Steve Jobs: Here's what most people get wrong about focus

Steve Jobs
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Steve Jobs knew that even great ideas can kill productivity.

"Focusing is about saying 'no,'" the late co-founder explained at Apple's 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). "You've got to say 'no, no, no' and when you say 'no,' you piss off people."

To Jobs, focus wasn't about willpower. It was about the courage to abandon 1,000 great ideas to meet one big goal — even if that made people mad in the process.

1997 brought great turmoil to Apple. Its 1996 holiday sales fell far short of their goals, paving the way for a major restructuring. Apple execs developed 'hot lists' and 'hit lists' to determine what projects would stay funded. That year, Apple laid off one third of its workforce.

Ex-Apple engineer reveals what it was like to pitch Steve Jobs
Ex-Apple engineer reveals what it was like to pitch Steve Jobs

By the '97 conference, Jobs had returned to the company he co-founded to help overhaul production and design. Jobs addressed the core problem the company had faced: its engineers were doing interesting work but that work sent the company in "18 different directions."

"I know some of you spent a lot of time working on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of," he explained at the conference. "I apologize, I feel your pain, but Apple suffered for several years from lousy engineering management."

"We had to decide," he said, "what made sense and what didn't."

He would explain later that year that Apple's ability to execute was really high, but that it was "executing wonderfully on many of the wrong things."

When there's this sort of distraction, said Jobs, "the total is less than the sum of its parts."

This advice is particularly crucial in a work world where nearly every project can seem like a high-priority. Many workers say they feel the need to respond immediately, for example, to every email or Slack message, knowing their real work is getting put on the back burner. Saying 'no' can help anyone re-evaluate priorities, revisit a project's scope and recommit to bigger goals.

Mark Parker, president and chief executive officer of Nike, Inc., right, speaks as Steve Jobs, chief executive officer of Apple Computer, Inc., looks on during a news conference in New
Chris Goodney | Getty Images

Nearly 10 years after the '97 WWDC, Jobs stressed the importance abandoning great ideas to Nike's CEO Mark Parker. According to Parker, Jobs told him that focus wasn't saying "yes" but learning to turn down the smart, interesting work that takes people away from their most important priorities. "Focus," Jobs told Parker, "means saying no to the hundred other good ideas."

Jobs added, "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying 'no' to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully."

Billionaire Warren Buffett shares this mindset. He reportedly once said, "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say 'no' to almost everything."

While saying 'yes' can make you feel like a team player, it can also lead to distraction and burnout in the long-term, says CNBC contributor Suzy Welch. She recommends having a ready list of 'no' responses ready to help you decline work or negotiate deadlines.

"The truth is it's really hard to say no," says Welch. Instead, "Save your 'yes!' replies "for asks that really count."

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Ex-Apple engineer reveals what it was like to pitch Steve Jobs
Ex-Apple engineer reveals what it was like to pitch Steve Jobs