What do pea coats have to do with productivity? We’ll get to that later. But first…
Almost every successful person I speak to says that focus is one of the key ingredients to their success, not only the entrepreneurial domain but almost any domain you could care to mention.
As Warren Buffett put it, “the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
And I agree, wholeheartedly.
In the past three years I have:
Despite all of this, I still maintain a pretty active social life, travel often and rarely work past 5pm. In fact, recently our team started experimenting with a 9 to 3 workday!
I was asked how I reconcile the focus doctrine with all of the various projects I’m working on by Ryan Helms, host of the Hustle to Freedom podcast. I hadn’t thought about it at length at the time, so I said that it depends on what your goals are, something I elude to later in this post, but the question got me thinking, and the answer is simple.
Focus is in fact, somewhat counterintuitively perhaps, the reason for whatever success I’ve had running multiple projects at the same time.
A Common Misconception
It’s a common misconception that focus means working on a single project, and that working on a single project immediately renders you more focused than somebody who is working on four. But here’s why that’s flawed thinking.
Version 1 Founder
I am a founder of a company overseeing a team of ten and I’m dedicating all of my time to one single project.
I spend my time:
I might be busy but how much do you think I am actually going to get done?
Version 2 Founder (upgraded!)
I am also a founder of company overseeing a team of ten, but I’ve got several projects on the go. I also host a podcast, write books, blog regularly, deliver keynote talks, sit on several startup boards and even have a side hustle.
I spend my time:
Obviously, I’m going to get way more actual value-adding work done.
It’s by being a Version 2 founder that I am capable of leading two ventures that you would classify as successful in addition to hosting a podcast, blogging and writing books for a reputable publisher.
And now, I want to give you my framework — which in actuality, is just a visual-inspired, memorable acronym I put together to capture all of the different things I do to become 10X more productive and effective than the average founder — and by the average founder who raises $10M in venture capital and proceeds to blow it all in under 18 months by focusing on doing all of the wrong things and spending it in all of the wrong places.
No, not those (although, I quite like the jacket on the far right). What I’m talking about is deliberate Prioritising, Cutting, Outsourcing, Automating, Testing and Starting, or PCOATS.
Let’s explore each step in a little more detail.
As the oft-quoted management thinker Peter Drucker put it, “productivity is what you don’t do”. Aside from keeping a to-do list, I strive to ensure that what’s on my to-do list has been subject to some kind of deliberate prioritisation. It doesn’t need to be complex either. Once you figure out what your goals are, it’s simply a matter of identifying the tasks that will help you get there and then performing a simple Value / Cost analysis (how likely is it out of 10 that this task is going to move the needle, divided by the time and cost of this task out o 10; simply prioritise by the higher result). Occasionally you’ll need to make concessions for time-bound or urgent tasks but generally this analysis holds up.
You might also like to engage in the occasional ‘strategy canvas’ review session with your team and determine what your team will start/stop/do more of/do less of insofar as its product, target customer segments, marketing channels and sales strategies is concerned.
I often keep Vilfredo Pareto in mind and focus on the 20% of tasks, customers, prospects, marketing channels, sales strategies or product features that are likely to deliver 80%, or the majority of the value. If you take Pareto’s 80/20 principle further, you’ll find that 4% of your inputs deliver 64% of the value, and 1% a whopping 50% of the value. Yet some people seem to insist on focusing on the 80% of tasks that deliver just 20% of the value, or pandering to difficult customers that make the lives of their employees hell even though those customers are worth a negligible fraction of revenue, and might in fact be costing the company more than it makes it — preposterous!
I’ll also want to increase the likelihood of making the most right decision. Most decisions are what Jeff Bezos calls reversible and I’ll tend to make such decisions, but for larger, mission-critical, irreversible decisions, I’ll put my ideas in front of a hand-picked team and we’ll play a round of planning poker, borrowed from the world of agile project management. We’ll basically each take turns to perform our own Value / Cost analysis, but we’ll do it on our own, privately, then we’ll share our results and discuss any major discrepancies. We’ll then vote again based on the discussion until there is no more than an immaterial discrepancy. Good decision making requires more than our intuition, which is usually just a product of our experiences; it requires our professional judgment and that of others, healthy discourse plus where possible, data.
On healthy discourse, Queen’s Freddie Mercury went solo with his maiden effort, Mr Bad Guy (left), he got to dictate the creative direction of the album, but without the input and pushback he got in Queen from guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, the quality just wasn’t there. Ultimately, the album flopped and Mercury returned to Queen for the legendary Live Aid concert and never looked back.
What can you eliminate or reduce? This could be a feature, a client, a meeting, an interruption, a marketing channel — anything that doesn’t add value, or in fact, takes value away. For example, when I first started Collective Campus I’d schedule 60 minute long meetings by default with all sorts of unqualified prospects who had no intention of ever buying from us but saw this as an opportunity to justify getting out of doing any work. Nowadays, I schedule 5 minute phone calls for introductory conversations and 30 minute follow up meetings where I’ve established that this is likely a legitimate prospect and not just a fishing expedition.
You might also have a number of practices that don’t serve you — such as checking email constantly, or notifications that pop up on your screen, drawing you out of the zone and forcing you to chase furry white rabbits down rabbit holes until you stop 30 minutes later and wonder, “what was I doing?”. You probably sit in more meetings than you should, work on tasks long after most of the value had been delivered (remember Pareto) and perform lots of rudimentary tasks that you should be outsourcing.
Speaking of which…
Borrowing from economics, by leveraging advantages you might have as your organisation grows, you can effectively do more with less. Whether that be through productising what you do, through the automation of tasks, by repurposing and re-using content (which we get to later) but also by leveraging domain expertise, assets, customers, networks and partners that you’ve worked hard to develop, for other things.
For example, it was much easier for UBER to roll-out UBER Eats, than it was UBER proper, because the technology infrastructure, driver network and customer database already existed.
At our core, everything we do at Collective Campus is about unlocking the latent potential of people to create value, whether that be through working with large companies, startups, children or through my podcast and books. There is alignment.
Similarly, if you look at a high output individual like Joe Rogan, host of the Joe Rogan Experience, UFC commentator, internationally acclaimed comedian, co-founder of nutrition company Onnit, Brasilian Jiujitsu black belt and former TV presenter, you’ll find alignment between his years honing his communication as a comedian and his podcasting, TV presenting and UFC commentating. His BJJ and martial arts background in general obviously helps him wrap leverage his communication skills as the UFC’s go-to commentator.
Well, you probably shouldn’t be!
Whether it’s delegating within your team, or delegating to offshore virtual assistants who can help you get all that process-oriented rudimentary stuff done, and help you with day to day admin and calendar management, you can’t afford to be working on what Perry Marshall calls $10 an hour tasks, when somebody will gladly get paid $10 an hour to do them for you (see below).
We’re a small team at Collective Campus but we have a large team of virtual assistants as well as hired guns that we trust across the world in the facilitation and consulting space, so that we can deliver like a firm that’s much bigger than we actually are.
But before you even think about outsourcing, you might want to automate first (yes, I know what you’re thinking but PCAOTS wasn’t nearly as memorable as PCOATS).
Tools like Zapier will help you get many of your day-to-day apps talk to each other and save you time. For example, if somebody downloads an ebook on our website, they are automatically added to our Mailchimp database. At that point, they enter an automated drip-feed and receive a series of emails depending on whether they open an email or click a link inside it. They can then choose to schedule a time with me or one of my team with our online calendar booking system which is integrated with our own calendars. Human involvement up to this point? Zero. Other tools you can use to ramp up your lead generation and sales might include Lead IQ, LinkedHelper, MixMax, MailShake, BuzzSumo or numerous others on the market that can help you with various aspects of the prospecting funnel.
This also extends to scheduling posts on social media and having posts show up repeatedly across myriad platforms instead of just one.
I’d also include reusing content (such as past proposals) and repurposing content (turn your blog post into a podcast episode or a Slideshare or an image tile for social) here. I’ll often use a lot of what I learn on the job at Collective Campus in my blogs, which is also repurposed as podcast content.
Don’t be reinventing the wheel all the time. In fact, create something fundamentally better if you’re that way predisposed, but never be reinventing the wheel.
Just do it.
Large organisations have a wealth of resources at their disposal but they punch way, way, waaaaay, below their weight in terms of value creation. And that’s because they are forever in a state of what Basecamp founder calls consensus seeking, instead of committing to decisions. They are forever outsourcing accountability in order to cover their hides in case something goes wrong.
Instead, test, learn and adapt… fast.
There is nothing worse than the wrong things done right (another ode to Drucker).
The last thing you want is to either:
If we’re looking at a new product, feature, marketing channel or something to that effect, we won’t just dive in headfirst. We’ll test the assumptions that underpin whether or not our proposed widget (who doesn’t love widgets?!) is actually going to serve a purpose.
Again, we’ll use some of the prioritisation techniques I introduced earlier to determine what we test first, and define some metrics of success and a test period (usually a week). We’ll then evaluate the results, make a data-informed (note: not driven — data should inform your decisions, not make them for you) decision and move forward, either tweaking, killing or promoting the widget. You can’t afford to waste precious time on the wrong things!
This is all about all of the things you might add or do to start your engine and rev the engine of your company. For example, to start your engine you might hit the gym in the morning, have a cold shower or listen white noise or binauraul beats such as Brain.FM to get into the zone, you might find a quiet space, do the hardest thing first or write down, as Tim Ferriss says, “just 200 crappy words” to get some momentum going if you happen to be writing an article or a report. At a company level, it could be new ways of work you might introduce, product features, marketing channels, healthy snacks and float tank passes for your staff — or whatever else might help move the needle, but always be testing (#ABT!) whatever you decide on.
It appears that I’m far from alone.
Try telling these people that they’re not focused.
They can excel at multiple things because they know how to get the most out of their teams and themselves. They know how to work. Of course, it pays if you have some form of alignment or economy of scale across your different pursuits.
As Richard Branson says, hire people smarter than you, give them a worthwhile mission and the tools they need to succeed and get the hell out of the way.
You can do lots of ‘the things’, and for some of us — like me — doing so is a great source of sustainable energy and enthusiasm, because I’m not looking at the same thing day in, day out.
At it’s core, focus isn’t about doing one thing.
It’s about focusing on one, right thing at a time.
Applying PCOATS has given me way more time to do random crazy sh*t like learn how to ride a motorbike, try my hand at standup comedy and surfing, hike Thai jungles and make feeble attempts at drawing rock icons (below).
To access additional tools and techniques to optimise your approach to business and life, check out the free bonus bundle I’ve made available to accompany my forthcoming book, Employee to Entrepreneur: How to Earn Your Freedom and Do Work That Matters, here.
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