Our columnist uses ancient wisdom to win the war against losing focus.

Have you ever started looking for something in the garage or a cupboard and wound up getting stuck into a major tidy-up and chuck-out instead? Do you sit down to work on the computer, only to head along a more enticing avenue to play games or watch videos?

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

We’ve all found ourselves getting distracted from the task at hand, sometimes to the point that we forget what it was we intended to do in the first place, so I’d like to share a useful little tool that has a proven history of helping people avoid going down blind alleyways when working on projects big or small. It’s derived from the writings of two great thinkers: Sun Tzu, a general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived in China around 544 to 496BC and wrote a great book called The Art of War, which has been used by leaders for centuries; and Carl von Clausewitz, a military theorist and general in the Prussian army in the 18th century.

The tool has many guises, but I’m most familiar with it as the British armed forces’ master principle of war: selection and maintenance of the aim, which essentially states that before you take on a task and do your damnedest to achieve it, you must know what you’re trying to accomplish. Military people the world over, who are fortunate to have more training than most in trying to think straight in challenging situations, are taught this from the word go.

Does it work outside a regimented military context? I believe it does. Modern business advice covers mission statements and the identification of goals and objectives – and it’s the same stuff.

The two parts, selection and maintenance, are separate but equally important. I find the trickiest is the former. If you can express precisely what it is you’re trying to achieve, you’re halfway there. If you can’t, I’d be amazed if you ever get there.

The tool works best when the aim you select is clear, realistically achievable and quantifiable. For example, a suitable aim in my life might be ‘to walk up Mt Maunganui at least three times a week’. One that’s less suitable might be ‘to become a kinder person’; this might be realistic, but it’s not easily measurable.

In the military, an example of a ‘good’ aim was to evict the Iraqi forces after they invaded Kuwait in 1990, an operation led to a successful outcome by General Norman Schwarzkopf. A less clear selection prevailed in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the removal of Saddam Hussein, the elimination of (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction and the liberation of the Iraqi people were given as the aims. After 11 years of occupation of Iraq, the coalition troops withdrew.

The second part of the tool, the maintenance of the aim, becomes the activity at hand. It’s about the determination and focus of an individual or team. It’s also about not allowing the aim to be gradually amended so that the original intention no longer exists.

Years ago, I found that having decided to stop smoking no ifs, ands or buts, the maintenance of the aim became quite straightforward. Unlike my previous attempts with less clear aims, like ‘try to give up’, this approach actually worked.

It’s worth adding that although this first principle of war is enduring, it’s not inflexible, so if your circumstances change, you’d be quite right not to press on with an aim or task if it’s no longer relevant. I invite you to give this tool a go. What have you got to lose?