Raise your hand if you can start working immediately whenever you want, never get tempted and never get distracted by social media or email or reading the newspaper? No? Me neither. But I’ve learned something that helps a lot. It’s all about our willpower and habits, the part of our mind where we decide on actions to take.
The philosopher Plato first described our internal willpower struggle around 400BC with the allegory of the chariot. In the driver seat, you have the rational mind with a certain amount of willpower, and the chariot is pulled by two horses representing our spirited energy. The charioteer can guide the horses for a while, but if he fights them for too long, or is too weak, the horses will eventually take control of the chariot and go against our demand, and thus lose our focus.
So it is with our minds. Staying productive and managing our impulses is all about strengthening our chariot driver and making sure we can steer our energy in the right direction. To do that, we must build up our willpower and focus on our good habits.
This is especially important for startups, where time is of the essence and building that PoC to test with customers is the most important priority. However, as noted, we all get distracted. What about just adding one more feature here, pitching to another potential investor this week, talking to a marketing agency? All are like the horses if you’re not careful, they’ll end up pulling you in the wrong direction, distractions from your primary focus.
At its core, willpower is your ability to get things done and shape good habits. It determines how easy it is for you start working and resist eating that third cookie and playing a You Tube video.
Think of willpower as a muscle: it’s something that you can flex and relax as you need to, strengthen with training, and lose if you don’t use it enough. This was shown in the radishes and cookies experiment, where scientists brought in participants who had skipped a meal and asked them to do one of three things:
- Eat radishes, but avoid eating cookies
- Eat cookies, but avoid eating radishes
- Just do nothing (i.e. participants weren’t shown either food)
Afterwards, subjects were asked to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. Participants who had eaten the radishes while resisting the cookies gave up much more quickly than those who got to eat cookies or weren’t shown food. Why? Because they used up their willpower resisting the cookies, and couldn’t use it on the puzzle.
If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d cave and grab the cookies. I’m just weak-willed,’ don’t worry: science has also shown that willpower is something you can train. So how can you develop a will of steel that that helps you work your way through the toughest tasks? Simple: pay attention to your mental and physical health.
No, I’m not going to go into tree-hugging mode and talk about good diet, exercise, get more sleep, drink a gallon of water a day to become more hydrated, then move onto mediation, yoga or pilates. I’m going to focus on habits, and practicing good habits to build that mental muscle.
There has been much documentation about the habits of successful people, thanks in large part to Stephen Covey’s highly successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While this has been a key piece of reading for the business community since the late 1980s, the traits are different for a startup leader.
Habits form our professional lives. They provide a framework on which we build the success we desire. I often study founders’ routines and how I can emulate them myself. Here are the some interesting habits I have gleaned from entrepreneurs I’ve worked with that can help give you starting points for your own successful daily routine in your startup.
Habit 1: Don’t take no for an answer, always look forward Being an innovator is all about disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder, it’s a willingness to do just that.
Habit 2: Put customers first A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to your product that doesn’t generate value for them, and revenue for yourself.
Habit 3: Minimise low impact decision-making You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts.
Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make some bets, make your business about one simple problem, test it, and solve it.
Habit 5: Take one further step than everyone else – always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Keep going when others stop, being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key.
Habit 6: Be visible – get out of the building The startup founders I’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’, be visible and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.
Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is key to growth.
Habit 8: Be organised and shift gears, out your meetings on a diet Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through and execute them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning but a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading. Jettison protracted meetings and flabby agendas, make stuff happen.
Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty
Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there, play tomorrow’s agenda today Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.
Habit 11: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.
Habit 12: Reflect on critical open questions through different lenses Most disruptive thinking is borne by a long cultivation of an open question, followed by the nurturing of a slow hunch. If you get a mental block, work at the problem each day from different angles, under different lenses – looking at extremes, considering what essential assumptions are and how to test them. Eventually I find some real traction with an idea that seems novel and has a good chance of working.
Habit 13: Plan tomorrow’s agenda today Before the close of business, go over what’s coming up the next day. Review and forecast what tomorrow is going to look like and how you’re going to get through that. It gives you an opportunity to prioritise, and also allows us to go to bed at night with a clear head. Your mind does a lot of work for you while you’re sleeping. You get there the next day and are much more efficient and productive
Similar to this habit, I have my own evening retrospective on the day just ended. Every night before bed, I think about this question: If I live every day the same way I did today, what kind of future would that create? It forces me to constantly evaluate whether or not my actions are lining up with my priorities. The future is shaped one day at a time, and it’s never as far away as we think.
We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. The startup founder who wants to reach the top appreciates the might of the force of habit and understands that practices are what create habits. He is quick to break those habits that can break him, and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires, as outlined above.
My own thoughts are that if I can get victory over myself, the odds are high I can help fix ideas into stuff that works. If I can’t fix myself, the odds are equally high I will never be able to add value and do good things. As Flaubert said, Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.