Each year I identify a single word to drive my performance for the next 12 months. The word I selected for 2012 is “focus.” The definition of the verb focus is “to pay particular attention to” or, “to concentrate.”
Focus is also a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do. Every day each of us makes dozens, probably hundreds of decisions about what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do. Many are simple, personal decisions:
- do I have that third cup of coffee or tea?
- do I take the interstate to work or drive along the side roads?
- do I give eye contact to the person in the elevator and say good morning?
Some decisions relate to our profession:
- do I conduct final quality review of materials before the big meeting?
- do I begin the meeting on time even though not everyone is in the room yet?
- do I leave work earlier to attend professional association meeting today?
So the bottom-line question is: What’s most important to you at the moment, and on what should you focus your attention and efforts? I believe this is where your values come into play.
Let me share a recent experience to illustrate what I mean. I took up the game of golf years ago as a way of escaping the stress generated in my professional life. Spending four and one-half hours outdoors in God’s creation, on terrain molded by man into amazing beauty and diverse challenges, is a welcome distraction from the grind of corporate America. But a few weeks ago I played my very first golf competition using the match play scoring system whereby a player earns a point for each hole they have bested their opponent. Although I found this face-to-face competition quite stressful – I felt the pressure on every shot – the overall experience was pure exhilaration!
What amazed me about match play competition was my ability to focus on executing every single shot, aligning my energy and skill toward a vision of winning the match. I even focused on every practice swing to ensure I was making a complete follow through – one of my lingering swing flaws. By focusing and programming my mind before each shot, I played three of the best rounds in my golfing career.
I learned from this experience that it’s important to plan each shot, commit to it, then execute the shot. As Jack Nicklaus said when asked about his incredible shot-making ability:
“I start by assessing where I am, looking at the lie of the ball, figuring out the terrain, gauging how far I am from the hole, and thinking about the wind and other elements of the weather. Then I decide where I want the ball to land so that it ends up near the hole or at the right place on the fairway.
Next, I visualize the flight path of the ball and see in my mind the kind of swing I’m going to have to make to get the ball to travel on that flight path. Then I commit to that swing.”
Even for a golfer of Jack Nicklaus’ caliber, however, focus is difficult to maintain and, as a result, execution suffers. So, it’s not surprising that we often experience a lack of focus in areas of our professional life. Is this because the work day just too long to maintain our focus? Are there simply too many distractions during the day? Is there too much complexity in the business world?
Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their 2002 book EXECUTION: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, argue that “Most often today the difference between a company and its competitor is the ability to execute. Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today. Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.”
It seems to me that execution would be a lot easier if the right degree of focus were applied beforehand. It sure works for me.