Stay focused in lockdown

Make the Most of Your Time, Stay Focused & Achieve Your Goals in Lockdown, according to Gates, Buffett and Jobs

The experts agree that more waves and outbreaks of COVID-19 are expected. We’re in the eye of the storm, they say. It stands to reason then that remote work will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. So what does productivity look like in that situation? How can we go about putting in steps to get a bit more out of our downtime? How do we find the next gear?

Problem or opportunity?

Personally, time is the one thing in my life that has been sorely missing. I’ve always lamented how quickly January turns into June and June into January. I have a long list of articles I want to write, personal projects I want to start and rough ideas of business ventures that could work (I’m sure of it) if I could just find the time to get them going. Well, now I can’t use time or busy-ness as an excuse anymore. It’s the one thing we now have an excess of. No birthday parties or random events or weekends away or family visits to be distracted by. Looking at lockdown through that lens, I realised this is the opportunity I’ve been wishing for. Isolation has eliminated my favourite excuses of why I wasn’t reaching my full potential. Now I’ll have nothing to blame but myself. 

Ant vs. beaR

A recent study has come out that looks at how companies are preparing for the next steps during COVID-19. While these findings are based on companies, they relate to individuals too. Two themes arose from the study. Most companies are acting like bears, who, when winter comes, find a place to hibernate. They’re switching off, shutting down on operating costs and waiting it out. The vast majority of companies have used this approach. And then there are companies that are operating like ants. In a colony, many ants are workers but there are also many that are explorers, on the lookout for what comes next and trying to discover new things. There’s this whole segment of the ant colony looking towards the future, beyond the day-to-day. And the best-positioned companies are the ants. 

Likewise, many people are hibernating, watching a lot of series, choosing to tap out of productivity a little. Which is fine and, considering the severe situation many of us are facing personally and professionally, is understandable. But there are a lot of opportunities for ant-like people to find out what’s coming next, start passion projects, upskill or develop side hustles. So what would you rather be – a bear waiting for summer or an ant looking out for the next opportunity?  

Hocus focus 

There’s a famous story about the first time Bill Gates met Warren Buffett. Their host, Gates’ mother, asked everyone around the table to share the single most important factor to their success. Without hesitation or even looking at each other, Gates and Buffett both gave the same one-word answer: ‘Focus’.

There’s another interesting anecdote that explains Buffett’s approach to focus. He had a personal airplane pilot for 10 years called Mike Flint. Flint was talking about his career priorities when Buffett suggested the pilot to go through a three-step exercise. First, Buffett had Flint write down his top 25 goals on a piece of paper. Then Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his five most important goals. Buffet told Flint to put goals 6-25 on an ‘avoid-at-all-cost’ list. Most people would work on them intermittently but Buffett said, ‘No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.’ Otherwise, you become like the fox that tries to chase two rabbits at once and catch none. This has been a theme to Buffett’s success throughout his life – instead of doing more, he’s always done less. 

Similarly, Steve Jobs said that Apple became a successful company by focusing on a very small number of key products. ‘People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,’ Jobs said. ‘But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.’ 

There are many more quotes and anecdotes about success and focus and how the two are so closely aligned, but maybe Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian and philosopher, said it best: ‘The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something. The strongest, by dispensing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything.’ 

Establish what your priorities are and use this time to focus on them, forgetting the lesser goals. And while a task list is good, you can get bogged down in it, so a mantra is better. If you’re hoping to be productive in the second half of the year, ‘focus’ is as good a mantra as any.  

Think big. Start small. Act now. 

This has become a famous motto among entrepreneurs and business leaders. The idea is to think of something ambitious and lofty, take the first small steps and do it now. This can relate to your current job, new projects or even home improvements. Those who ‘think big’ consider the full range of possible futures. They aren’t too proud to explore doomsday scenarios or too afraid to look beyond incremental improvements and explore their most ambitious dreams. 

Find something that aligns with your sense of purpose and where you feel energised – what people like to describe as finding your flow. Set out to develop a sense of ‘churn’. Moving from a sense of inertia to a first or second gear, you quickly build momentum, which builds even more momentum, but all glory comes from daring to begin.

The five-hour rule

Michael Simmons, founder of Empact, has written about the five-hour rule widely. The concept is wonderfully simple: No matter how busy successful people are, they always spend at least an hour a day — or five hours a work week — learning or practicing. And they do this across their entire career. Many of today’s successful leaders have embraced the five-hour rule through reading. Charlie Munger, self-made billionaire and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, said, ‘In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero.’ 

Reading is a powerful tool for entertainment and escapism but maybe its greatest asset is how powerful a learning tool it can be. When Barack Obama was in office and genuinely one of the busiest people in the world, he still read for an hour every day. Bill Gates, who reads a book a week, takes a two-week holiday every year just to read. And Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, says that ‘Reading can give you a good head start; this is often what your peers cannot obtain. Compared to others, readers are more likely to know other industries’ strategies and tactics.’

A kindle, library card or book club has never looked so good. 

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