White Knuckle Deadlines

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Deadlines for your business are driven by different things.

Sometimes they’re built-in, more or less. That is, the In-Real-Life (IRL) aspect of making a delivery date, or cranking out a report, or arriving at a service appointment on-time make a deadline almost immaterial.

There are a lot of times when it’s a bit squishier than that. Think of all the business and planning work you need to do to stay ahead of your competition, the industry, your profession and just “regular business” (think updating your CRM, or doing your books, or building out a marketing campaign…). You may create deadlines for yourself, and even set aside time periodically to get them done, but so often you are sabotaged by life. You get an emergency call from a customer, or a big order comes in that you HAVE to fill, or you get sick (or someone in your family does…). These all keep you from doing what needs to be done.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that you’re usually a lot more enthusiastically engaged in doing what you love to do (the part of the business that drove you to start a small business in the first place!) rather than the dull, gray “business grind” that you KNOW needs to be done, but is pretty uninspiring and, frankly, easy to put off until tomorrow….or later.

There’s a great quote by Leonard Bernstein:

“Two things are necessary for Great Achievement: a Plan and Not Quite Enough Time.”

Taking these thoughts together, what does this mean for you and your business?

  • The first thing has to do with motivation.
You know what your goals are and have done the work to start and run a business with them in mind. How frequently do you revisit those goals to re-energize your desire to success, as you’ve defined it? There are untold numbers of books, podcasts, videos, programs and events that have success and business motivation as their key message. Some of them might actually work for you. We’re all different and some different things might work for you than how they work for me.

I’ve started using a prioritization methodology for dealing with tasks for my business. It is loosely based on some points from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’ve created a two-value coding system for each to-do. The first is based on where it falls on a Deep-to-Shallow Work scale of 1 – 4 (1 is Shallow and 4 is Deep). Where a task or process lands on this scale indicates just how hard the task is mentally, not on how long it will take.
  • The second is a time-frame assessment.
This is based on when it is due and / or ongoing. I’m using the first letter of each of the words Long, Mid, Short and Immediate (L, M, S, and I) for the shorthand here. So replying to a simple client request to set up a meeting this week would be 1I.  Deep analysis of new market research studies I get from the American Marketing Association would be 4L. Creating a Prezi presentation from scratch for an event in 3 months would be 3L. You get the idea.

So now you can prioritize, but how do you get yourself to actually DO IT?  There’s another great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  In it he makes the case that understanding how habits work will enable you to build new ones, break old ones and improve others in ways that actually align with the way your brain works. Needless to say, this is really helpful. One process he describes is The Habit Loop. This is a neurological pattern that governs any habit, consisting of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these components can help in understanding how to change bad habits or form good ones. The Habit Loop is always started with a cue, a trigger that transfers your brain into a mode that automatically determines which habit to use. The heart of the habit is a mental, emotional, or physical routine. Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain determine if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. So what you want is to change the old habit of putting off the thing you don’t want to do into altering it so that you get it done.

So there’s the motivation and some of the how-to. Still, if you give yourself too much room in which to do this, it becomes easier to put it off and more likely that life will intervene.

This is where the tight deadline (the “Not Quite Enough Time” of Bernstein’s quote…) comes in. For example: It’s Tuesday and you want to get your monthly “working on the books” out of the way. You don’t want it staring you in the face next week, so you set yourself a deadline for Friday at the end of the day to be finished with it. Well, how about you actually aim for Thursday by lunch time? Not only would this free up Thursday afternoon (and maybe even Friday!), but might push you to:
  • Think Differently about how you do it. If the old way takes too much time, you may find some efficiencies you couldn’t see otherwise. Or maybe hiring a bookkeeper starts looking attractive…!
  • Ignore the negative voices in your head. The usual thoughts of “I hate doing this!”, “I’m awful at this!” and “I can’t get this done in time…” dissipate. You just don’t have time for them.
  • Quickly outline the steps you need to make something happen. With less time at your disposal, you’re a lot more likely to find where the “flab” is in your normal process and get rid of it.
So, give yourself less time, rather than more time, the next time you’re confronted with that new project or that recurring process you dread. You’ll be surprised at what you’re able to do!


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