Omar felt frustrated and confused. The global vice president of product engineering at an
international tech firm, needed help. Facing the prospect of implementing some major changes
in his organization, he had called me in to coach him through the process. He laid out his two
big objectives for the year: transforming his organization into cross product solution experts and
breaking down the silos between product lines and sales.
Stuck in Current Pain
How, I asked, did he hope to accomplish these huge initiatives? It was clear, after all, that he
was already working exhausting hours and felt he barely had the time to keep his head above
water on his current projects.
As the global VP anxiously outlined various current projects and the workload involved, I
interrupted him. I immediately recognized that he was fixated on his current situation and the
pain that was creating, rather than focusing on more important future goals. It’s a common
problem and the reason many of us feel professionally bogged down. Mentally, Omar was stuck
in his current pain.
“Let’s switch gears and focus on what really matters to you,” I said, challenging Omar to
consider the big picture. I knew that my impact as a coach would be far greater if I could help
Omar succeed in the future, and not just the immediate present.
“Being truly productive requires that you work out your priorities,” I explained.
“Attending meetings and checking off your task list is just busy!
Then I challenged Omar with some big-picture dilemmas.
Who does he want to be?
What big problem does he want to solve?
When does he want to see tangible outcomes?
Where does he see the biggest opportunity?
How does he want things to look in a year?
His answers to the “bigger-picture questions” all included significant professional growth. We
both recognized that Omar probably couldn’t spend all his time chasing these priorities. But if
he spent no time pursuing his loftier goals, none would be reached. I urged him to harness a
practice I call “Ruthless Prioritization.” It goes like this:
- Take an inventory of every action you spend energy on.
- Apply a filter to each action. Here’s one that I use with my clients:
Start, Stop, Continue, Avoid.
- Finally, establish your topmost priorities.
Once he had grasped these principles, Omar made plans to have various crucial conversations to
support his shift in focus, including an alignment conversation with his boss.
Making the Mindset Shift: Busy to Focused
There’s a simple trick to finding your focus: spend time in your challenge zone, even if it means
postponing those things that seem important now, but offer little long-term return. That might
mean you’ll need to get comfortable with less immediate external validation. Part of shifting to
a focused mindset is learning to let go of your addiction to checking off items on your to-do list
and craving a pat on the back for every completed task.
Here’s the hard part:
If you want to be productive, truly productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel
As a coach, I want to improve my writing skills, so I have started waking up at 4:00AM in the
morning to write. I am not the best writer; actually, I struggle to get my thoughts on the page. It
feels painfully unproductive. Honestly, I can hardly stand to read my work out loud. I know this
is just how my clients feel when I tell them to put aside their immediate concerns and focus
their time and energy on more long-term challenges.
The questions I hear a lot are: What about all the things I need to get done? Don’t I need to get
through my full email box, my urgent conversations, and my current project plans before I try to
create space to focus on my future self?
The answer is simple. No.
And this is the tough part.
Imagine for a moment that it’s not that you’re too busy, but that part of you — the part of you
that fears failure or maybe even success — is playing a trick on your emotions, convincing you
that you’re far too engaged to build on your future. I like to say that it’s your brain that’s
playing a trick on that part of you that worries you’re not yet good enough to handle the scary
Sometimes you need to be irresponsible with your current challenges to make real progress on
your future self. You must let some of the present items just sit there, untended. It’s not going
away and will never end. That’s the nature of the present.
You may not end up with an empty email inbox. You may not have the perfect compensation conversations. You may not please everyone. But, as your coach, I’m willing to bet that you will do those things well enough.
It’s the other stuff I worry about: the wildly important stuff that never gets done because there’s not time or it’s not urgent or it’s too hard or risky or terrifying. That’s the stuff I want to help you work on.
Even though Omar is delighted at the idea of focusing on his future self, he resisted setting aside current, less important tasks. Addressing the future just didn’t feel as good to him as wrestling with the job sitting at his desk. Instant gratification is always more fun than patient planning. And while Omar isn’t skilled at this yet, he very quickly started to make a significant mindset shift. Once he started to have crucial conversations to move lower priorities off his plate, he became more empowered. He began to look at his energy expenditure more critically and guard his time more carefully. The conversation with his boss opened a deeper level of trust and communication. It didn’t take long for Omar to exert a laser focus on his top priorities and start to embrace Ruthless Prioritization.
Jennifer is a certified Executive Coach specialized in leadership development, career advancement and strengths-based coaching. She brings a unique blend of deep listening, executive leadership experience and Tibetan Buddhist mind training to her practice. Discover Jennifer’s coaching programs and approach at www.jenrichconsulting.com