Sharpen Your Focus

In a world of growing distractions, it becomes increasingly important to be able to “go deep”, to ignore the “shiny objects” and focus on the things that are truly important to you.

Get The Big Rocks In First

A professor brought a wide-mouthed glass jar to class and set it on a table. From under the table, he brought out a bucket of large rocks. He began placing rocks into the glass jar until no more would fit.

He asked the class, “Is the jar full?”

“Yes!” they replied.

The professor reached under the table and brought out a bucket of gravel. He poured gravel into the jar and filled in the spaces between the rocks. Again he asked the class, “Is the jar full?”

“Probably not,” they responded, not wanting to be fooled again.

The professor reached under the table and retrieved a bucket of sand. He poured the sand, filling in the small spaces between the gravel and the big rocks. “Now is the jar full?”

“NO!” answered the class.

He lifted out a bucket of water and filled the jar to the brim.

“What have we learned?” the professor asked.

Someone answered, “If you try hard enough, you can always fit one more thing in.”

“No,” said the professor, “the lesson is this: If we didn’t put the big rocks in first, we could never have fit them in.” [Covey]

Focus On Things Which Matter Most

If you plan to achieve BIG goals, you must become adept at getting your “big rocks” in first. Focus on the important. “Things which matter most,” Johann von Goethe said, “must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

In a world of growing distractions, it becomes necessary, and more difficult, to be able to “go deep” and have extended periods to focus and work on our important tasks. As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” [Newport]

The first step is to gain clarity about what our “big rocks” are — to focus on the important. What are the essential tasks that need our deep attention? “Perhaps the most important word in business and personal success,” says Brian Tracy, “is the word ‘clarity’. You must be absolutely clear about who you are as a person and what you are trying to do or accomplish . . . You must develop the habit of thinking clearly about every detail [of your life] and then take the time to achieve absolute clarity . . .” [Tracy]

Focus On Important But Not Urgent Tasks

In The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey introduces the “Time Management Matrix”. The matrix is a table with 2 rows and 2 columns. The left column is labeled “Urgent”, the right column is “Not Urgent”. The bottom row is labeled “Unimportant” and the top row is “Important”. [Covey]

Many activities that lead to your goals are in quadrant two (QII) – important but not urgent. However, putting your focus on QII tasks is not easy.

These are prone to getting preempted by the urgent but not important tasks in quadrant three that clamor for attention and diffuse your focus on the important. At the same time, quadrant four items (not urgent and not important) bombard you in the form of digital distractions.

Guard Against Digital Overload

In our busy, fast-paced world, it becomes imperative to guard against the many ways our attention gets hi-jacked. None, I think, are more insidious than digital media and our smart phones, I-pads, lap tops and tablets; Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Nicholas Carr sums up the situation in his book, The Shallows: “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.” [Carr]

Use Technology Mindfully

It is possible to use technology as a tool, and not be used BY technology, futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang asserts. You can do this when you become mindful and deliberate in your use. That includes periods of shutting down for extended periods of focus on deep work and for rest and recovery.

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” You can help ensure that you don’t neglect the important tasks of QII by (1) clarifying what your important goals are, (2) making a plan to achieve them, and (3) doing something every day to accomplish a step of your plan.

Where Does Your Time Go?

Do you focus on the important? Or is your focus blurred by seemingly urgent, yet unimportant, tasks or escapes into digital media? If you answered “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second, maybe it’s time to consider realigning your priorities.

During the day, take a few minutes each hour and list the things you did during that time. Do this every day for a week.

I know — this is adding one more thing to your hectic schedule, but it’s only for one week and it’s important that you have a realistic idea of where you are spending your time. (As a bonus, sometimes being more aware of how you use time helps you make better choices.)

Focus On Using Time Well

Next, schedule a half-hour of quiet time to consider these questions. Ask your Empowered Self for help in answering:

What is most important to me at this time in my life?
What is something I want to accomplish that I’m not doing?
Are there areas of my life that need attention right now?
Do I have a goal or dream that I am neglecting?

Don’t try to edit the list now, just write down whatever comes to mind.

Your Unconditional Yesses

Once you have your list, it’s time to create your Unconditional Yesses, your list of priorities for your time. [For your convenience, I’ve provided a form you can use for this purpose.] This list will become the tool you use to guide you in making wise choices about how you spend your time.

These are the Quadrant II activities — Important but not urgent.

Zap The Time Wasters

Next, go through the list of activities you engage in during the week.

Identify activities that are “time wasters”. These are activities that are not among your Unconditional Yesses. While it may be necessary that they be done, they don’t have to be done by you. Write these down on the form.

Now, commit to removing one of these time wasters from your list each week. This may be delegating the task to someone else, training someone how to do it, even deciding that it is something that doesn’t really need to be done.

If you absolutely have to do it, come up with a system to automate it as much as possible and to get it completed in the least amount of time. This will take an investment of time to do but can result in your having a couple of extra hours each week.

Focus On Priorities

Honor your priorities. Bring the important things back into focus. Say “Yes” to the Unconditional Yesses and “No” to the time wasters. That is embracing the Excelerated Life

Excelerated focus — aligning your actions with your true desires — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.


Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989

Tracy, Brian. Million Dollar Habits. Irvine, CA: Entrepreneur Press, 2004.

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World. New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction. New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013

sharpen your focus

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