How to do "The Thing"
Prefer to listen rather than to read? The audio version of this essay is on the podcast.
Last week began a 4-part series on the core orientations that I believe provide a solid true north compass point for small businesses.
In the last article I talked about how to make progress, making progress being something that all entrepreneurs dance with their entire careers. We discussed the 3 P’s: procrastination, perfectionism and paralysis, and how to use the growth mindset, differentiating between being in motion and being in action, and eliciting interest-curiosity over deprivation-curiosity as orientations towards moving things forward when we get stuck.
After publishing that episode and article, I realized that I had left out the approach that I actually use the most to make progress, I’m using it constantly. And it’s really the thing I find the most effective for making sure that I move out of “being in motion” mode to “being in action” mode. (If you don’t know what that means, I describe it in last week’s article.
So I decided a brief addendum article was warranted.
First, before I talk about this strategy I use the most, I just want to point out that while I don’t have data to back this up, observationally I can say (having worked with hundreds of small business owners over the years) that many of us aren’t exactly the most neurotypical bunch. Many of us have ADHD or other learning differences. Or for whatever other reason we have marched to the beat of our own drummer most of our lives.
Which means that we often have a fraught relationship with making progress because we grew up in school systems that didn’t work for our brains and how we organize our time or interests all that well. School systems are still in the Industrial Age model anyway, so they are serving a small percentage of students well (unfortunately), but for those of us with learning differences it is in particular a challenging environment.
The fantastic news is that if you’re listening to this podcast, at some point being your own boss occurred to own your own “ways” of doing things.
I think a lot of us find entrepreneurship because of this: We can design everything around how we work best: our schedule, what the deliverables or services actually are (meaning, we can choose something we are interested in which is easier for our attention than something that bores us to death or is by rote)...
We can truly design the whole container of how we get stuff done and what we occupy our work time with. (Not that any of us ever fully escapes some work that is tedious or frustrating, having those moments is just a part of the human condition, at least in our current economy, but we can at least have more control over what we do and how we do it for more of the time than not.)
So historically we enter our own businesses still learning what works for us and how to get stuff done. In my case, and for many other entrepreneurs that I know, this is the primary way I get stuff done:
I choose a deadline for something, I put it on the calendar (really on the calendar, it’s fixed, not a movable optional thing), and then I announce that date and what I am doing or delivering on that date in public or to the person or persons who it is due to.
I nearly always do this without having “The Thing” that is due on that date even started. Because picking and announcing a date is what gets me started. Otherwise I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep myself busy with. I can put it off endlessly.
It’s a somewhat gentler version of the “throw yourself off the cliff and build your wings on the way down” approach. It’s more like, choose a day you have to have wings built, because everyone is meeting you at the cliff that day to watch you jump and to see you fly.
Melodramatic example aside, here is how that looks in reality:
When I work with a client in my Simple Business Incubator and/or Simple Business Accelerator, I announce that I will have the thing I owe them by 8 am on a specific day.
When I teach a webinar or an online course or workshop, I put it on the calendar and then tell everyone about it. I write it to my subscriber list, I mention it in the podcast, maybe I post to LinkedIn which I am still (kind of) experimenting with. Announcing it means I had better start building those wings, aka writing that webinar!
When I say “I’ll be back next week” at the end of a podcast episode, I have to make something and get it to my podcast producer Tom Hanson at least a week before it publishes. I said to the listeners that I would have something again in a week, and so I am committed.
If you are new to your work and you don’t yet have newsletter subscribers or podcast listeners or even clients who you can announce deadlines to that you have to keep, you can announce things to friends. Tell them you are using this to move things forward in your business, announce that you are, for example, going to write your web copy by a certain date and time. And encourage them to lovingly pester you if it isn’t in their inbox on the day and time you said.
One of the challenges of being your own boss, and particularly in super small businesses like ours, is that it can be a pretty lonely silo. So connect with accountability buddies to remove some of that “adrift” feeling that doing everything by yourself can create.
The thing about this way of getting stuff done is that not only is it effective, it also builds in a very important habit for succeeding in your business: You need to be trustworthy to your clients, and you need to demonstrate your trustworthiness to your clients.
A huge part of that (maybe the whole of that!) is being good to your word. I am not saying anyone is going to be razor’s edge perfect at this, I am not perfect at this. Sometimes I will tell a client I will email them a resource and I forget. Sometimes I have to reschedule something despite my best intentions- I’ve lost my voice before, I’ve had my power go out from a tornado and I had to reschedule a webinar because of it. But much more often than not, I do the thing I said I was going to do and on the exact day and time that it was promised.
The ability for clients and potential clients to see that you are trustworthy and that you do deliver what you say you will deliver is the currency of your business. Without that, you will have much slower momentum in growing things, and are more likely to have to shutter things down the road if you are consistently not able to get things to the people you promised them to.
If clients trusting that you will deliver what you say when you say are the lifeblood of your business, it’s pretty motivating to deliver things! And if you struggle with attention and execution issues, this is a potent way to constrain the focus of your attention. It forces your attention on the most important thing, the thing you put on the calendar. Set a deadline, announce it, make the thing so that you have to deliver it as you stated you would!
As an aside, don’t make yourself crazy with this: Don’t have a big deliverable every day. Don’t break every task down into 50 different tasks all marked on your calendar (which makes it into a insane maze of confusing information) because then you are just going to go back into a fog about what actually is the most important thing to pay attention to.
Decide on something that is the most important thing to move your business forward next: Is it that you need to reach out to potential clients? Do you need to grow your list and teaching a webinar is the best way to do that? Is it that you need to develop your core offering? Whatever it is, decide that it is actually important before you put it on the calendar and announce it.
I do empathize with the fact that putting something on your calendar in a fixed, unmovable way, announcing that date and what you will deliver in public and to other people, and then having to actually do “The Thing” and do it to meet the deadline you set can feel quite similar to throwing yourself off that cliff from my earlier metaphor. It’s scary! Announcing you will do something feels to our less secure parts like we have just set ourselves up for a very public failure. It’s vulnerable. It feels risky.
We all have these less secure parts (except for sociopaths, and I’m going to go ahead and assume you aren’t one). So we have to learn that we don’t really outgrow that feeling that comes from leaning into our growing edge. Running your own business is practically like therapy in that it will put you up against your growing edge over and over again. There will be moments when we just strap on our wings and jump!
In addition to knowing how to make progress, it’s important to know when not to make progress. Entrepreneurship is like interval training. If you’re building in sprints, make sure to build in rests!
On that note, I won’t be back with a new article next week! I’m taking some time fully away from work to visit family in the Pacific Northwest. My next article and episode about how to keep things simple (in this day and age where proliferating complexity seems to be next to impossible to avoid) will publish at 5 am eastern time on Wednesday August 31st. It’s on my calendar, I’ll be there.