A reader of this column sent me an e-mail recently, thanking me for a column I had written on getting outside the box. She then told me how she had lost focus for a while, but had turned things around. She encouraged me to write a column on staying focused.
I immediately thought of my varsity golfing days at the University of Minnesota many years ago. Back then The Saint Paul Open was one of the top tournaments on the men’s professional golf circuit.
Prior to the tournament, I had a chance to meet Gary Player when he was taking a lesson from our team coach, Les Bolstad. Later that evening I went to dinner with the world’s future No. 1 player when he was still an unknown.
The following day at The Saint Paul Open, I saw Gary after he teed off at the first hole and ran up to him to say hi. I wanted to tell him what a great time I had the night before.
His steely eyes remained focused on the fairway ahead and he never broke stride.
“Harvey, please don’t talk to me. I must concentrate. I will see you when I’m finished.”
I remember how devastated I felt, but I learned a valuable lesson on focus. Many years later when he was world famous, my wife, Carol Ann, and I ran into Gary and his wife in South Africa. I reintroduced myself and reminded him of what happened on the golf course.
Gary’s wife told me, “Don’t feel bad. He doesn’t even talk to me on the golf course.”
That’s the focus that it takes to do your best. If you have the ability to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else, you can accomplish amazing things.
Arnold Palmer, another golfing legend, recalled a tough lesson he learned about focus in Carol Mann’s book “The 19th Hole” (Bantam, 1998):
“It was the final hole of the 1961 Masters tournament, and I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I took his hand and shook it, but as soon as I did, I knew I had lost my focus. On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trap, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters. You don’t forget a mistake like that; you just learn from it and become determined that you will never do that again.”
Trust me, your friends will understand.
A response Babe Ruth once gave to a reporter sticks in my mind.
“How is it,” the Babe was asked, “that you always come through in the clutch? How is it that you can come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, in a key game with the score tied, with thousands of fans screaming in the stadium, with millions listening on the radio, the entire game on the line and deliver the game-winning hit?”
His answer: “I don’t know. I just keep my eye on the ball.”
In other words … focus.
How many times have you heard an athlete talk about focus? It’s a topic I also hear about frequently in business. The most common complaints? Too many irons in the fire.
Too many projects spinning at one time. Too many interruptions. Too many phone calls. Too many e-mails. Too many things to do. Too little time.
The late Peter Drucker, management consultant and author, observed: “When you have 186 objectives, nothing gets done. I always ask, ‘What’s the one thing you want to do?’ In Mexico they call me Señor Una Cosa” (translation: Mr. One Thing).
Decide what’s most important. Make a list every day or every week and prioritize your activities. Scale back the amount of time you spend on meetings; they can be the biggest time-wasters of all. Learn to delegate, and make sure all members of your team follow through on assigned tasks. Set aside a specific time of day to return phone calls and e-mails, and keep distractions to a minimum. In other words, set rules about how others use your time. And if you’re not the boss, work with your supervisor to make sure you agree on priorities.
Stay focused as best you can, and don’t let things happen to you – not when you can make things happen.
Mackay’s Moral: The person who is everywhere is nowhere.
Harvey Mackay is author of The New York Times best seller “Pushing the Envelope.” He can be reached through his Web site, www.mackay.com; or at Mackay Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St., Minneapolis, MN 55414.