Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

The most undervalued skill in business

October 29, 2013

From Inside Delta Force:
Eric Haney was a special ops warrior boarding an extraction plane. Once boarded, he had no action to take – so he was trained to sleep. The plane was shot and he awoke amidst a burst of flames with no parachute. He had to make a quick decision – so he lept out of the plane, went into a full skydiving arch, and quickly hit the runway below. The plane had never taken off. Later on his friend joked with him – “If you were at 30K feet with no parachute what the hell were you going to do?” Eric replied briefly: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”

His ability to act decisively saved his life. Eric was demonstrating his command of the most undervalued skill in business – focus. There was a problem that needed to be solved immediately and everything else could wait. This happens to be a cornerstone of special ops training, but it applies to personal and business contexts as well. Below are 4 specific ways that learning to focus will greatly improve your career.

Boost your charisma
Improving your focus directly increases your level of charisma. Think about a strong, charismatic leader you know. Did she check her phone during conversations? Did she write emails while pretending to listen, or nod and say “mm hmm” while her eyes drifted elsewhere? Or was she dialed-in and focused 100% on the conversation? The people who can do the latter exude a much stronger sense of charisma and become more effective leaders.

Solve the most important problems
You have 100 things you could spend your time doing today. Focus enables you to keep your eye on the 3 that will have the biggest impact on your goals – everything else is a distraction. Truly focusing your energy makes the difference between participating and dominating. Before his keynotes, Steve Jobs was famous for spending entire days rehearsing. He was ridiculously busy and had thousands of emails waiting for him. Yet he turned it all off and focused on the single most important thing in front of him…and he delivered.

Conquer the details
Conquering the details is what made the difference between Friendster and Facebook. Anybody can get the idea right, but a maniacal attention to detail paves the way to greatness. You cannot conquer the details unless you minimize distractions as much as humanly possible. First filter out the noise. Then focus on what’s important.

Close things out
Neuroscientists have proven that the human brain is incapable of multi-tasking. Your mind simply performs task-switching. Switching back and forth between tasks is akin to an athlete training without nutrition – lots of input, crappy output. Too many people live their lives like this. Tackling one problem at a time lets you close things out instead of piling them up in your head. It not only generates better outcomes, it lets you enjoy your life more.

My advice is simple: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”

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