Where to Focus

“It takes discipline not to insist on doing everything yourself, especially when you know how to do them well, especially when you have high standards about how they should be done. Even if you enjoy doing them — whether that’s mowing your own lawn or answering your own phone.”  – Ryan Holiday

Do you feel that you alone must take care of everything in your business? How about in your life? I know you are intelligent, hardworking, and have high standards for yourself.

What is your highest purpose?  What are your most important values?  Let’s parse these questions before deciding how to spend your time.

These are deeply personal questions. We all value different things and want our lives to look and feel a certain way. I try to create a life where I can spend as much time as possible outside, in the mountains, with friends and family. This informs how I make most of my decisions.

There’s a story attributed to Warren Buffett in which his private pilot discusses his career goals. Warren asks his pilot to write down his top twenty-five career goals. Then Buffett asks his pilot to circle his top five priorities.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  According to lore, Mr. Buffett tells his pilot to spend all his time and energy on those top five goals.  And avoid everything else on your list!  All those opportunities that are interesting but don’t quite meet the standard of great.  These will distract you and destroy your time.

What’s going on here?  We all have more areas and interests than we have time for.  This will always be true, no matter how efficient we get.  A new productivity system or improving at email will never allow us to “catch up.”  We just get more and more emails or meeting invites on our plate.

But the sooner we accept reality, the easier it is to focus on what matters most to us.

This applies to all areas of life, not just careers. We all have projects and goals for ourselves, our deepest relationships, our children, and our health.

We dilute our efforts by trying to do too many things simultaneously. We get frustrated and stuck, and we end up doing everything pretty darn poorly. I know this is a continual struggle for me: saying yes to too many projects and invitations. Then, I regret saying yes and doing a poor job on the project—no one benefits.

It is critical to understand the season of life you are in to start making this change and letting some things drop.  Your time and values are markedly different when you are single and in the rigors of medical school versus ten years into your career with a young family.

Many of you are early in your careers and trying to establish your financial footing. Student loan payments are coming due, and you are saving up for your first mortgage.

On top of your big, heavy financial goals are all the continual daily commitments: keeping a house, making meals, getting the kids off to school and soccer practice, finishing up all your patient charting, calling back patients before leaving the office, All the things necessary to maintain your life.

But we often hide or ignore the actual costs of our decisions—in time and money. Everything we say yes to is saying no to countless other options. This is true for how we spend our time and money.

Buying a new RV to camp and travel around the country can be a blast. But what does it ultimately cost in terms of money and time to maintain and care for the vehicle?

The same can be said when purchasing a house. It may make more sense to rent and let someone else deal with the burdensome pieces of ownership.  I still remember an Arctic blast coming through Portland and freezing the pipes in our rental. All we had to do was call our landlord and let him deal with the broken and leaking pipes. Later that afternoon, my wife and I flew to Sun Valley for a ski trip, and we had an incredible time skiing.

To return to the original idea, allowing others to help us and asking for help can be challenging for the Type A personalities that thrive in medicine. We expect perfection in so many areas of our lives. What we often overlook is what that perfection costs.

At some point, we start dropping balls.  No matter how hard and incredible you work, you can only do a few things exceptionally well.   What areas of your life are you currently putting on autopilot? What would you be capable of by focusing your energy and time on just a few areas of your life that are most meaningful to you?

By making this shift, you spend your time on activities and work that give you energy and create more meaning in your life.  And outsource the tasks that feel frustrating, burdensome, and suck your energy.

I’ll give another concrete example.  I recently completed my term as Treasurer for my anesthesia group.  Much of the work required my eyes and expertise – reviewing financial statements, meeting with our lawyers and accountants, and keeping the group updated on our finances.

But other things—running to the bank to deposit a physical check—wasted my time and caused me a lot of frustration. Letting go of those tasks was a huge relief.

Letting go of the bottom 20% of frustrating tasks is a HUGE win for your life.  And it’s easier to do than figuring out how to optimize the top 10% of your life.

Spend some time this week thinking about your top one or two priorities in each area of your life: your health, family and relationships, career, and community.  More than two will dilute your efforts.  Priorities become meaningless when everything is a priority.

Once you have your list, reflect on other good but not great options you’ve been spending your time on.  How can you let some of these go? What’s the worst that would happen if you dropped some of these obligations?  What would have to happen to open up time and energy for the absolute best options on your list?

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