• What is the value of focus?
  • Why have a mission?
  • Should you set goals for yourself?

I’ll warn you now, I  this is a long one, but you’ll get something good out of it I am sure!

In the beginning

At the start of my career I was trained as a teacher, a domain where the idea of aims and objectives was beaten into you on a daily basis. You worked out where you were headed and set objectives to make sure that you were getting there, in the time available, for every hour of the day. This was followed up with constant reflection on how you were doing, with the occasional random assessment, just to frighten you into action.

When I moved into the business domain I quickly lost site of all that and was educated into mission, vision and MBOs. These seemed to get updated about once every three months, with a cursory check-up on an annual basis.

My recent exploits in the productivity domain have started to introduce me to the language of focus and action – to do lists, a mission and values. Plus a whole dictionary of terms that seem to have arbitrary definitions, but are still useful.

Thrashing it out

These things have all been conflicting in my head, so I decided it was time to do the right thing: Get a piece of paper and let these ideas battle it out!

Let’s take the idea of progress as distance moved, with little arrows to show bits of progress. I think progress is something we all seek at some level, although we never seem to make as much as we want. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Take the direction that the arrows point as aims, with each arrow ending at a goal. You could think of mission as the total path of the arrows. These are really just metaphors to help think through the issues, without depending on the language.



Sometimes we apply our efforts to many different things in many different directions, all at once. When we do, we don’t get anywhere. When you look at the big picture it is clear why we feel that way. This is lots of activity, but it isn’t getting anywhere. Effort spread across many different things, in many different directions, with different aims, doesn’t create much real progress. This is life with no mission. Lots of effort, not much distance moved, no big achievements.


Conflict and Stress

Sometimes we create focus and concentrate all of our efforts, but there are conflicting aims or no clear mission. That leads to stress, frustration and a lack of progress. There is lots of effort, but no movement. In fact progress in one place seems to come at the expense of progress in another. The diagram here is an extreme, but many coaching books focus on surfacing and resolving conflicting aims or values and you can see why. If you are focussed, but you are not making progress, it is quite likely you have some conflicts to resolve. You need to discover what these conflicts are and resolve them. If you don’t, your stress and frustration will keep building and you won’t be able to move on. Write down all of your aims and goals and weigh them against each other.

Focussed Drifting

Drifting Focus

We might have focus, aims and goals, but they are short term and they keep changing over time. Randomly changing short term aims will tend to lead us round in circles, on the balance of probability at least. Again, this is an extreme case. You probably won’t end up exactly where you started, as the arrows here do, but you may not be satisfied when you look back over your progress. It feels like you have made some, but it feels like you could have made more. You haven’t found your mission. Without a mission, we will struggle to know what direction our aims should take us in. The understanding of the mission may change and evolve over time, but a long term focus helps to plot a straight path.

Drifting Focus

Focussed Drifting

If we find our mission, but we don’t have goals on the way, or clear aims, we won’t know if we are on track. It is possible to have aims, but no goals. An aim, or a value, is not something that you specifically achieve. For example, you might aim to be a great parent, you value parenting. To some that might sound like a goal, but for most people this is something that you can never finish. There will always be room for improvement, you can’t tick it off as a job done. It is an aim, and a hard aim to check yourself against at that. Spending an hour of focussed time with my child is a goal. The aim is to be a great parent, but the goal (or objective if you like) is something that I can check I achieved along the way.


Nearly There

Some focus, some goals, some progress, but no clear picture. It looks like something good is happening here, but there are some things that just don’t fit. There are a few distractions around the edges. I think this is how I feel right at the moment. I am seeing some of the benefits of having a small number of aims and goals and focusing on them, but not yet the full power of a singular mission. Must try smarter!

One aim, many projects

Focussed Aim Overloaded

If we try to express our aim or our mission across too many different things, we can actually end up not making much difference. Everything moves in the right direction, but if we are trying to move everything, everything ends up moving not much. I love to do lots of different things at once, but am starting to see the reality of how inefficient that is. In trying to do more and more, you achieve less and less. There is a lack of efficiency which the diagram doesn’t cover, but somehow it seems to speak to it.

At Last

Focussed Mission with a single aim and goals on the way.

I struggled with this diagram, because I had loads of arrows left over that didn’t fit on the page, so I parked them at the bottom. There is a fraction of the number of arrows used in the line that head off of the diagram, less than half. Suddenly a light went on in my head. If we have aligned aims, one focus, one mission, with goals on the way as checkpoints, we can get somewhere. Really fast. This is true for companies as well as individuals. We greatly reduce the amount of work, by staying on track. Wow! Now, I’m not sure that life lets us make things as simple as this diagram, most of us have many different roles that we have to serve: Worker, partner, parent or whatever other responsibilities we have acquired. What is clear is that within each role there is a massive efficiency that comes from having a clear aim, a singular mission, with focussed execution and goals along the way. I must have read 30 books that have told me as much, but it took a picture to bring it home. Finding synergies across the different roles helps this even further.

The metaphor here isn’t perfect, but exploring it has helped me resolve to be even more focussed. I know that where I have been, I have seen real progress and rapid results. That spurs me on and increases my motivation. I’m sure that there will be set backs on the way, but that isn’t a reason to change direction.

One last point before I jump. Even if you have gone around in a circle, you haven’t really ended up where you started. I’ll bet that you are a different person. It isn’t just about progress; it is also about who you become on the way. Anytime you stop yourself to say “I’m really not getting anywhere.” you have actually made progress, you’ve become more self-aware, and that is the first step to taking hold of life. You are transformed. You might make that step more than once, but enjoy the journey and the decisions you make – that is real progress!

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