Focus Pt. 2

The Problem

Our attention is under assault. The Internet, smartphones and particularly social media all conspire against us to set our monkey brain aflutter. I am a child of the (early) 80s, which means I can remember a time before the Internet. It was all so boring, but oh so productive. Don't get me wrong, here at Avalon we’re big fans of technology, but we recognize it is not a panacea.  

For entrepreneurs, the problem is compounded. It’s a bigger problem than not getting good work done, if we’re not focused our employees will also be left to the devices of their primate impulses. For us and for the entrepreneurs we work with the stakes are high. .

It's not a lost cause though. With a few tweaks in how we approach our work we can use that distracting technology to actually help tame the monkey brain and get some actual work done.

Your Monkey Mind (and Mine Too)

One of my many (many, many) takeaways from The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey was understanding my monkey mind or the limbic system in my brain. This is the part of the brain at play when I check Facebook (again) or even do the bookkeeping for Avalon (I like doing it, so always seem to gravitate to it - even when it's not on my to do list). Simply understanding when this part of my brain is activated has helped me keep it at bay and reset my head to the task I have set out to do. I use Momentum Dashboard’s Chrome extension to help keep me focused by reminding me what my focus is supposed to be when I open a new tab in Chrome. It also happens to add some beauty to your day.

The Goals you Talk about are the ones you Achieve

At the risk of sounding asinine: goals are important. Yeah, I know you know that. But how much time do you actually spend on setting these out in black and white. I am going to go out on a limb and assume you spend the sufficient amount of time to take those goals from your brain and write them down somewhere. So, you've got goals. Now, how much time do you spend communicating them?

The difference between having goals and communicating them is, to quote The Donald, "'uge!" For people to accomplish really good work, they must understand the context. No one wants to be a cog in a wheel, so helping your team understand why they are doing what they are doing is motivating for them. Without the understanding of why something is important, shiny objects like Jeopardy for Slack look pretty appealing even to the most committed employee.

We communicate our goals often. We have created a Rhythm of meetings (daily, weekly, monthly, thirdly (another post) and annually). At each monthly, thirdly and annual meeting, we have in depth discussions about our goals. There’s no special trick to this – it’s just a matter of spending energy on keeping goals front of mind by constantly discussing them.

The Better To-Do List

There are always going to be other tasks that may not directly get us to our most lofty goals, but understanding where these other tasks fit in can help us stay focused. A good task management system can help you reflect and organize the things you and your team need to do. Ideally this system would have the following characteristics:

  1. Be shared with your team
  2. Allow for reorganizing/reordering your tasks
  3. Allow you to see what you have accomplished
  4. Be one you will actually use

Every. Single. Task.

You need a system to capture everything you need to do. I mean that. You need to. Your brain is poorly designed to hold onto these things. You need a system to capture all the things you have to do. Some people use a pen and paper. Hey, whatever works, but use something. You then must understand all the ways that tasks come to you. Verbally, mentally, emailally: every way. Then you can outline a system to get everyone of those streams into your system with the least amount of effort.

What Really Matters?

You can only do one thing at a time and only a few things each day, so you must prioritize them. You must prioritize. This is where your goals will come in handy. Tasks directly related to your goals should take priority. If you are doing tasks unrelated to your goals, it might mean that your goals aren’t quite what you thought they were. Or you’ve lost focus and need to find it again.

I organize my tasks by the things I want to accomplish for the week then I set out what I am going to accomplish at the beginning of each day. I drop all my other to dos to a place I can't see them until tomorrow.

Reflect on What You’ve Achieved

It's not enough to create tasks and do them. You have to reflect on your accomplishments to motivate you to stay focused. It’s also an opportunity to change course if it’s needed. Often I will reflect on what I accomplished in a day and think, why on earth did I do that when I started over here with all these other things that were more important? Don't beat yourself up when it happens to you, just understand that was probably your monkey brain riding in the driver's seat for a while, cruising the strip.

I like to look back at the same frequency that I organize my tasks. I look over my accomplishments at the end of each day and week and compare them against what I set out to do.

So to Sum it all Up…

Your monkey brain is always ready to derail your big productivity plans, so set yourself up for the best chance of success. Link your tasks to your goals to set your daily priorities, find a system that keeps track of EVERYTHING and reflect on the things you accomplish and those you don’t. It'll either be a pat on the back or a "do better next time" but those few minutes will quickly help you figure out if you’ve got this focus thing nailed or if you’ve still got some work to do.

Focus Pt. 1

This month, we instituted a new tradition at Avalon: Our Value of the Month. We decided to start with Focus (No Squirrels Allowed) for a number of reasons:

  1. It is the most aspirational of all our values. Focus is hard to achieve in a world of distractions. In a company that operates mainly on the Internet, it is doubly-so. There are so many shiny things to research.
  2. It is a meaty subject. With so many time-management, productivity, and meditation gurus around, there is no shortage of inspiration to draw on. What we really wanted to get to, however, were some practices that we could implement that would increase our focus.
  3. We hadn’t yet articulated why it was even important — this seemed like a great place to start.

In the next articles, I will break down these reasons. As Simon Sinek would say, “Start With Why.”

Why Is Focus Important

Why do we even think this is important? We started with a one-question survey here at Avalon to find out. That one question? Why is focus important to us? Duh.


I got some interesting answers, but the essence of it was this: if we can focus in our work, we can find a balance between delighting our clients and enjoying our lives. Every time we get distracted with low-impact items or even just general meandering (not that I don’t love a good meander), we impact either the quality of our work or the quality of our lives — often both. If we can focus in on our most important work and set our minds to getting it done, we can start a snowball effect of delight and enjoyment.

What do I mean by enjoyment? It can take a lot of forms, but for me it starts with pride in my work. I find it really hard to relax and enjoy my time away from work unless I have my to-do list under control. When I am at my most productive (getting good and important work done with a high level of quality) I enjoy the rest of my life much more. On my worst days, when I can’t focus and keep procrastinating on my tasks, I feel awful and don’t enjoy my time away from work.

And that’s where the snowball effect begins. If we can enjoy our time away from work because we are being productive in our time at work, we will be more productive at work. Classic win-win.

the long game

Productivity is the short game. You come to work with certain things to do. You can prioritize them and work to getting them accomplished in the way that works for you. That’s all great, but what if they’re all a slog? You rely on others to get you information that they just aren’t getting to you or people are asking you to do things that are outside what you do. If you’re like me, you like to help. No is not in your vocabulary. But it should be. Today’s to do list is the culmination of all the things you said yes to in the past.

The times I have gotten us into any trouble at Avalon have been the times I should have said no. My heart was in the right place. I thought I could help somebody and that was my instinct, but I would have saved everyone a lot of time and energy if I just said no.

Since then, we have spent a lot of time understanding who we can help the most. We have defined the type of customer we can serve best. That means saying no to some pretty interesting companies and great people. 

By honing in on what we do in a larger sense, we have also focused our to do lists (and our future to do lists). This combination of big picture and daily task focus positions us to do some great and fulfilling work.

In our next article, we will discuss the distractions in our work and explore some methods to keep them at bay. 

Should I Incorporate My Business?

Should I Incorporate My Business?

Incorporating is all the rage. It gives you some weight behind your name. In some ways it feel like table-stakes if you are going to get serious about your business. No mistake, determining whether to incorporate your business or run it as a sole proprietorship or partnership is an important decision that business owners must make.  Here are a few key points to consider when making this decision.