Help your team to focus (video transcript)

Some people think that the way to help employees manage a long list of priorities is to give them the entire list so that they have a line of sight on all their tasks, and then let them work it out for themselves. In fact, when there’s so much going on, giving people the full picture can be completely overwhelming.

What if I were to tell you that the secret to managing performance during hectic periods is to actually spend more time managing people’s attention? I’ve got a tip for how you can do that.

Importance of creating focus

When we are in a time of perpetual change, our brains often end up in a state of anxiety. It’s not healthy, and it’s certainly not conducive to our best performance.

Contrary to most of what we learn as managers – where we are taught to give people the big context and help them see their work and how it connects to everything else – when things are really busy, it can be overwhelming.

So when we want to manage people in times of perpetual change, we actually want to zoom in. It’s a little bit like when we want the horses to run fast at the racetrack, we put those blinders on.

So, here’s the technique.

Step 1: Number One Priority

Make sure that at any given moment, everyone on your team knows the single most important thing they need to be paying attention to. Ideally you would like to pinpoint the most important thing for the whole year, but that isn’t always possible; there are other things that come on stream.

So maybe you need to narrow it down to a quarter, or a month, or a week, or a day, or even this morning. The main thing is that your employees should be clear on what their number one priority is for a given period. If a person who works for you cannot directly answer the question “What’s the single most important thing you’re paying attention to right now?”, that’s a sign that you as their manager are not doing enough ruthless prioritization.

Step 2: 1 Yes, 3 Less

Some interesting new research recently published in the science journal Nature explored how humans perceive adding tasks as strategic, but we don’t perceive simplification strategies or reducing priorities as similarly strategic.

So it’s not enough to simply identify and reinforce the one most important thing; we have to do something to counterbalance that effect.

I call this 1 yes and 3 less.

As well identifying the single object of their focus in a given period, you also need to be very specific about three things that you want your employees to pay less attention to.

There are three techniques you can use to help your employees prioritize their tasks: delay, distribute and diminish.


This works by postponing a task to make it less of a priority. You can do that by saying, “Hey, remember we talked about coming up with a mailing list for our potential event in the fall? I don’t want you to think about that till next week.”


This technique involves spreading out a task across a team. For example, you can say, “Remember that report that I had asked you for, where we were looking at our sales by region? I’ve actually asked Frank to pick that up so I don’t want you thinking about that. I need you focused on this.”


The third technique is you can offer a strategy that’s about minimizing the work. For instance, when discussing an upcoming presentation you could say “Rather than looking at the whole thing, just take a look at slides six and seven and spend no more than 15 minutes on it.”


I want you to make sure that you communicate the one greatest priority to every single person who works on your team, whether it be in a morning huddle or during a chat throughout the day or the week. Then, once you have committed to the one ‘Yes’, you then identify the three ‘Less’, using one of the three D techniques.

More on this

Why You’re So Busy and How to Ruthlessly Prioritize

8 Ways to Feel Less Overwhelmed by Your Workload

When to Say Yes: Staying in Your Sweet Spot