The following article appeared on Inc.com today as a part of my column, “Behind The Desk.” Look out for new columns every week!
I was sitting at my desk the other day and felt completely overwhelmed. Like many of you, as a business owner I had many things to do at once: three calls to make, an article due, meetings to attend, and random appointments scattered throughout the day. I was completely paralyzed in the moment. Every task seemed equally important and unimportant at the same time.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you have many things to keep track of: Marketing, communication, client work, providing services, leadership–that’s five without even stopping for a breath.
How do you keep all of that in mind without feeling like you’re it’s all going to fall apart? Well, one way is instead to think of putting it all together instead. Like a puzzle.
If you’ve ever done a puzzle, even as a kid, you know how it goes. It’s somewhat random and can seem overwhelming at first, but there are steps you can take to make it easier on yourself. You take a good long look at the picture on the cover of the box, so you have a sense of the ultimate result. You can find the four corners and put them into place. You can build the edges around the perimeter of the puzzle. You can sort the pieces out on the table so you can see them all, then choose one at a time to pick up and put into place.
If you are patient and do one piece at a time, puzzle-making can be a surprisingly relaxing activity. As you finish little sections, you get a tiny thrill of satisfaction, and of course, there’s that big feeling of achievement at the end when, at last, the puzzle is complete.
Now that you’re remembering what the spirit of puzzle building is, let’s also remember what it isn’t. Putting together a puzzle isn’t usually stressful. There’s never a timeline or a deadline. You don’t have to finish it. You can just drop in, do a few pieces, change your mind and work on a different section for awhile, and put it down to return to some other time.
Imagine if managing a busy day could so light and (dare I say) fun? It can be, if you apply the same kind of thinking.
Let’s go back to the scenario we started with. You’re at your desk feeling overwhelmed, somewhat scattered and sure you’ll never finish anything, much less everything, on your list. So you decide instead to think of it as a puzzle. You take those first few steps to make life easier on yourself.
- Write down everything you have to do. This is the picture on the cover of the box.
- Schedule the ones that can be scheduled. These are your “corners.”
- Put the rest of the tasks on a To Do list. These are your “edges.”
- Organize your desk so you can see everything easily. This is the sorting process that will help you be efficient.
Now you can pick up one task at a time, just like the individual pieces of a puzzle.
The shift in thinking that makes the biggest difference is to remember that even though you may feel an internal sense of urgency, most of the time you can be patient and take your time–trusting that when you do, you actually move more efficiently through your tasks than when you race through them in a rush of urgency and stress.
There may be a lot of pieces to your business, but they’re all part of one cohesive whole. Focusing on one area at a time, and working on a few different areas a day, will help you put the whole thing together.
Now, so far we’ve been talking about using the puzzle idea to schedule your day. Whatif you applied this logic to your whole business? It’s a strategy I teach entrepreneurs for being able to manage a complex, multi-faceted endeavor of building a business.
- Study the “cover on the box.” How do I want your whole business to come together? What will success for your company look like? Now you remember what you’re doing this all for.
- Look for the cornerstones. Puzzleshave corners; businesses have cornerstones. What’s the vision? What’s the mission? What’s the strategy? What are the goals? With those four pieces in place, your business is anchored into place.
- Form the edges. One of my favorite new books is Essentialism by George McKeown. In it he asks a life-changing question: what’s essential? You can even ask yourself that question in the moment: What’s essential today? Staying aligned to what’s essential will help you prioritize, in the big picture of your business and in the day to day implementation.
- Look for themes. It’s the rare puzzle builder who can randomly pick up any piece and put it neatly into place. Why do we expect this of ourselves in our business? Give yourself permission to work on themes. Maybe today’s the day you work on a new article you’ve been wanting to submit. That’s one “part of the puzzle.” Maybe tomorrow you’ll spend some time with clients–another part of the puzzle. In this way, nothing has to be started and finished in one sitting–you can work on things as they come naturally, while trusting that eventually, it will all come together. It always does.
Puzzle making at first seem random and chaotic, but puzzle-building can be methodical and relaxing. One by one, the pieces of your busy day will go into place–just like the pieces of a puzzle.