When building a side project as an entrepreneur – whether it’s a book, an app, a site or service… focus can be difficult and problematic.
Focus is always difficult for me, honestly, and I’ve had some serious problems with in the past while working on side projects. Problems to the point where I’ve had to sit down with my boss and have long, painful conversations about my focus and my career goals. That’s not fun. Sometimes it’s necessary, but I brought that on myself at the wrong time.
Things worked out fine, in the end, with that job. But truthfully, I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer your question. So I’ve got a double-whammy for you: 2 great lessons to learn from this (I hope).
The first lesson: Don’t expect that you’ll always be the person with the answer.
In fact, I would rather not be the person with the answer all the time. If I’m always the one with the answer, then I’m going to do nothing but answer questions all day long. Maybe this is what you want to do, but not me. I would rather be the guy that knows how to find the answer, than be the guy that knows everything. It’s far more important, in my experience, to know where to look or who to ask. If you can be a source of research to help others find the answers, and be a person that knows who to ask when you don’t know, then you are in a far better position.
A leader who asks the team for ideas fosters collective intelligence. A leader who has all the answers forces group think.
– Michael Norton
You don’t have to be the person that knows everything – but you can still be tremendously valuable because you know how to find the answer or who to ask. People appreciate the honesty in saying “I don’t know, but here let me introduce you to …” or “Good question. Let’s look over here and see if we can find …”
To that end, I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer this question.
But I do know someone that is – my friend and someone in my Mastermind group, Josh Earl. He’s a programmer, writer and entrepreneur from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Josh blogs about writing, marketing and entrepreneurship at http://joshuaearl.com. But more importantly, he’s an entrepreneur with a full time job, still. So I asked Josh to respond to your question. I love the answer he came up with and I think you’ll find a ton of wisdom in it, as well.
The second lesson: “How do you stay focused, as an entrepreneurial developer?” – a response from Josh Earl.
This is an excellent question.
Staying focused and sticking with something to see it through to completion is difficult for most people.
But if you have an entrepreneurial streak, chances are it’s even tougher for you to focus than it is for the average person.
You see new ideas everywhere you look. Every new problem or irritation is a potential piece of software. Every interesting thought is a potential best-seller. Every new business idea encounter seems like a sure-fire winner.
I have this problem so bad, it’s hard to believe.
Here is a partial list of things I’ve taken an interest in over the course of my 33 years of existence:
- Wood carving
- Fly fishing
- Fly tying
- Camping and outdoor survival
- Camera repair
- Straight razor shaving
- Hand-crafting knives and straight razors
- Computer repair
- DIY home remodeling
- Graphic design
- Mobile app development
- Diet and nutrition
- Strength training
- Bullwhips and whip-cracking
I should mention that these weren’t just passing interests; I spent weeks or months studying and practicing many of these skills, and in a lot of cases I either considered turning my interest into a business or actually went ahead and did it.
I’m so prone to going off on “kicks” like this that my long-suffering wife often just ignores my antics. (I once spent two weeks tinkering with an antique camera on the desk in our bedroom before she finally broke down and asked, “What *are* you doing, exactly?”)
So yeah, distraction.
I used to think that this tendency was purely a character flaw, but I’ve come to see it as a source of strength. When you have this mindset, you see trends and opportunities that others miss. It helps you stay positive in a cynical and negative world. And you never get bored.
There’s a downside, of course. When you’re trying to work on your own side projects and juggling a full-time job, that tendency toward distraction can be lethal to your ability to make progress on anything. Your time is already very limited, so wasting a few hours chasing something new and shiny can easily mean you’ve sacrificed an entire week’s worth of progress on that thing you really should be working on.
I haven’t discovered a magic formula to distraction-proof myself. But here are a few things that have really helped me keep my rabbit-brain in check.
Get crystal clear about your goal. What is it that you really want? Do you want to earn more money? Be your own boss? Create a killer app that customers love? This seems really basic, but if you don’t know what you’re really aiming for, you’ll fall prey to every distraction imaginable.
Don’t focus on being more productive. Focus on eliminating things that don’t move you closer to your goal. This can include household tasks that can be outsourced (Derick and John convinced me to pay to have my lawn done), but it also includes seemingly worthwhile projects that take time away from the one thing that’s going to help you achieve your goal.
Make it part of your daily routine. Find an activity or set of tasks that you can do *every day* that moves you closer to your goal. If you’re not taking daily action to move toward a goal, you’re not serious about it.
Work on it first thing. I’ve tried to work on my projects in the evening, but after a full day of coding, I’m toast. Once I realized that, I trained myself to get up early, and now I put in time on my own projects every morning before work.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, I only have about 15 hours per week to work on my own projects. Knowing what that limit is forces me to make better choices about what I do with the time available.
Find an accountability group. Joining a mastermind group with Derick and John Sonmez, both of whom have more programming and entrepreneurial experience than I do, has been a major help. They have at times (jokingly?) threatened me with bodily harm when I’ve been tempted to succumb to distraction. Short of, um, physical intervention, having like-minded friends who can remind me of my true goals helps me set aside new ideas and get back to doing what I should be doing.
Keep an idea journal. Sometimes an idea will sink it’s teeth into me and just won’t let go. No matter how hard I try to stay focused, my brain keeps chattering away about how well it would work. In these cases, I often find it helpful to stop what I’m doing and just indulge the idea for a while. I’ll grab a pen and notebook and just start planning the idea as if I intended to start working on it immediately. I’ll pull out my calculator and figure out how much traffic I’d get, or how much I’d earn from the launch. I keep going until I feel the adrenaline rush start to burn out. Usually I start to realize that this new idea will be just as much work as what I’m already doing, and switching gears to work on it will mean the work I’ve done on my current project will go to waste. At this point, I have captured the idea, and gotten past the initial rush of enthusiasm. I’ll close my notebook and get back to work. Even if this process takes an hour or two, it’s usually better than trying to just ignore the idea while it yammers away at me.
Unfortunately, this battle never ends. Even with all the progress I’ve made toward containing my inner toddler, I *still* struggle to see major projects through to completion.
But after managing to launch two books (and reaping the financial rewards), I can attest that it’s a worthwhile fight.
I hope you find as many nuggets of wisdom in Josh’s answer, as I did.