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The Squirrels Aren't the Problem

I enjoy looking out the window while sitting in the thinking chair in my office. In the summer time, the squirrels perch on the corner of the fence while munching on sunflower seeds. They diligently consume their sunflowers until they are all gone. People will walk by. Trucks ramble past them. Dogs bark at them. And they stay focused on their work until it's all done.

For as long as I can remember, people have called certain behaviors squirrelly as a euphemism for being easily distracted by bright and shinny objects. But I've watched the squirrels. They're dutifully munching on their sunflower seeds. It's the dogs who are easily distracted by the squirrels.

When I watch people walk their dogs by my house, they usually meander a bit. First, the dog wanders off while sniffing the ground. Their person gets them to walk on. Then they have to sniff at another dog, creating a tangle of leashes. Their person gets them to walk on. Then they bolt after a squirrel. Hindered by their leash, their person gets them to walk on once again.

The squirrels aren't the problem, the dog's inability to focus is the problem.

The same is true of people distracted by bright and shinny objects. The problem isn't the possibility of something new and exciting. The problem is your ability to stay focused on what matters most.

Dogs are dogs. They are trainable but don't possess the cognitive prowess we humans do. They will obey commands, but the dog isn't thinking, "I need to stay focused on getting this walk done so I can make it back in time for my 3pm nap." They're distracted by the smells, other dogs, and squirrels because it's their instinct to do so.

As humans, we have a choice. Blaming the bright and shinny objects is a way of externalizing responsibility and assuming a victim mentality. Sure, they're enticing in the moment but they aren't necessarily going to serve our needs nor support our priorities in the long run.

We exercise this choice by establishing habits that cultivate our capacity to focus, prioritize and be conscious of our actions in the moment. If we rely on willpower to navigate each potential distraction, we are like the dog on the leash, dependent on someone else to make us walk on. What if there is no leash, no one there to say, "stop chasing the squirrel, let's go!"

We cultivate our abilities and discipline to focus on what's most important through daily practices like meditation, journaling and exercise. An athlete doesn't just show up at the Olympics expecting to win a gold medal without training first. They lay the groundwork to compete by establishing a training plan, receiving expert guidance and exerting consistent effort.

The same is true of leaders. We can't expect ourselves and others to stay true to executing on a big idea just because. We can't rely on the excitement of a bold vision to fuel our inertia and sustain our efforts all on its own. When we do, we are prone to following distractions.

The drive for being easily distracted is primal. It feels good at the time because our brains are flooded by endorphins and dopamine. It feels more rewarding to focus on the shinny new thing rather than staying with the slog.

World-class athletes spend hundreds, truly thousands, of hours preparing for the chance of a lifetime to compete. The glory days of the Olympics are but a blip of time in their overall effort. They stay focused on their preparations because of the routines and habits they established, which reduces the temptation of distractions.

Of course, most of us aren't world-class athletes. We are leaders with big dreams and invigorating ideas. And we have a choice, blame the squirrels or claim our agency to cultivate our abilities to stay focused on what matters most. What choice are you making?

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