Artificial deadlines for the win

When I’m under pressure I produce some of my best work. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the amount of pressure I’m under, and my ability to remove noise from my brain and see a clear path through to a desired end result. It is useful to understand this brain trait and apply it in scenarios when I might otherwise not be as focused as I would like.

So it made an awful lot of sense that I would thrive in a startup environment.  When I started my first business Atlas, a software house, I was under pressure to get everything done yesterday so that my co-founder and I could earn a living and stop eating into our modest savings. I was wearing dozens of hats including sales person, developer, bookkeeper, admin, and chief tea maker and I thrived.  When times got tough I simply increased the number of hours I worked in order to stay on top of everything but the focus was always there (note: I’m not saying I was working efficiently what with all the context switching, but I definitely made progress through brute force and determination).

Slowly, without noticing, the pressure and buzz of the startup that we had created started to subside, and I found myself being able to think and plan a month ahead, then three months ahead, and then a year ahead.  We hired staff to take the admin and minutiae of running the business away from me and slowly but surely the noise crept back in as the day to day pressure receded.  I effectively took the approach of firing myself from as many roles in the business as possible.  At the point where I was no longer permitted access to our source code repository I felt about as welcome as a hedgehog at a bouncy castle party, and started to miss the pressure that drove me forward in our earlier years.  It became harder to focus, and I could find myself leaving the office not feeling like I had achieved much at all.

Then a couple of  years ago on New Years Eve a friend of mine who had been thinking about moving back to Canada decided he could no longer put it off and booked one way tickets for July that year. He was committed, and had a fixed deadline of seven months that was an immovable object, and therefore all planning would have to work backwards from the date of the flight. I didn’t realise at the time but what he had done was created an artificial deadline which forced him to see something through.

I decided recently that this was a technique I could benefit from, and so created my own artificial deadline by booking flights to Barcelona (more on this here) where I would spend a month with my family living in a different city and remote working. Since setting this immovable date my output has increased exponentially. Now everything I do revolves around the deadline, and my focus is back as I ensure that the projects we’re working on and in particular my own products are in a state of readiness for my departure.

I think this is a useful technique to use, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve leaving the country! For example, rather than spending the next few months working on that app in your spare time, how about booking a demonstration with some potential customers in 4 weeks’ time. You’ll be amazed how you can suddenly move mountains in order to ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself on the day.

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Taking a month away from my business

Last year I had a child, a boy to be precise. His name is Eli and he has changed my life.  “No shit”, was the response of most people I told this fact to. Well quite, but what was really interesting, is that he actually changed my entire outlook on running my businesses in a way that I hadn’t managed in the seven years prior to his arrival.

This particular insight came about as a result of being forced to take time off from work. Not the kind of time off where you still check your e-mails at least one a day when your partner isn’t looking. This was actual proper time off, and I was terrified. The problem was that I had been managing the business up until this point the hard way…I was attempting to micro-manage at a large scale. I was involved in pretty much every client project our software house was undertaking, I was product manager for both of our products Fundipedia and Staff Squared and that’s before I got to the work involved in managing and developing staff and driving the company forward. The arrangement was unsustainable, but old habits die hard and Satan himself would be handing out ice cream in hell before I released my deathly grip on the business.

So back to the time off…

Here in the UK when your kiddy is born it is customary (and a legal right, no less) that Dad gets Paternity leave. This is two weeks to allow a poor unsuspecting souls to reacclimatise to their new lives. For me, it was the first time I genuinely felt like I could ask my team to cover my back, and run the business as they saw fit.  I would be un-contactable, and so they were to make decisions as they saw fit and that was the end of it. So the boy was born, and I was off, properly off.  I played out my fatherly duties over those two weeks, and fully expected to return to an actual war zone. But no, I came back and the business was running almost better than I had left it. My managers felt empowered, and had taken the business by horns and ran it beautifully. Our clients were happy, and there had been no major disasters in my absence. If I’m completely honest, I was disappointed – the realisation that your business is all grown up and can handle itself is just as difficult as letting go in the first place.

Since my return to work being armed with the knowledge that I’m not actually required on a day to day basis to keep my company afloat I’ve done what any normal person would do and decided to go away again, but this time for a month and I’ll be residing in another country altogether.  I’m spending all of March in Barcelona, and the bonus is that not only does this force my team to get on with it, there are a number of additional positive side effects:

  • Physical distance from my business gives me the space I need to focus on our products which are my priority
  • I suffer from incredibly bad hayfever to the point where it’s debilitating. I’m hoping a month out of the UK when pollen is starting to rear its ugly head again will help keep the worst of the symptoms at bay
  • I get to spend a month of quality time with my kiddy when he’s starting to get really interesting (he’ll be 8 months old by then). I’ll be speaking to him mainly in Spanish (thanks DuoLingo!) the entire time we’re out there, I’ve no idea if he’ll hold on to any of the words I use but my aim is to raise him to be bilingual so this is a good place to start
  • My ultimate aim is to leave the UK and live out the rest of my life with my family abroad, so this is a test in a controlled environment to give this a try

I’ll be keeping a log of how I get on using this blog, plotting the highs and lows and any problems I encounter trying to manage a software house from afar. I’ll probably tweet more often too, so feel free to follow me if you’re interested in this little experiment.

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