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Blank Page Prioritization

I've had a lot of time to reflect lately on what happens to small businesses like mine when the economy takes a dive. The first thing that happens is that current business dries up. Existing customers cut back on expenses, and consulting services are one of the first optional expenses that has to go. So, early on it's easy to feel like the amount of work you have to do decreases. Those days that you had booked with customers are freed up. Now what are you going to do?

As you look at the market, things might be discouraging. Channels and opportunities that you would typically have open to you have gone away, some temporarily and others for good. Honestly, it can get one to feeling rather bleak about the prospects for any new business. In essence what has happened is that your business slate has been wiped clean and you are left with an empty page before you. What do you do next?

It's about at this point that I start to realize that there are a lot of things that I could and even should be doing. And the more I think about it, the more urgently I need to get started. I'm thinking of things like starting webinars, building a Youtube channel, perhaps putting together some marketing brochures, maybe starting an email campaign, revising the website, drafting up some talks for local user groups, calling up partners, building out new services, exploring new product or service ideas, maybe starting a podcast, exploring new channels for business, writing case studies, blogging, getting some training or certification...

This list quickly starts to grow out of control. And to make matters worse, it all seems quite important and urgent. After all, your business is rapidly approaching the event horizon of a financial black hole that is threatening to swallow much of the economy around you.

You can hear the sucking noise getting louder with each passing day.

And that's when you realize that you are probably busier than you have ever been before. You get right on that business development work, and all of a sudden you realize it's a huge effort. Maybe too much effort. So you skip to the next thing in the hope of just making some progress there. Eventually, you start hopping from one task to the next, desperately trying to make a dent in the pile somewhere. At which point you realize that you've never been more busy or less effective in your life. Perhaps it's not entirely clear to you what you really should be working on.

OK, I have a confession to make: maybe I shouldn't say "You," maybe it's "Me."

So how do you... ahem, pardon me... how do I get out of this trap? Well, I have to admit that I got a little desperate. I guess the first thing I realized was that I had a problem and needed some advice. The problem was that I had way too may things I could be doing and no idea what was most important. Surrounded by an economy in free fall, the pressure to find some sort of viable business is intense. I felt like I had jumped out of a plane with a bunch of things in my pack. As I'm falling, and the ground is swiftly approaching, choosing the right thing to pull out of that pack becomes very important. Pull out a parachute, and I'll come to a gentle landing. Pull out last night's pajamas, and I'll die a grisly death. Oh, and about that parachute? I'll have to cut and sew it and attach all the lines by hand, in mid-air, before I hit the ground. So the choice of what I decide to work on first is really important. Pick the wrong thing, and bad things happen. Pick something right, but too complicated, and you guessed it, bad things happen. So here's your backpack, some string, a bedsheet, a needle, thread, and some scissors. An abrupt shove out the door and...Happy Landings!

So I started out like most people would and just screamed. A lot. But after a while I tired of listening to my own screams I decided to call a friend. So I reached out to some of my colleagues and they offered some advice:

  • Stoicism - Suck it up buttercup, hard times are a fact of life. Great leaders and great ideas are fostered in adversity. So read your Marcus Arelius, face the adversity, be honest about it, and keep moving.

  • Be an opportunist - Say yes to everything. Now is not the time to be fickle about who or how you will work. Be open to new opportunity outside of your established domain. You can go back to your old business when the dust settles.

  • Take care of yourself - When the plane is going down, put on your own oxygen mask first before you do anything else. Do the things that nurture you: get sleep, take breaks, play with the kids, etc.

  • Establish a routine: Get up and take a shower every morning, shave, schedule your day, manage your time.

  • Share with your friends: Often you'll find they feel the same way.

All of that advice was helpful to a greater or lesser degree. As I thought about it further, the problem started to crystalize for me. In fact, I was more than a little embarrassed that it had taken me so long to figure it out. As a friend had pointed out, "Startups don't starve, they drown in opportunities." What I needed to do was prioritize.

Well, I know how to do prioritization. The question was, how to start? The first thing that I felt was most important was to understand what I could control. The tool that I reach for when I want to figure that out is the Circles of Influence. I learned this technique from Diana Larsen. It goes like this: you draw three concentric circles (like a target). The center circle you label, "Things you control." The next circle out you label, "Things you influence." And the third circle outward you label, "The soup." That's the stuff you have no influence or control over. It looks something like this:

OK, that was a good start. It helped me narrow down my list a little. The stuff in "The soup" was right out. That left me with the stuff I can influence and the stuff I can control. I decided to narrow my focus to just those things I can directly control. That still left a fair amount of things that I could do. So I needed to further refine my list. I still had way too much to do.

The next prioritization tool that I reached for was the Eisenhower Matrix. This is a tool that you can use to categorize your work by how urgent or important you perceive it to be. Things that are both urgent and important are the top priority and things that aren't urgent or important should be the lowest priority (and probably not considered at all). Here's an example of how I prioritized my work using the Eisenhower Matrix.

As you can see, now I've narrowed my list down from over a dozen items, to just three. Looking at those urgent and important issues, I feel like I've got a set of things that I can focus on. So using prioritization tools effectively can help to improve your focus rather dramatically.

Now this doesn't mean that I have to be a slave to those priorities, but I know where I should probably start first. I'm human, so I will probably take some time with the family, workout, or go sailing from time to time. Balance has never been my forte, so we'll see how that goes.

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