John Bittleston, succeed@mediacorp.com.sg

IN THE past fortnight, 15 people have presented me with problems that need only a change of mindset to solve.

The problems themselves have been varied — many to do with career, some with business going wrong in what I call “The Reckless Recession”, a few about relationships that have found the strain of uncertainty tearing them apart and leaving them nowhere to go. One mentee has a unique problem: Too much work brought on by other people losing their jobs.

All these troubles get worse when they are not attended to quickly and forcefully. The killer is uncertainty. Almost any positive action will help to put the problem into perspective. No problem will be solved without one key condition: Focus.

What does it mean? Single-minded, undistracted, concentrated attention to thinking about a problem until you reach a solution.

If it is that simple, why doesn’t everyone do it? Because what is simple to understand is often difficult to implement. So it is with Focus.

The big trap on the road to concentration is distraction. We become very clever at distracting ourselves from the truly important. Have you ever noticed that the person with very little to do is invariably busy whereas the desperately busy person always has time to help? That is because the busy have to think through their priorities. The less busy usually do not, so they pick up and put down task after task, never completing one before going on to the next.

When Sir Paul Chambers was chairman of ICI, then a big company employing about 126,000 people, I had dinner with him and asked him how he managed the vast mail he received every day. He told me that about two-thirds of it was removed by his two competent personal assistants before it got to him. That still left an awful lot of letters. He glanced at each of them, putting them into two piles: Those he thought there was probably an answer to and those he thought were unanswerable. The first pile he put in his “Out” tray.

“If I thought I knew there was an answer,” he said, “someone else would also know the answer. I don’t know what happens to that pile; my secretary takes it away and gives it to those she thinks can deal with it. I am then left with about seven or eight letters — the unanswerable. Since I am chairman, I regard those as my job.”


Focus depends on identifying the most important matter at hand, dealing with it and ignoring any distracting matters. When you see someone drowning you do not start to rewrite the rules for using the swimming pool, you try to rescue them. Similarly, when you are out of work, you do not take a rest and contemplate your naval; you get busy and look for another job.

In businesses with difficulties, I find many small and medium enterprises endlessly discussing their internal systems or relationships when what they need are clients. Trouble is, getting business is hard work while gossiping about your colleagues is fun.

Some of you will know my story of The Tree on the other side of the Field. This applies to many situations beyond just establishing or improving a career. Finding the objective and determinedly aiming for it means focusing, whatever the problem or opportunity being addressed.

For those, like myself, who are easily distracted, a written priority list is a help. I tease myself into dealing with the impossible by promising myself the fun of the easy matters later.

It is a small word, Focus. When applied, it is the most effective tool we have.

John Bittleston mentors people in business, career and their personal lives at www.TerrificMentors.com.

From TODAY, Succeed – Monday, 18-May-2009

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