Three Steps to a Focused Life (Part 3: Good vs. Great)

(Note:  This is the final blog in a three-part series on helping you achieve focus in your life)


I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “herding cats” before.  For the sake of humor let’s take a moment now and visualize this metaphor.  You are in a green pasture full of rolling hills…and cats (the hills are rolling, not the cats…well, maybe some of the cats are rolling too, I don’t know…).  You’re a cat herder and your sole job is to herd these cats as a unified whole from one pasture to another, all while riding Bullseye, your loyal ranch horse, with nothing but a lasso and a whistle startling enough to give new meaning to the term “scaredy cat”. 

This is, of course, is a rather humorous metaphor that is meant to explain the futility of striving to manage too much at one time, hence achieving nothing but a feeling of stupidity and a few dozen scratches over your entire body.  It’s a funny thought but also a sad reminder of reality for many of us.  I would dare to say that the majority of the high achievers out there struggle with this “futile fumbling for felines”, though we may not realize it.

What I’m referring to is the challenge of resisting the temptation to overflow our lives with activities and commitments.  The struggle to say no to things in this day and age is very real.  For me, I know that I love to say ‘Yes’ to any and every opportunity that comes my way.  I feel that there are too many exciting opportunities in this world to say no to any of them. 

The thing is I know I’m not alone.

We live in a culture that has popularized the “both/and” mentality when making decisions.  Instead of having to choose between a healthy family life or working 80 hours a week we’re told we can have “both/and”.  In the past families had to choose one or two activities in which their children could participate but now you can have your cake and eat it too.  There are so many options available and the accepted pace of life is so fast that the word ‘discretion’ is virtually nonexistent in the realm of composing our schedules.

In his book ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’, author Greg McKeown calls out the elephant in the room with his proposition that that culture is wrong when it claims that only by doing more things can you achieve true fulfillment in life.  Nobody would dispute the fact that we all are granted only a finite amount of resources, which includes our time, money and mental, physical, and emotional energy, and if said resources are in limited supply, it goes without saying that the one seeking to maximize the effect of his or her assets ought to exercise extreme discipline and discretion in how those assets are spent.  McKeown puts it well when he states, “There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in.”  Architect and modernist Le Corbusier, along with the whole of the Modernist movement, advocated this idea of power in simplicity by popularizing the phrase, “Less is more”, a statement that has since become the mantra of those seeking to achieve focus, power, and beauty through the disciplined pursuit of less.

If you’re like me, all of this talk about doing less might start to make you break out in a cold sweat, but stay with me here!  It’s not like it sounds.  Before being disciplined in the pursuit of the one or two great things while sacrificing the ten good things, it is important to spend time in what some have called “the spaghetti phase”.  This is the phase where you’re trying everything and anything.  Sometimes it is impossible to know what our passions and giftings are without first exploring a multitude of options first.  Just as when one tests to see if spaghetti noodles are fully cooked, sometimes you need to just throw a bunch of things out there and see what sticks! 

Author Jim Collins explains this idea with a different metaphor when he says that it’s like the difference between firing a shotgun and firing a cannon.  A shotgun fires off multiple, tiny pellets that spread out the farther they fly, making a wide range of targets but not making much impact.  A cannon, on the other hand, hits a single target but with intense force.  Collins suggests firing your shotgun first in order to gain an understanding of where the targets are and which targets are worth pursuing.  Upon discovering the most strategic target(s), it’s time to fire the big boy! 

McKeown concurs with Collins, stating that those pursuing more effectiveness through less over commitment “systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any.  Because they will commit and ‘go big’ on one or two ideas or activities, they deliberately explore more options at first to ensure that they pick the right one later.”  This approach has been the majority of my experience with my own company Jacob Ideas, my personal outlet for sharing my ideas and design work with the world.  Because my interests are so widespread, ranging from teaching karate to designing 3D printed chess sets, I wanted to give myself the freedom to explore my interests, to try new things and see what maintained my curiosity and also showed promise for further investment.  Through this process of distinguishing the good parts of my business from the great parts, I’ve had to make choices, some of them quite painful, regarding what opportunities to pursue and what to let go.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered some handy tips and tricks along the way for figuring out what to let go and what to pursue.  The first and (in my opinion) most important tip for encouraging focus in our lives is to create a killer vision and mission statement for your life (see previous blog).  Vision and mission statements exist to provide clarity in where a person or organization should spend their efforts while simultaneously clarifying where they shouldn’t.  I created my vision statement to be very short and sweet:

“Maximize the effect of my God given assets on his Kingdom”

Obviously this statement was born out of the lens through which I view the world, but can you see the clarifying power it holds?  The key words in this statement are ‘maximize’, ‘effect’ and ‘assets’, and they all have the intent of reminding me that to make the type of difference in the world that I want to make requires being deliberate and intentional when choosing how to spend my limited amount of resources.  Now whenever I make a personal or business decision, I must ask myself if doing so will be the best use of the resources I’ve been given. 

Another great tip that I pulled from author and fitness guru Timothy Ferriss that has helped me learn how to focus on the great things is the importance of conserving one’s mental energy.  Ferriss makes the point that every decision we make requires a certain amount of mental energy, whether great or small.  He uses the example of choosing what to eat at a restaurant, a relatively unimportant decision that for many can turn into an exhaustive task!  While there isn’t a fuel gauge for measuring our mental capacity, Ferriss asserts that minimizing the time and energy spent on such trivial decisions actually allows greater reserves of energy for decisions that carry greater weight in your life.  In doing so, you are able to afford more attention and focus on whatever task is at hand instead of feeling mentally drained because of all the other decisions made previously that depleted your tank.  And when your mental energy tank is full, you are free to pursue the ‘great’ things in your life without being bogged down with the infinite amount of ‘good’ things (like whether you should get the roast duck with the mango sauce or a juicy medium rare T-bone steak).

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not share the humorous yet brilliant practice of author and activist Bob Goff.  Goff, in an attempt to continually cleanse his schedule of over commitment, turned Thursdays into “Quit Something Thursdays”, effectively giving himself the freedom and mandate to quit something every Thursday.  While this may or may not be directly applicable to you and your lifestyle, I find it a most ingenuitive form of continually monitoring one’s schedule in order to keep from falling into destructive habits.

Life is full of choices, and it always will be.  If we are to live our lives in a way that produces effectiveness and focus, we must learn to sacrifice the good for the great, for in the words of Jim Collins, “Good is the enemy of great.”  We can either choose to embrace all of the options that lie before us, the multitude of hobbies that pique our interest, the exorbitant amount of extracurricular opportunities to advance our careers, etc., or we can choose to go against the flow, to say no to the dozens of good things so that we can pour all of our heart and soul into the few or singular thing(s) that have proven to be truly ‘great’.  I would encourage you that, upon discovery of what those few great things are, pursue them with dogged persistence and let nothing stand in your way!  I’m reminded of a parable about a man who, upon finding a hidden treasure buried in the ground, returned home and proceeded to sell everything he had to buy that singular treasure. 

Clearly he understood the value of giving up the ‘good’ things to achieve the ‘great’ things.

In closing, let me leave you with a quote by one of my favorite authors, Andy Stanley: “Everybody ends up somewhere in life.  A few people end up somewhere on purpose.”


PS:  If you liked this post, have a question, or even disagree, leave a comment below!


Jacob DeNeui