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How To Focus: My Framework For Avoiding Distractions & Getting Things Done

focus dictionary index page

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found focus a challenge. I suppose it’s one of the symptoms of being a bit of a big kid.

It’s a big wide world out there and there’s so much to learn and do. Of course, as I’ve got older, I’ve realised (sometimes more slowly than I’d like) that any worthwhile goal requires considerable commitment if it is to be achieved. As such, it came to my attention (briefly 🙂 ) that the ability to focus would be incredibly important if I was ever going to create anything really good. So here’s the framework I’ve developed over the years to try and stay on track.

Accept That There Will Never Be Enough Time

There is never going to be enough time for everything. If you haven’t got there yet, at some point in your thirties, you will probably realise that life is incredibly short. There’s never going to be enough time to do everything you want to do. There are at least two reasons why this is.

First, there is simply too much I’d like to do. Because of the Internet we’re all aware of a lot more of what the world has to offer than we ever used to be. Which means it doesn’t take long to populate a list of things we’d like to do.

And second, I don’t even have full control over all the time that I do have. (My wife does! HAHA!) No, but seriously – a good fraction of my time will be spent sleeping, hanging out with my wife, attending to life etc.

So as you realise that the demands on time are far too high, and the actual amount of available time is very small, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s important to be really careful what you do with your time.

Reduce Your Goal List

Following from that stark realisation, it becomes important to reduce the goal list down to things that really matter. I’ve found that I can do this with a couple of incredibly reductive questions.

For any given goal, I ask myself:

Fast-forward fifty years – if you never did it, how bad do you feel about that?

This question has magic powers. For some goals, I’ll get a stab of anxiety in my chest. That’s typically a sign there there’s something about this goal I need to pursue. It is somehow connected to my reason for being.

And on the other hand, there are other goals where I feel nothing. Those are things I probably just like the idea of but are not really that necessary to me.

You spend 5 years trying to reach this goal and failed – how do you feel?

The rationale here is to establish whether a failed attempt at achieving the goal is wasted time. I’ve spoken to a surprisingly large number of people who say they have a dream but won’t try to get it because “What if I spend years trying and don’t get it?”

Any sort of attempt to achieve any type of goal in any part of life must come with an accepted degree of speculation. It is always a gamble. You put in time, money and effort (and most often, blood, sweat and tears), and no matter how hard you try, there are going to be some things that just aren’t to be.

If your response to failure is going to be, “Well I could have been doing something else!!” then the goal was probably never for you in the first place.

There are things I have done that I wouldn’t particularly categorise as successes, but I’m still very glad I did them. I’ve learned valuable skills and lessons along the way. And I know as fact, that if I hadn’t tried, I’d still be wondering “What if?”

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I have found these two questions to be incredibly effective at helping me realise what is important to me: the things I’ll be proud I did, even if I fail.

Make Time For Important Things

Now that I know what’s important to me, I need to make time for those things. Time management tools like Calynda (still in beta at time of writing) are very important for this.

I think we all know on some level that we need to make time for the things we want in our lives. Whenever I’m in conversation with anybody and they tell me they “don’t have time” for this, that or the other, I instantly translate it to “that is not important to me”, because if it was, they’d make time.

Know Why Each Thing Is Important

Ask yourself why things are important. The answer to this can be deep. But knowing why something is important to you helps you to prioritise goals during hard times. If time isn’t short enough as it is, there are going to be times when it’s even shorter. And the shorter time gets, the more important it becomes to spend it wisely.

So for example, if you experience cash flow issues, business goals are likely to take priority over leisure goals. Because at that time, money is what is required most urgently.

If you’re burning out from work, leisure goals need to take priority.

What if you experience cash flow issues and are burnt out? God help you. That’s a tough situation.

Ask The Final Question

When planning days and weeks, there is one question that always saves me when I don’t know what to do.

What is the single most impactful thing I could do now that would bring me closer to my goal?

Regardless of the goal or the area of life, this question helps is my ultimate focus tool. I can – or should – only do one thing at a time. So what should it be?

Naturally, you can alter the question to suit your time period, by replacing ‘now’ with ‘today’ or ‘this week’ or ‘this month’.


Entrepreneurship: Do you REALLY need to find your passion?

Do Something Great neon sign

I’m about to put across a controversial and probably unpopular viewpoint.

I surf the same Internet as everybody else. And there are few ideas more actively embraced on the Internet than the idea that passion is the most important ingredient in any entrepreneurial venture.

First of all, it depends what one means by passion. And definitions may differ. But I think we can all agree it has something to do with liking the thing that we’re doing. We could go even bigger and say that it has to do with being part of an industry that we feel is important and a force for good in the world.

I had a mentor a number of years ago who defined passion as something that feeds your soul. It’s something you have an almost spiritual relationship with. It most certainly is not just something you do for money.

For example, am I, as the owner and manager of a digital marketing agency, passionate about web development and marketing? I’d say yes, I am. However there are other things I’m passionate about too. So why is it that I’m running a digital agency instead of pursuing one of my other passions?

Because I have come to believe that there is one element of any entrepreneurial venture that is considerably more important and deterministic of success than whether you’re passionate about the industry or field.

There is one factor that must be considered that will make or break a business venture and no amount of passion can compensate for a lack of this thing.

Do you know what it is?

There has to be a market for what you’re selling. That is non-negotiable. What do I mean by “a market”? There has to be demand. There have to be thousands and thousands of people – with money – who are willing to pay for whatever products or services you are offering.

If I can elaborate on that slightly and qualify it further, if you’re a solo entrepreneur and you’re looking to start your first business, the mere existence of a market may not be enough. Let’s look at 3 situations.

Passion + No Market = Fail

You could tattoo “I love hairdressing” across your forehead. But if you happen to live in a community of bald people, it isn’t going to make any difference. There isn’t going to be any hair to cut.

Do not overlook this. Do not be seduced into believing that you can make any business venture succeed if you are prepared to work hard enough on it. The Internet is brimming with so-called gurus who want you to believe that so that you’ll buy their ‘How To Start A Business’ courses.

Hard work is very important, but if there isn’t a considerable demand for what you’re selling, you won’t sell much of it. And that has nothing directly to do with your skills, traits or character.

Passion + Mature Market = Fail

The other common situation is when there clearly is a market but it’s already well serviced by very well established competitors.

Once upon a time, I tried to start an entertainment blog because I’ve always been interested in movies and TV. Guess what? It didn’t work. It’s a huge market. But it’s quite well services by several huge and very well established (and very deep pocketed) competitors. Plus, the work load was enormous and impractical for a single entrepreneur.

Passion + New and/or Growing Market = Potential Win

Companies like Google and Amazon started out in new markets that were forecasted to grow.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, was working on Wall Street in the early 90s when he read an analyst report that said internet use had increased 2300% in the last 12 months. It was enough to make him quit his job at the hedge fund and move his family across the country to California to start a little company called Amazon.

Amazon’s growth has since largely mirrored the increase in Internet use throughout America and across the world.

Passion + Dynamic Market = Potential Win

If your market is growing, or constantly turning over, this ensures a few things: there will always be new clients. The ultimate need is unquenchable. For example, estate agents.

On average, British citizens move house 8 times over the course of their lives. That equates to roughly once every 10 years.

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I made the decision to start a digital agency because the demand for web design and development, for PR services, for SEO and copywriting is huge. These are also all fields that I’ve got considerable experience of.

Notice – there is no set of circumstances where the win is guaranteed.


Who’s The Daddy?

person touching stomach

So, big news! I’m going to be a father! Yes, me and the wife have been busy collaborating on a new project. I suppose that’s what happens during 18 months in lockdown. What else was there to do? You know what I mean? How much TV can a man watch?

But all joking aside, it’s an odd thing to imagine that right now, inside my wife, there is a little human growing! A human that will, around December, be part of this world. A human whom my wife and I – who feel like we’re still children ourselves(!) – will be fully responsible for. A human whose life we will shape. And a human who in about 13-15 years will stink and tell us they hate us.

I know that I’ve been somewhat of a late bloomer at most of this ‘life’ stuff and many of my contemporaries at school and university went through this years ago, but it’s absolutely terrifying and yet I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a very strange feeling to explain and either the English language, or my command of it, are failing me.

The closest word I can think of to describe how I feel about it is…. honoured.

Excitement feels quite shallow. We get excited about going to a concert or Line of Duty. This feeling is deeper and somehow transcendent, bordering on spiritual.

We already know it’s going to be a boy. And we’ve already named him. I tell you – you know you’re a nerd when choosing baby names requires GoDaddy to see if the domain name is available.

So that’s my big news. My wife is pregnant. Which means I’m in trouble for everything now.

I’ll have absolutely no idea what on Earth I’ve done wrong. And even if I’m lucky enough to get that information from her, there will be no explanation at all for why it was so offensive.

Random example – She declared Jihad on a blue glass. No reason given. She just didn’t like it. And I mean really REALLY REALLY didn’t like it. It had to be banished to a cupboard where it remains to this day.

But you know what – I know it’s not her fault. I know that it’s all hormones. And to be honest, having witnessed the first trimester of pregnancy first hand, I have to say, I don’t think maternity leave is long enough. I think it should start much earlier. How does anybody effectively work a job while going through all of that? I think it’s asking a lot.

There seems to be a modern way of saying “we” are pregnant rather than “my wife is pregnant”. And since the Internet seems to get its knickers in a twist on a regular basis about semantics, I’m going to say that I think “we are pregnant” is not very fair. Why should I get credit for something my wife is doing? Yes, I’ve done more housework in the past few months than ever before in my life and modern parenting is definitely a group activity, but “we are pregnant” just doesn’t seem fair to me. House work is a small price to pay for a son.

So here’s a public thank you to my wife and incubator, and just to say you’ve done a great job so far. We’re on the home straight!


How Do You Stay Connected As a Tech Head?

black laptop computer turned on on table

Since retraining and becoming a full time software developer, I have noticed changes both in myself and in those around me.

One of the things I love the most about being a developer, other than it being a sweet spot where art and engineering regularly cross paths, is that there is a little victory in some form or other, almost every day. Every day, something exists by the evening that didn’t exist in the morning. And I love that.

But one of the negative things I’ve noticed is my ability to connect with those around me – who are not in tech – has dwindled. Like my wife.

When my wife asks the seemingly innocuous question, “How was work today?” she is not equipped for, or for that matter expecting, a long explanation finely detailing why a function won’t work. She doesn’t deal well with abstract concepts. And software is very abstract.

What makes it worse is when I’m working on a very niche project, like, right now, SEO software, which will form a big part of the Smart & Slick back end when we begin offering SEO services hopefully in the near future.

This not only requires an understanding of software development but also a deep understanding of what SEO is and how it works. So naturally, the distance between me and her… (and everybody else) gets even bigger.

And when somebody, perhaps to be polite, says I should try and explain it, they are not prepared for the ensuing 30 minute lecture that begins by explaining, in crude terms, how a search engine works.

I have now taken to simply referring to it as ‘nerdy stuff’. Which, in essence, is another way of saying that we just don’t talk about it. Because we can’t. And in some ways that’s a problem because coding is currently a pretty big part of my life.

I’m interested to know how others connect with their friends and family about work?


The Morning Ritual That Makes Me More Productive

trees under cloudy sky during sunset

Over the years I’ve tried a number of approaches to mornings to try and be more productive. I’ve tried getting up at the crack of dawn. Having green tea. Not having green tea. Exercise. Skinny dipping. Everything. Most of it did little more than make me feel like a prat. And worse, a tired prat.

But after much experimentation, I’ve finally cracked it. I’ve figured out a morning ritual that actually works!

It’s called sleep! That’s right. To hell with waking up earlier and trying to start every morning with a workout, a smoothie and a smug and braggy social media status.

Like you, I have been shamed by the dozens of articles online that tell us that all successful people get up at the crack of dawn and do more before 9am than most will do all day. Screw ’em. It doesn’t work.

When I pull myself out of my lovely warm bed at 5:30am, it guarantees one thing: by 4pm I’ll be so tired I’m barely able to support my own head. So I haven’t actually lengthened the day. It just starts earlier and then finishes earlier. How does that help anybody be more productive?

In much the same vein as Rihanna records and lactose, me and mornings just don’t get on. We never have. And, by my age, I don’t expect we ever will. So it doesn’t make sense to continue pursuing a strategy that yields so little in terms of results. Whether it works for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos is of little relevance if it simply will not work for me.

So unless I have an appointment, I rarely rise before 10:30. That way, when I do get up, my brain is online and working. And when I sit down at my desk, tasks tend to get done very quickly. And I often work long beyond 6pm. I also regularly put hours in on Saturdays and Sundays.

And that’s my method. And it works. But not every day. Because some days, let’s be honest, it’s just not happening. Some days, for whatever reason – I’m not in flow state or whatever – work is a drag, even if the project is fun. And on those days, if there are no deadlines looming, I give myself permission to finish early because it doesn’t make sense to keep pushing at a task when it’s not coming easy, if completion is not imminently vital.

This means that some days are short and some days are very long. But I’ll bet that the overall rate of progress in a week is roughly the same as it would be if I forced myself to work 8 full hours, 5 days a week.

And this approach is in line with the Smart & Slick philosophy: Do what works. Do what gets results. Play to your own strengths and rhythms. And realise that what works for one person or client, might not be the best approach for another. There isn’t always a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem.

Whatever your current challenge, do what works for you.


First Thoughts: Netflix’s New ‘Play Something’ Feature

black flat screen tv turned on displaying 11

Everybody knows it. The biggest problem with Netflix is that you go on there to watch something but find yourself scrolling for 20+ minutes deliberating over exactly what to watch before eventually either turning it off, or taking the plunge with something you’re not particularly convinced of.

As somebody who would like to one day start a streaming service (or at least work for one), there is a page in one of my notebooks titled ‘Problems with Netflix’. This was naturally top of the list. Though, there are others.

Netflix’s currently proposed solution is the ‘Play Something’ button which is similar to Google’s ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button. It just plays something.

When I first saw it yesterday evening, the wife and I tried it.

We have a Samsung Smart TV with a Netflix button on the remote. When we turn on the TV, it streams ‘normal telly’, which sometimes wins over any deliberate streaming.

For people in their 30s, we grew up with a very different TV experience to the current offering. You could just switch it on and watch whatever is coming, from whatever point it had reached at the point when you switched it on. Some of my best ever viewing experiences weirdly happened this way.

The On Demand generation will never know the feeling of turning something on at ‘a good bit’ and watching whatever is left of a movie or TV show secretly wishing we were able to see it from the beginning.

What has this trip down memory lane got to do with Netflix and the Play Something feature? Well… I assume they’re trying to morph into something that’s closer to traditional television than the infinite menu of options they currently present.

And I think that probably means NOT playing shows from the very beginning.

They want to start at the first ‘good bit’. Being Netflix, I’m sure they’re drowning in data that can tell them where the first good bit is.

I think it comes down to emotional state.

When I find myself endlessly scrolling, I suspect it’s because a thumbnail poster and a title are not enough information to get me to make a decision. The graphics and title cannot make me a promise that I believe in. And trailers are advertising and I’m sick of being advertised to. This, incidentally, is another thing I HATE about Netflix – it just plays trailers at you if you stop scrolling for longer than a second.

Will this feature take off? I personally don’t think so. As far as I can see, Netflix’s biggest problem is too much choice. And most of it is rubbish. Surprisingly, in all the years since it became popular, I’m surprised at how seemingly little Netflix has done to target content to people. Amazon, I’m pretty sure, had this down in their ecommerce store by this point.