Starting That Thing You've Been Thinking About
Hey you should start that thing you’ve been thinking about, the one that’s been taking shape in your mind over the last few months.
You know, the one that seems like a good idea in your head but keeps getting delayed.
The one that excites you and scares you at the same time.
I reckon you should commit to taking the next few steps.
Not a commitment to quit your job or invest $100,000 – just a commitment to the research, design and testing phases.
Fortunately, these phases are educational and gratifying; you’ll learn a lot and enjoy the process.
Your idea will probably change as you become more familiar with how things work, and that’s totally fine.
The commitment is to keeping a certain level of energy, not a particular outcome.
My sense is that there are five elements that will boost your chances of succeeding.
The first is naming the goal – taking the time to properly identify what you’re building.
The second is researching your peers – getting a good sense of what works well for others.
The third is designing milestones – breaking the work into small chunks.
The fourth is secrecy – not telling anyone about what you’re building.
The fifth is oversized incentives –rewards or consequences that shape your behaviour.
Naming the goal
It’s worth spending longer than you’d think to establish the right list of goals.
Vague goals are unhelpful, because they are usually impossible to reach.
e.g. “I want to get fit” is not as good as “I want to complete a half-marathon in October”.
How will you know that you’re fit?
What measurement will you use?
It’s worth using the question “Are you sure?” to test each goal.
For example, are you sure you want the goal to be 10,000 followers on Instagram?
Or is the goal to build an active community?
Or is the goal to change the thoughts and behaviours of your active community?
You could buy 10,000 followers today and be done – would that make you happy?
The same goes for your impact; how will you know that you’ve made a positive change?
A Theory of Change and Program Logic can be invaluable, they help you spell out the starting point, the actions you’ll take, the outputs you’ll create, and the outcomes that you will measure.
e.g. Selling lots of reusable coffee cups is a good output to measure, but the real benefit comes from the reduction in disposable cups.
If people bought your cup and didn’t change their behaviour, would you feel successful?
It might be that you name several things that happen simultaneously; such as the activities you will perform, the results you want to achieve, and the recognition that will confirm that things have gone well.
I’d encourage you to be as honest as possible in this process, don’t tell other people what these are, and don’t pretend it’s entirely noble.
Researching your peers
We’re very quick to spot the strengths of others, but not celebrate these same strengths in ourselves.
This can work in your favour if you’re careful.
By looking at a range of your peers and what they’ve built, you can create an inspiration list of the way you’d like your project to look and feel.
e.g. how they post on social media, how they use their website, how they talk about their project, how they cook, how they exercise, what they read, etc.
This list gives you some objective targets to hit – you might not feel great when you hit them in the future, but a part of your mind knows that you previously identified these features as being impressive.
A big part of creativity is stealing from a diverse range of sources and combining them in unique ways, so you might try and copy specific elements from completely different people.
You’ll feel like a fraud, but your future fans and customers won’t know where the ideas came from.
Your goal might be a large or impressive outcome, which makes it a bad indicator of progress.
As Henry Ford said “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs”.
These are milestones along the journey, but also points of celebration.
They won’t feel like celebrations on their own – you’ll have to proactively celebrate consistent improvements even while success feels far away.
Right now is a great time to set these milestones, because they still feel impressive.
E.g. reaching each new Personal Best, finishing a course, taking 1,000 photos, going a month without sugar or alcohol, building a website, etc.
You can’t expect other people to celebrate these with you, which leads to the next point…
The temptation is to start talking about your new project to other people, because it’s interesting news and will keep you accountable.
Counter-intuitively, this is unhelpful.
It turns out we get the same chemical release in the brain from talking about making progress as we do from actually doing the work.
Therefore, it’s better to start in secret, then tell people once you’ve made some progress.
It also feels cooler to have other people notice a change, rather than having you bring it to their attention.
You also reduce the risk of having your friends and family’s enthusiasm bias your measurements – if you’re starting a business or club, you’re testing the waters for how customers respond.
If all of your traffic comes from people who like you (rather than what you’ve built), it can convince you to go down the wrong path, or miss the signals from your true customers.
Intrinsic motivation (an internal drive) probably isn’t enough to keep you on track for the next six months, so maybe a bit of extrinsic motivation (carrots and sticks) can help.
If a star chart helps you stay on course, by all means use a star chart.
If you lose motivation after you finish the chart, start a new one.
These can feel juvenile at first, but as they say “If it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid”.
The question for you is: how much do you want this?
How much is it worth for this to go well?
Time to put your money where your mouth is – having some skin in the game boosts the likelihood of you making genuine progress.
By designing large incentives, you reduce the chances of having “zero days”, days where you make no progress towards your goal.
If these incentives can nudge you to make even a tiny improvement each day, the results will compound like a snowball.
Personally, I recommend setting aside a large amount of money, whatever that means to you, and giving it (or a commitment) to a trusted friend.
Then set the conditions of the fund’s release:
“If I can do ___ by ___, this money will go towards (item, experience, holiday, etc.).
If I miss, the money will go towards (cause you can’t stand)”.
The anti-charity is important, so that you don’t rationalise failure as being a kind donation.
There will still be days when you feel great and days when you feel flat.
Oversized incentives are here to nudge you on the neutral days, the ones that could have easily gone either way.
If it seems stupid and gets you to make serious progress, you won’t think it was stupid.
January and February are really good times to start, because you have the headspace to think all of this through, and the psychological freedom of starting a new year.
Nobody expects that you’ll do exactly the same things as you did last year, and therefore offer less resistance to your new project.
Just to be clear, people WILL offer resistance.
It happens out of fear; either the fear of change or the fear of personal inadequacy.
This often feels like an attack, but if you think about it, it makes sense.
They see all of the challenges ahead of you but lack your motivation, so of course they get anxious on your behalf.
Alternatively, they see you making progress in your life and feel ashamed that they’re falling behind, so the temptation is to either discredit you or your new project.
Once you can name these tactics, it’s much harder for them to affect you.
This thing you’ve got in mind is really important – that’s why these thoughts won’t go away.
Please let me know how I can help, it might be through designing milestones, identifying peers or good books, or as an accountability partner for your incentives.