David’s Leadership Articles

How to Stay Focused on What Matters Most

How do you stay focused when everything feels so important?

“Mark, What’s your M.I.T.?”

Mark pushed back from his desk. “That’s a great question. I’ve so much flying at me…” He sighed. “I don’t have a clue.”

Mark’s calendar might look familiar: wall-to-wall meetings, often with two or three appointments competing for the same window of time.

Management means an unending stream of information, problems to solve, decisions to make, fires to put out, constant interruptions from email, texts, phone calls, messaging apps, and that’s not to mention the projects you want to work on to build a better future.

It can seem like you’ll never get ahead.

The first step to address this overwhelm is to accept the reality that you cannot do everything. I often refer to this as “Infinite need, finite me.” You can’t succeed by doing everything – only by doing what matters most.

Once you’ve made peace with the reality of infinite need, finite me, it’s time to get crystal clear about your M.I.T. or Most Important Thing. In your work, what are the one to three most important strategic objectives you and your team can achieve?

Your ability to Mind the M.I.T. is critical to your success, but what if you don’t know what’s most important?

It’s not always as straightforward as we might hope. In fact, we’ve seen many frontline leaders and middle-level managers in organizations we work with struggle to identify their M.I.T.s.

Five Ways to Stay Focused When Everything Is Important

Here are five ways to stay focused on what’s most important and where you and your team can have the most impact:

1. Ask Your Boss.

When you feel swamped with competing priorities and initiatives, start by asking your supervisor: “What is the most important thing my team can accomplish this year?”

We’ve often sat with befuddled leaders and invited their manager to the conversation. We’ll ask the manager to identify the MITs and they rattle off the top one, two, or three priorities for the next year. They may not have communicated them well, but they knew what they were.

2. Think Two-Levels Above.

If your boss isn’t clear about the MITs, trying thinking up a level. What keeps your boss’s boss awake at night? What are the goals they’ve got to achieve? How does what your team does contribute to these outcomes? You might even try initiating a skip-level meeting in order to align your team with strategic goals. If your boss is amenable, invite them to join you.

3. Ask What Matters Most to Your Customers.

If you can’t get clarity from your managers, the next place to look is at the value you add for your customers. Whether you provide a product or service and whether you do that for external or internal customers, they don’t care about your scorecard. What do they care about? What are the one or two things your customers most need from you? Focus on doing that exceptionally well.

4. Ask What Matters Most to You and Your Team.

If you’re still struggling for clarity, imagine a day six months or a year into the future where you and your team are congratulating one another for having done your very best. What did you achieve? What made you most proud? How do you know you did your very best?

5. Look for the Leverage.

Often, there is one action you can take or one result you can produce that will have a profound effect on everything else. What is that one point of leverage that, if you did it successfully, would change the game for you, your team, and your organization?

Your Turn

When everything’s important, you blunt your impact. When you take time to figure out your one, two, or three strategic M.I.T.s, then relentlessly focus on them every day you’ll energize your team and results can soar.

Today, Mark has his three M.I.T.s written on a whiteboard in his office. He reviews them every day and discusses them with everyone he talks to. The team focuses on the specific behaviors that will help them achieve their M.I.T.s.

Leave us a comment and let us know: When everything feels important, how do you choose what is actually the Most Important Thing?

See Also: Productivity at Work: How to Lead Highly Productive Teams

Leadership Skills: 6 Concepts You Can’t Lead Without

David Dye helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

8 Comments

  1. David Tumbarello

    Where I work, there seems to be a pendulum swinging – from Give Me the Short Term Win to the other Plan for Long Term. The most important thing depends on the message I get in the a.m. … or the p.m. if I see my boss in the evening. This train of thought reminds me of another variable – access to your boss. End of the day is a good time for access (so I can have a discussion about the MIT) but as an empathetic person, I need to be mindful that he needs time and space to clear his desk.
    As a client mentioned at then end of many phone call: “The world will keep spinning and there will be a tomorrow.” This philosophy is great and relieves a bit of stress, but gets us no closer to the MIT!

  2. David Dye

    There is an art to balancing the short-term urgent needs with the longer term achievements. It can help to ask “How does this immediate request compare in priority to achieving the long-term goal?” Sometimes today’s MIT really is taking care of an immediate need, then getting back to the bigger picture.

    Thanks for the contributions and observations!

  3. Ken Downer

    Great points here. I like your second one in particular, and see it as another way of asking, “What’s the vision?” If the vision is clear, applying it to your To-Do list can help shift focus from the urgent short term to the less urgent but ultimately more important longer term tasks.
    Then, of course, progress comes from sticking to that MIT until it is done! Thanks for your insights.

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much, Ken. Yes!!! A strong vision is such an important start… at every level.

  4. Alan Potts

    Nice informative post.

    • David Dye

      Alan, I’m glad to hear this was helpful. Thank you for letting us know!

  5. Bryan Phillips

    In certain circusmtances, the sky is always falling and 18 hour work days seem normal. However, upon waking up the next morning, the sky is still falling. These are some great tips. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to building my whiteboard(virtually) and putting a strategy in place based on this new information.

    • David Dye

      Well said, Bryan – I’m reminded of the scene in Men in Black: “There’s always an arquillan battle cruiser…”

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