To gain focus, could you burn the ship?

Focus is often a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do. ~John Carmack


How many times have I said, “I’m going to really focus my attention, so here’s what I am going to do”? I’ve got it backwards!

William James, my favorite philosopher, said “Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

I especially like that last sentence, “It implies a withdrawal from some things…”

When I’m facilitating strategic planning, one of the things I frequently ask is “what are you going to stop doing? Or, what are you not going to do?” I tend to get surprised looks because most people don’t think about identifying what they are not going to do as something strategic.

But there’s nothing like identifying what you are not going to do to really bring things into focus. (In my opinion, focus is what strategy is all about.)

Be intentional, not reactive.

Focus is about being intentional or deliberate, not reactive. If you haven’t decided what you are not going to do, then what’s keeping you from reacting to things that will take you off focus?

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, said “An organization’s strategy represents the desired pattern of organizational attention, what every unit should share a degree of focus on, each in its particular way. A given strategy makes choices about what to ignore and what matters: Market share or profit? Current competitors or potential ones? Which new technologies? When leaders choose strategy, they are guiding attention.”

Burn the ships.

Abraham Zaleznik (who was a leading scholar and teacher in the field of organizational psychodynamics) said, “Keep focused on the substantive issues. To make a decision means having to go through one door and closing all others.”

Going through one door and closing all others reminded me of the story of Cortes and the burning of his ships. In 1519, Hernan Cortes arrived in the New World with 600 men. Upon arrival, destroyed his ships. He wanted to send the message that there is no turning back. In two years, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire.

Nothing like “burning the ships” to communicate with undeniable clarity what you will not do.

Whether you close doors or burn ships, you and those you lead can achieve significant focus by deciding what things you are not going to do.

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