How to Stay Focused on the Important Things

“I want to pass something by you,” I said to my friend Jori* who has lost 80 pounds over the past six months. “Our ability to lose weight is based on our willingness to suffer through discomfort. To be a little hungry and yet to resist the temptation of eating.”

“You’re wrong,” he said. “You don’t know what my hunger is like. It’s painful. Withstanding it might work for a week or two, but not for the long term.”

I immediately knew that Jori was right. Discipline, willpower and self-control are unsustainable. Eventually, we weaken.

I’ve tried to lose weight in many different ways. Only two have worked:

One, I cut refined sugar out of my life. I threw out all the ice cream, candy, cookies, and cake and restocked my shelves with healthier alternatives.

Two, I signed up for The Fresh Diet. Each morning, for a month, they delivered all my carefully portioned meals and snacks for the day. The food was delicious and satisfying and I only ate what they gave me, nothing more.

In both situations I reduced my need for discipline. I changed the environment around me so that it was more likely that I would make the choices that were in my best long-term interests.

“So, how did you lose your weight?” I asked him.

Jori had Lap-Band surgery which physically constricted the top of his stomach. As Jori eats, his upper stomach fills up, trickling food to the rest of his stomach. That makes him feel full sooner and for a longer period of time.

In other words, Jori didn’t lose weight by withstanding the discomfort of hunger. He lost weight by eradicating the discomfort of hunger. Jori’s surgery created a situation that made his desired behavior — eating less — not just more likely, but inevitable.

“When will you take off the Lap-Band?” I asked him.

“Never,” he told me.

The Lap-Band can be tightened to create a smaller opening to the stomach or loosened, allowing people to eat unconstricted. Some patients choose to loosen their Lap-Bands when they want to enjoy unrestricted eating, like during vacations or holidays.

You would think that after years of eating smaller portions with an tightened Lap-Band, people would have developed new eating habits they could sustain when the band is loosened.

But that’s not the case. According to Jori’s doctor, people easily gain 20 pounds or more in a month.

In other words, it’s great to learn new habits, but if we want to sustain them, we need to change our environment, and then maintain that new environment, for as long as we want to maintain our change. In other words, if you want to keep the weight off, don’t put sugar back in your cabinets. Or loosen your Lap Band. Or consider food outside your agreed-upon portions.

One of my clients, Lisa, was having difficulty with one of her direct reports, David, who wasn’t communicating clearly or frequently enough. We created a list of questions that Lisa and David went through each day to help him communicate better. Questions like, “Is there any one you need to update today? Anyone you need to thank? Anyone to whom you need to ask a question?”

After three weeks of answering those questions daily, his communication improved greatly. So Lisa stopped asking the questions. Within a few days, David fell back into his old uncommunicative patterns. The questions didn’t fix David; they merely shaped his behavior while he was using them.

So the question is: Have you structured your environment — your life — so that you are more likely to accomplish your most important priorities?

For many of us, the answer is no. We start a day with great intentions. But then people start calling and emailing, asking and directing, and soon we can hardly remember what we wanted to focus on in the first place — if we ever knew. Our days begin to look like frenzied, attempts to get traction while making little headway. By the end of a week, we’ve forgotten what it was we were hoping to accomplish at the beginning of the week. And by the end the year, we’re frustrated that we haven’t moved forward in our most important priorities.

The solution isn’t willing yourself to focus better. That won’t work. Discipline and self-control are unsustainable because in most of our environments there are too many distractions, too many things other people want us to do, too many opportunities and temptations that draw us away from lives that reflect our true values and priorities. It’s like trying to lose weight while living in a candy store.

We need to restructure our environments — like constricting our stomachs or emptying our cabinets — so we are more likely to move forward on our most important priorities.

Here are three ways to do that:

  1. Empty your cabinets of sugar. Identify up to five things — no more — that you want to focus on for the year. Those are where you should spend 95% of your time. Take anything that doesn’t fit into one of those areas of annual focus and get it off your to-do list. I’ve created a to-do list that’s made of six boxes — one for each of my five areas of focus and the 6th labeled “the other 5%”. That other 5% box is like sugar — a little might be OK but your day should never contain more than 5% of the activities that don’t fit into your five areas of annual focus.
  2. Constrict your stomach. Each morning, take a look at your six-box to-do list and transfer the most important items to accomplish for the day into time-slots in your calendar. That way, you’ll make strategic choices about fitting the most important items into the limited space of your day.
  3. Make a firm agreement with someone about what you’re going to eat. Sit down with someone else — your manager, a colleague, your partner — and show them your six box to-do list and your calendar for the day. Tell them what you plan to accomplish and how it fits in with your plan for what you want to focus on for the year. Saying it out loud and having another person hear you and reflect back what they hear creates a deeper level of commitment and accountability.

Because, like Jori’s success losing weight, your success focusing on the things that matter most to you, will only happen — in the long term — when you create the environment that supports it.

*Names and some details changed


  1. Nuria says:

    Hi Peter,

    Many thank you for your post, it’s ever so helpful!

  2. JC says:

    Thank you for this great article.
    I have read quite a lot of articles about this topic and this one is one of the best because of its simple but realistic critic of the limited power of just our will and the need for conditions that force you to actually do the things you told yourself you need to do, even when you like doing these things, even if you are motivated to do these things, just because there may be other things you like doing more, even if these are not those you need or should be doing at that time…

  3. Sett says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’m starting today with my Six Box To Do List and the other things you’ve suggested. However, the use of the Lap-Band surgery as an example bothered me. Isn’t that an example of doing something that allows you not to restructure your environment? Once he had surgery, Jori didn’t have to get rid of the sugar from his cabinet, right? I understand the point your trying to make but, for example, if I was having trouble finishing papers in college, the equivalent of the Lap-Band surgery would be for me to pay someone else to do them. Once someone else is writing my papers the work is getting done but I havent restructured my environment. Similarly, Jori paid the doctor to make a change so that he would reap the benefits but he isn’t the one doing the work (right?). Of course, I know nothing about him, so I am not making judgments, I just find it to be a strange example. I would love to hear back from you on how I might have misunderstood what you were trying to say. Thank you for all the great advice you put up on the website!

    1. Peter bregman says:

      Hi Sett – thanks for your question and insight. You’re right the examples are different – the point I was trying to make is that willpower only goes so far – and it tends to be unsustainable. What the lap band did was reduce – or eliminate – his need for willpower. I hear what you’re saying – that the doctor did it for him – but, in this case, that’s OK – what we want is to create a situation in which we are more likely to act in a way that we want to act. The lap band did it for him just like taking sugar out of my cabinets did it for me. One changes the internal environment and the other changes the external environment – but the effect is the same – neither of us need willpower to sustain our change. It’s not terrible to use a crutch if the crutch is sustainable long term and achieves the objective.

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