Updated: Dec 15, 2020
How focused are you?
How focused are you?
When answering this question I want you to look at your (work) calendar for the past week(s) and reflect.
Do your activities and actions actually show focus toward one worthwhile objective?
Or are you spread thin doing lots of different activities, context switching all the time, and making therefore overall only mediocre progress on an important goal?
Quick reflection: On a scale from 1-10 (where 10 is extremely focused), rate yourself how focused you actually were. Don’t think too much, just look at the data, and decide.
How balanced are you?
Now let's look at other categories of your life (e.g., your health, family, relationships, fun activities). Would you say that you have achieved a good work-life balance in the past 7 days or the past month?
Quick reflection: On a scale from 1-10 (where 10 is extremely balanced), rate yourself how balanced you actually were. Don’t think too much, just look at the data, and decide.
When it comes to focus I hear people often talk about being "laser-focused" toward an objective. However, as you are aware, laser cuts and burns through material. So unless you want to ruin your health and neglect other important areas of your life, it is generally not helpful to apply this technique.
Balance is one of the most important universal principles in all aspects of life.
Balance is doing something in just the right amount or dosage. Not too much of it, but sufficient so that something can actually flourish. Think about watering a plant. If you water it too much it will die, but without sufficient water it will die as well.
When you now combine balance and focus in a systematic way, this can generate a very powerful impact to your life. Let’s find out how …
Your Taxonomy of Life Categories
There are different categories in your life that deserve attention. Several books about personal growth are suggesting categories of different aspects of your life.
To keep things simple, I suggest a simple taxonomy of categories of life that worked well for me:
Healthy Body & Mind
Business, Career, and Finances
Quality of Life
Fun & Happiness
Of course you can organize it differently. But you get my point, that there is not just "Work", there are other aspects of life that equally deserve your attention, if you want to thrive and live a fulfilled and purposeful life.
While working in the Silicon Valley for 20 years, most of the time I actually applied (unfortunately) the "laser-focus" methodology to my work and career, therefore neglecting those other aspects. This caused eventually high stress levels, followed by health problems. But I also missed out on cultivating relationships, as well as neglecting the necessity to have fun.
The Idea of Creating Balanced Focus
Over the past years I therefore devised and experimented with a methodology I now refer to as "Balanced Focus." It works very well for me, thus I'm sharing it with you so that you can also benefit from it.
The main idea of it is that you create sufficient focus for 2-3 of your life categories per quarter, possibly set yourself also a category specific theme or goal, and then a system to continuously create balance over time.
There are two parts to this method:
A system and method on how to effectively and continuously create balance
A method on how to actually create a strong focus and sufficient level of awareness
In this article I'm addressing part 1 - introducing a system and method on how to effectively and continuously create balance.
First you may think that by spreading yourself over several categories, you will actually lose focus. However, that is not the case. Focus will be created two-fold:
By limiting to 2 or a maximum of 3 (focus) categories at any point in time.
By creating then focus for one particular aspect or goal within that category over a short period of time (e.g. 3 months).
Typically people just focus on one category (e.g., “Work”), therefore missing out on other important aspects of life. Eventually, they become stressed and sick as the body and mind are being neglected. They are "feeling alone" as it seems that there is not sufficient time to cultivate their relationships with family members or friends. Eventually becoming stressed and sick, as body and mind are being neglected, and “feeling alone” as it seems there is not sufficient time to cultivate your relationships with family members or friends.
Or, people are going into the other extreme, and spread themselves thin by trying to balance too many things at once, possibly becoming stressed while doing that.
There is no perfect balance all the time!
However, the “Focused Balanced” method is a systematic attempt to create balance over time. If you can apply it for just a quarter, do a reflection afterwards using the first two questions I asked at the beginning and observe the (positive) change in your life.
First, reflect on the categories above, and determine whether these capture (most of) your typical activities. If not, add another category if needed. Important is that you understand what is behind each of these major categories.
We are using a quarterly system to rotate balanced focus at a higher level.
I suggest creating a spreadsheet (Google sheet, Excel) to capture a yearly plan to create balance.
For example, you could use a format to capture each quarter of the year in one column (or even go for a monthly scheme). Then you use the rows to add the corresponding categories.
You may also define one major theme or goal per category.
For example, in the "Healthy Body & Mind" feeling less stressed, or loose overall some weight. Or within the “Business, Career, and Finances” to create focus for the completion of a major project.
These are the (suggested) guidelines:
A "Healthy Body & Mind" should always be a key priority and therefore should have the necessary focus and urgency. So this would be added to each quarter as a fundamental category that is always present. Why? If you are not healthy, you cannot optimize your contributions to this world (or even do anything at all), and other categories become therefore irrelevant. Reflect about a time when you were in a hospital or sick in bed. Those are the moments when you appreciate most your health, as you realize its importance as a foundation.
Then decide on one or two other categories per quarter, and try to create your own balance across the year.
Choosing a category for a quarter means you make it a priority, and put the necessary focus and energy behind it.
You need to balance all those categories over the year. Do the math: Using my taxonomy above there are 5 extra categories, and we have 4 quarters with up to 8 slots total. That means each category needs to show up at least once, otherwise you would ignore a category over the course of the year.
This becomes your high level balance plan that you stick to. Only in case of urgent changes in your overall situation should you adjust this plan.
For example, in quarter 1 (Q1) you could add “Business, Career, and Finances” as a second category, as there is an urgent project at work that requires your focus. In addition, possibly add "Relationships" as you have (possibly) neglected them in the past.
In the second quarter (Q2) you pick 2 others. Possibly you have completed that project, and work requires less focus. Pick "Quality of Life" instead, and "Fun & Happiness." (by the way, when was the last time you had fun or made fun a priority? Doesn't that feel great?) - you get the picture.
Here is an example of a balance plan for 1 year:
Q1: “Healthy Body & Mind”, “Business, Career, and Finances”, “Relationships”
Q2: “Healthy Body & Mind”, “Quality of Life”, “Fun & Happiness”
Q3: “Healthy Body & Mind”, “Business, Career, and Finances”, “Personal Growth”
Q4: “Healthy Body & Mind”, “Fun & Happiness”, “Relationships”
Given the guidelines, although you could theoretically make Business, Career, and Finances a priority for each quarter, I recommend to not do that. Reason is that you may still end up putting too much emphasis there and neglect other categories (including your "Healthy Body & Mind") - avoid this pitfall by ensuring if you want to make it a priority in two quarters, try at least to alternate with another category.
Also this doesn't mean that when you have three categories like "Healthy Body & Mind", "Quality of Life", and "Fun & Happiness" that you are not paying attention to your work, or not getting any work done. It simply means that it is not a key priority.
For example, if your spouse suggests having an early dinner in the city and afterwards enjoying some hiking in the park, then there is no excuse in terms of "long meetings" or "extra work hours". It is quite easy: the other activities have a higher priority.
Of course, this is not always that simple. Sometimes there can be crunch times at work, and you may not be able to perfectly balance these focus areas on a given day, or even on a weekly level. Life isn't about perfection. You simply note that you are aware that you weren't able to generate a good balance, and make it up the next day or the next week (or even the next month.)
Daily, Weekly & Monthly Reflection on Balance
For this plan to work you need to continuously reflect on your balance. This is how you generate focus on balancing.
Here is a suggestion:
Once a month reflect on your calendar for the past month, whether you have achieved a good balance on topics A, B, and C for that month. If yes, congratulate yourself. If not, reflect on what happened that created the imbalance, and think about creative ways to counteract in the upcoming month.
Once a week (Sundays?) reflect on the past week. Did you achieve balance? If not, what created the imbalance? Think about creative ways to counteract the same pattern in the upcoming week.
Every morning, look at your calendar for the day ahead. Is it balanced according to your focus areas A, B, and C? Try to compensate if possible. If not, think about how you can create more balance for tomorrow.
Again, this is not about perfection. You won’t be able to perfectly balance every day, but you can make it an effort to balance over a week, and more easily over a month.
For example, crunch time at work to complete an important project?
You may end up spending long hours in that week or possibly work over the weekend to finish that project. That is ok. Just now figure out to again bring balance to your life afterwards.
Introducing a weekly “Balance Score”
As you may know I like clear measurements and KPIs (key performance indicators) to track how well I’m doing. Here the focus is to create balance. How do you know you are doing a good job?
For this I suggest introducing a weekly “Balance Score”, that you can easily calculate during your weekly reflection.
It is very simple (and practical):
You review and analyze your past activities on your weekly calendar, whether they were aligned with your (quarterly) focus areas.
To make this easy to do we do a quick approximation, otherwise the calculation without proper tooling becomes too hard to manage.
Your 3 balance areas for this quarter were “Healthy Body & Mind”, “Business, Career, and Finances”, “Relationships”
Look how much time (roughly) you spent the past week on each of these topics. Doesn’t have to be precise.
On a scale from 1-10 (means perfectly balanced), how would you rate your balancing effort and result for the past week. Do a quick (but honest) assessment of your balancing performance.
A score >= 7 is pretty good - congratulate yourself for having implemented a balance week!
If your score is below 7, then you have introduced an imbalance.
A score below 5 actually is a significant imbalance (watch out for the “laser”!)
In both of these cases you have work to do:
Figure out what categories fell short and determine how you could do better in the next (or upcoming weeks).
Still, be thankful to yourself to bring awareness to this balancing effort and recognize that not every week works out to be perfectly balanced.
Keep track of your weekly “Balance Score” over time.
You can aggregate it to calculate a monthly balance score as well, or simply see in your spreadsheet how your balance evolves over time.
There are common pitfalls that you can avoid. Like any other plan it only becomes a plan if you make it a priority and a habit with strict guidelines. Either you stick to it or you don't.
If you define that A, B, and C are the priorities for a quarter in your balance plan, then this provides the guidance for this quarter.
Be careful when making exceptions when planning activities, as this will very quickly diminish and undermine your own system. Your ego will try to outsmart you.
For example, it will tell you that it is perfectly fine to work this extra hour or stay late in office, therefore ignoring your actual focus areas. So be careful, and don't fall for the tricks of your ego. It requires some discipline and awareness.
And as said, don't go for perfection. If it doesn't work out on a particular day or week, don't worry about and just go back to your system and continue as planned.
Go ahead and schedule a one hour work meeting with yourself. Possibly later today or tomorrow. Don't postpone it until later. This is important. Treat it with urgency. During this hour you complete those tasks as suggested above:
Get started today and reflect about your current / past focus areas as suggested above
Reflect on the most important categories of your life. Either adopt the simple taxonomy above or create your own
Then come up with a plan and create a spreadsheet for the plan and goals as suggested
Review the upcoming week and look now for opportunities to create more balance.
After your first week reflect and calculate your first “Balance Score”. Then keep doing it as suggested above.
Feedback, suggestions? Looking forward to reading about your experiences and ideas while trying to create balanced focus!