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The fundamentals of focus

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In Forbes Africa magazine recently, I read a piece in which South African businessman Jannie Mouton recounted an incident at a dinner party hosted by William H Gates, father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The host asked his guests, a number of prominent businessmen, to write down the single most critical factor to success in business. Interestingly, two of the guests chose the same word — focus. And those two were Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.

Report by Thembe Khumalo

If focus means the central point of attraction, attention and activity, then it is a critical element of success in anything, because to begin with, it gives us the co-ordinates for where we must put our resources. If we don’t have those, we might chuck our resources (time, energy, skill, money) in the general direction of our desires in a very hit-and-miss approach which might result in, well, sometimes hitting and sometimes missing.

Additionally, without focus our resources can be spread over a number of general areas of interest, and we will not realise their full benefit. Synergy only comes into play when you combine the benefits of more than one element. If the elements remain disparate, you do not achieve synergy.

Focus serves to keep us grounded. Whether you are running a business, a family or a country, you need to remain dedicated on what is important to that constituency. When there is no focus, the intended beneficiaries (staff, shareholders, etc) can suffer.

For every goal there are at least 10 times as many distractions. If we don’t remain focused, we will become unstable as a result of the temptation to pursue each attractive opportunity that arises. I learnt recently that as much as we need a to-do list, we also need a not-to-do list which helps us avoid the pitfalls of chasing too many rabbits at the same time.

As much as businesses need to identify who their target customers are, they also need to communicate to their employees who their target customers are not, so that resources are not wasted by investing in the wrong markets. To actually articulate what you have set out not to do, and who you have set out not to reach is a more difficult exercise than you might imagine, but it does wonders for focusing your mind on what’s important to you and your business.

Bear in mind, of course, that what is important to you needn’t be the same as what is important to the next person. People are driven by different motivations, and what works to achieve a feeling of contentment and achievement for one person won’t necessarily do the same for another. Take two neighbours, for example.

Both are executives with young families, but one invests heavily in health insurance because he watched an elderly parent suffer a long illness when the family had little financial preparation. The other is focused on getting the best education for his children because he thinks spending money on educating them is the best way to secure their future. Does the one love his family less than the other? No. They simply have different areas of focus, driven by different priorities.

Focus helps us persevere through difficult times, by keeping our eyes on the rewards we aim for. Where focus is weak, it’s easy to fall by the wayside at the first sign of trouble. But as many businesspeople who have built real wealth know, success is a long-term project; and you need to be able to remain steadfast even when the road is hard and thorny.

Mouton says that if anyone dedicated 10 000 hours to something, they are bound to make a success of it. That comes to more than two full years of daytime focus!

It’s unlikely that those two years would all be smooth sailing, and in reality, of course, one doesn’t think of one thing day and night, so let’s call it five years of half a day’s focus. How many people give up on their businesses or other project long before putting in five years worth of half days? I know plenty and I am sure you do too. Mouton’s assertion speaks to the importance of remaining resolved.

Ultimately when we are focused, our actions and choices inform outsiders of what is important to us. They form guidelines for what we are likely or unlikely to tolerate, or the type of propositions we are likely to entertain.

Twentieth century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” His words ring true today and they tell us a great truth about the meaning and importance of focus.

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