the games that are the most fun – whether board games or party games or card games or anything – always start out simple and only over time do they get more complex.
Have you ever played a game that was impossible right from the start? I bet, unless you’re one of the most intrepid, determined, knuckleheaded people in the world you probably gave up right away. That’s sure happened to me plenty of times. That’s why the best games always start easy and only as you play them and get some wins do they get harder.
What if you decided you were going to learn to play piano, and that to start you were going to begin with Beethoven’s 5th? You probably wouldn’t get too far. That’s why you start with Chopsticks instead of the 5th. People get this one wrong all the time in their projects, endeavors, and efforts to learn new skills though – they start with something relatively challenging, assuming they can just start out in the middle and be good, and then they flame out and give up.
Don’t start in the middle, and certainly don’t start at the end. Start at the beginning – with easier tasks. Only once you’ve finished those should you move onto the tougher ones.
#8: Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Ever eagerly accept a new project from a teacher or boss without asking any questions about it, assuming it’s going to be a piece of cake… only to find out it’s damn near next to impossible? Nothing can deflate your spirits faster than an impossible tasks.
Take a moment to look something over. If you’re not sure if you can complete it, take on a scaled down version of it, or go to someone more knowledgeable than yourself and ask them for help or ask them at least where they think you should start. You’ll lose focus fast if you don’t know where to focus in the first place.
Know what you’re getting into – and don’t take on more than you can handle.
#9: Don’t be afraid to ask for help – it’s not a sign of weakness
When I was 18 years old working in the back of a tire shop, I had no idea what I was doing out there. There were all these machines and lifts and crowbars and chunks of metal lying around here and there and all I knew was they all looked like they could chop your finger clean off and they all were really loud.
So I asked for help a lot. People don’t usually mind helping… well, sometimes they do, if you forget to be gracious for the help, but if you always remember to thank them and maybe take them out to lunch if they’ve really helped you out a lot (or buy them a nice gift if they sacrificed a few evenings or weekends to help you get your mission done), most people will positively love helping you be successful.
You may well be a one-man army… but… and it’s taken me years to learn this lesson, and I’m only still really coming to understand it fully – you can do a lot more with another set of eyes and ears and brain cells than you can with just your own.
Still with me? I know, that was quite a read, and I’m feverish and half-delusional as I’m writing this – sitting here with a flu I caught from one of my staff in an empty office in Beijing two days before Chinese New Year. The streets are deserted outside – usually at this time they’re full of cars racing to and fro. I hope I can find a taxi home… it’s a long walk in cold, windy weather.
The long and short of it is though, if you pick just three of these to use – one from each of the above sections – you’re going to get focused like you wouldn’t dare believe. And when you’re focused, you can achieve – you can achieve all kinds of crazy stuff.
Anyway, that does it for this post. Have you checked out Yamjac yet? It’s not up and running right now, but it’s only a few months away – you can head here and get on the waiting list to be among the first people to get invited in. It’s going to change the way the world does business, shares ideas, forms teams, and interacts – this is one boat you’re not going to want to miss. Check it out here if you haven’t already:
See you next time.