“Focus on the unimportant.” New ways of thinking by David Allen.

“Focus on the unimportant.”

I think the economic crisis was created because too many smart people

focused too much on their priorities.

I spent thousands of hours in the trenches coaching some of the best, brightest and busiest about managing their workflow, in an industry in which they were making more money than most (financial services). They didn’t need reminders about “priorities” – they were already highly focused on what was really important: optimising assets for their biggest clients and looking good in front of their bosses in the process.

That is commendable, but what was happening to all the not-so-immediately important stuff? I wonder how many things were lurking there, unattended, which retrospectively were critical and which didn’t get the appropriate attention at the appropriate time. They weren’t the “priorities” from a preconceived frame of mind and limited horizon of focus.

Hard charging with a singular mission or goal is fine, and often necessary to overcome inertia and resistance and obtain a competitive advantage. But if you over extend your supply lines, if you haven’t prepared sufficiently for the pressures you will put on your resources, you’ll find yourself out on a limb that can’t bear the weight. Isn’t that what happened in our esteemed financial institutions? But how much of this is focus on the unimportant merely the accumulated result of the personal habits of all the individuals involved?

I was talking recently with some folks in a well-known management consultancy which has internalised the concept of “80/20” – that they should always be holding themselves to the standard of working on the 20 per cent that will produce 80 per cent of their results. Again, commendable; and it makes good sense. But what was getting in the way of really top performance was what lay embedded in the 80 per cent that was ignored: commitments with not-so-big clients; things that support the infrastructure, process and maintenance responsibilities that ensure sustainability. And what happens if my 20 per cent lies in your 80 per cent?

Saying that something is not as important as something else does not equate with a free ride for letting the latter drift. Too often the not-so-hot stuff lies unacknowledged, with commitments festering and situations complicating.

Ever have the sense that you don’t have time to deal with the secondarily important things because there are so many fires, crises and other unplanned urgencies? Well, where do you think the majority of those interruptions come from? Probably un-dealt-with business that wasn’t an obvious squeaking wheel.

A vast majority of professionals are in “emergency scanning” mode. Their self-management consists of checking for and acting on the loudest immediacies – in email, in the hallways and on the phone. Everything else is shoved to the side of the desk, and to the back of their mind. Because they’re focused only on “priorities”, and are paying attention only to the most intheir- face stuff, everyone else has to raise the noise level to “emergency” mode to get any audience at all. Sensitivity and responsiveness to input are criteria for the evolution of a species; and many an organisation has a nervous system that keeps them low on the food chain.

Many people allow themselves lose tolerance for managing details and commitments, because they know that by sheer force of personality they can “make it right” if they need to. But to use relationship capital for cleaning up after your sloppiness instead of deepening and expanding relationships is a big waste of personal equity and a hindrance in growing and refining your stature.

The addiction to this myopic view of what’s “most important” is not self-correcting – it is self-perpetuating.

I’m not voting for throwing strategy to the winds, nor giving equal weight to all the options of where you could put your focus. You’re always setting priorities by simply doing one thing instead of others. I’m recommending you strive to maintain a view of the whole picture, leaving nothing – little, big, personal or professional – uncaptured, unclarified and unorganised. Then constantly question what you think is the most important thing to be doing. Pay attention to the still, small voice that probably does know what needs your focus. Challenge the assumption that it always has to be the “most important thing”, which may be based on a preconceived strategy from a limited context.

Sometimes your highest priority may be to just get some unimportant things done.

“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” Anton Chekov.


Subscribe to Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.