Everyone wants to know how to achieve success in life. How to find a better job; how to make friends with better people; how to ensure our existing relationships are as good, strong and as enjoyable as they should be.

Happiness is a simple thing for most of us. It’s about discovering the little elements of life that delight us, make us smile, laugh or – occasionally – cry. We’re complex beasts, us humans, and that’s largely down to the tool we have nestled in our heads.

The human brain is the most powerful thing we have access to, but it’s also one of the most mysterious. We only know how small parts of it work, and because it’s so powerful, the brain is often hard to tame.

This is why focusing on what’s important is the key to a happy, productive life both at work and at home. Our brains are capable of amazing things but they can be far too easily distracted or used inefficiently.

In this post, we’re going to consider how one might see beyond the many distractions of modern day life in order to focus on what’s important and finally discover how to be more productive. It’ll make you happier and a far more rounded person. And doesn’t that sound good?

The stuff that gets in the way

Modern society is drenched with distractions. The digital economy in particular sees most of us glued to electronic devices for large parts of the day and all but cut off from what’s going on in the world around us.

This is evident at concerts, public events and within holiday destinations; people appear to live their lives through the lens of a smartphone, rather than taking in the world around them and experiencing it for what it is.

Let’s consider some of today’s distractions:

  • Smartphones. In fact, you could replace this with ‘technology’, so abundant are gadgets in our everyday lives. Whether in our pockets, bags or palms, they draw us in and are hard to put down.
  • TV. Not exactly a new invention, but the way in which TV has become so accessible and binge-worthy thanks to streaming services has made it ever-present for many of us.
  • Advertising. It’s everywhere – be it on traditional billboards or of the digital variety that follow you around your internet browsing sessions.
  • Keeping up with the Jones’s. According to Instagram, your best mates have just bought an incredible new three-piece suite for their living room. You want one now. Oh, and Dave down the road is showing off his new car on Facebook; isn’t it time you bought yourself a new motor?
  • A desire for wealth. If you inadvertently get sucked into the lives of influencers on social media, you may find yourself hankering after their lifestyle, and before you know it, lost in their world on your smartphone.
  • A need for ‘Likes’. Why have only three people liked your dinner photo on Instagram so far?

There are of course many more modern day distractions that keep us from what matters, but the above are the most common examples.

How many are you currently falling foul of? Be honest with yourself!

The 80/20 principle

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Pareto Principle’, the 80/20 rule is incredibly useful when it comes to time management, how to increase productivity and – yes, you guessed it – focusing on what matters in life.

Named after Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 principle dates back to 1895. Pareto realised that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

He later applied this principle to other economic activities and realised that it transposed neatly to lots more disciplines. For instance, at the time, 80% of Italy’s wealth was controlled by just 20% of the population.

In business, the 80/20 rule is identical to Pareto’s original principle and it illustrates why focus is important. It suggests that we should always ask ourselves if a task sits within the top 20% of our priorities or the bottom 80%. If it’s the latter, it deserves less time; if the former, it absolutely requires as much focus as possible.

There’s a simple way to integrate the 80/20 principle into your life. Grab a piece of paper and write down ten of your goals in life. Then, look at them and ask if you could only complete two of those tasks today, which would they be? The two you pick will be your 20% – the key tasks that are more important to you than anything else.

Is less really more? Of course it is!

Look for the stuff that has the most weight

Let’s consider the university student who has a huge assignment to tackle. At first glance, it looks almost insurmountable and akin to approaching the biggest mountain in the world while wearing flip-flops.

We do this a lot in life; it’s almost impossible to see the wood for the trees if we don’t break the big stuff up into smaller, bite-sized chunks.

Every task in life has a weight that can be assigned to it. This indicates how important it is, and may also suggest how tricky or straightforward it will be to complete, but assigning that weight is vitally important if you’re to focus on what matters.

For instance, the assignment our university student is tasked with completing will have several constituent elements. Each one of those elements will have a direct impact on the final grade, but their influence will vary.

By splitting the assignment into its constituent elements, the student can begin to weigh each one. Gradually, a picture will form and the 80/20 rule can be applied. The most important and pressing elements will become evident, and that’s where the student can decide to spend her time most wholesomely.

You can do this in your personal life and at work too. So if a task arrives on your desk or through your letterbox that seems virtually impossible, pretend you’re that university student and take it one bite at a time. This is how to get more done.

It affects your private life, too

Although we all spend a great deal of time at work, our private lives offer the moments of solitude, company and relaxation that our brains and bodies so badly need.

With that in mind, why would you surround yourself with negative people or those who stress you out? We have enough stress and negativity to deal with at work and in the media, therefore our private lives should always offer a serene vista of contentment by comparison.

This is easier said than done. We all occasionally form friendships or allegiances with people who aren’t good for us – it’s part of life’s journey.

The key lies in cultivating relationships (be they of the friend or romantic variety) with people who really matter and who bring out the best in us. That could be close family, friends or a partner, but whoever they are, they should be capable of making you happy and accepting you for who you are.

Once you find those people, it’s important to recognise and distance yourself from the negative people in society. You might find them at work, school or within friendship groups, but by keeping them at arm’s length, you’ll avoid their negative vibes affecting your own.

Learning how to say “NO”

This one is hard, because saying “no” isn’t particularly easy as a human being.

We all want to please people, whether they’re colleagues, bosses, spouses or friends. And that often means that we agree to things that aren’t in our best interests.

This is equally common for small business owners and the growing freelance population. In order to make money and provide your services to a wide range of people, you need to agree to do stuff. That’s obvious, but there’s a huge downside to being too amenable, too.

Let’s imagine you have a fully booked two weeks ahead of you. There isn’t an ounce of spare time for anything else, but you know that you can achieve exactly what you’ve promised people during those two weeks.

Then, an email arrives from a potential new customer. They’re promising the world in terms of future business and appear willing to pay you at the going rate immediately. The only caveat is they need the work completing by the end of this week.

What do you say?

Agreeing to the new enquiry might appease this person and give you the confidence that some additional future business is assured, but the fact remains that you don’t have any spare time in which to do it. Invariably, you’ll end up either disappointing this person or someone else while you try and squeeze it in. Worse, you’ll wear yourself out to the point of exhaustion.

Is it really worth all that stress and disappointment just to get another job in the diary? Of course it isn’t. And the same can be said for anything in life; agreeing to one favour too many for a close friend might seem like the right thing to do, but you occasionally need to be a bit more selfish than that.

Whenever you’re presented with something that seems a step too far, trust your gut. Ask yourself, “can I really achieve this in good time and to the best of my ability?” if the answer you give yourself is wooly or you’re incapable of saying “yes”, say “no”, instead and focus on what matters. It’ll work out better for everyone in the long run.

The importance of a to-do list

If there’s one word you’ll see repeated a fair amount on this page, it’s ‘simple’. And it really is the simple things that make modern life so much easier to navigate.

Do you use a to-do list? If not, you’re missing out on one of the most tried-and-tested and useful tools we have at our disposal.

It doesn’t have to be digital, either – an A4 pad and pen will do you just fine. All you need to do is write down the key tasks you need to undertake each day and list them in order of importance. Then, each evening or morning, review the list and remove anything that you know is unachievable during that day.

There are few things more satisfying in life or business than working efficiently through a to-do list and ticking off each task. It’s one of the best ways to keep your head above the water and achieve as much as possible each day.

man with to-do list.

What’s more, to-do lists are brilliant tools for highlighting exactly what matters. If you apply the 80/20 principle to the tasks contained within yours, those huge projects and mammoth promises you’ve made will seem far more achievable.

Just remember to be honest with yourself. Before you add anything to your to-do list, ask yourself whether it deserves a place. This list, after all, is your productivity bible and only the most important tasks should reside within it. If you’re ever unsure about a particular task’s priority, go with your gut, because you’ll almost certainly have something else far more pressing to deal with.

Wrapping up

If there’s one takeaway from today’s blog post, it’s the 80/20 rule. So much has been written about this principle, but it can be applied to absolutely everything we’ve discussed today.

We all get lost in the woods sometimes, but when you can no longer see the wood for the trees, the 80/20 rule will see you out safely.

Don’t get us wrong – none of this is easy. We started this blog post by saying you’ll become a more rounded, happier person if you follow our advice, but that won’t happen overnight. Your mind, body and personality need time to come around to this new way of living and working.

You might feel selfish, inefficient and negative at first (saying “no” to people is never much fun, after all), but as time goes on and you realise how more productive you’re becoming, you’ll realise that it really is rather easy to focus on what’s important and achieve more.