I hope you are doing well during these uncertain times. These are strange days, and we’re all living in unique circumstances. Some of us say: “What virus? It’s barely affected my operations at all.” Others have been hit with weeks of lost business and daunting economic forecasting. Given the times, there’s plenty to focus on, worry about or get distracted by. Keeping focused on what matters can be tricky.
One of my favorite columnists, Carl Richards, is a financial planner who has a way of distilling complex concepts into ideas so simple he illustrates them in the size of a cocktail napkin.
I’ve doodled one of his oldest drawings on my office dry erase wall many times when trying to make the point that focus and prioritization matter.
When demands and uncertainty are high, it’s easy to get lost in the noise and wrapped up in busywork, fake problems or worrying about the unsolvable. Seeing what matters through the fog of life can make all the difference.
Here’s the sketch:
The circles display two solid criteria for allocating our time:
- Things that matter
- Things we can control
Let’s discuss the first circle. We’re bombarded with constant demands for our time and energy. Each of our internal thresholds for what is important differs, but where we set that bar determines how we spend our limited time or energy. There is always something else to do or fret about if our bar is set low enough. And setting the prioritization bar too low doesn’t mean you are getting more done; it doesn’t mean you are moving the ball down field. More likely, you are running in circles and accomplishing less because busywork is keeping you from real productivity.
The axiom “don’t mistake movement for progress” is basically another version of the sketch.
So, I challenge you to be ruthlessly focused on what matters and not spin wheels on irrelevant issues.
You’ve read stories about my kids in this newsletter before. (I guess they are my version of a cocktail napkin sketch.) Well, my daughter had to clean her room one Saturday. She could do whatever she wanted after it was clean, but her room was a disaster area that needed National Guard attention. I’m sure OSHA would have found about 15 life-threatening safety violations inside those four walls.
She was in her room for about an hour silently working away when I pop in to see how things are going. The room hadn’t changed at all! It was still essentially a life-size version of the board game Mouse Trap.
I asked her what she’d been doing with her time. She looked at me with earnestness and indignation and said: “I have been cleaning! Look!”
She went to her dresser, opened a drawer and proudly displayed an impeccably color-coordinated rainbow array of socks! Each lined up precisely, progressing through the shades perfectly. It was diligent, high-quality work on something that didn’t matter at all in even her limited grand scheme of things.
That story speaks more to my managerial deficiencies than her work product, but it also underscores the point we can focus our energies on something that gets us to our goals (her being able to play outside) or we can organize our metaphorical sock drawer. Either way, we’re not getting that time back.
The other component of Richard’s diagram reminds us to focus on things we can control. That’s not to say we shouldn’t plan for variables outside our control. Contingency plans for issues that matter are the exact things we can and should have. Reducing the likelihood of an accident or a virus outbreak in the workplace through safety education and vigilant protocols is important. But worrying about external factors we cannot change, or address doesn’t help anything.
I think some of us enjoy having a low bar for worry and stress. Some almost thrive on worry or burning energy on nearly meaningless tasks. But beware busywork has opportunity costs. And with COVID-19, 20% unemployment, murder hornets, floods, e-learning, economic uncertainty and no baseball, there’s plenty to worry about. But try to focus on what matters to you and what you can control.
Life—with all its ups and downs—is still going to happen, but we can do our part to make it go as best as it can while hitting the goals, we want to hit … or we can expertly organize our sock drawer.
Stay safe and stay well,