This week, our company’s entire management team met up in our Boulder office for a series of monster planning sessions. The internal mantra for 2009, as coined by our brilliant operations guy Charles, is brutal prioritization and maniacal focus.
This is the first year that we’ve had such a robust and experienced executive team (in the past 12 months we’ve hired a new CEO, CMO, VP of creative and brought on an operations consultant), so 2009 is looking to have way more planned-purpose and focus. As the last few days have rolled by in our planning meetings, I’ve been thinking about all the missteps I’ve taken over the last couple of years, business-wise. The more I thought about projects, ideas and tasks that, according to our new mantra, are off-focus, the more I saw parallels to the 7 deadly sins.
I’d like to share with you my mistakes with the hope that you can learn from them as I have.
Spreading yourself too thin
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I love to work. As I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to work, I’m a hustler. The downside to this level of ambition is that it’s not complicated to overload yourself. I’ve learned that ambition minus realism often equals failure.
It’s intensely important to remember that the more you take on, the less energy you have for each task. If you leave yourself no time to unwind, your effectiveness will decrease, regardless of how ambitious you are. I used to take on a ton of freelance work on top of my normal workload. At a certain point I realized that I was selling the time that was essential to my success. My solution was to stop charging for freelance work. If a project wasn’t worth doing for free than it wasn’t worth doing. No one can afford my down-time.
Sacrificing your core business by spending too much time on non-core ideas
I’m the type of person with an infinite amount of ideas and a tendency to forget that I have a finite amount of resources (ie. time, energy, etc). It’s important to realize that not all ideas are worth pursuing.
I find it’s ideal to have a trusted network of people to help you vet your ideas and choose which ones are keepers and assess how a new project will affect your current ones. Having a million things going on at a time is rarely a good thing.
Not reaching 100% completion, 100% of the time
Sloth is a tricky “business sin”, because it’s rarely a huge problem otherwise you’d never be an entrepreneur to begin with. Where it can become mostly problematic is when it keeps you from seeing a project through to the end. For me, laziness tends to be inversely proportionate to excitement and I certainly have fallen prey to the 80/20 problem (when you complete 80% of the work in 20% of the time, thus creating a half-life of productivity for the remaining 80% of the time as the excitement of the project fades).
I’ve learned that slow and steady is a great way to maintain excitement and spread out your energy equally from start to finish.
Getting lured away from what you need to do by what you want to do
Even when you work for yourself, there are tasks that aren’t exactly the cat’s pajamas. The easy thing to do is bust through these tasks to get to the stuff you want to do, but I find it’s better to learn to appreciate each task as an important element of each project. When I have to cut up hundreds of graphics, I lust after starting the next page to design. I’ve learned to find satisfaction in the monotony in order to better appreciate what I like best.
Have you ever eaten a whole meal without drinking anything, just to make yourself as thirsty as possible? You should try it sometime. That first sip makes it all worthwhile.
Forgetting that everything can always be made better
Becoming successful can easily be the worst thing for staying successful. Success has this extra-special way of super gluing on the “I’m so awesome” blinders and fooling you into thinking that you’re the smartest person alive. My friend Micah likes to call it when you start “drinking your own cool-aide.”
Being proud of what you’ve accomplished is fine, but leave the heavy-lifting to your parents. You should see my Mom’s copy of INC with Jake and I on the cover. It looks like it’s been through a war. That’s what’s great about parents. They can be convinced you’re the smartest person alive and it will rarely have a negative effect on your work (though I tend to find it incredibly embarrassing).
In my career I’ve learned that when you stop listening, you stop learning; and when you stop learning you’re done (whether you realize it or not). Luckily, my mildly egomaniacal days were in the very beginning of my career and only served to make my co-workers hate me, and ultimately didn’t jeopardize my goals. I was fortunate to have learned the err of my ways early. Sadly, I’ve seen pride murder promise more than a few times.
Getting discouraged if things don’t turn out they way you plan
I’m a planner. It’s not uncommon to find notebooks filled with lists all over my desk at work and strewn about my office at home. I find total satisfaction in the written structure of project building. Because list-making is a passion for me (thanks Mom!), in the past it became easy to lose sight of what I was really doing: creating a best-case-scenario plan for an idea.
I don’t know about you, but for me, a best-case-scenario rears its head on rare occasion. In being aware of the fact that I’m not the smartest person alive, I also realize that my plans are not infallible. In other words: you can come up with a really good plan to execute a really bad idea. Don’t be discouraged by this. Wrath is energy, and like all energy it can be used to good or evil. I like to think about the ratio of windshield to rear-view mirror and use that idea to focus my energy on what’s next.
What’s right for others may not be right for you
Cool, new, inspiring ideas happens every day. Add that to the infinite availability of information, and what you end up with is a whole lot of people being envious of a whole lot of things. In a technology business, there will always exist a balance of what concepts and applications are pushing towards “bleeding edge” (highly modern yet not highly adopted) and what is your own status quo is.
Increasingly smarter ideas are being pushed around the web every day, which can easily lead to many days full of face-palming for not being the-one-to-think-of-it-first. I’ve found that envy is the number one suspect in causing you to lose focus.
Think of your focus as the width and stability of a tightrope as you’re walking along being bombarded with new ideas and concepts. The less you focus on the current mechanics your own projects, the easier it will be knocked off the tightrope when trying to pay attention to everything else that’s going on. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with being aware of everything else that’s going on. Just stay true to your original plans; see them through; and understand that more-often-than-not, these new and exciting concepts are rarely vetted for use beyond their original purpose, thus having the extreme ability to only add layers of complexity to what you already do.
Remember the immortal advice of Winona Ryder as “Dinky” from the movie Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael: “It’s good to want things.” It works for me.