Bodybuilding for your focus muscle

Most of us have jobs and lives that presents us with a huge breadth of activities that we’re supposed to handle each day.

In order to manage all this without going crazy I find you need to start developing a razor sharp focus. Focus is one of the most useful tools to get a lot done – it allows you to achieve more during less time and improve your results.


One of the best teachers of focus that I have found is Zen (or Chan) Buddhism – and while I would not refer to myself as Buddhist, I find that there is a lot to be learnt from this school of thought. At the heart of Zen Buddhism practice lies Zazen (“seated meditation”), which in essence (in my interpretation) is a way to clear away all the layers that lie between you and your true inner self, in order to reach Nirvana.

Zazen isn’t only a good practice to build mindfulness (which I could dedicate a whole other post to), it is also a great training ground for you to develop the three key elements for building a razor sharp focus:

  • Single-task, only do one task at a time and do it until completion. Don’t try to complete 100s of tasks at once, but take them one at a time. This doesn’t only hold for your goals and activities but for many things such as goals, studies, etc. Choose one thing and focus on that. During a work day you can apply this by writing down 3-4 things you want to accomplish during the day and then schedule 3-4 times when you are going to completely focus on one of these tasks. Then work focused until you’ve completed it.
  • Eliminate distractions, once you have chosen your single task eliminate as many possible distractions before you start. In an open landscape office? Put on your headphones with some great music. Got a cellphone (of course you do)? Put it on silent. Got MSN running? You know what to do.
  • Be self-aware, when starting to learn Zazen you’re taught to be aware of your breath and the feeling of your body and clear all other thoughts – making note of when your mind wanders and silently returning to your focused awareness. Apply this when you’re working, by simply being aware of what you’re doing, what distracts you and what takes your time. For example, you can get a pen and pad and write a mark every time you find yourself loosing focus.
    However, remember not to scold yourself for being distracted (we all do get distracted at times) just silently make a remark of it and then return to your focused state. Just like zazen shouldn’t be force, your focus will develop much better if you don’t make it a pain.

By applying these three habits to your activities you will find that your focus gradually, slowly develops sharper and sharper. Don’t get frustrated if you find yourself distracted many, many times in the beginning – focus is like a muscle, it takes continuous practice in order for it to grow strong.

Photo credit: Harpersbizarre.

Who did you create value for today?

Robin Sharma writes on his blog about success how it isn’t something you can strive to achieve but rather a bi-product of making lives better. It is a short, but good post and I relate it to what I wrote previously about Work and Life balance, I recommend it and I agree with him that it’s all about delivering value – to all your stakeholders.

In his post he quotes Studs Terkel who is an American historian and radio broadcaster:

“Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread: for recognition as well as cash; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying…we have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment and life.”

So, take those words and make this day about daily meaning and not a Monday to Friday sort of dying

Think big or start small or both?

Today I happened to have podcasts about two different entrepreneurs in my ipod, both trying to do good and each wanting to solve two challenging tasks – poverty and global warming. For me this is an interesting issue as I am currently trying to figure out what I want to devote myself to (as most 20-30 year olds).

The first of them, Shai Agassi, I originally heard about in an Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast (do try them out – they’re amazing!) and was quite impressed by his way of speaking about how he attempts to solve global warming. He doesn’t think small and nimble – no he believes in a full out, complete shift in paradigm. He says that the only viable solution to solve a problem of this complexity.

Then we have Mohammed Yunus, Nobel peace price winner, who started almost infinitely small – with one $27 dollar loan – which he then followed up with another and another and so on. He solved a small, manageable problem and continued on to the next logical step. There wasn’t a grand plan to fix poverty, it was just a plan to help a group of women.

Both took quite different approaches – but who’s right? You might say, this is all depending on the type of the problem – and even though I’d agree in principle, in practice I don’t see humans acting this way. It seems to me that most people I meet, including myself, seems to prefer to find grand scale solutions.

In Silicon Valley in 98-99 it was all about the grand plans, in Silicon Valley 08-09 it’s all about the small and scalable. Solving poverty was long the realm of large NGOs and government bodies, today social entrepreneurship is all the rage. When to apply what strategy?

My guess would be a combination of the two, I’ll be back in 20 years when I figured it out.

Under-promising and over-delivering


Stakeholder value is for me an important concept – I think that you should deliver value to all your stakeholders, be it your boss and your company, your family members, your dog or your friends. If you can live your life, constantly delivering great value to the people around you, I think you are going to live a good life (what you give is generally connected to what you get) and have many people see you in a positive light. Many religions even has excellent tips about this.

There is a challenge though – and that is other peoples expectations. If they expect you to deliver certain value and you don’t – they’ll be disappointed, if you deliver enough to just about meet their expectations – they might not even notice.  This can be quite frustrating, but you do have a certain element of control over what people expect – depending on your actions, how you display them, how you talk about your own abilities and what you will to do and so on. A good tip that you probably have heard before is to “under-promise and over-deliver”. If you apply this consistently, making sure to not promise too much, while still providing great value – you will notice that the effect is huge. People react much better being over-delivered too, the feedback you’ll get will be completely different than if you had just met their expectations.

About an hour ago I had an experience of this kind with a company most people, at least in Europe, know very well – Ryanair. Ryanair is arguably a company whose brand only promises to provide you with cheap fares and nothing more – and that’s fine with me. I for one don’t expect red carpets, meals if the plane is late (though they rarely are), possibility to change dates or anything else if I only pay €25 for my flight.

I am a frequent user of Ryanairs services, however last time I booked a ticket I had incorrectly put my girlfriend’s name as “Allison” and not “Alsu”, so that the name on the ticket didn’t match the name on the passport. UH-OH I thought. Given my expectation of Ryanairs brand I was completely sure that they would charge me a big sum for changing it (normally at €100 / passenger). However, after having immediately reached an operator on the phone (I didn’t expect that either), she changed the name without the least bit of hastle. WOW.

And presto, Ryanair got a great amount of new respect from me, a happy customer who will talk about this to his friends and family for almost no money (and since they charged for the call, they probably still earned a little bit). Had Ryanair been SAS (a Scandinavian airline) I wouldn’t have been impressed at all – as this would have been what I expected – even if the price I had paid for the ticket would have been the same.

World Peace

Many of us when we grow up have put “World peace” on our wishlist for some (or all) birthdays and christmases. However, just as many of us put it up there many of us took it off once we grew up, become more mature and realized what the world is really about (making enough money to get a nice car, nice house and vacations in Mallorca).

Some of us, however, never take that point off the wishlist, rather they go out to make it happen. I just finished reading the book by & about Greg Mortenson, Three cups of tea,  which might not be the best piece of litterature ever written but is an interesting account of one story of a person who did just that.

Another story I came across a couple of weeks ago was that of Noko Jeans. This is the story of three guys who are attempting to produce jeans in North Korea. They are just now in North Korea trying to start up the process, and while they might not necessarily be on a mission of World Peace I think that this type of activity, trying to connect the outside world with a pretty closed country like Northe Korea is one that certainly does just that. You can read about their background and also follow their progress on their blog.

Work & Life – Don’t balance, combine!


Work & life balance is a phrase I have heard many times and a concept that I truly do not believe in.

Stephen Covey, a guru in personal productivity, has an interesting interview on this topic on his blog here. This is a topic where I find myself often disagreeing with people, but I think Covey writes in a very balanced (excuse the pun) way about this.

Basically, in my view, work/life balance as a term is a bit meaningless. It assumes a rift between what you must (work) and what you love (life). It splits up all your activities in two in a way that I think doesn’t make sense.

First of all, I think you should love what you do. If your job doesn’t develop you at all, I would suggest find another occupation. This doesn’t mean that all things you love is something you can do for a living (lets face it – most of us will not be soccer players, artists), but you should be able to find something that is developing you and that you love doing while still earning enough pesetas (you don’t need to get rich!) to allow you to eat, sleep and have fun.

Secondly, splitting them up is a cop out, it doesn’t make you really think about what you are spending your time on and weighing it against it. Take an objective view on what you prioritize, rank your activities, track your time and make sure you spend your time on what is really prioritized, not just activities you do out of a sense of must or urgency. This goes for club nights with friends (life) as well as answering your work email (work). The key is that it’s all the same – Life is a choice you make just as Work, so make that choice a conscious one.

Summing up: stop worrying about your work & life balance. Instead, work on the list of what is important to you in your life – all your life – ordered by importance, and then align your energy (and time) to this.

Photo by geishaboy500, licensed according to Creative Commons.

Learning from experience 3: Reflect on your learning


I spent my weekend in Italy together with Alsu, more specifically on the lake Como in the north of Italy – close to the Swiss border. This is a place of exceptional beauty – almost too much, so that you practically get overwhelmed – and I can imagine that in less popular times it was an excellent place for reflection.

In Griante, the city we stayed in, there is a church perched on top of the hillside called San Martino. I haven’t yet been able to learn much about the actual church but it seemed to me to be the place where you would retreat, take long walks about the mountain and reflect on your experiences.

The past years has been mostly relentless learning for me – wether it was teaching in China, leading a team or trying to deal with poor leadership within my companies or organizations. Last spring I had many possible paths to choose but in the end I went for one that gave me more time for myself, rather than engaging in a wide range of new activities. This leads me to the fird and final behaviour for learning from experience:

Reflect on your learning – how far you’ve come and what you have achieved, think about your goals and motivations and try to put the experiences in context – try to understand what happened and why. Without this behaviour, which involves both having calmer years and 10 minutes of reflection on the bus – you won’t be able to process your learning and turn it into new realizations and behaviours.

A way to introduce this habit is to look at your next 6 months say and see where you will have the opportunity for major impacting experiences – be it travels, new job roles or conferences. Then plan already now in your calendar one or more days of reflection after this experience. Also set a side one or two days during the winter holidays to look back at your 6 months and try to get an overview over all the experiences and how they impacted you.

The second step would be to also recognize that each day brings with a unique experience and that a daily reflection practice is of great use – and as this is something I am still working on having in my life I will get back to that topic later.

This sums it up for my three behaviours to make the most from your experiences. Remember to make time for all of these three activities – Discovery, Experimentation and Reflection. Without one piece of the puzzle the picture isn’t as good as it could be.