How to Stay Focused When You Want to Do It All

Drive yourself to success, not into the ground

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So you know that delicious recipe you’re famous for? The one that Bob loves, raving you should open your own restaurant?  

Let’s just say you listen to Bob and open that restaurant. And it does well. Customers like your recipe too, and pretty soon they’re bugging you to open a second location.

Your next move says a lot about you. So choose your own adventure:

1. You say, “Nah—I’m financially comfortable and still have time for days off, ball games, beach trips, and a healthy marriage. I’m happy right where I am. No second location for me!”

2. You say, “You’re absolutely right.” You open a second location, and then a third, a fourth, and so on. Pretty soon you have a small chain on your hands, a multi-platform marketing campaign, maybe even potential buyers who’ll franchise your restaurant so you can retire early, which is nice for a while until a new challenge comes along for you to relentlessly pursue. And it’s all because of Bob, who honestly was probably just being polite.

If the latter sounds more like you, you have...


Lots of it.

“The motivated person is someone whose mind is always coming up with plans and ideas,” says San Francisco psychologist Michael Freeman, M.D., “who feels that the plans are so good they’re worth pursuing.”

Their behavior becomes organized around achieving those goals—they prefer to spend their time productively to get results. They’re always on task, and do not like to sit still.

“They’re builders,” says Freeman. “And they feel a sense of accomplishment, or they feel rewarded, by their achievements.

THE POWER: You have the drive for success—simply put, you get shit done.

Some people work to live. Other people are entrepreneurs.

“Great entrepreneurs are motivated to drive change,” says Rob Siegel, entrepreneurial expert at Stanford. “They can’t sit still. They almost all have, literally or figuratively, restless legs syndrome.”

Some of that is genetic, says Freeman. But it’s also how you were raised.

“As a kid you may get the impression that your parents love you more if you achieve more,” Freeman explains, “so that can shape behavior.”

If your goal was to get into a top college, you probably excelled in every subject. But more often, motivated kids get good grades mainly in the subjects that matter to them.

“The GPA of an entrepreneur is typically not 4.0,” notes Freeman. “It’s more in the three-point range. And that’s because they weren’t motivated to waste their time on useless stuff.”  

One entrepreneur calls himself Mr. 80 percent, a reference to his average performance in school, even though his teachers knew he could achieve 100 percent. “He didn’t have the motivation to get over the finish line because something else mattered more,” Freeman says.

For some people, overcoming adversity has a motivating effect, says Freeman.

“There are so many success stories of immigrants here who have achieved greatness,” says Siegel. “They aspire for something better for themselves and for their families. And most importantly they can achieve it.”

Without motivation, there would be no comeback.

If Steve Jobs wasn’t motivated, he never would have maneuvered his way back to Apple after being ousted by the board in the '80s.  

And just because not every anecdote can be Steve Jobs: Consider Julie Wainwright, founder of the RealReal, an online consignment marketplace for luxury fashion items.

The former CEO of the short-lived, which fell victim to the first dot-com bubble, started the RealReal from her kitchen table in 2011, and now the company makes $500 million a year in revenue.

“She was kind of the face of everything that was wrong with the first internet bubble. And unfairly she was vilified,” says Siegel. “She was motivated to have another success to prove that she was more than a flash in the pan.”

And that’s just what she did.

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THE WEAKNESS: You set unrealistic goals, and then struggle to let go of them, causing you to lose perspective.

Hard work can get you far—but sometimes not far enough. Especially if you ignore important details such as benchmarking, market research, or you know, reality.

One CEO was so motivated to build a new product feature that he forgot to product-test the market, Freeman recalls. The feature turned out great. But nobody used it, because nobody wanted it.   

Another entrepreneur was making $150,000 in yearly revenue and wanted to be at $10 million in five years.

Even if they doubled their business every year—a lofty goal in itself—they’d still only hit $4.8 million in five, said Brian Moran, whose company provides business advice to business owners and entrepreneurs.

That’s not even halfway, and “you’d be like a top 50 Inc 500 company,” Moran told them.

Returning to the restaurant example from earlier—a third scenario would be the guy who expands his business only to end up burying it because he took on commitments he couldn’t fulfill. Say, he overspent on furniture because he misjudged how much he’d make in the first year.

“There’s nothing wrong with having big goals,” says psychologist Sharon Saline, Psy.D., who specializes in ADHD. “The issue is if you create goals that you in no way can achieve. Or if you have trouble letting go when the goal doesn’t work out.”

“Entrepreneurs get very myopic,” says Moran, “almost like they put blinders on. And sometimes that works. If you’re trying to bore through a tunnel, you’re going to need that laser focus. But what happens more often than not is you don’t see the two-by-four coming up behind you.”

That kind of tunnel vision can lead you to lose perspective—when you’re spending all your time and energy going after one thing, you forget that other things are important too. Things like your health, your relationships, or in Siegel’s case, your cellphone.

When Siegel was running his first startup, he once threw his phone against a wall when his wife became upset with him for taking a late business call, smashing it into “a million pieces.”

“That was an expensive temper tantrum,” he jokes. But “you learn. You build a pattern recognition. You apologize. You make mistakes because you’re human. Part of it is making time to unplug.”

“The myth is that entrepreneurs work 24/7 and give up every moment of the day,” Siegel adds. “There are moments in time to do that, but if you do only that you will fail because you’ll burn out.”

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THE PIVOT: Write down your “good enough” goal and your “awesome” goal—as long as you land somewhere in between, you’re succeeding.

This can help you to reframe your achievements to highlight how impressive they are, says Freeman.

Maybe your “awesome” goal is to be in the top one percent, a common goal among entrepreneurs, says Freeman. Still, “only one percent of people are in the top one percent,” says Freeman. “That’s not going to change.” Hard to argue with that math.  

Instead, if you’re in the top five percent realize that’s still really freaking good. It’s all how you look at it, and if you can find a way to view your achievement in a positive light, you’ll have an easier time letting go and you’ll be happier.

Seek out critics. Surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you is a mistake, says Freeman. You want people who will push back so they’ll tell you when you’re overshooting.

Simply talking to people (prospective buyers, investors, friends) can help give you a reality check, says Freeman. It also helps you slow down so you spend some time planning rather than just jumping right to executing.

After all, if you can’t be honest with yourself then maybe someone else will. That can help you abandon the wishful thinking, key to success, Freeman says.

Make “no” your default. A big part of this is learning to manage your time, and that means abandoning dead ends, which can be huge time wasters.

“Business owners have big egos,” says Moran. “‘Wow, you’re calling me and you want to work with me? I’ll jump off the cliff and figure out how to build a plane on the way down!’”

Instead, ask lots of questions to get a better sense of the commitment you’d be making, and always say no unless you’re truly convinced the venture is worthwhile.

“There are only so many hours in a day,” says Moran. “That is part of the problem when it comes to mental health—the entrepreneur who always says yes, who thinks he or she is Hercules. ‘I can do it all!’ But really you’re diluting your time and doing a lot of things poorly or average.”

When people can’t meet a goal, says Saline, it’s often because they overestimated their ability to complete the goal or they underestimated the actual amount of work the goal required.

A little due diligence can help you avoid that error.

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