Expanding Focus: If You Can’t Get One Thing Done, Focus on Five Things Instead
Why, sometimes, do we do something and stick with it till we get results and other times we don’t make it?
What is it that makes us stick with a task or project long enough to complete it?
The simplest answer that I keep coming back to is: obsession—the ability to focus on one thing and allow it to completely consume us.
The next question then is: What would make us obsess over one thing and not another?
Why do we obsess?
Intense focus and losing ourselves in something can be attributed to one of the two factors below.
When we’re driven by passion, we tend to obsess over the project/task/job till we get it done or master the skill and turn it into a way of life. Or
When we’re dealing with imposed deadlines and consequences that require extreme focus. It’s much easier to stick with something when there are predefined outcomes and consequences (like completing a project and meeting a deadline at work, or passing an exam, or even proving a point).
I’m a huge fan of obsession—the single-mindedness that allows us to achieve that one thing against all odds and in spite of all obstacles.
This of course means that we throw balance out the window.
I’m more than okay with that. Trying to juggle everything to keep things on equal footing is extremely hard, if not impossible for some of us.
So if you can obsess over something to get results, by all means go for it. But …
What happens when we’re not motivated or driven enough to fixate on a project?
This is a question that comes up when you have multiple interests and you’re not accountable for your actions and choices. In this case, you’re on your own to choose something and stick to it.
This has been the theme of my life for quite some time—too many interests and not enough obsession.
This is what happens when we have multiple interests and not one clear dominating passion.
Obsession does keep us hooked to the task. Without that force, we tend to stop and allow other things to take over. I used to think: just pick one thing and go for it.
So I picked an interest, did something for a while and then felt bad (or scared) that I wasn’t doing anything with the other interests. And I stopped and started something else. Then repeated the same cycle of pick and drop. And I ended up with bits and pieces without any tangible results.
The problem with forcing focus on one thing
The single focus, passion, obsession path works when something basically takes over. It’s not you who’s driving. It’s the passion or the project that’s driving you. And that is awesome. Because in this case, you’re almost guaranteed to stick to it till you see results.
If you have multiple interests, however, and only choose one (which I used to advocate), you will eventually stop—if it’s not the sole driver of your heart and soul.
Then you will pick up something else, do it for a while, and stop. And repeat the cycle a few more times before giving up and dropping everything.
This obviously doesn’t work. It has not worked for me and I have more than a few things that continue to linger without any meaningful progress. So here is what I’ve been experimenting with:
5 areas of focus
When you have a lot of things begging for your attention, it’s hard to just pick one, go for it, fail or stop, then get back up and keep going. Most likely, you’ll stop and choose something else. Then repeat the cycle.
In order to get out of the loop of starting and stopping, I’ve been experimenting with picking 5 areas or interests to focus on and giving each one of them a specific task and/or time.
The areas of interest are your top 5 things at the moment. If you have 10, 20, or 30 things, you’ll never get through them unless you start somewhere. Starting with 5 items is the first step.
Your top five are not set in stone and you can change your mind in the future.
Why 5? It’s arbitrary. I associate the number with five fingers on each hand. Each finger represents an interest you want to work with right now.
It’s easier to choose five rather than just one and still be able to focus on each one for a while.
Let those five things drive your attention and action. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get bored or freak out about letting go of something.
5 x 2
Once you pick your 5, list one or two things per area that you’d like to work on (no more than two). And forget about the rest.
This means that a list of 5 will have 10 items of things to work with.
Then set a time each day where you want to do these things. This is an appointment with your interests. This is your time.
The areas of focus can be anything that you desire to achieve or improve. It can be time with family, health and wellbeing, relationships, learning a new language or skill, pursuing a lifelong dream like writing or painting, decluttering your space and simplifying your life.
Once we have the main areas, we can list a couple of action items for reach.
Here is an example of focus areas and two action steps per area.
- Writing: Write for 10 minutes a day. Read for 10 minutes a day.
- Photography: Take one photo per day. Learn about different types of photography by reading for 10 minutes a day.
- Fitness and health: Track my calories. Walk for 10 minutes.
- Learning a new language: Learn 2 new words per day. Review previous words for 10 minutes.
- Family: Spend dinner with family without any distractions or gadgets. Do one thing with the kids on the weekend.
All these things are simple enough to do and you’re working on more than one area. There might be days where you won’t get to all of them. But you can easily pick up the next day and keep going.
What happens when we focus on five things?
Over time, slowly but surely, one of two things happens:
- Some things really capture your attention. Or
- You realize that some things are not as interesting (to you) as you thought they would be.
In other words, you will gain the most valuable insight—clarity.
And once you’re clear about the things you want to pursue, you become unstoppable. Here is why.
As you continue to do something, you will feel more comfortable with the process and you’ll start enjoying the activity. If you stick with an enjoyable activity long enough, it will turn into an obsession. And that’s the sweetest spot of flow and joy.
One thing you might be thinking about is: How do I choose my top five interests when I have so many things?
Steps that can help in selecting your 5 things
In order to find out what you want to do now, look into the past and what you did or didn’t do. Consider the following.
History of desires: Look into anything that was and is still of interest to you. Write it down.
History of action: Examine your previous efforts and what you did for each one. Did you get the results you want or did you drop it?
Revisit success: If you stuck with something and got results, what did you do that contributed to the results?
Revisit failure: If you stopped, why did you stop?
The big picture: As you go along you will notice patterns of thoughts and behaviors that will be helpful this time around.
Pick your 5: If you can’t instinctively choose five, look at the items above that you’ve attempted the most in the past and that are still on your list. These interests keep coming up for a reason. If there is more than five, just pick five. And remind yourself that you can change your mind later, after you’ve worked with something long enough.
So we have the top 5 interests and the two steps for each, now it’s time to do it.
To do something well, we need to combine these elements:
Best effort: Doing the best we can is easy because we’re starting with small and specific steps that can be done well in no time.
Consistency: Repeating something on a daily basis is what will give us results and clarity.
Time: Each action needs to be done many times before we decide if it’s something we want to pursue or not. More often than not, we give up on things way too soon.
Giving something enough time requires patience and trust. The outcome is usually worth it though.
After we gain clarity, we then decide to either keep pursuing something or completely drop it.
For the things that we want to continue doing, we can gradually increase our effort and focus. As for the things that are dropped, they’ll create space to do more of what we want. This means our choices and actions become streamlined with minimal fear and resistance.
When we focus on a few areas of interest, we gain clarity, and gradually shift our attention to the important things that mean something to us. Over time, we will make progress—with every experience we grow into more of who we’re meant to be.
And even if we don’t get the desired outcome, the joy of the pursuit is more than enough.