In my last article, How To Get Focused, I covered three reasons that people fail to stay focused on goals they set for themselves:
- The first was not defining those goals with enough precision to let me execute on them.
- The second was being paralyzed between the need to implement fast, to launch my work, and to be strategic, to consider what work was worth launching and at what point. The result is often chasing shiny objects and not accomplishing anything meaningful.
- The final one was doing the work which was easiest and not the work which required the most courage, the emotionally challenging work that leads to real leaps forward.
In this article, I’m going to look at common problems with most planning and task management systems people use and why they fail to help you focus. I’ll also talk about how to avoid those mistakes so you can stay clear, confident and focused on your top priority.
Mistake #1: You don’t have a falsifiable “North Star”
In March of 2015, I had been working on my book, The End of Jobs, for six months. I felt like I was running in circles. I was spending lots of time working on the book, but it wasn’t clear to me whether I was making any progress.
On Saturday mornings, I like to go to a coffee shop and do my weekly review to look at how the previous week went and get clear on priorities for the coming week. That week, I went to Houndstooth Coffee. It’s a sort-of industrial chic cafe in downtown Austin, Texas.
I thought about my progress on the book. Some weeks the word count went up and some weeks the word count went down. Some weeks chapters got cut and chapters got added.
Was it getting better? If I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure.
When should I release it? I didn’t want to just push it out the door when it wasn’t any good, but I also didn’t want to be one of those people who had been “working on a book for four years.”
I realized that the problem was I hadn’t set a falsifiable deadline.
My goal was “write the book.” I was succeeding at that. I would sit down every week and “write the book.”
I needed a deadline that was falsifiable. One where the day after the deadline I could lack back on the project and say “I did it” or “I did not do it.”
I immediately changed the goal to “the book will be available for sale on Amazon by June 30th, 2015.” It was falsifiable. On July 1, 2015, I would either have done it or not.
I couldn’t rationalize around it and claim “I’m working on the book.” This was scary because it made failure a real possibility. I couldn’t fail to “work on the book”, but I could fail to hit my deadline.
Yet, it was also transformative because it made success a real possibility. I wasn’t able to fool myself anymore.
The next three months were more productive than the preceding year. All of a sudden I had a North Star, a clear direction: to get the best possible book published by June 30th.
Now that I had a falsifiable deadline, I could work backwards from the deadline. I needed a finalized manuscript two weeks before the date. I needed a finalized cover four weeks before the date.
When my editor sent me back three chapters which either needed major revisions or to be cut, I looked at my calendar and realized that I couldn’t get them revised in time. Those 15,000 words are still on the cutting room floor.
When I saw a new opportunity, I could always filter it by my north star: “does this help me get the book published by June 30th.” If yes, it was worth doing. If not, it wasn’t.
I started to understand what da Vinci meant when he said that creative projects are “never finished, only abandoned.”
So how do you implement this in real life?
Think of a project you’re working on right now, and ask how you can make it falsifiable.
- If your goal is to write a book, when will it be available on Amazon?
- If your goal is to publish a blog post, when can I read it on Medium?
- If your goal is to launch a website, when can I see it live?
- If you’re coding an app, when can someone demo it?
The biggest inflection point in my blogging career was when I decided “I will publish 1 article by the end of the day Saturday for the next three months.”
If it was already Saturday and I didn’t have anything written, I didn’t get to say “I just wasn’t inspired this week.” I had to publish something. It didn’t have to be good mind you. It just has to be published.
The thing a lot of people get backwards is they wait to feel inspired or motivated to make something good, but the thing is when you set falsifiable deadlines you train yourself to see.
When I knew I had to publish something on Saturday, I start to see and act in a new way. I started to think “I need to do or think something this week worth writing about.”
The response I get to this is often “what if I don’t think of anything or do anything?”
Said another way: “what if I fail?”
Well, you might. But the choice is not between definite success and possible failure, it is between definite failure and possible success.
If you don’t set a deadline, you will definitely not publish something good. You will do what I did and waffle back and forth. Failure is guaranteed.
If you do set a deadline, you might publish something good. Success is a possibility.
Mistake #2: You set the wrong timelines (confusing goals with vision)
Once you accept that you should be operating on deadlines, the question becomes: which deadline?
In a study, researchers found that salespeople who were awarded yearly made over 50% of their sales in the fourth quarter.
They weren’t really working on closing deals in February because running through the back of their mind was always “hey, I’ve got 10 more months, no rush!”
Salespeople who were rewarded quarterly had relatively even sales throughout the year and made more sales overall. Because they always felt the deadline coming up, they were consistently making sales.
Using shorter timelines creates a sense of urgency to get things done today, not tomorrow.
But doesn’t this lead to chasing shiny objects? That’s where I distinguish between goals and vision.
- Goals are best set on shorter timelines where you need urgency to get it done. They are specific and falsifiable.
- A vision, on the other hand, is something best set years into the future. It’s something big and exciting and motivating and fuzzy.
Having a vision lets me conceive of something exciting and meaningful, like “help democratize the social technology of the entrepreneurial economy,” and the goal gives me something falsifiable to do on the way to that, like “write twelve essays” or “sell a book proposal.”
The short-term goals lack meaning and significance outside of the context of the broader vision but give you a clear north star to work towards.
The long-term vision lacks a clear focus but is meaningful and exciting.
It’s the combination of the two that lends context, meaning and significance to a specific, falsifiable outcome.
Mistake #3. You set outcome driven metrics instead of process driven ones
An outcome driven metric would be “Make 20 sales.”
A process driven metric would be “Make 100 sales calls.”
The difference between the two is that process driven metrics are within your control and outcome driven metrics are not.
If you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before, setting outcome driven metrics is a recipe for failure and feeling terrible.
If you’re selling something for the first time or trying to take on a new role at work or you’re trying to double your business in the next 90 days, there’s no way to know if what you’re doing is going to work.
Let me share a story of how I learned this (the hard way, of course).
Early in my career, I was working in sales for a very small software startup in San Diego. I set the goal that I wanted to add $10k in MRR (monthly recurring revenue) within six months.
Every day, I would send out cold emails to potential customers to try and schedule sales demos.
If I had already scheduled demos, I would do them.
By the time I got about halfway through the six months, I realized the goal was completely out of reach. I had only brought on three customers, at a few hundred bucks a month each. Not even $1,000 in MRR…
It became clear that the product team had built the product without talking to any of the potential customers and so we didn’t have a sales problem, we had a product problem.
Basically, I could have been the best salesperson in the universe and it wouldn’t have helped much. (Well, it probably would have helped a lot, but it still wasn’t the core problem.)
At the time, though, I mostly blamed myself and went into a negative spiral, laying on my couch and eating ice cream and pizza for a week.
If I’d set a process driven metric like “Send 1,000 cold emails”, then I would have been able to say “I accomplished what was in my control and now I need to look at why the results weren’t what I expected.”
I would have discovered that there was a problem with the product and the market which I couldn’t have foreseen.
I had an idea for how to solve this.
“What if I approached this as an experiment?” Instead of choosing a goal outside my control and blaming myself if I didn’t accomplish it, what if I started with a hypothesis: ““I have a hypothesis that if I send 1000 cold emails then I will be able to schedule 50 sales calls and I will be able to acquire 20 customers.”
If that didn’t work, then I could look at what went wrong. Was my email script bad? Were my demos bad? Did the whole product need to get revamped? Was this even a good industry to be in?
This approach made it easier to stay focused: I wasn’t constantly trying to develop a new strategy to get 100 customers, I was just focused on sending out cold emails.
It also put success within my control. A “failure” just became data to refine and improve the next hypothesis.
The Three Mistakes That Kill Focus and How to Avoid Them
To recap, the three mistakes are:
1. First, not setting a falsifiable North Star, causing you to spin your wheels and not make definite progress.
2. Second, confusing goals with vision, and ending up with a vague goal that doesn’t force you to operate with urgency.
3. And third, setting an outcome driven goal instead of a process driven, which can make you blame yourself for things out of your control.
The solution is to set a long-term vision and a falsifiable north star.
What goals are you currently working on? How can you split them into a longer term vision and also a falsifiable north star?
By combining a long-term vision and a shorter-term day north star, you will get the best of both worlds. A big, motivating future AND a clear, actionable goal to focus on moving you in that direction.
In the next essay, I’m going to walk you through exactly how to put together your own 25-year vision that will help you be more motivated, identify new opportunities, and overcome failure of imagination.