How to tackle big goals by narrowing your focus with two simple questions
I made some poor decisions in my 20s. Or rather, a series of poor decisions that seemed to stack and compound.
I took on tens of thousands of dollars of credit card, student loan, and tax debt.
I gained 70 pounds since graduating high school, because I ate way too much fast food and pretty much never exercised.
I binged entire series’ of television shows while pushing work off until the last minute.
I would stay up late into the night, and sleep away the mornings.
And because of all this, my wife and I “had to” put off starting a family until we could get our house in order.
Add to all that a sense of angst over current events and politics, my tendency to stress over the security of jobs, the financial crisis that lead to The Great Recession, and a barrage of 24 hour news cycles that can mentally fatigue even the most psychologically resilient among us.
If you’ve ever been in a situation like this (or even just a fraction of this), you probably know the feeling of wanting a change, but feeling like there’s just too much. How do you figure out what to focus on, and what to ignore?
I needed a formula
I’m a big fan of using decision formulas for quickly analyzing things. They’re somewhat subjective, and will need occasional tweaking. But at their core, they can be really useful.
Because I had so many things that I let go off the track, I needed a way of focusing my effort … a way of identifying things that need ignoring, and prioritizing things that need attention.
So I borrowed a lesson from Stoic philosophy, combined it with a question that I often ask other people when they ask for advice, and came up with something that I have found quite useful.
I also inadvertently mirrored part of Steven Covey’s “circle of concern / circle of influence” model, outlined in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Oops! He probably says it better. Oh, well!
Question 1: Is this something I can control?
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.Epictetus, Discourses
There are so many things in my life that I can’t change. I don’t control the weather, I will not live forever, and certain people will just never like me.
But there are a lot of things that I can change. I can plan my activities around the weather, I can make choices that will allow me to live a bit longer, and I can choose who I spend my time with.
Was I in control of banks when they were giving loans to people who couldn’t afford them? Could I control the stock market?
Do I decide if a client chooses to move forward with a project? Or how much money they’re willing to pay? Or if they’ll pay me on time vs. ghosting me after I’ve delivered?
But do I decide what food I put in my body? Do I get to choose how I spend my money? Is it my choice whether or not I get some exercise today? Or stay up until 2:00 AM? Or sleep in until 10:00 AM?
It’s a hard truth to accept. No one did this to me.
It wasn’t the credit card company’s fault.
It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault.
It wasn’t Netflix’s fault.
It was my fault.
These were decisions that I had made, habits that I had formed.
And after letting myself be angry at what I had done, I saw the silver lining: if my actions caused the problem, I was obviously the one in control.
Question 2: How much do I care?
If I decided that it was something I could control, I then have to have a difficult, honest conversation with myself. And I really had to be brutal about it. No aspirational answers, just the raw unpolluted truth.
Do I care enough to do whatever it takes to accomplish this?
When people ask for advice about the usual subjects:
“I want my kids to behave better”
“I want to lose weight”
“I want to get my finances under control”
“I want a promotion at work”
“I want to find love”
“I want to spend more time with my family”.
… it’s possible that they want it, but not badly enough to do what it takes to achieve it. And you know what? That’s fine. It may not be the right time, or there may be more important things that should take priority. The point isn’t to feel guilty about your answer, but to be honest with yourself.
Acknowledging the potentially painful parts of a decision can help us honestly analyze our desire for change.
So, I asked myself …
To have any influence over politics, my best shot was to run for some sort of political office. Was I willing to do that?
To fix my procrastination problem, I’d might need to give up my autonomy and get a regular job where I didn’t set my own hours. Was I willing to do that?
To fix my weight and health, I’d need to go on a diet and start exercising regularly. Was I willing to do that?
I tried, and failed, many times. Clearly I was not.
To fix my finances, I’d need to cut up the credit cards, sell a car, and go on a budget. Was I willing to do that?
Turns out, I was! What Now?
If the answer is “no” to either of these questions, it’s no longer my focus. It’s a dead issue to me. I won’t be wasting a single minute of effort or thought on it until/unless I can answer “yes” to both questions.
And when the answer to both is “yes”, it’s time to prioritize and focus.
And I mean intense focus. Maximum effort, focus.
I was able to leverage the ability and the desire to change, and give myself permission to ignore the things that don’t pass the test.
And maybe after I’ve conquered one goal, I’d be able to revisit my list from before. Perhaps my answer to the 2 questions will change once I have a win to reference.
So, what happened?
It took me 2 years, but I did eventually pay off all my debt, save enough money to buy a house, and develop good money habits that continue to this day.
And then …
After revisiting my list, turns out I was willing to take a job with a little less autonomy and a little more structure. Great decision, exactly what I needed.
In late 2012, I took on my weight and health. In 6 months, I lost 50 pounds, and I’ve kept it off.
In 2018, I completely revised my sleep schedule. I now wake up between 4:30 and 5:30 AM every day, and I’m able to get more done by 10:00 AM than many people do all day, including my daily budget analysis, reading, writing, etc.
Each goal accomplished sequentially, one at a time, and only when I could honestly answer each of the questions above with a confident YES!
None of it happened because of super-human discipline. If white-knuckle effort was the key to progress, I’d be hopelessly lost.
Luckily for me, it’s about eliminating the unimportant goals to make room for the ones that really matter, then letting the power of focus and compounding take over.