Find Your Focus: 3 Steps to Identifying Your Most Important Tasks

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the exercise, let me explain how it can be used in three different scenarios, from the macro “big picture” questions to the micro small-yet-important everyday tasks.  

Photo by J.N. Habiger

Photo by J.N. Habiger

 

Where This Will Be Useful

In my late teens and early 20s, I didn’t know what direction to take my life. The problem was, too many careers were exciting. Each new class I took opened a door to another job I thought I could dedicate my life to. Instead of making progress in any one direction, like getting an internship or learning some practical life skills, I found myself treading water. Choosing one path at random and following it would have been better than doing nothing, which is more or less what I did: Nothing. I sat in my basement-level room in the off-campus house I shared with four other people, trying to fit everything I wanted to do into one solid career path. The last thing I wanted was to commit to a major and find out after graduation that it really wasn’t for me. 

In my search for a perfect career, I came across a strategy developed by the most successful investor of all time, Warren Buffet. His three-step strategy not only helped me clarify my career goals and point me in the right direction for my future, it has also come in handy at other times in my life. 

In my mid-twenties, I felt the familiar feelings of career anxiety. Finding a major and career path were years behind me and felt like a summer romance of my youth. The problems I was facing now seemed more serious and immediate. Now that I had identified what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it, I didn’t know what I should spend my time on to get there. I wanted to do everything: write books, blogs, podcasts, make videos, teach overseas, start companies, go back to school, apply for a new job in a new city, apply for writing residencies, (the list goes on). Even though I narrowed my interests, getting to my career goals was pulling me in several directions. The problem (again) was that everything felt equally important. I pulled out my notebook and worked through the same three-step strategy I used a few years early when I solidified my career direction. 

And then, like a bad zombie movie, the problem back again. 

Now, in my late 20s, I should be feeling pretty good. I worked my way from wanting to do nearly everything down to a well-defined career path. I know what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and I’ve identified some specific career goals to focus on. My only problem is, I have way too many things I want to complete every week. Everything feels so important. It is only after something is completed when I realize that something else was really a higher priority. Again, I’ve been spreading myself thin, going only a few inches in several directions instead of going a mile in the one direction that matters. 

Could I apply the same three-step strategy I used to find my career goals to my weekly to-do list? Heck yes, I could! 

Whether you’re trying to figure out the next step to take in your career or the next task to check off your to-do list this week, these next three steps will help you identify what’s truly important.

 

How to Find Your Focus

Step 1: Make a List of Everything You Want to Accomplish

Open your notebook to a fresh sheet of paper and list everything you want to do. If you’re struggling to manage your to-do list, write out everything you want to accomplish. And I mean EVERYTHING. If you’re trying to find a focus in your career, write out all the milestones you want to reach in your lifetime—all your goals, all the milestones, all the accolades—make sure you include everything.

 

Step 2: Circle the Top Five

Use another color pen (if possible) to circle your top five career goals or, if you’re working on your to-do list, the top five things you need to accomplish. 

Whatever you circled is your priority list. These are the top things you need to focus on.

 

Step 3: Do the First Two Steps. Really. Do it. Write it out. Even you, blog-skimmers-who-only-read-stuff-in-bold. After You Finish the First Two Steps, Read Below for Step 3 Instructions.

Don’t read this until you write out your list, because I don’t want to ruin the second step for you. 

With a third color, cross off everything that’s not circled. Those are your distractions. You are going to actively avoid doing anything you crossed off, because if you focus on more than those five things you circled, you will never accomplish any of your primary goals. Buffett calls this list your “Avoid-At-All-Costs” list.

 

Why?

Let me pause for you to get over the initial shock … Ok, I’m back. 

How are you feeling? Is it going to be tough? Yeah, it’s tough. When I initially went through this exercise, it sucked. I realized some hard truths, like how playing music wasn’t as important to me as writing and education. I realized that the school I was going to wasn’t going to push me in the right career direction I wanted to go in. I realized that the city I was living in didn’t have the industry for what I was looking to do with my life. I realized that if I ever wanted to accomplish one thing on my top five priority list, I needed to cut out some things I really cared about so I could focus more time on the things I truly loved.

Sometimes, knowing what to say “no” to is more important than the things we say “yes” to. If you say yes to “x, y, and z,” you need to deliberately say no to the rest of the alphabet. And that’s the power of the two lists: one reminds you of your goals and the second reminds you of whatever distracts you from doing your great work. 

The whole goal of this exercise is to find a few important goals/activities and go deep with them, because it’s better to focus on a few things and do them well than to try many things and do them poorly. Realizing that you can’t do everything is tough, but it also allows you to go farther and deeper (beyond what you ever imagined) with what matters most. 

More than luck,

<3

AjW

Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.wilt@sustainableevolution.com and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

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