I have been giving a lot of thought to the concept of focus recently as I've worked my way through Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
I've noticed that over a long period of time, the people that seem to get the farthest in life are the ones best able to remove the clutter and distractions of daily living, and focus at an insane level on just a few key things.
So how does one focus? And what are the right things to focus on?
The first question is the easier of the two to answer: Get a system in place. I've experimented with a lot of different systems... from Getting Things Done, to the 4 Hour Workweek, Personal Kanban, Pomodori Technique, etc. I've personally found that no one system works best, and that you ultimately need to blend together what works for you. My key takeaways from all of this reading:
1) Keep tasks separate from your calendar, your calendar is sacred.
2) Task lists can be short-term (today) as well as long-term (over many months or years). I get the best mileage out of planning when I think long-term, since almost no one else does it.
3) Have a separate filing system for archiving information that you may need to retrieve later. Don't mix unactionable reference information with tasks, and don't mix tasks with your calendar.
On some sort of regular interval, I plan and review goals that my calendar, task list, and archived information are all aligned to support. I use different intervals for different sorts of goals. For life related goals, I plan in 90 day intervals. For startup stuff, I plan in 30 day intervals and also in 1 week intervals. You get the idea. The important thing is to set the goals, and keep a scorecard for the interval. And most importantly to think about how you can improve for the next interval.
The second question is much harder to answer... What to focus on?
Unless you take a fairly deliberate approach to answering this question, I think you are bound to waste a lot of time on low value tasks. The 80/20 rule is no answer to this question, because in my humble opinion, it only works in hindsight.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman talks a lot about systematic biases in our daily actions that we are simply unaware of. We make all sorts of bad decisions when we allow our intuition (System 1) to guide our decision-making, and perform moderately better when we take our time and think deliberately (System 2). So the one thing definitely not do is to trust your intuition when it comes to answering this question.
So what should you do?
My best answer at this time is to identify Intended Outcomes for your bucket list of goals and then weight them. An Intended Outcome is a concept from Tony Ulwick's excellent book What Customer's Want and there a great white paper on the concept here.
For example, one intended outcome that I have for this quarter under my larger goal of fitness is to run an average of at least x2.5/wk and complete a couple 10Ks. My intended outcomes are actionable, with a fairly clear criteria of success or failure in most instances. I've weighted this approximately 10 points (out of 100) for the quarter. If I'd weighted fitness higher, I might try to run x4/wk and do a couple races in the 10 mile range.
I'm paraphrasing a bit, but Kahneman makes the excellent point that without deliberation, we tend to routinely overweight small value actions, and underweight high value actions. By a lot.
The following is a table from his book. At the very low end, you'll notice a 1% possibility gets weighted as a 5.5. At the high end, a 95% possibility gets weighted at a 79.3.
For focus and time management, this a waste. Last year around this time for example, I was studying to get a few project management certifications. At the time I felt that it was very important to complete these certifications and probably let them take up a theoretical 20 points of effort. In retrospect, if I had carried out the weighting exercise, I probably would have given them 5 points. Looking back now, I probably overweighted this goal's importance to me by a factor of 4 because I went with my intuition. It wasn't clear to me what I was sacrificing by allowing this goal to absorb so much of my time.
We do best when we weight possibilities exactly what they are worth.
Is this a perfect system? No. It's definitely not. For example, even when you deliberate on a goal, how can you be sure that you are weighting it correctly? To some extent it's still a guess, but there are some things you can do to improve your weighting further in cases where it really matters.
And planning like this definitely takes up a large chunk of time every few months, so it's important not to go overboard. But it's even worse to waste time on the wrong goals. So focus.
1 One of the best books I've read in a long time by the way.
2 You never really know though... Everyone is running a different race, and things are not always as they seem.
3 An Intended Outcome is a concept from product development. When you are planning features for a product, rather than thinking in terms of the solution, think from the customer's perspective about what they really want or need. So for example, when a customer buys a drill bit, they're not really buying a drill bit... They're buying a 1/8th inch hole in their wall.
4 Talk to other people that have currently achieved what you are thinking about doing in the future. Are they happy with their outcomes now? Get an average of 3 data points at least.