On Focus

Focus is hard for me.

I don’t mean focusing on one thing at a time in the moment. Rather, I’m bad at focusing on one project at a time. I’ve stretched myself too thin for as long as I can remember by happily starting new projects in a moment of excitement, only to find those projects become a mental burden. I’m an excellent starter, and a terrible finisher.

One data point to illustrate: This website has 38 partially drafted blog posts saved, dating back to  2012.

Another: At this moment I have five different personal projects in progress where I’ve actively invested time in the past six months, none of them near completion.

Never let me volunteer to videotape your wedding. I’m ashamed to admit that over a decade ago I shot two weddings for friends who are still waiting for me to finish in post production. That’s ridiculous! I’m a monster!

For most of Rocket Lift’s history, I’ve let my lack of focus affect the company as well. It’s been a major problem.

Websites? Yes, that’s “what we do”.

You need video production? Hey, we do that too!

Reinventing shared hosting? We have pages and pages of documentation on our thoughts and plans for how to build a better system than exists, because obviously we were the best people to tackle that.

Sustainable food startup ventures? That’s my enduring passion in life so we spun our wheels in that direction a lot, too.

You need someone to turn around your startup’s website that’s going south? How can we help!

Naturally we sucked at all of it. I mean, we were decent at some of it, but we hadn’t set ourselves up for greatness, nor doing even the basically good work we were capable of.

We had high switching costs, jumping from one service to another. There were too many skills to keep up to date with and we did worse at that than we admitted to ourselves. We were never able to benefit from systematizing sales processes (or any processes), because it was different for each service. For too long, we lived with the mediocrity that came from my compulsion to try doing everything at once.

Way back in 2012, we had a team meeting where we debated the merits of everything we did, asking what we could cut in order to go deeper into whatever remained. I don’t recall exactly how many things we considered, but it must have been at least a dozen or more. It was far from a natural process for me — it was painful — but we were able to whittle it down significantly to around 3 or 4 I think, and I recall feeling a lot of self-congratulation over that. Ha!

It was desperation that brought us to that point. There was always too much stress, never enough money. It was awkward whenever someone asked what we did and it took us five minutes to answer.

I also grew tired of being in an industry where plenty of our peers were doing amazing things, serving enviable clients, living quite comfortably, and preaching an abundance mentality — while we struggled.

At that point, I was fed up with the consequences of my own denial, and admitting that we had a problem was easy. Yes, we had a problem.

And actually it was me. I had the problem.

I have the problem.

Rationally, I know that trying to do everything simultaneously is impossible. Obviously. But my tendency to take everything on has been a lifelong character flaw — my Achilles heel.  It’s like a kind of insanity I’ve been unable to shake.

Looking back over the years, I recognize several moments where I thought I was focusing, but really I was just ratcheting in my expectations for what was a reasonable number of foci. (‘Foci’ is a plural of focus. Or course I know this.)

That meeting in 2012 was one of many. Each time, it was painful to let go of things, so we only let go of one or two, instead of letting go of all but one as we should have. It would have been easier in the long run to rip the bandaid off all at once, and truly focus on One Thing. But I didn’t.

Where does this come from?

Well, there’s fear of commitment. This was justified to some extent. New business has rarely come easily for Rocket Lift, so I wanted to keep our options open, to do whatever sort of work came along. But I didn’t see this for what it was, a self-reinforcing cycle: Lack of opportunity, led to lack of focus, led to lack of quality, led to lack of opportunity. I didn’t trust to the magic of abundance mentality.

Also, being overwhelmed has (bizarrely) been my comfort zone, and being focused is outside of that zone. Being overwhelmed is what I know, and so there’s something scary to me about feeling I have a sustainable work load.

But, focus is a discipline I didn’t have. No discipline is joyful. Focusing is painful. That’s actually a paraphrase of Hebrews 12:11, a passage I have so cherished that I’ve internalized it over the last 15 years, and had to look up to remind myself where it came from. Here’s the thing, though: I completely missed the point of it until recently. I used to think that my experience with focus being painful was something I experienced especially, like that was a particular part of my own personality. I imagined that focus was easier for other people, that somehow its difficulty for me meant that I could be excused from it and from the truth that I have only one life to live, with scarce time and resources to use. It excused me from the discipline of focus.

That leads me to conclude that the root of this problem has simply been a lack of maturity, which I struggle with even today. I’ve lived in denial of the basic fact of adult life that you can only do so much as one person, or even as one group of people. That’s true for you, and that’s true for me.

So note to self: Knock it off.

 

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