How to Keep Long-term Focus When You’re Putting Out Fires

By Kevin Sterling

September 5, 2014   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Life moves forward, whether you’re on board with the direction or not. If you’re like me, your 20’s was predicated by a lot of fun, a lot of procrastinated growing up and living paycheck to paycheck. When I was 28, I opted for the “lighting round” and met and married my wife within 6 months (which was all well and good), but then had a kid on the way 6 months after that. And let’s not forget I was also starting a business.

If you focus solely on the present, your future will suck, hard. And when you’re a parent, it starts to weigh on you that you’ll be the asshole that sent future generations ghost-riding off a proverbial cliff. But, if you focus only on the future, your situation won’t ever get enough traction to head in the right direction in the first place.

With a little resourcefulness and let’s call it gumption, here’s my advice to help you focus on building a decent future while all hell is breaking loose around you.

1. Stop the bleeding
In the year surrounding my son’s birth, we went from DINK (double income no kids) status to living only on my freelance income once my wife’s contractual job ended. My consultancy was young and unorganized. I’d been casually “getting by” because, frankly, I didn’t need to do more than that. While our income was essentially cut in half, I was paying more and more into a business venture that was nowhere near launching or–better yet–breaking even. We were hemorrhaging cash at every turn, the culminating event being when I put a baby delivery on a credit card. Hell yeah, I’ve made some dumb mistakes, but it gets better.

You know you need to pay rent and you know you need to retire. Somewhere within that spectrum lies a healthy financial plan. But whether it’s money, relationships, a bad job or your health (are you bleeding right now?) you need to figure out where you’re suffering the greatest loss and get the tourniquet on. Yes, it’s going to hurt – but you need to focus on preventing a “bleed out.” If your situation is something like a bad job or a toxic relationship, then I’m a big proponent of Tim Ferriss’ advice that “if you’re in a restaurant and the food sucks – spit it out.” Would you really finish it if it sucks?

See through the fog of war
An old colleague’s signature phrase was explaining how when things are chaotic there will undoubtedly be “fog” but the only way out is to see through it. You’ve got to know yourself a bit, know your vision and your limitations. If you need time off or a way to clear your head, this is crucial. Depending on your situation, maybe time off isn’t feasible–in which case you may benefit from a strong routine.

My experience is that when I can turn multiple decisions into no-brainers (what to eat/wear/etc) then my cognitive load is preserved for strategy. Related to this, don’t forget to stay alert as you navigate towards a better situation. You may find a better path through new opportunities, information, strategies or potentially even new challenges and hazards. The key, though, is to balance acting quickly with taking a strong exit strategy.
For me, I’m married so my wife and I had multiple, frequent, deliberate conversations to determine what we wanted out of our “rocket launch” life and set a trajectory towards that.

3. Fight battles you know you can win
If you’re putting out fires, it can be depressing, discouraging and outright dumb as you try to make triage your full-time occupation. You need some motivation; you need points on the score board. At this stage you’ve already stopped the bleeding – so cheer up, it’s only going to get better.

Don’t do this. The worst thing you can do when you’re bogged down in a bad situation is enter a slog that ties you up, drains your energy and doesn’t give you the fast, motivating rewards you need to build your momentum. My situation was best-addressed through a three-pronged approach. Bush Smarts was a slow-burning venture. I knew it would be a hit, but I also knew we had invested a decent amount into R&D so I wouldn’t make cash from it any time soon. My freelance creative consultancy would take time to build relationships and elevate my confidence to score bigger work. The consultancy was also operating in the sinew between Bush Smarts and time with my family. I needed to add a third prong that would make us decent cash faster and easier.

Gig jobs can help, but they’re not reliable and don’t necessarily add up to much. We opted to list our apartment on Airbnb, something that not only allowed us to redecorate as a tax write-off but we immediately started making significant profits–and spending more time with our extended family. It’s not something we planned to do forever, but it let us pay off a lot of debt, spruce up the place a bit and take some nice trips (a rare luxury).

4. Don’t give up sure footing for a killing stroke
(Credit Batman Begins) I was notoriously bad at this prior to growing up a bit and sticking to a real plan. You get to 90% of your goal and think it’s good enough so you throw all your resources at it, and fall short. This is a common problem for people working their way out of debt. When you get some cash, you pay too much towards the debt, and then something happens and you go back into the red to recoup the cash. Have some patience, persevere and don’t stop until you know it’s over (then keep going).

As you progress from putting out fires to preventing them, you should start to accumulate some wisdom and foresight to help you know what’s really a win, and what’s not. Also you may find that you have the opportunity for some smaller wins, but you need to hold back to focus on the big ones. Vetting opportunities is a key component to navigating through your life.

5. Understand that the journey doesn’t end
One day in the near future, my family will be out of debt. It’s going to be an awesome day and maybe one of the few things in life that could bring me to tears. The experience has been terrible at times, but rather than regret getting into debt, I have kept the focus on what will be next for us after we’re out of it. That’s the long-term; that’s the future.

The good news is, if you read this and your life is consumed by putting out fires then realize that you can get out of it. Not only will it be worth it, but who you will become when you reach the other side will open up possibilities for you that you never though possible. You’ll have a great story to look back on, and the confidence moving forward that you went through a challenging stage of life and you’ll be ready for whatever it throws your way next.

My story revolved largely around money, because that was the biggest challenge in our life. We were $63,000 in all sorts of debt and are on a path to be out of it by the end of next year, if not sooner. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m also truly amazed at what my wife and I have been able to accomplish–by rising to meet this challenge.

Your challenges are unique to your life, but the principles here are transferable. Their strategy is sound. Tell me in the comments below – what fires do you put out every day? Where do you wish you could direct your life right now?

Kevin Sterling

Kevin is the Author of the upcoming book Work.Life.Dad: A No B.S. Guide to Rolling with the Punches, Beating the Odds and Living the Good Life.

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