Setting Your Primary Focus

At the start of each new year, in lieu of creating a New Year’s resolution, my tradition is to select an area of primary focus for the coming year. Whereas a New Year’s resolution may succeed or fail, the choice of primary focus endures throughout the year. Usually the choice is obvious enough that remembering it is a no-brainer.

How to choose an area of primary focus

To choose your area of primary focus, ask yourself this question: If I were to focus on improving one area of my life this year (health, finances, relationships, etc.), what single area would have the greatest overall impact?

Most of the time, you’ll find one area of your life lagging behind the others. From a purely objective sense, the area may not be horrible, but relative to the other parts of your life, it’s the weakest link. What part of your life do you find most lacking? What’s holding you back? If you could snap your fingers and guarantee a major improvement in one area of your life, what would it be? Would you improve your finances? Fall in love? Get in shape? Overcome an addiction? Transform a relationship? Discover your life purpose?

Here’s a sample list of areas from which you might select your primary focus. Consider this a guide, not a comprehensive list:

  • Work/Career/Business
  • Financial
  • Relationship
  • Home & Family
  • Physical Health
  • Mental/Educational
  • Social/Friends
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Character
  • Contribution
  • Fun & Adventure

For example, if you’re 50 pounds overweight, that’s a serious problem that will negatively affect many parts of your life, including your health, your career, and your relationships. (Don’t try the denial route with me.) Go to the gym, pick up two 25-lb dumbbells, walk around with them, and ask yourself if you really want to carry that burdensome weight 24/7 for another year. If you made physical fitness your #1 priority for the year — and I mean #1 by your actions, not the wishful thinking version — then even if you made little or no progress in every other area of your life, it would make a huge difference, wouldn’t it? You may not lose all the weight, but if you commit to physical fitness as your top priority, you’re certainly going to make more progress than if you don’t. You’ll probably end the year feeling you accomplished something amazing.

To assess which area needs the most work, you can apply the rating process from Podcast #2 – Truth and Awareness. Rate each area on a scale of 1-10 (1 = worst, 10 = best). Then choose from among the areas with the lowest score. Think about where you could be in a year if you made a serious commitment to growth in one of these areas. Make your choice based on the year-end results you want. If you’re worried about the work it will take to get there, realize that’s just your fear talking, and summon the courage to make a conscious choice.

If your life is weak in many areas, where should you begin? There’s a whole article on that topic called Where to Begin Your Path of Personal Growth. Overall if your physical health is one of the areas that’s most lacking, I suggest you Start With the Physical.

You may have been exposed to the idea that you should work from your strengths and not worry about your weaknesses. That rule applies to individual talents and skills. In this case, however, we’re dealing with universal areas of life we all share. You can often circumvent a skill-based weakness, but you can’t easily escape a life area weakness. Lacking musical talent isn’t in the same league as being chronically lonely, overweight, or broke. Don’t fall into the trap of excusing yourself for a life area weakness; these weaknesses must be addressed, or they’ll always hold you back.

Managing your primary focus

Having a primary focus doesn’t mean ignoring every other area of your life. It means that within your area of primary focus, you set your most ambitious goals and intentions, and you devote significant time, energy, and resources to achieve them. In all other areas of your life, you’ll set more modest goals. And in some areas, you may just want to maintain the status quo. This is a resource allocation process. You’re transferring some of the slack from areas that are doing OK in order to rebalance the worst-performing area.

Since your time and resources are limited, it’s unrealistic to make significant progress in a certain area without a clear focus. You have to let some areas slide a bit in order to make a real dent in your growth. Think of this as intelligent slacking. These sacrifices can be tough to make, but looking back on your life with regret is a lot harder.

The main resource you’ll be committing to your primary focus is time. Whenever you change your primary focus, you must shift time from other areas to invest more time in this key area. This could mean working 60 hours a week instead of 40. It could mean exercising 10 hours a week instead of 0. It could mean meditating daily instead of just occasionally. That time has to come from somewhere, so whenever you make one area your priority, you automatically downgrade the other areas into posteriorities.

Keep in mind that having a primary focus is a temporary situation. Your primary focus for the upcoming year may not be the most important part of your life. In fact, it probably won’t be. In order to make an intelligent choice here, you have to consider the long-term impact of your decision. For example, you might be a very family oriented person who selects physical fitness as your primary focus for the year because you want more health and energy to devote to your family, you want to be there for them as you age gracefully, and you want to serve as a positive role model for your children.

A personal example: focusing on finances for one year

At the end of 2005, I decided to set improving my finances as my primary focus for 2006. This meant working hard to grow’s income, experimenting with new revenue sources, optimizing the website’s revenue streams, hiring a new accountant, forming an LLC, improving my financial education, and lots more. I set goals in other areas, but they were fairly modest compared to my financial goals.

While there were many reasons for focusing on financial growth in 2006, the #1 reason is that one of my long-term goals is to transform this business from a solo operation into a team effort. I felt that working hard to boost my income would give me the most flexibility and put me in the best position to begin building a staff in 2007 and 2008. In my opinion this was the area where significant growth would have the biggest long-term positive impact.

What about the results? At the end of 2005, was generating $2-3K/month in income. A year later it’s now generating $30-40K/month. The income will probably fluctuate a lot in 2007 as I make further changes to the business model next year, but it’s solidly in the five figures per month range, and the expenses are still minimal.

These results are unusually good — in prior years I haven’t seen such a dramatic improvement in my area of primary focus. I’d say the main reason for the highly positive results this year is that I finally learned to integrate the intention-manifestation concept with more traditional goal-setting and planning. I gave as much consideration to my thoughts as I did my actions. Sometimes I’d sit at my desk and physically work, while other times I’d lie on the couch and creatively visualize the results I wanted. I believe both practices worked synergistically. Direct action seemed to produce steady incremental gains, while the quantum leaps resulted from new opportunities and synchronicities that came to me (and which I must reasonably credit to the Law of Attraction). Personally I don’t care whether you’re inclined to attribute these results to hard work, the Law of Attraction, or dumb luck. The initial catalyst was still the singular decision to commit to growth in this area.

Think of your primary focus as Overwhelming Force stretched across a whole year. You’re not going to work yourself to death for 365 days in a row. Maintain an even pace, and pay attention to all areas of your life, but be perfectly clear about your #1 area of focus. Sometimes you may go a whole week without doing anything in this area, but throughout the year you’ll keep coming back to it.

Reaping the rewards

How do you feel about the past year? I’ll bet that if you set a clear primary focus and stuck with it, you’re feeling pretty darned good about your progress. You’ll look back on the year with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. You may not have achieved all your goals, but you’ve certainly made a big dent in an area that was screaming for growth.

On the other hand, if you never selected a primary focus and just winged it for the whole year, it’s more likely you’re wondering where all the time went. Since you didn’t consciously set your focus, it means someone else set it for you — most likely you ended up serving the unfocused social context of advertisers, your employer, your friends, etc. You may have gotten a lot done, but you probably spent too much time in a circular rat race instead of generating the kind of forward impact you really desired.

In addition to the emotional and psychological benefits of a primary focus (i.e. self-esteem and self-actualization), a year with a strong focus can produce substantial practical benefits as well. Quitting smoking, getting out of debt, or losing 50 pounds are major accomplishments with long-term positive repercussions.

Our lives aren’t compartmentalized, so an improvement in one area can drive improvements in other areas. For example, a major income boost can pay for a gym membership, a personal trainer, a reliable vehicle, a quality education for yourself or your children, vacations and entertainment, a wedding, a cleaning service, donations to your favorite charity, the expansion of your life purpose, employees for your business, and free time to ponder the meaning of life. You’ll experience similar rippling effects by making major improvements to your health, your relationships, your spiritual beliefs, etc.

While minor gains here and there certainly help, sometimes small improvements across too many areas aren’t maintained. It’s too easy to backslide. You lose five pounds and gain back seven. You get a new job and discover it’s a dead end. You enter a new relationship and later feel trapped. When you make a major breakthrough in one area, a little backslide won’t hurt much. If you lose 50 pounds, it won’t kill you to gain a few back. If you double your income, a minor financial setback won’t force you into debt. If you fall in love and get married this year, a falling out with one of your friends doesn’t seem so bad. One really big success can compensate for a lot of minor setbacks.

Be flexible but don’t give up

It’s OK to change your primary focus mid-year if there’s a compelling reason for doing so. But barring a major change like being diagnosed with cancer, you’ll probably want to maintain your focus for at least four solid quarters. Sometimes I’ve even kept the same focus for two years in a row, but I usually avoid that because I prefer the variety of changing each year. A solid year may seem like an eternity, especially when you’re young, but some problems require this level of focus to effect a genuine turnaround. Examples include being morbidly obese, being deep in debt, or being on the verge of divorce. It’s hard to make a serious dent in such problems without a long-term commitment. Even when you feel your life is relatively good in most areas, it takes a lot of focus to break through to a new level of achievement.

What about balance? Rather than unbalancing your life, choosing a primary focus is a rebalancing act. You’re taking an area that’s lagging behind the others and bringing it up to speed. Your goal is to correct imbalances, not create them.

Don’t abandon your primary focus just because it seems too hard. If it’s your worst-performing area, it probably will be hard. You won’t make things any easier by putting an underperforming area on the back burner. All that does is dump you into a state of denial, and the problem will persist year after year. Don’t wuss out just because you encounter a challenge. Keep your primary focus in the forefront of your consciousness without letting yourself off the hook when the going gets tough. Focus your thoughts on where you want to go, and push yourself to make progress in this area first and foremost.

For added flexibility you may want to select a secondary focus, tertiary focus, etc. Sometimes I do this; sometimes I don’t. It depends on the magnitude of the difference between my top three choices. If they’re really close, I’ll add a secondary and perhaps a tertiary choice. But if there’s one area that’s clearly lagging behind the others, I’ll stick with a single focus for the year and try to transform that relative weakness into a strength.

Remember that you’re still free to work on other goals outside your primary focus. It’s up to you to decide what kind of investment your primary focus warrants and how you’ll maintain balance with the other areas of your life. Just be aware that sometimes the best way to ensure long-term balance is to pass through a short-term imbalance.

Share it

Once you’ve chosen your primary focus, share it with someone, if for no other reason than to put yourself on record. If you’re a blogger, I highly encourage you to blog about it. Let your visitors know where you’re headed. By making a public record of your primary focus for the upcoming year, you make yourself accountable to your audience. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to share your decision in the forums on this site. And if you really want to be bold, add your primary focus to your email signature, like “By the end of this year, I will weigh XXX pounds.” Then you’ll renew your commitment whenever you send an email.

If you’re in a committed relationship, it’s important for you and your partner to select congruent focuses. For example, if money is tight, you might focus on career advancement while your partner tackles budgeting and debt reduction. As the financial tensions are reduced, the next year you might both focus on personal goals like physical fitness or emotional intimacy.

For 2007 my primary focus will be to overhaul the way I’ve structured my life and business, transforming what has largely been a solo effort into a team effort. If I were to summarize it with a single word, I’d have to say “teamwork.” 2005 and 2006 have yielded so much growth that I couldn’t handle another year of the same without significant changes. I have to lighten my plate and begin relying on others more, both professionally and personally. I have no doubt this will be a major growth experience for me.

In addition to sharing your primary focus, you can also share your experience and results. Pass along your knowledge to help someone else lose the weight, overcome the addiction, or find true love. Life isn’t a zero-sum game. Whatever you achieve for yourself becomes an opportunity to help others.

What will be your area of primary focus for the new year?