This is the 3rd post in the NON-MBA blog series. You can see the full collection at The NON-MBA.
Once upon a time, there was a donkey named Fred.
Fred was having a rough summer. It was scorching hot, his owner hadn’t brought him food in several days and he could feel himself getting weaker.
Lying in the shade one day he knew that if he didn’t get up and try to find food and water, he wasn’t going to make it. He pulled himself up and walked out under the beating sun. As he got to the middle of the field, he looked one way and saw a huge water trough filled with fresh water. He looked the other way and saw a fresh pile of apples.
He thought to himself, “I’m so thirsty, I should get a drink first and then get the apples.” Then he thought, “No, the apples might go bad in the sun so I’ll get a couple of apples first and then I’ll wash it down with some water.” But then he thought, “Thirst is more dangerous than starvation, I’ll get water first.”
He went back and forth, not able to decide until eventually – he died from a combination of starvation and thirst.
Action is the real measure of intelligence.” – Napolean Hill
From the outside it’s easy for us to see,”If only Fred would have made a timely decision on one or the other, he would have been fine. Picking the apples or the water would have given him the strength to get to the other.”
A lot of people who want to build a business are in a similar position to Fred but, just like Fred, they can’t seem to see it for themselves.
When I first started outlining the things that would have been most helpful for me before I got my MBA, I realized that a lot of them had nothing to do with business knowledge. A lot of what was holding me back was my mindset.
A lot of the progress I’ve made in business resulted from changes in the way that I think about things, not the things that I know.
Therefore, among the various purely business-related posts in the NON-MBA series, I’m also going to include some posts about destructive thought patterns I experienced and how I eventually overcame them.
The Planning & Consumption Trap
The number one mindset trap that I fell into was “The planning and consumption trap.” In other words, I tried to overplan. I would consume so much information that I wouldn’t know where to start.
I was an Evernote addict. I had hundreds of lists. Things to do, things to buy, things to write, strategies, processes, etc.
I’d be so obsessed with making sure that I was doing the “right” thing (as if that existed) that it would prevent me from doing “any” thing. It became this sort of strange mental masturbation where I tricked myself into thinking that if I was planning or reading a book, my business was making progress.
If I could grab myself by the shoulders I’d say:
“You’re not perfect. You’re not ever going to be perfect. And guess what? Nobody is perfect and that’s okay. No matter how much you plan, you can’t know everything. You can’t plan for every contingency beforehand. All of those books you’re reading are useful, but they would be much more useful if you could tie them to things that you’re actually doing, so get moving.”
“The planning and consumption trap” is a sneaky little disease because both planning and consuming information are not only encouraged, they’re absolutely necessary. If you want to be successful in business, you need to plan ahead and you need to voraciously consume as much information as you can about your industry, customers, product, etc. The trap gets you when you start substituting planning and overconsumption of information for actually producing something.
For example, for a long time I thought about writing a blog. I must have read three books on how to start a blog, find a niche (that’s an entire can of worms by itself), market a blog, etc. I had thousands of words of planning in an Evernote document that was going to act as my “step-by-step” process to build this great blog.
I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign.” – Elon Musk
I used planning and researching a niche and reading about how to build a blog as a way to make myself feel like I was somehow progressing.
But eventually, there came a time when I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that I was making progress until I actually started producing something and taking serious action. When this time came, I ended up writing one or two blog posts and quitting.
I repeated that exercise with probably 8-10 projects before I realized what was happening.
There are two tactics that I’ve developed to help me overcome this problem:
Tactic #1: Commit to Taking Action
Don’t wait, the time will never be just right.” – Napolean Hill
Waiting for the perfect time to start a business is a common problem. Unfortunately, the time is never right.
Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this: commit to taking a pre-determined amount of action every week. If you think you can spare two hours per week, then do two hours per week. Or better yet, break it up and do 15-20 minutes every day.
It may not seem like much, but if that time is spent taking productive action, you’ll see the cumulative benefit of short bursts of productivity. Lots of small blocks of time will turn into large blocks of time. Once you start stringing together multiple days of productive action, it builds momentum and you won’t want to break the chain.
Additionally, there’s a psychological benefit that you’ll get from taking these small steps. Small good things will happen (closing the first sale, signing the first partnership, etc.) and this will act as a motivator to keep going.
Personally, I use the Pomodoro technique. It’s a simple productivity tool where I work for bursts of 25 minutes on a single task and then take a five minute break. After every four Pomodoros, I take a 25-30 minute break. It helps me to not only stay focused on a single task and avoid distractions, but it’s also a great tool for tracking where I spend my time. Instead of committing to a certain amount of time per week, I set myself a goal of a pre-determined number of Pomodoros. (If you’re a Mac user, check out the Timer app)
Tactic #2: Fire, then Aim
Take productive action first, then do all of your planning and consuming (i.e. reading books, blogs, etc.) afterwards. If your goal is to spend four Pomodoros per week on a project, tell yourself that the these four Pomdoros are going to be spent taking productive action. You can do all of your planning and consumption if you have extra time after those four Pomodoros are finished.
Get the productive action time out of the way first every week, then spend any extra time on planning and consuming information.
If you’re trying to create a blog, spend that time writing and promoting your posts. If you’re building a web application, spend that time actually creating software. If you have an idea for a new product or service, stop spending time reading about what your corporate culture is going to be like and get out and talk to your customers.
Produce first, then plan and consume.
By doing this, you’ll notice an unexpected side-effect: your planning and consuming time will be much more useful because you’ll have more information about what you should be consuming and how you should be planning. It’s much easier to come up with blog post ideas if you’re spending a few hours per week actually writing blog posts.
Try to be strict with yourself about what falls into “productive action” and what falls into “consumption and planning.” Don’t be the person who tries to rationalize that they’re making progress when they actually aren’t.
The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” – Tony Robbins
One of the common traps that caused me to stumble was the “I don’t have a good idea” and “I can’t find my niche” traps. I rationalized that with enough research and planning I’d somehow just discover a perfect idea or niche. A small amount of research and planning is useful, but sometimes you have to just go for it. There’s only so much you can learn about a business before actually building it.
This is the essence of the NON-MBA series. The things you learn by actually taking action are much more valuable than reading about the theory.
It doesn’t matter if every action that you take is 100% wrong, incomplete, amateurish, clumsy or whatever – you’ll still be better off. The things that you’ll learn by taking a wrong action will be so much more valuable than continuing to plan and consume behind the closed door of since-I-can’t-receive-any-negative-feedback-I-must-be-doing-something-right.
If you’re having trouble trying to determine if you’re taking “productive action” or just rationalizing that you are, here are a couple of tips that worked well for me:
- Productive action is usually whatever tasks that move you towards being revenue positive. Could you become revenue positive without reading a book on sales? Probably. Could you become revenue positive without going out and making sales calls? Unlikely.
- Productive action is usually the thing that you don’t want to do. They’re the tasks that make you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable or that are just plain hard. It usually involves putting yourself out there and doing things that seem “un-sexy.” They’re the tasks that could give you a result that you don’t want.
Before moving on to the next NON-MBA post, do both of these tasks to start avoiding the mindset pitfalls that kill some entrepreneurs before they even start:
- Set a goal for how much time you’re going to commit per week. It’s best if you can do a little bit every day. If you like the Pomodoro technique, set the goal for the number of Pomodoros you want to perform. In the beginning, don’t set your goal too high. You can always do more work than your goal, but you want to start stringing together consecutive weeks of hitting your goal in order to build momentum.
- Make the time that you set in the goal above purely for productive action. After the productive action is completed, then spend as much time as you want on planning and consuming information. (This is another reason to set the threshold low in task #1, it gives you the ability to spend at least some time on planning and consuming each week.) If you don’t know where to start in terms of “productive action,” go back and continue to practice the tasks from Learn to sell like a human.
A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” – Tony Robbins
If you have any questions, comments or feedback about the NON-MBA series, please let me know in the comments below. Let me know what you like. Let me know what you hate. Let me know what topics you’re struggling with. I want to make this series a valuable resource so all feedback is appreciated.
Check out the 4th instalment of The NON-MBA series at How to find problems with profit potential – Part 1