“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
– Steve Jobs
Now that I primarily work with founders through my group strategy program, The Foundery, I spend a lot of my time helping entrepreneurs decide which of their brilliant ideas to start with. The problem is, they each have so many ideas for projects, offerings, ventures and products that would serve their dream clients. To make it worse, most of their ideas are good ones! They want to start podcasts and build their newsletter lists and launch new programs and update their websites and host a retreat and write a book and do it all as soon as possible.
…I’m exaggerating, of course. As a whole, my clients are grounded, thoughtful and patient. They understand that good things take a while and that we can only work on one thing at a time. They’re full to bursting with inspiration and ideas that they’re excited to create and put out into the world, but they’re also fully aware of the limitations on their time and energy. Lest we forget, building new things is really hard and very time-consuming!
So what do we do? Well, to borrow a term from the medical world, we triage. Triaging is the process of assigning degrees of urgency to various options. In the business world, this means that we use certain frameworks & paradigms to help us figure out what idea needs to come first. We leave the other ideas in a waiting room until we have the resources & time to give them the attention they deserve. If you’re currently struggling to decide which of your (no-doubt) fantastic ideas to start with, here are some of my favourite tools for making your decision.
1. Go Downhill
The number one thing we’re fighting when we’re trying to triage business ideas is our own egos. We all have perceptions about what we “should” be working on: I mean, doesn’t everyone need their own YouTube channel these days? And don’t forget about IGTV! And don’t I also need to pay for Facebook ads?! 😱
Jokes aside, these ‘one-size-fits-all’ marketing strategies that we’re constantly hearing about are not, in fact, a good fit for most of us. Without some intention, this generalized advice can seriously mess with our heads and interfere with our ability to decide. Instead of pursuing the project that lights us up or would make the most sense for our unique business, we’re like that dog from Up. We’ll be plugging away at an awesome business idea, when suddenly: “Squirrel!” “Maybe I should have a better Pinterest strategy!” “Maybe I should create an online course? Everyone else is doing it!” “Squirrel!” “SEO?!”
One antidote to the constant distraction & FOMO anxiety is to go downhill. Instead of trying to figure out The Best Business Strategy on your own, in your head, based on other people’s advice, have a look at the feedback you’re already getting, whether implicitly or explicitly:
- Are your clients already asking you for something?
- What do you already do that gets a lot of engagement or response?
- What do you know that your clients need or could benefit from?
- Where do you see a gap in the market that you could fill?
- What are you already doing, unofficially, that is benefiting your clients?
- What do you find yourself working on without having decided to?
Look for places where you already have some momentum, or for the ideas that seem head-smackingly obvious for you to pursue. Resist the temptation to re-invent the wheel or keep up with the Business Joneses! Decide based on what seems like your next logical step.
2. Ship It Quick
There are certain projects that, once completed, you don’t need to revisit for quite a while. If you’re currently juggling big handfuls of excellent ideas that would improve your business, one strategy is to start with the ideas that you can quickly strike off the list. Other projects might actually be more urgent or more important (we’ll get to that in a minute), but completing small projects can help you build momentum and leave you feeling more confident. Done right, you’ll start to stack up small wins and will be less distracted as you work on the projects that will take a lot longer to accomplish.
Everyone’s business is so different, so when you’re trying to decide which ideas will be quick to ship, ask yourself this question:
What one thing could I do such that once it’s done, it’ll be off my list for the forseeable future?
These are small wins that won’t make a big difference right away, but at least they’ll be done. At least they won’t drain your attention or distract you when you attempt to hunker down on a longer-term idea. Some examples of these short-term projects:
- Create a free PDF download for your website to encourage people to opt into your newsletter list
- Create a branded, beautiful template for your email newsletter that you can replicate every time
- Write a FAQ page for your website
- Update the photos in your portfolio or on your website
- Write canned responses to your top 5 email inquiries
- Create an ebook for your clients to help guide their work with you
- Update all your social media profile photos & bios
3. Use a Matrix
Okay, let’s say that you’ve powered through some of the easier, faster projects and are left with a handful of longer-term ideas that could all benefit your business in some way. Now how do you decide?
This is when I enter the Matrix. There are two I love a lot that often help me to narrow down what projects I should start with.
Input vs. Output Matrix
First up, let’s plot all your ideas onto a grid with four quadrants. Along one axis we have how much effort a project will take, from low to high. Along the other axis, we have how much of a return we can realistically anticipate getting from our investment, financially speaking.
Of course, it can be hard to know or to quantify how much money you’ll make from certain projects, especially if they’re created for the purposes of brand awareness, which as we know is a very long game! That’s why this tool is not the only one I’m recommending. It’s best to be used in conjunction with other strategies that take the larger context of your business into account.
Just for this one tool though, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves. Put all of your ideas down, and map out which ones fall into the high-ROI sections. Once you see them all laid out in a grid, it might become easier to decide what to start with. If any idea is going to take a ton of effort & time but isn’t anticipated to make you any money initially, it might not be where you want to start. It doesn’t mean you can never do it! It just might not be the priority. Chances are that after you put everything in its quadrant, you’ll have a better idea of what deserves your immediate attention.
Important vs. Urgent Matrix
Next up, this wonderful tool via Stephen Covey. Again, we have two axes: one showing importance from low to high. Another showing urgency from low to high.
In 7 Habits, Covey encourages us to spend most of our time in Q2: Important and Not Urgent tasks. Nobody is harassing us for these things and they don’t have a deadline attached to them, but they’re the projects that will make the biggest impact and create the legacy we hope to build. Unfortunately, most of us tend to spend most of our time on Urgent but Not Important tasks (interruptions) or Not Urgent and Not Important tasks (distractions & time-wasters).
You may be surprised by the results of plotting all your business ideas into this grid! Is there an idea that feels both urgent and important that should take precedence over the others? Or are most of your ideas “legacy” items: important, but not on a particular timeline? Maybe you can triage between those items! Finally, what is showing up in the lower quadrants that may not even need to be done at all? The more honest & specific you can be, the better.
Important note: Remember to define “Important” as it pertains to your unique business, not based on what you’ve heard is “important” for businesses in general.
4. Go With Your Gut
This sounds simple, but in fact might be the hardest strategy on this list. It’s really complicated to go with your gut, because doing so involves a few different things:
- Quieting the external noise in order to hear what your gut is saying
- Taking the time to actually listen to your gut
- Trusting your gut enough to have the faith to do what it says
None of the above are easy things to do! Especially that last one. Remember how we’re all like Golden Retrievers spotting squirrels? It’s a real struggle to ignore the squirrels long enough to decide to implement the thing that’s right for our businesses & clients.
Everyone is different, but chances are that as you’re reading this, you know exactly what helps you tune into your intuition. Is it journaling? Meditating? Baking elaborate concoctions? Talking to like-minded friends? Going for a run? Whatever strategies work for you, I encourage you to make space for them. As the founder of your business, no one knows your customers better than you. You know how to serve them best. You know what they want. And you know how to speak to them! So it’s worth investing in your ability to find your own answers within your own heart.
Trusting your intuition is a bit harder, but with every right-for-you decision you make, you’ll develop more confidence in your own inner guidance system. Can you test your intuition’s hypothesis in a low-investment way? Try taking the next tiny right step and seeing what happens as a result.
Since you’ve made it all the way to the end, I have a little secret for you: It doesn’t matter what you choose. It matters that you choose. It matters that you start, that you try new things, and that you see what the results are. Test & change! It’s all an experiment. We can analyze ideas until the cows come home, but the best way to see what works is to put it out there and see what the results are. So if you’re feeling stuck, encourage yourself to decide on one project that you can see through to completion. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Tell yourself that you’ll finish one thing before you go chasing squirrels and diluting your progress. If you finish and you hate it and nobody cares, you get to try something new.
I’d love to know: How do you personally decide what ideas to start with in your own business? What helps you stay on task and moving towards your goals? How do you prevent Squirrel Syndrome and quiet all the opinions swirling around you? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. Need more intention in your (business) life? Download my signature client questionnaire, designed to help you find more clarity through reflection!