Focus — the art of exclusion

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It’s been said that focus is the art of exclusion. I’ve found this to be tremendously helpful in my life and work. So often I have tried to find focus amidst a bunch of things I have going on, and it has felt nearly impossible. The problem was that I wasn’t able (or maybe ready) to choose one thing over all the others. I was trying to choose one direction, while still maintaining all the other options (that mental picture alone is exhausting).

Focus, on the other hand, and the exclusion that it requires can be very freeing and liberating.


Packing for travel is a great example of this. I used to pack everything I could possibly need: lots of layers, a few pairs of shoes, and plenty to do while in transit. (Confession: I still have difficult time only taking one book with me any time I leave town. Thankfully, the Kindle was invented for people just like me.) The trouble with taking all the options with you when you travel is that you have a horde of baggage to transport! Sure, it’s nice to have options and to be prepared, but you pay for it by the amount of energy, strength, and money you expend to move all your stuff.

When Stacia and I had the chance to go to Europe this summer, we packed light. We had been planning for this trip for almost five years, and we wanted to be as free to explore as possible. We both decided to carefully choose items and layers that could be combined into many different options. It was hard work. In the end, we weren’t perfectly prepared for absolutely everything that could have happened, but we had enough to get by. And when we would move from city to city by train or plane— sometimes carrying our bags for quite a distance— it wasn’t difficult.

By focusing our packing on essentials and excluding everything else, we were able to be more free, more flexible, and simply have more fun than if we had brought everything.

The challenge in focus is saying no to really great options and possibilities.

If it had gotten extremely cold, we would not have been prepared. We didn’t pack for it. Likewise, if it had gotten extremely hot, we wouldn’t have had the right things to wear. But we would have survived. We did, in fact, survive just fine.

Often, in life and work, it is difficult to focus on one path, project, idea, or impact, because to focus means to exclude the rest. The problem is that without focus, you will always be carrying around too many options.

Without exclusion, you cannot have focus, and without focus you cannot be effective.

In the comments, what are your thoughts on focus and exclusion? Do you have any related stories of success or struggle?

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Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 9 Comments On This Post.

  1. Yes! This is the problem I always have. Too many good options and the desire to do/be/have all of them. Not necessarily a bad desire, but certainly counterproductive sometimes! Love this post, thanks.

  2. mallory

    I could’ve reallllly used this on Friday! I love the packing analogy — so, so helpful. thank you!!

  3. I have learned and am currently testing this idea: that as little as 5 minutes of meditation a day can significantly increase focus. Meditation being- in a seated position with eyes closed or focused in one place, rejecting urges to fidget and move, going back to the breath when mind wanders and simply saying silently inhale, exhale…

    So far I’ve felt like it’s benefitted me. I’ve only been at it for 4 days.

  4. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal is behind that comment ^^ btw

  5. I really like this and recently have learned this to be true, especially in the moments when the passion I’ve chosen to pursue is hard. I so often start fantasizing about what I could be doing if I followed this other passion or pursued this other route instead. I’ve learned that in those times, focus is key to sticking with my true passion in seasons when things are cloudy and difficult.

    • Scratch “true” passion. What I mean is “chosen passion to wholeheartedly pursue vocationally for the time being.” I have many true passions 🙂

  6. Alicia

    Oh my! This is definitely my life problem — that I have been realizing, trying to learn, and failung to learn for the past four years. Now I am trying to take action, but focusing in itself is a fear of mine! I guess it’s that “FOMO” concept. But, I want to be effective and actually attain a goal. If that is true, focus must begin. Thanks for this post! It is a motivating encouragement.

    • Alicia

      After thinking a bit after my response — I fear “focus” because of the implication that it requires exclusion. (Oh!!) I don’t like that concept. Wow! More thoughts to ponder, thanks!

      • Thanks for your honesty here, Alicia. And I’m with you on being afraid of focus! It’s scary to say no. But it’s also profoundly liberating. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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