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3 As over 5 Bs

John Nicholas
John Nicholas
4 min read
3 As over 5 Bs

We are all given a fixed amount of time per day. How we apply our focus determines our output.

Similar to getting better returns on an investment (ROI), we can also gain from using our attention wisely, increasing our Return on Focus (ROF).

You don’t need more time

When I feel all over the place, I return to this quote by Shane Parrish, the founder of Farnam Street Media:

You don't need more time, you need more focus. Fewer projects. Fewer commitments. Fewer obligations. Fewer responsibilities. Carefully choose what you commit to, then go all in.

Not having enough time is often an excuse for lacking focus. I am the patron saint of “taking on too much”. I like to please everyone. I like to say “yes”. But this often means I am stretched and my attention gets scattered.

If I keep this up for too long, I drop some balls. I end up forgetting important birthdays or deadlines. I end up neglecting the people that are important in my life. Recently I even forgot my passport when I flew back home to South Africa to visit my family. Face palm moment! I can laugh about it now, but it was an expensive lesson – costing both time and money and wounding my ego.

Moments like these provide a good wake-up call. It’s time to go back to the basics.

Here are three loosely connected frameworks I use to improve my Return on Focus:

  1. The Non-Negotiables
  2. Get 3 As instead of getting 5 Bs
  3. Ask “Is this Necessary?”

1. The Non-Negotiables

Only some things really matter.

I picked up this valuable lesson when I was in primary school.

At the time, I was really into swimming, but I struggled to perform on race day. After a couple of disappointments at galas, I went to see a sports psychologist. In addition to the great lessons on resilience (which I wrote about before), he taught me about the non-negotiables.

He asked me to write down the things that were the most important in my life. The things that really mattered. The components that I wanted to build into every day.

I was still a kid so I can’t remember exactly what I wrote down. I just know my first list was super long… family, friends, popularity (!), swimming, cricket, golf, school grades, games, sleep and so on.

He then asked me how much time I would allocate to each item. After we did the math, it was clear that I needed way more than 24 hours to get around to everything... The penny dropped. I was taking on too much. Everything seemed important to me. I wanted to give my all on multiple fronts. No wonder I was feeling anxious – I was trying the impossible.

So I gave the list another go. And another go. Whittling it down each time. Eventually I got to a place where I had a smaller list of non-negotiables. A list I could manage.

By reducing my scope, I could focus on what mattered. This helped me feel less overwhelmed. Resulting in a happier swimmer (and person) at the end of the day.

2. Get 3 As instead of getting 5 Bs

We can do anything, but we can’t do everything.

Actor and producer, Matthew McConaughey uses a variation of the non-negotiables framework to improve focus in his own life.

In his book Greenlights, McConaughey describes himself as an “over-leverager”. He knows he can outwork people. He believes he has the staying power and resilience to outlast anyone. But this apparent strength was also a weakness. He was spreading himself too thin.

One day he realized he had to cut down.

His phone rang. It was a number from his office. In the split second that he reached for his phone, his hand paused. He asked himself: “why did I hesitate?” Deep down he realized he didn’t want to answer the call.

At the time he had a production company, a music label and a foundation. He was also a full-time actor and a family man. He felt stretched and overworked. As he says:

"I was making B’s in 5 things. I want to make A's in three things."

He responded to the signal and listened to his intuition. Then and there he called his lawyer and told him to shut down his music label and production company.

From then on, he focused on being a full-time actor, a family man and running his foundation. The 3 As.

3. Ask “Is this Necessary?”

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, had one simple rule to filter through the noise:

Ask yourself at every moment, 'Is this necessary?’

Asking this question has a double benefit.

First, many things are not essential and therefore you no longer have to do them. This leaves only the things that really matter - the Non-Negotiables.

In addition, you can do the remaining things better by going all in. By saying no to most things and saying yes to the best things, you can get 3 As instead of getting 5 Bs, maximizing your Return on focus.

Bonus! Asking this question might help me remember my passport for my next trip.

Compounding Focus

The interesting thing about McConaughey’s “3 As” is that they all support each other. One thing feeds the next. Being a good actor allows him to provide for his family. Having a supportive family allows him to do his best work and provide guidance to his charity.

The same is true for my list of non-negotiables. Doing the exercise again now, my list is very short:

  1. My health (relationships, physical, mental)
  2. My career
  3. My writing

My non-negotiables are all connected. One thing supports the other. My health helps me to perform well in my career. My career gives me time and money to support my well-being and writing. My writing helps me reflect (mental health) and makes me perform better at my job.

When you focus on the most important things, you can get a better Return on Focus. In addition, when these things support each other, you can benefit from an upward sprial of compounding effects.

Albert Einstein once said:

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn't, pays it.”

To borrow from the great physicist, we could say:

“Compound focus is the ninth wonder of the world. He who understands it, gets more done; he who doesn't, gets overwhelmed.”

Thanks to Jess Schanz, Tobi Emonts-Holley, Katherine Mora, Karena de Souza, Natasha Tynes, Laila Faisal and Steven Klimek for reading drafts of this essay.


John Nicholas Twitter

Actuary and creator.

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