Themes, Not Goals

Here’s one of the trickiest things about the mental game of entrepreneurship:

We are in our natural state when thinking about the future, setting goals and making plans to reach them.

But being so focused on future goals makes it hard, almost impossible, to stay in touch with the present.

This manifests in all the common ways:

  • We work too many hours
  • We accept work we don’t enjoy
  • We sacrifice our personal relationships
  • We sacrifice our health

For what?  A big pay day waiting in the distant future?

Sure, I’ll take one of those just as much as the next business owner.  But not if it means today is going to suck.

We can convince ourselves all we want that “entrepreneurship chose me”, like we had no choice in the matter.

But that’s not true.

We could get a job (gasp!) if we choose to.  But contrary to popular belief, we actually feel safer in the choice to control our own destiny and run our own thing.

Personally, I choose entrepreneurship because I want to make my cake and eat it too.  I’m building valuable assets for the future and I want to wake up everyday eager to dive into work that energizes and inspires me.

There have been years where I let my future-oriented mindset cloud out the present, and I fell victim to the outcomes I listed above.

Smooth sailing every single day (or year) of this journey is not possible.  But it is possible to be aware of the present and to be intentional about improving it.

Here are 3 ways I found help keep the present in focus:

Daily Motion

For years I failed to make exercising a habit.  “I have too much work to do today” always won out.

But then I realized that getting exercise every day—especially first thing in the morning—resulted in a much more productive, focused, and successful day of work.  I was sold.

Better sleep and physical health are nice-to-haves too.

I prefer fast-moving activities like snowboarding and road biking, since these force my mind to stay in the present (or risk hitting a tree or a car).

A Creative Hobby

This one is difficult.  So much of my work on products and business is creative, it’s hard to reserve those juices for a non-work hobby.

Music and home recording has always been a passion of mine.  But for years I let my music gear collect dust (or get sold) while building my businesses.  This was a mistake that I’m now correcting.

Meditation has many benefits for your health, focus and happiness.  But sitting still and meditating just never “clicked” for me.

Riffing on the guitar and mixing tracks for a few hours is my preferred form of meditation.  I get just as lost in it and lose track of time.  That’s the point.

Themes, Not Goals

I used to set ambitions annual and multi-year goals.  Usually around December/January.  But this always resulted in a feeling of failure—even when my business was doing quite well.

I felt a false sense of obligation to follow through on all the things I (publicly) stated 6, 9, 12 months ago I would do by now.  Inevitably, things changed, causing my goals to be less relevant and useful.  Abandoning them or changing course felt like a kind of failure, even if it was the right move.

Goals tend to be specific (“build and launch product X”) and numeric (“double revenue”) and have deadlines (“by this time next year”). Specifics can be helpful for strategic roadmapping.  But as we all know, so many factors—many out of our control—will force you to change your course or your time frame.  It’s better that you roll with these changes than blindly commit to (and then fail to hit) goals that become unrealistic.

Now I focus on “themes” instead of “goals”.

Themes could be the type of work I want to be spending my time on (“more creative deep work”).  Or the type of daily schedule I want to keep (“be home by 4 every day” or “travel 2 months out of the year”).  Themes could be specific too, but not deadline oriented (“keep improving customer retention”).

I still plan and plot throughout the year, often updating my roadmap every 2 or 3 months.  Themes help me make more intentional decisions about where I want my business to go.

This tends to bring better results long term and a more enjoyable time spent getting there.

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