A Focused Life Series 2021: Focus Is Saying “No.”

We are in a series entitled, “A Focused Life.” Two weeks ago, we defined why focus matters for your life and leadership. Last week, we determined where your focus should be and how to make that determination. This week, we are going to examine what should be purged from your life in order to place your focus where it needs to be… on your life mission. 

Steve Jobs, pioneer of the personal computer revolution and co-founder of tech giant, Apple, placed a great deal of emphasis on the power of focus. Why was Steve Jobs able to revolutionize the entire globe in a way few have matched? His unrelenting focus on building a great company that produced innovative products that would transform the way we live our lives. He valued this idea of focus.

When you think of the word “focus” what comes to your mind? Like me, you probably imagine being laser-focused on one image, item, product or task. And while you are not wrong, there is actually more to this idea of focus than just being “lasered in.” In order to be completely focused in one area, it means removing our attention from others – likely important – areas. This aspect of focus is the hard part. 

Listen to the words of Steve Jobs when it comes to the power of focus: ““People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Focus means saying “yes” one time followed by saying “no” a thousand times. In other words, focus is more about saying “no” than it is to saying “yes.” 

Even writing this I can feel a tingle of guilt in my stomach when I think about all of the things I do on a daily basis that are getting me nowhere closer to my ultimate goals; activities that are good distractions, but distractions nonetheless. Possibly you are feeling the same way. 

This idea of focus is a hard topic because it will hit home for you and for me. We seek a great life but are unable to give up the very things that will keep us from the great life we are chasing. 

Today, we are going to discuss those things in life we need to get rid of in order to properly focus our time and attention. 

Here is the million-dollar question: What are the things and activities you need to give up in order to enhance your focus on the one thing that matters most in your life?

Are you ready for the answer? 

You must give up everything that is not helping you to pursue your life mission. 

I know. That’s a bold statement. 

Everything? 

Everything. 

Now, let me say this. Very few people will give up everything keeping them from their life’s mission. With so many good distractions available today, it is a tall order to ask anyone to give up everything in order to focus on what really matters.

True. 

But… 

There are consequences to our actions. 

This is not meant to be a negative statement. Consequences are not negative. They simply are. You’ve heard of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” 

If you choose to laser-focus your life by saying “no” to a thousand good distractions, there will be consequences. If you choose not to laser-focus your life by saying “yes” to a thousand good distractions, there will be consequences. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Can I live with the consequences of my actions?” 

I digress…. 

Back to focus. 

Let’s pretend, for the moment, that we decide to be in the top 1 percent of people who choose to focus their lives by saying “no” to a thousand good distractions. Let’s examine what we may need to give up on a personal, professional and organizational level in order to reach the goals we have set for ourselves, for our teams, for our organizations. 

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Before we do this, let’s divide up our lives into six dimensions: (1) Physical, (2) Mental, (3) Emotional, (4) Spiritual, (5) Relational and (6) Financial. These are the six dimensions of our personhood and, I am guessing, the six areas we wish to excel in. With our drive to excel, what must we give up in order to succeed in each of these areas? 

Ultimately, only you can answer these questions. This article simply seeks to help give you a running start. 

Let’s dive in.

If I am going to focus on my physical success, what must I say “no” to? 

  • Sugar 
  • Processed Carbs 
  • Soda 
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Emotional eating  

If I am going to focus on my mental success, what must I say “no” to? 

  • Social media 
  • Television 
  • Gossip 
  • Negative people 

If I am going to have emotional success, what must I say “no” to? 

  • Social media and the comparison trap 
  • Talking more than I listen
  • Becoming defensive 
  • Reacting without reflection 
  • Focusing on the negative 

If I am going to have success spiritually (being aligned with my purpose), what must I say “no” to? 

  • Opportunities (good and bad) 

I am going to have success relationally, what must I say “no to? 

  • Negative people and influences 
  • Being romantically involved with another person, if I am married or in a committed relationship (for most of the society, at least) 
  • Gossip 
  • Selfish behaviors 
  • Toxic friendships that take away from investing my current relationship 

If I am going to have success financially, what must I say “no” to? 

  • Poor spending habits 
  • Lack of saving and investing 
  • Ignoring my finances 
  • Lack of education in terms of finances

You get the idea. In order to say “yes” what you want in life, it means there are many things you will need to say “no” to. 

What about your life mission? The work you must do on a daily basis to help you reach your purpose and vision. What are all the things you need to say “no” to in order to be able to pursue your mission on a consistent basis? What are the activities that, while good, are distractions to your ultimate purpose? What about for your team or organization? What are the activities and behaviors that are keeping you from your desired outcomes? 

I want you to know I did this activity myself. Just now. I took a break and wrote down those things that holding me back from my own goals. Here’s the kicker: All five of my largest distractions are either coping or escaping mechanisms. 

This leads us to an important point that needs to be made: Most of what is keeping you off focus and away from accomplishing your goals is directly tied to the anxiety you feel when pursuing your goals. 

That’s a serious juxtaposition. 

Take away the goals, take away the anxiety and, thereby, the lack of focus. 

But where does this leave you? Directionless with no aim for yourself, your team or your organization. 

Here is what I am saying: Have compassion for yourself. A lack of focus means that you are actually pursuing something in life. Another term for a lack of focus is what Steven Pressfield labels as “resistance.” Anytime we set out to do good work in the world, we will encounter resistance in the form of every possible distraction – many which are good distractions – to keep us off our game, to keep us off our focus. 

Take heart. 

The fact that you facing a lack of focus – resistance – means you are moving towards something of significance. Your job is to simply recognize these moments and get back on task. 

If you have ever meditated, you understand this. When engaging in a guided meditation, how often does the yogi or guide compassionately say something along these lines, “When your mind begins to wander, follow the thought and then bring your attention to back the breath.” The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to bring focus to the mind by bringing the focus of the mind to one thing, your breath. Yet, as anyone who meditates has experienced, this can be a painful undertaking as our minds begin to wander from one thought to the next to the next and the next and so and so forth. We call this the “monkey mind” 

In many ways, the practice of “focus” goes against the very nature of our mind and being. 

So… have compassion for yourself, do everything you can to remove the distractions in your life and every moment of the day ask yourself, “Is doing this (whatever this is) helping me to get closer to my achieving my purpose, vision and mission?” 

If the answer is “no,” bring your attention compassionately back to your focus. The “monkey mind” – the resistance – will do everything possible to keep you off of your game, off of your focus. Why? Focus means you are pursuing something of worth that is stretching you past your comfort zone. 

Focus requires discipline. 

Focus requires determination. 

Focus requires consistency. 

Focus requires courage. 

The courage to say “No.” The courage to embrace your one thing and go after this one thing with every ounce of your being. 

So… until we meet again, keep your eyes on your vision, your mind on your mission and say “no” to anything that seeks to take you of course. And live the life you are meant to live. 

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