My mentoring advice to startup founders: do the work that is in front of you

During lockdown I was ‘zoom mentoring’ a number of startup founders, focusing on them as a person, not their startup ventures, which were paused. The word mentor emerged from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, King of Ithaca. When the king went to war, Mentor became a friend and advisor to the king’s son Telemachus.

Mentoring isn’t just about telling someone what to do, rather it’s all about helping them work things out for themselves to see the potential inside themselves, encouraging them to look ahead and help navigating a course to their destination, with a gentle, nurturing push in the right direction.

A mentor typically has some relevant experience they draw on to help the mentee. Not to say I would do this but to basically say, Okay, let’s look at this question, or What do you think about that? They basically use their wisdom to help somebody else develop wisdom of their own.

So, let me share some of my recent endeavours, with lessons and takeaways from my mentoring experiences, as to what shapes an effective mentor-mentee relationship. The names have been changed by the way!

1. Ensure there is personal chemistry and empathy

Johncalls me. It’s 2.30am. He’s an absolute mess, drunk, crying. Is it cashflow problems again, lost a key customer? I ask. No. He’s just split up with his girlfriend. I’m no better trained to counsel him than I would be to talk him through replacing a car battery or laying a parquet floor, but he assumes I am. An hour later and we’ve had a good chat. I feel the same weird endorphin rush as after closing a fund raise, exhaustion plus exhilaration and the vague feeling of having done a good thing – like some of you may do after running a 10k for charity.

There has to be personal chemistry and ‘fit’ between mentor and mentee, you have to invest in the relationship with your mentee as a person. And speed mentoring doesn’t work. For mentors, the fit can be assessed by asking: can I clearly be helpful to this potential mentee? Can this person be completely open and honest with me? Are they willing to provide deep context about their problems and vulnerabilities?

Mentees should choose someone who is close enough to their industry so that very quickly shorthand explanations will do, and they can immediately dive in and understand the primary challenges. Questions to ask include: can this person give actionable advice? Have they said something straight away that makes me stop and think?

To stand out as a mentor, you really have to get to know your mentee on a personal level – the stuff that makes them them. Be an active listener, making a conscious effort to truly pay attention to what and how they say things, instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Ask open questions, and act as a sounding board. Nothing engenders trust faster than giving someone your undivided attention. Remain engaged and committed to bringing your full emotional intelligence and intellectual horsepower to each meeting.

Takeaways:

  • Be open about your own mistakes and vulnerabilities
  • Avoid relationship droop, keep the exchanges energised
  • Don’t give homework, focus on execution progress

2. Don’t assume anything – set expectations together at the outset

Fiona. She has two settings: silence and shouting. She always has to have the last word. And it’s a loud one too. I tell her if you hear hooves clip-clopping outside your bedroom door, it could be a zebra. But when you take a look, it will almost certainly turn out to be a horse. She says maybe, and spouts a metric-tonne of moaning. She never slows down or pauses. I’m currently on Amazon ordering her a key ring in the shape of a zebra.

Many mentors think they’re ‘going to give them the benefit of my experience’, when actually, that isn’t necessarily what the other person needs, or wants. Effective mentors speak for less than 20% of the time. The key is to say just enough to get the other person thinking.

The skill is to use your experience to craft questions that stimulate the mentee to think out loud. But be careful with those questions. If you know where the conversation is going this is not a mentoring exchange, a predictable sense of direction doesn’t stimulate reflection. Part of this is setting the tone, style, structure and approach to the relationship and expectations early.

Takeaways:

  • Kick off relationships around distinct problems or challenges
  • Create a schedule – but keep it loose, don’t impose a rigid or unrealistic cadence
  • Show up prepared with questions

3. Have an open dialogue to reframe the problem

Gerald, angel investor. On a zoom call, trying to recover a car-crash pitch for a mentee. How the other half live. He’s sat in his extremely posh study at home. Then his extremely posh eight-year old daughter comes in during the call and asks a question about the economy. Before he answers he asks her a question. Do you know what the economy is darling? Sure, she replies, it’s the part of the plane that’s terrible. You can see how revolutions start. He looks like the Nazi at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. I tell him we’re withdrawing, there’s no emotional fit. What have I said? It’s perfectly good advice.

All I really try to do is have a good, two-way dialogue as opposed to a discussion – trying to create some new meaning not just exchanging points of view. It’s an opportunity for collaboration which takes emotional energy, empathy and asking tough questions. Helping someone through an obstacle is about helping them look at the problem differently.

What I do is change perceptions and get mentees to tell themselves a different story. This reframes their mindset as to what they perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing appears unsolvable inside a particular point of view. Enlarging the box, and problems take a different dimension, potential new opportunities appear.

It’s also important to create rhythm, routine and boundaries. Rhythm and routine are essential to keeping us alert. Boundaries are key too. The airline truism suddenly becomes very real: we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. I will be of no help to anyone else if I burn out.

Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear, practical based on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you think better. The quality of your questioning defines the quality of your thinking. With Gerald, I never lost the Raiders of the Lost Ark image. Indiana Jones I’m not.

Takeaways:

I always try to follow this meeting progression:

  • Mentee explains challenge they’re facing.
  • Mentor explains how they’ve tackled a similar challenge.
  • Mentee explains how conditions might be different based on their situation.
  • Mentor suggests what to replicate from her experience based on her mentee’s specific context.

4. Don’t let your mentee treat you like a genie

If wasn’t doing what I was dong I’d work for the NHS. Who doesn’t love the NHS ?(apart from Matt Hancock). It’s unlike any other national asset, no one talks in fond tones about the Bank of England. The NHS does an amazing thing for us all. They delivered you when you were born and one day they’ll zip you up in a bag, but until then they’ll do everything that medial science allows to see you on the road from cradle to grave just like Bevan promised back in 1948. NHS workers are genies.

A mistake mentees often make is to think the mentor will be always available for them, seeking immediate gratification. I’ve got a problem my mentor could solve, so I’ll call her now. The mentor isn’t there to be at the beck and call. Also, the mentor isn’t there to sort your problems. Your mentor is there to help you work things through yourself. In fact, when you bring an issue to the mentor, first thing she might say is, So tell me about your thinking about this issue so far?

Also don’t set the mentor up as a role model or simply pump them for answers in the path of the development of the relationship. What’s important is to say I want to be myself, but there are things that I can learn from them, which will be useful for me. We tend to believe that having a mentor is about getting the best solutions to a problem on demand, a guardian angel who ensures we avoid failure by giving us the answers. That isn’t the case. Mentoring is about helping the mentee find the right path, shaping the opportunity to think it through critically on their own.

Takeaways:

  • Solve for the long term
  • Help your mentees embrace failure as growth
  • Measure progress every meeting

5. Don’t boil the ocean every meeting – focus on your mentee’s blind spots

Jane. Always goes round the houses. Some ninety minutes later and I’ve missed the first half of ‘Hamilton’ thanks to a conversation that over ran and didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on in the second half. Debriefing with wife afterward, watching the first half didn’t seem to have helped her understand it either.

One of the hazards of mentorship is that there can be far too much to discuss. Very few startup have one major challenge or problem on their plate. It can be tempting to unpack everything that’s going on, but this will only limit how deep your conversation can go on the issues that matter most.

Be intentional about picking the key questions you really want to solve in a session. Try not to veer into big, conceptual thinking, it’s easy for your time to run out without actually tackling the practical stuff that’s coming up the next week or month. Try to keep things tied to the decisions that need to get made, or solutions that need to be found by unpacking blind spots.

To achieve this, I ask questions like Why is that important? instead of straight up saying something is or isn’t. This gives mentees the prompt they need to develop their own insights.

Takeaways:

  • Be honest and transparent
  • Celebrate their achievements, convey belief in ability and potential
  • Avoid a meeting agenda that is too jam-packed

6. Provide an underlying philosophy: do the work that is in front of you

Michael from The Bay Area calls. At last someone from San Francisco, this is my entry point to Silicon Valley! No, he’s from the Morecambe Bay area. It’s a shame our child protection duties don’t extend to vetoing some of the terrible names my clients saddle their babies with. Michael tells me he has a baby called Sayton (pronounced Satan, as in King of the Underworld). Later that day I chat with another mentee who brings his newly born daughter onto the zoom: Lesanye. Pronounced Lasagne. As in Lasagne.

I read a quote from Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut.com and it’s stuck with me: I just do the work that is in front of me. I don’t know if she’d still say she works that way but it’s the way I’ve worked all these years, and the way I continue to work too.

I talk with Michael about the various enemies of doing our work. I say Make your work ‘happy work’. For me, happy work is best done when we take our long-term plans somewhat lightly and work from moment to moment. It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which anything can be done or satisfaction received.

What I really crave, more than anything, is a continuity to my days. Not an accumulation, the sense that they’re adding up to anything, just a continuity, the sense that one day leads into another leads into another and on and on, that they make some kind of chain of progress. I did yesterday’s work yesterday. I’m doing today’s work today. I’ll do tomorrow’s work tomorrow.

Takeaways:

  • Do the work that’s in front of you
  • All good things must begin sometime
  • Avoid fluff and grandstanding, there are jobs to be done

So that’s my mentoring experience, which highlights our top three leadership tools:

  • Our ears: listen, listen some more, and then some more
  • Our eyes: look for any dissonance between what is said and what you see
  • Our mouth: speak to acknowledge, then clarify, then inspire

Manage your inner chimp and get your startup mindset back to work

I’m longing for those summer pastimes – lazy days spent idling in the sun, watching the local cricket, lying on the grass and enjoying easy conversation over a beer. It’s August: I may even break out my linen shorts and jazzy flip-flops. These summer pursuits hardly sound like the stuff of nightmares or the harbinger of discomfort and gloom, but this year we’ve all got a bit of summer malady, a sense of vulnerability.

Reality is the clamouring for festival crowds and cricket, the normal summer idylls, but this year they represent the glossy vignettes of a wider reality as we step back to work with a backdrop of uncertainty and enforced social distancing.

Imposed mental and physical boundaries have shaped 2020 summer as we focus on getting back to work. To do so, we need to harness our inner strengths, our own Boudicca or William Wallace, the spirit of Amelia Earhart or Ernest Shackleton, with courage, conviction and self-belief to get things done, digging deep to meet a challenge.

I mean the determination to unleash our energy – not the spike of rage when you see family member’s underwear on the floor, not quite make it to the washing basket – but to harness a sense of our inner vitality to reignite our startup venture, when we feel under pressure, not knowing what to do, and our head is like a box of frogs – thoughts jumping around all over the place.

Consultancy ‘Be the Business’ recently undertook a survey to assess the attitude and ambition of founder responses to COVID, to assess where they were on the restart. Will the pandemic be an act of creative destruction that whittles down the wheat from the chaff, or more like a game of musical chairs: suddenly the music stopped and the fate of many firms is largely determined?

The survey highlighted a typology of firms where their fate has been determined by the strategic choices made on how to respond. There were four camps – where are you?

Hibernators (28%) – labour intensive b2c firms where their core product or service requires proximity between customer and staff. They closed their business and furloughed staff as either government left them no option or because they were unable to remain open whilst protecting staff and customer welfare. Examples include hospitality and personal services such barbers.

Survivors (32%) – b2b service providers whose clients cut discretionary spend and saw dramatic falls in turnover or temporary suspension of their business. Survival is where leaders were nimble and make changes to product or operations to deliver a narrower range to a smaller customer base. Examples include marketing agencies.

Pivoters (21%) – firms able to respond rapidly, and redeployed staff, adjusted services or transformed production to meet the needs of a new customer base. They had the financial firepower and flexibility to pivot. The changes allowed them to remain open and whilst maybe not permanent, established new opportunities for the future. Examples include food service companies switching from restaurants to home delivery.

Thrivers (6%) – firms that by luck or good judgment have been able to ramp up production of existing products or services deemed essential and are working hard to meet uplift in demand. Whilst some of these were in the right place at the right time, all have embraced flexibility, and most are working to fulfil orders at an unprecedented rate. Examples are the firms with an established online capability, or firms able to switch to a new online delivery model.

A further 12% of survey respondents were firms experiencing business as usual, reporting no significant change to their business environment.

So, where do you sit in this distorted, Edvard Munchian landscape? Set against this, what is your mindset for building a bridge to your future, confronted by this new dystopian reality? The world has rapidly shifted under our feet. Almost overnight, the economic dialogue changed from focused confidence to murky chaos.

There are many themes within the range of choices – innovation, technology investment, the productivity paradox of cost efficiencies – making your business model more resilient for a second COVID wave or pending Brexit turmoil. Crises are horrible, but we know crises always end. They are a cyclical part of our economy and there are black swans that inevitably occur.

There are commercial, financial and structural things you can effect in your startup. But that’s the easy part. The tough bit is having the right mindset and managing your psychology which is the greatest challenge, and I think there is a great technique developed by Dr Steve Peters to help here.

Peters is an acclaimed sports psychiatrist with an enviable track record of helping high-performing athletes maintain a positive mindset when competing under pressure at the highest level. His most notable successes have been with British Cycling. Regarded as a ‘mind-mechanic’, Peters is an unlikely success story in British sports coaching. His background is in serious mental health – for twelve years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders. He can’t help you do a Cruyff turn or a 40m cycle-sprint better, but he can help you understand what goes on inside your head.

Peters warns athletes against setting goals that are beyond their control. His philosophy is you cannot say I want to be the best cyclist in the world, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can, however, say I want to be the best I can possibly be, and devise a plan to achieve that aim – and that’s what you need today in your startup.

When it matters most, in the heat of the moment in a critical commercial discussion, or the day of sporting final, a lot of people lose it, and anxiety gets the better of them. The voice in the head starts saying things like The client won’t budge here, we’re going to lose this deal, or My opponent looks in good nick, they to be going faster. In both circumstances, the voice tells us I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these thoughts, and they’re stopping me from being at my best.

Anxiety can threaten to take over, the irrational, emotional side of your personality becomes dominant. Peter called his approach to overcoming this mental burden The Chimp Paradox and shows we can learn skills to manage our mindset. Peters details three elements in a tool for understanding and managing the functioning of your mind at times of high pressure, based on the neuroscience of the brain.

His model sees the brain divided into three areas:

Human. You are a conscious thinking analysing being that works with facts and truth who makes deductions using logical thinking.

Chimp. The area of the mind that is driven by feelings, emotional thinking and gut instincts. The Chimp quickly jumps thinking in black and white, it can be paranoid, and its behaviour can be troublesome, irrational and emotive. 

Computer. This is really a brain that is at the disposal of the Human and Chimp to put information into for reference. It acts as a memory and can also act as an automatic thinking and acting machine that is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep.

Essentially, there’s a battle between the different parts of your brain, and the more primitive Chimp is an extremely powerful emotional machine working five times faster than the Human part, so unless we have techniques for managing the inner Chimp, it often ends up in control and you’re left wondering Why on earth did I do that?

It is how we manage our Chimp that dictates how well we perform: learn to control your Chimp to train the brain to manage surges of emotion, irrational thinking, impulsive behaviour or nagging self-doubt that impact negatively on us in moments of high anxiety. Peters asserts that managing your Chimp will be one of the biggest factors determining success, and it’s down to yourself to do it.

Ask yourself what it is you want to do and why you can’t get there. Chances are it’s your inner Chimp that’s running amuck at present.

So, what exactly does Peters do? It’s a simple technique that can be applied to every high-pressure situation. It’s a mental warm-up, Peter’s approach effectively puts you in a zone where you want to be, and you’re ready to focus on your moment and nothing else. It goes something like this.

Don’t fight the chimp, nurture it None of us can banish our chimp, we’re with him or her for the long haul. Instead of rejecting it, we need to nurture our inner chimp. This means talking to it and building a relationship with it. The chimp is part of us, it just needs parenting.

Let the chimp speak its mind Part of the nurturing process is to ‘let the chimp have its say’. By allowing the chimp to process its emotion it starts to settle as it gets exhausted and thinks I can’t even be bothered listening to myself! The chimp may be speaking but it’s the human that’s listening, and reason soon takes over.

Be careful who the chimp talks to It’s important that you choose your audience. Don’t express yourself to the person who’s engaged in this battle with you, express yourself to a friend who’s willing to listen.

Go over things a few times Emotion takes time to process, sometimes we have to run over challenging things in our minds a few times before the chimp in us is able to accept them. If you keep revisiting the same thing eventually the chimp will say, Do you know what, I’ve said my bit now and I’m beginning to see it differently.

Get your self-esteem from who you are, not what you do We need to prevent our inner chimp from governing our self-worth, otherwise no amount of success will ever be enough. The chimp will chase success, so measure success against your values so building self-esteem is in your own hands.

Spend ten minutes every day reflecting Once you are clear on your goals, actively reflect on whether you are living them successfully, for ten minutes a day. This is putting the human system firmly in the foreground and forcing your chimp to take a back seat.

Smile to show the chimp who’s boss Smiling is a simple habit which actively helps us to control our emotions and keep the chimp in check. Smiling evokes the mood you want to appear in your head. Be proactive, put the right face on, and you’ll soon find that your mood starts to lift and the chimp fades.

Peters identifies the way in which self-doubt and irrational, impulsive behaviour can have a negative impact on our performance. His technique helps us to recognise when our minds are behaving in this way and overcome the self-sabotage to achieve more positive results.

Of course, we are only arriving at the middle of the beginning of post-Covid, and what looks to be a tapered exit from lockdown, so the music will wind back up slowly, and expect a battle with your chimp.

So, whether you’re a hibernator, survivor, pivoter or thriver, it’s the best of times and the worst of times to rethink your startup venture. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be and whatever your survival or growth aspirations, you can make a leap forwards by adopting Peter’s process of The Chimp Paradox and remove those inner demons. Once done you feel better and can begin to have a more rational conversation with yourself. Try it, it works!

Do not adjust your mind – there is a fault with reality

The title of this blog is a quote from famed Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a controversial and unconventional practitioner, whose progressive methods caused controversy in the medical profession, but later radically changed perceptions of mental health around the world. I thought it captured the essence of the context in which we are trying to shape our current business thinking.

When patterns are broken, new business worlds emerge. When things come apart, there is always the opportunity to put them back together differently. This has become our new lived business reality. It feels like we have been dumped rather unceremoniously into a strange in-between state, a place filled with tensions, unknown unknowns and paradox.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc.  We are practising social distancing, working from home and venturing out again as lockdown is eased. Things are eerily different, yet the same.  Most businesses are highly vulnerable, especially embryonic startup ventures. How can we become more effective in making sense of uncertainty in these circumstances, to accept that the future is complex and unpredictable, and that there is no certainty, and everything is more fragile?

We all need a scaffolding to build some sort of framework to hang onto in order to help make sense of stuff. We are all in uncharted and turbulent waters together. All answers are, to be honest, guesses, transient at best. Questions matter now. A key question I’ve been posing myself is what do you do when you don’t (or can’t) know what to do?

It is hard to make sense of this pervasive, perpetual uncertainty. Despite having a clear sense of my own personal direction, it’s hard to articulate a near term focus and objectives to aim for. Some days I feel trapped by busyness, yet I make no real progress. I’m not sure if this is a personal fuzzyness, or if I am caught up in the macro situation.

Now as we emerge from lockdown, there are billions being poured into business rescue schemes, providing a safety net for recovery. But it’s just an illusion that we have more time to think, more space to craft a reboot strategy. The reality is very different: most businesses are struggling to build and maintain a framework with boundaries for thinking and doing, decision making and a sense of timing.

Talking to many startups, founders are putting off essential decisions which have immediate impact and consequences, while spending hours discussing things like rebranding. We are avoiding important decisions on the now, instead dithering on details of future issues that in reality will have little impact in the dysfunctional reality of today. One thing we cannot afford now is paralysis. Waiting and seeing, moving deck chairs around on the Titanic is the worst thing we can do. We need decisive action, even when we don’t have sufficient information to guide our actions. But this is easier said than done.

We all need to let go of the need to feel that we need to make the right decision. Rather than correctness, ask yourself: with what I know right now, what is the next best action I can take?. The most important thing now is to keep moving, don’t get stuck. It might feel like we are in chaos, but take a step back, it’s more about being confused,  overwhelmed and under informed at the same time. There are so many different opinions and sources of information and advice, we feel stuck between overly rigid constraints and no constraints at all.

So how do we step out of this virtual reality that looks like a wash-rinse-repeat groundhog day, with perpetual fog clouding everything? Here’s a suggested decision-making framework.

On 12 February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of State, used an until then little known framework to help him in making the case for the invasion of Iraq: the Knowns and Unknowns framework. I think it is fair to say that the reception by the press was mixed: some accused him of playing with words with little meaning, while others saw method in what he was trying to do.

The Knowns and Unknowns categorisation has been used since ancient Greek times. It is a powerful tool to surface what we know and don’t know about a problem. The simplicity of the approach is deceiving, but can help us to unlock our current decision paralysis and frame our business thinking to the new situation:

– what do we know already (known knowns)?

– are we aware of our assumptions (known unknowns)?

– what about biases and unconscious decisions (unknown knowns)?

– are we conscious of what we are not exploring (unknown unknowns)?

The knowns and the unknowns have to be treated in very different ways. We need to adapt our decision-making approach to the type of knowledge, and our gaps in knowledge. If you are working with your unknowns, you need to use exploratory techniques: How might we surface some of those Unknowns? How might we prepare for the surprises ahead? If you are working with what you already know about a problem, you have to work in an inductive way – the how might we approach: How might we use those facts to learn new things? How might we test our hypotheses?

NASA first used the framework as part of risk analysis in space missions, especially to uncover Unknown Unknowns, in evaluating the risks in the return journey of the Space Shuttle. They concentrated on moving the unknowns to the known realm. It is believed that it was a senior engineer from NASA that told Rumsfeld about the framework.

At its core, the way of using the Knowns and Unknowns is simply as a reminder to take all forms of knowledge into account. By doing this, we make the problem space larger and so the solution space also becomes larger too. It’s not about making the right decision, rather the best decision under the circumstances. The value of the approach comes from using a combination that allows you to surface all knowledge and lack of it, and thus mitigate cognitive bias, false assumptions and misguided guesses.

So, how would you apply this to your startup today?

Known knowns

  • Known Knowns (facts): use data to check the facts, the things we are aware of, that imply risk, but since we know them can be measured.

Facts are Known Knowns, with them you generate more knowledge. Lateral thinking techniques, like analogies, allow you to see these knowns in a different light, to create a parallel reality from the one you know. The goal is to create something valuable and new from these facts to give insight to do something new from that which is already being exploited.

Known Unknowns

  • Known Unknowns (hypotheses): things that we know that we don’t know can be confirmed or rejected with measurement to determine the risk.

With the Known Unknowns you want to create hypotheses in a relevant context. A good way that translates your thinking here is creating quick sketches or diagrams with potential solutions that lay out your thinking, and then you then need to pass through the filter of a sense check with either your team or test with users. These are basically just ideas or thoughts based on existing knowledge, ‘thinking out loud’ so to speak, ensure you don’t let bias state them facts.

Unknown Knowns

  • Unknown Knowns (our intuitions): use data you trust to put them aside and close the gaps and nonsense contradictions.

If you want to unravel Unknown Knowns, you need to speak your mind aloud without too much structured thinking. Brainstorming with your team fulfils this, the presence of a group is important, because something that one person says serves as the catalyst for others to join in and surface related facts. The technique also removes closed, personal agendas, and enables rapid collective collaboration. Be mindful to avoid groupthink though.

Unknown Unknowns

  • Unknown Unknowns (it can be anything!): look for patterns and outliers about things we don’t know that we don’t know – these are the dangerous things.

This is the tricky one! Unknown Unknowns are often dismissed and left behind as being ‘beyond our control’ and not worth spending time on. However, in reality this is what most startups should think to uncover innovation opportunities and be the source of great insight. By exploring the gaps in our data in an open-minded way, we can recognise patterns and hidden behaviours that might point to opportunities to solve very unique problems. That is the kind of insight that takes you on big leaps to understanding the problems and to creating products that solve them.

The best startups consistently focus on the known unknowns, which is a mountain you know you have to climb, but you haven’t yet found the path. Sadly, many do the easy stuff and don’t maniacally focus on the hard parts.

First, a startup begins with a problem a small group of users have. You envision a product that might solve it, and build many versions of the idea until that small group can’t live without it. That’s your first Known Unknown. You know what you think they want; then you have to prove it. It’s all that matters. Hopefully, you’ve enough capital to iterate enough times to figure it out.

Your next job is to find scaleable repeatable ways to grow. You need to figure a version of this path. Anyone can put massive numbers to put on a top-down TAM slide. The hard part is the bottom-up plan, outlining how you take on a large market, one bite at a time. That’s your second Known Unknown.

Entrepreneurs must be focused only on the Known Unknown, you don’t have time to focus on the stuff that doesn’t matter. If a problem has moved from a Known Unknown to a Known Known, where you understand the what and the how, you’ve got product-market fit and now it’s time to think about differentiation and innovation.

The reality is that we live in a business world our questions create, yet I think most of us would say we live in worlds our answers create. But startups exist because of asking new questions and focus on finding new answers to new questions. In the volatile and fast-changing context of post-lockdown, what we think we know today may not be true tomorrow. Discovering new questions, by using new techniques to shape our thinking, will broaden our perspective.

The Known and Unknowns approach enables oblique or naïve perspectives from adjacent fields the chance to inform our thoughts, and radically different insights and perspectives will emerge. The right question takes you right to the essence of a problem, and helps you solve it. For example, working out what your startup’s defensibility is, is far more useful than defending the addressable market size. The wrong question wastes time:  What cool feature should we build next? is the wrong question, when your onboarding funnel itself is leaky.

You can never completely eliminate your blind spots, but with this technique you can reduce them enough to improve your performance and spare from the mistakes that in hindsight should have been obvious. The framework opens up possibilities and forces you to think more holistically. It’s hard, at times, I have to force it as a discipline and not be put off by doing some deep thinking that makes your head hurt!

Life might be a race against time but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.  Value questions, not answers, said Einstein. Being curious (as opposed to being opinionated) and asking questions will get us much further than looking for answers to known questions.

The head fox at the ministry for henhouses reports that as number of eggs increased significantly last month, there will be no further need to count chickens. Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality.

Avoid the Ahab syndrome of entrepreneur’s myopia in your start up

As a bloke who lists one of his hobbies as having his nose in books, I’m used to radical social distancing and having myself for company. So, whilst the past four months have had their challenging moments, I’ve sought respite from lurking anxiety, boredom and frustration by reorganising and culling the hoard of books that passes for my library.

Reading has helped pass the unexpected free time from this four-month involuntary shut-in. Every evening though, book in hand, I found myself considering a second beer until I think, Why stop at two? But I have! At night, staring into the darkness, I frequently recall far too many friends, relatives and colleagues who now live, often quite vividly, only in my memory. Constraint, paradoxically, often liberates the imagination, but given half a chance, I can grow impressively maudlin.

Pascal famously said that all our miseries derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. ‘All our miseries’ is certainly an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt us humans are at heart, social animals. We like parties. We herd ourselves into sports arenas and live music gigs and theatre. We even attend protest rallies. Little wonder that Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness has been a steady seller for more than 150 years. It’s on my bookshelf, a present, as yet unread.

So far from the madding crowd, and bedazzled by the choice of the downloadable options from Amazon, Sky, Netflix and Disney, my best read during lockdown has been Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville, an outstanding work of literature and romanticism.

Ever since its publication in 1851, Moby-Dick has sparked the imagination with its prophetic, digressive and dangerous themes. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee.

Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation grew during the C20th. D. H. Lawrence called it the greatest book of the sea ever written. Indeed, Call me Ishmael is one of literature’s most famous opening sentences.

One track I’ve taken from Moby Dick is the singular obsession Captain Ahab had about pursuit of the whale. It hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. It became all consuming, so much so that his judgement, decision making, common sense and rationality were blinded, his experience counted for nothing by the fixated, blind pursuit of the whale for revenge.

It reminded me that entrepreneurs often have their own whales, causing them to stay awake at night thinking of only that one thing. Your startup may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re trying to out fox the competition, scale your business, or implement a new idea, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between focus and dedication, and unhealthy obsession.

Passionate entrepreneurs are so impatient to move forward with their favourite new idea that they get too optimistic about how would-be customers and investors will see it. Their passion becomes an obsession. Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.

I call it the paradox of entrepreneurship, the very thing it takes to start a business often ends up destroying it. Ahab was obsessed, pursuing his dumb vendetta against a whale. The story progresses the theme of his pursuit until the fatal third chase. Here’s a list of critical junctures I’ve created where founders let passion cloud their judgment – I’ve called it the Ahab syndrome in your startup – and strategies to avoid it and stay clear-eyed.

Don’t be obsessed by vision Of course, you need a vision to drive your purpose, but you also need to be flexible in the pursuit of your vision and an awareness and ability to make adjustments, fine-tune the tactics, and adjust the direction in response to feedback. Don’t be fixated on your vision to the point of inaction, which was Ahab’s downfall.

Don’t obsess, plan Don’t wander through the early days of your startup with thoughts running through your head like a helicopter background noise in your dreams. Take a few deep breaths. Whilst plans themselves have little use once crafted, the act of planning gets a lot of things out of your head and clarifies thinking in terms of priorities. When you wake up at night obsessing, go to your planning. Write it down. Relax, and go back to sleep.

Take note of the experience of others Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause, two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick at all costs, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.

Remember there’s always another whale There will always be another opportunity, another goal to consider, and always something to work toward. There will always be another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your psychological emotion and energy on an obsessive single dream or goal.

Have buckets of patience Working on a startup requires a level of patience that can’t be imagined before you get there. Your patience will be tested. You will have a nailed-on customer drag on for six months longer than you thought to close, to the point you are worn out just thinking about it. You may even have a key team member lose faith in you. Ahab showed no patience, he saw the red mist and simply threw himself headlong into the challenge, with no guile or reflective thinking.

Avoid the cult of personality Most entrepreneurs have a strong personality, but it isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energised by him, that they never questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamoured with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.

Listen to your team Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale, it was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed blinkered on his personal ambition blinded to reason, and as a result of failing to listen, failed in his goal.

Keep a balance and sense of perspective For every successful entrepreneur who cites sacrificing health and family as the key to success, there are ten others who say the sacrifices were a tragic mistake. Another logical flaw: millions of people sacrificed health and family and weren’t successful. All their sacrifice did was ruin their lives. Nobody quotes them. They call that survivor bias.

Understand that you make mistakes. Acknowledge your mistakes, analyse them, and them package them up in your mind and store them somewhere out of sight, somewhere where you can access them occasionally to help avoid making the same mistakes again, but, on the other hand, where they won’t just drive you crazy and adversely impact your decision making.

Do you recognise the ‘Ahab syndrome’ in yourself at all? While there is only a fraction of startups are ground-breaking, simply the essence of innovation is knowing the odds and be able to exploit your idea. Passion gets you started, and as a result, we go narrow and deep, but that can realise an unbalanced focus.

Developing a sense of focus like Ahab feels good, leading to the creation of solutions and products that blow people away, but the commitment it takes to go narrow and deep can mean the very things needed to make the leap from creator to revenue generator get lost in the fray. Your deep focus can pull you away from the levers needed to drive not just the idea, but the business-engine forward, and that’s the potential to develop a condition I call entrepreneurial myopia.

You become so hyper-focused on your tiny slice of the world that your depth of field begins to narrow to a point where you lose objectivity and start to view what you’re doing as the only way something can be done, solved or expressed. You become a champion of your idea, your solution, your craft and view it as the ultimate source of value or the only way to solve a problem. You discount all others because you’ve become wed not to the solution but to the need to bring this ‘thing’ that’s become everything to you to the world.

Problem is, when you’re on the inside looking out, you’re in the worst possible place to know which end of the spectrum you’re working on – self-delusion or customer-delight – your blinkers are on.

Narrow and deep when the quest is bundled with the desire to turn the output of your efforts in the name of solving a problem into generating an income is the necessary focus. It’s vital to create self-checking mechanisms that allow you to step back, to remove yourself and ask, is the work being driven by an intrinsic joy aligned with what large numbers of people want or need and are willing to pay for?

Stepping back for a moment allows fresh breezes to blow in. A little fresh breeze sometimes is a stimulating thing, literally blowing away the cobwebs, giving you a jolt to sit up, and makes you check-in. Focus, yes. Be myopic when the times call for that. But always leave a little stepping back room for that breeze. You never know what epiphany it may bring.

So avoid passion clouding your judgement. Emotion should be tempered with reason and logic. Don’t get fooled into believing that either your excitement or anxiety levels should be the drivers that help you make the final decision about risk. Your feelings may be very unreliable. The more emotional you feel, the less logical your thinking and judgement will be. Increase your rational thoughts about the risk you’re facing to balance out your emotional reaction.

Balance emotion and logic. To make balanced choices, acknowledge your emotions. Pay attention to the way your feelings and recognise how those emotions may distort your thinking and influence your behaviour. Raise your logic and decrease your emotional reactivity.

The lesson from Ahab is that’s its a mistake to build your success on a single metric as a measure of success, because as we see, this drives a blinded, frenzied and myopic set of behaviours to its achievement. So heed the Ahab syndrome, avoid entrepreneurial myopia and don’t become obsessed with your startup. Breath, share, reflect, listen and learn. Maintain your sense of perspective, balance of views and have patience.

Don’t let solitude send you stir crazy, use your imagination

Most of us have become solopreneurs during lockdown, working home alone. How have you found this? There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Or maybe that’s just me then! I’ve been reading a lot about working in solitude, from Virginia Wolf’s and astronaut’s diaries, to Robinson Crusoe, and how Einstein did his best thinking alone. More of that later.

Working day-to-day in a team involves constant adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed, you mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But on your own, when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking, or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

This period of working alone at home captured something about human awkwardness for me, reminding me of my youth when you’re all clumsy elbows and emotions, and out of it you create a kind of desolate euphoria – for the first time in a long I had time to have time.

We have long stigmatised solitude, it has been considered something to avoid, a realm of loners, but some aspects have been better than anticipated for me. Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through personal epiphany. When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. I’ve certainly found aspects of this enforced solitude restorative and creative. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent years alone, held a similar notion: We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom he wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.

The best book I’ve read on solitude during lockdown has been The Lost Island, by Alfred Van Cleef, a book capturing a man’s search for meaning on a remote island, the forbidding Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean. Giving some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness, it’s a striking narrative of a man’s search for and discovery of his life force in the most secluded of places – an isolation like we’ve all experienced recently, although the views were probably more inspiring.

After the death of his father, Van Cleef, the last of a family of Dutch Jews, learns that he is unable to have children. His search for solitude led him to an island lost in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, a place so far-flung that ‘remote’ scarcely does it justice.

Entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock – approaching its grey shores was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception – Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the frenzy of humanity. He shares his time on the island with seas elephants, fur seals and albatrosses and weird scientists – everyday life is spiced with daily scientific discoveries (a new shade of bird vomit, a record gust of wind) and arguments over the management of stocks of chocolate spread.

The island mirrors an emotional desert. It is an untamed wilderness with sheer exposure to the elements, one where life at its most precarious and stark. The island proves to be his kind of place. Van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural and psychic distance from it all, replacing an emotional black hole with a geographical one. There is wit and humour, yet it is impossible to ignore that this is Van Cleef’s quest for salvation. This points to the paradox at the heart of solitude: life in the quiet carriage can be both good and bad.

William Wordsworth has lessons for people trapped inside by natural forces greater than human will. He wandered lonely as a cloud, taking long walks in remote places, and in this season of cancelled parties, the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth went unmarked. Celebrations of the English poet, born on April 7, 1770, should have bloomed like his beloved daffodils, but for now the British landscapes he loved are empty of the visitors that his verse attracted from crowded Victorian cities.

In a period of enforced apartness, Wordsworth’s pursuit of joyous solitude seems timelier than ever. For Wordsworth, solitude brings joy above all because it carves out space for memory. More than the treks and climbs around picturesque locations that filled his years, what Wordsworth cherished was memory as solace and strength – A few hermits make their lives in isolation, birds which fly alone.

For me, solitude is about the quest for balance, and modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand we have ‘networked solitude’ – just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away.

During this spell of collective standstill, our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration: social distancing has been a tragedy for those living alone, but for others it has proved a mixed blessing – many people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting.  If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this vestige of a neverland lodged in my psyche, I do enjoy the tranquillity of time spent alone. I need time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

As we all spend more time at home, it’s only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But we’re in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them – Newton did it over the course of 18 months while isolated to avoid the Plague, revolutionising optics and gravity, and inventing calculus along the way.

One of the reasons Einstein carries such a hefty cultural weight is that he, like Newton, single-handedly invented a fundamentally new view of the universe whilst also in solitude. Einstein’s turn came in his Annus Mirabilus in 1905, when he published four ground-breaking papers and a PhD thesis, touching on optics, and the size and motions of atoms. A few years later, as the Spanish Flu devastated the world from 1918-1920, Einstein was gaining notoriety for his work on the Theory of Relativity, again flourishing in isolation.

Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own. Intuition for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s time spent alone with nothing more than his imagination. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Now besides modelling my own lockdown-hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve tried to adopt his approach to innovation – we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – which I know has helped me in isolation. Taking this further, I’ve always adopted the maxim ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as a way of learning, so I’ve developed my own interpretation of How would Einstein approach this situation? to declutter and unpack thinking whilst in solitude, his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Einstein asked himself what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then created it. I’ve found it a great way to help kick-start my mind-mapping sketches.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. It’s the same for your startup thinking, shoot for the stars.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Touch, Fire and the Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Keep pushing your boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein lived his life by looking at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. Do this grounded thinking yourself, as it helps to create the forward path.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein learned to view a problem in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

A couple of final quotes from Einstein to end with, that always make me smile, and were useful to reflect upon during lockdown. Firstly,I never think of the future, it comes soon enough. He held an appetite for tolerance, ambiguity and even delight in contradiction. Despite his brilliance, he was patient too, a quality we’ve all needed these past three-months: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s been good to reflect upon that too.

The outbreak of coronavirus has been hugely distressing. Those that can safely self-quarantine and cope with the solitude are fortunate. We’re all likely to catch a little cabin fever, but don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking, Einstein had good thinking habits – in his own solitude, he focused on the positive aspects, about have the time to reflect, thinking differently, and not just sitting there daydreaming or worrying.

As we come out of lockdown, there are better things ahead than we leave behind. Maybe your solitude has had some hidden silver lining. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, but rather than seeing solitude as a negative, be like Einstein. He pictured the future, working out possibilities of new realities, where what he was doing today was completely different tomorrow. Use your imagination. That’s what Einstein did when he was alone.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

Notes to self: reflections from my ‘lockdown journal’​

During the lockdown isolation and resultant ‘wash-rinse-repeat’ routine, I’ve noticed three things about my working style and rhythm that have made everything feel a lot less anxious:

– never working faster than a walking pace mentally

– being able to work in a more relaxed routine around my own natural body clock

– letting my mind’s appetite guide my working focus

I’ve been making these and other notes in my ’lockdown journal’ about the experience, and as Thoreau wrote in his diary, It matters not where or how far you travel… but how much alive you are. I like his mindset.

I’ve done ok with this hibernation and disengagement. Yes, I’ve hidden under the duvet – both actual and spiritual – and examined the oppressiveness of the current circumstances, which I admit has encouraged me to outburst of hysterical flippancy at times. But with my world shrunk to the limits of an all too familiar horizon trapped at home, I’ve discovered the vicarious pleasures of You Tube armchair travel and exotic culinary delights, making notes of far-flung places to visit in the future.

For my diary, I started a new Moleskine notebook last week, always a special event. I’ve kept a journal for over a decade now, handy for private scribblings and I was delighted to open a new one and start a relationship with a trusted companion.

The Moleskine is the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries, among them van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse. They became famous in the Montmartre district of Paris with the Impressionists, the entrepreneurial flair of the people, the place. The notebooks became synonymous with creative thinking.

So here is an extract from last Tuesday’s lockdown diary, with some takeaways and personal reflections that I hope you’ll find useful.

6.00am. Woken up by the dog, time for her first walk of the day. Start Me Up! Always think of the great Keith Richards guitar riff.

6.15am. Listen to BBC Radio 4 Today news getting ready to take the dog out. It’s Groundhog Day, horrible numbers on the update for global and UK infections and deaths, heart-breaking personal stories, and tales of pending economic doom.

7.30am. Back. Have conversation with neighbour who stands a careful two yards away. Feed the dog before she eats my leg. My breakfast is tricky decision. Are we closer to running out of milk and cereal, or bread and eggs? Go for boiled eggs and toast.

7.45am. Still with the radio, now it’s Thought for the day, it’s two minutes radio beauty. The Reverend Dr. Sam Wells today, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. He talks about touch.

Lockdown lesson 1: Keep in touch But we can’t currently touch, and the less we can touch physically the more we want spiritually. We’ve become disciplined in distancing and isolating. I’m taking inspiration from the work of the NHS folks, they are touching all our lives. But then Dr. Sam mentions death, disease and debt.

I’m going to keep in touch much more post-lockdown, friends and clients alike. Make my connections have depth, meaning and purpose, and share more thinking with startup founders about their well-being, not just business growth.

8.00am. At my desk. Inbox consists of companies advising me how to cope with the pandemic, others offering virtual conferencing tips. Also loads of restaurants that ever took an online booking from me in the last three years offering vouchers.

8.30am. Scan read the subscribed blogs and daily news feeds desperate for a voice not about coronavirus. Pause and reflect on the day ahead, get a positive, optimistic tone of voice into my head.

Lockdown lesson 2: Focus on purpose and outcomes Taking time to shut out the noise of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. Write down the thoughts of the moment.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down that would otherwise have been lost with the ordinary routine of work tasks compressing the mind. Post lockdown, I’m going to spend more time thinking through purpose and outcomes, not simply process and outputs.

8.50am. Look at my draft blog in the hope it will spark more words. Give up when the abstract turns out to be too, er, abstract. Check Twitter and various news websites on grounds this is ‘research’. Disappear down rabbit hole for 45 minutes.

9.30am. To be safe, wash hands while singing Love Will Tear Us Apart. The first two lines have always resonated just where Ian Curtis’s head was when writing the lyrics – When routine bites hard, And ambitions are low. Those two lines have echoed in my mind during lockdown.

10.00am. First Zoom call of the day, with a fund manager who’s considering an investment in one of our startups. It’s a no.

Lockdown lesson 3: Anything is easy when you don’t have to do it People at startups are inherently curious. They constantly challenge, asking why?, what if?, and why not? But sometimes they don’t have the answers needed from an investor’s perspective, and in this case ‘the numbers don’t work’.

I politely reply ‘but you’ve never run a fish and chip shop, anything is easy when you don’t have to do it’. Decide to only work with investors who’ve previously run their own business post lockdown, they will reflect emotional intelligence and empathy whilst reading spreadsheets.

11.00am. Time to dial into another Zoom meeting. Realise cannot find meeting number or meeting code. Send email to colleague who returns a WhatsApp message with the answer.

11.05am. Finally get through to meeting. Try to contribute. Suggest some really good ideas and then sit back. Realise Zoom is on mute. Discussion has moved on. Mute again to avoid embarrassment. Realise I’m starting to miss regular meetings, a concept previously beyond imagination.

12.00pm. Find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind my own company, but we’ve all become isolated and I hope, when the time comes, that we don’t see every handshake as a threat, that we can put things in perspective and not remain over-cautious.

Lockdown lesson 4: Zoomgluts and negative oil prices got me thinking – focus on possibilities The oil glut is caused by a lack of demand, the digital glut is caused by overproduction. When lockdown first took effect fitness instructors, chefs, random guys with an idea, all had the same thought: set up a zoom broadcast.

Now we are overwhelmed by choice, facing Zoom fatigue, and a smorgasbord of options, for free. But even at zero cost, we pay with something even more valuable: our time. And, unlike oil, there’s no way to price a Zoom event at negative time. Well, actually, paying people to attend Zoom events does have a name: work.

For me, the lesson is focus on possibilities and don’t follow the crowd. Let your mind’s eye travel to a future state and explore fresh possibilities, don’t waste time simply standing still.

12.30pm: Zoomglut continues. Helping a new startup with investment agreement with a somewhat zealous legal chap. I’m taking a slightly different approach to ‘confrontation’ via Zoom by using silence as my weapon of choice. It’s actually quite effective as the other person knows deep down they are being ridiculous and leaving it hanging there. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.

Lockdown lesson 5: Avoid the anchoring trap: over-relying on first thoughts Your starting point can heavily bias your thinking, initial impressions to ‘anchor’ subsequent thoughts. This trap is particularly dangerous when you’re flying solo. You can solve this by clearly defining the problem before going down a particular solution path. Look at the problem from different perspectives to avoid being limited to a single point of view, expose yourself to contrarian opinions and broaden your frame of reference.

1.00pm. Dinner dilemma. Eat perishable fresh food before it goes off or non-perishable food which could be out of stock in the supermarket again? Settle for ice cream on the grounds that we had too much of it in the first place. Start to watch You Tube music videos for a few minutes as deserved mental break. Singing out loud to The Stereophonics disturbs the dog who reminds me it’s time for the second walk of the day.

1.30pm. Head for local supermarket with my canine companion. I like the social distancing in the shop, happy to keep this space in the future. Shelves resembling scenes from zombie apocalypse a few weeks ago now back to normal. Purchase family size packet of donuts on grounds that the virus poses a bigger threat to my health than tooth decay does.

Lockdown lesson 6: Provide your own positive perspective Sometimes our perception of a situation can blindspot us. Scribbling in my Moleskin helps me to provide perspective in a way that fosters a positive outlook. This allows me to function better and get more done – focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do.

The act of trying to write something down shapes your thoughts. Once it’s down on paper, you can list things in a way that helps you think. Whether it’s because you cross things off, or prioritise them, or shuffle them, you are in control.

2.30pm. Back home and sit in the garden. Privileged and protected, my wife and I enjoy exercise and peace in our garden. The snails aren’t self-isolating. Outside of our little oasis our rubbish is being collected, post delivered and yet NHS staff are dying. I’ve signed online petitions for proper PPE and go outside to clap loudly on Thursdays. In the new reality our attitudes towards a more democratic and fairer society must be the imperative.

2.45pm. Check Google calendar and find after cancellations, there are no meetings for the rest of 2020. Perhaps this is how it is going to be.

Lockdown lesson 7: Don’t fear the blank page One of the effects enforced by working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us and without all the external recognition? No praise or even rejection. No feedback to define us. This can leave us feeling unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually think.

As with a new Moleskin, don’t fear the blank page. You don’t need to create a masterpiece, you just need to realise how much you see each day. Give yourself time to experiment, play around with your thinking and make a mess. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your venturing endeavours.

3.00pm. Do my online tai-chi, ten-minute workout.

3.30pm. Think about walking into town and working in a coffee shop as a break from the home office or kitchen table. Remember each and every other coffee shop has now closed for business indefinitely.

Lockdown lesson 8: Take your time, for yourself We really don’t own anything in life. When you’re born, and you come out of your mother’s womb, and you’re kicking and screaming, and you go through your years of life, you think that you own stuff and money, and this, that, and the other. But really, you don’t own anything, because it all disappears, it all goes away, and you die, and there’s nothing left.

The only thing that you ever truly own, is your own time. You have so much time to live. Alive time is your own. It means I only have this much time to live, so I’d better make the most of it, I’d better make it alive time, I’d better be urgent, have a bit of an edge, be aware of each moment as it’s passing and not in a fog.

So that’s my Moleskin diary. Not everything will be okay, but some things will. People are dying. Our leaders are weak. Things are not good. But there’s still sunshine and birds singing, so write some positive thinking ‘notes to self’ and use a journal to make sure you come out of this catastrophe on the right side.

The myopic thinking of 110% effort

During a meeting I had last week, a bloke poured water into his glass and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy I said jokingly, to which he replied, Not really, I always give 110%. This is one of my utmost bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase twice times already – before attempting to fill a glass 110% – trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you spill 10% if you’ve given it 110%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2019. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. But in giving greater than 100%, this can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language.

Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort. As well-renowned basketball coach John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep the mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity.

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, and an ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive responses It’s easy to give negative responses and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of achievement and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but hard to do mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, and when you return, create the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

Pragmatic optimism is not fashionable, yet virtually any problem that can be articulated clearly enough can be solved without overthinking and overworking it to 100%+ effort. Being comfortable with uncertainty is perhaps the most important trait we can develop in ourselves as entrepreneurs, and not default to becoming overwhelmed.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is startup life. Is every day peachy? Of course not . But do your best so that on balance be calm , by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple, leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make a difference long-term.

I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future. It just doesn’t work. Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment – and that’s 100% of today, nothing more.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941 of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your island bookshelf.

10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEOs face in the ‘build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’