Smashing the First 90 Days of Your Project

So you have a project you want to start. You’re fired up and you may already have started taking action. Great stuff. But enthusiasm fluctuates and may not be sufficient on its own to keep you going. You need a strategy and mindset to get you past your first 90 days. Why 90 days? It’s a meaningful amount of time to develop long-term habits; to know what’s working and what isn’t and, if you apply yourself, to start seeing results.

90 days of project success

  1. Plan for obstacles and setbacks. Create a strategy that will survive contact with reality. Many things are not going to go your way: someone you respect doesn’t support your idea; sales figures are disappointing; a supplier lets you down or your first plan doesn’t work as expected. This happens in every project. Things very rarely go as you plan. You need to have contingencies built in, i.e. what if things go wrong? This isn’t being negative, quite the opposite. You are more likely to succeed if you have an alternative for when things don’t go your way otherwise you’ll probably just quit. In every plan, answer the difficult questions. Go through every key component of your project and ask yourself, “What if this part doesn’t go as planned? What will I do?
  2. Results take longer than you think. Don’t lose heart when you don’t see instant results. Overnight successes are typically 10 years in the making and all great things start out as small things.
  3. Don’t compare your start with others’ middle. This is great advice from Jon Acuff and helps ward against jealousy or becoming disheartened. Don’t let where you are stop you from getting where you want to be. The time it takes to achieve something is going to pass whether you decide to pursue that thing or not.
  4. Focus on what you’re doing. Your path is different to everyone else’s. It’s OK to be inspired by others but too many people become spectators rather than participants. You’re a spectator if you keep buying “one more course”, reading “one more book” or being more interested in what others are doing rather than in your own goals. When you’re working on your project, don’t get distracted by what other people are up to: stop caring about what other people are doing or what they have. Focus on your journey.
  5. Set process, not outcome, goals. Process goals are based on things directly under your control. “Working three hours every evening” is a process goal – it’s something that you can do independently – it doesn’t rely on any external factors. Outcome goals are those which are not entirely under your control. “Make $100K per annum” is an outcome goal. It’s not entirely up to you, i.e. customers choose to buy or not, you can’t force them. Avoid outcome-based goals. If you do want to make $100K a year, turn it into a series of process goals, e.g. create joint ventures with influencers; host a monthly webinar; build an email list; phone prospects and so on.
  6. Work on the important stuff. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of an outcome is due to 20% of the input, e.g. 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers; 80% of your happiness comes from 20% of the people you know; 80% of a subject can be understood from 20% of its principles and so on. In other words, of all the activities that you could do, you need to focus on the “vital few” rather than the “trivial many”. Most people spend time doing things that just don’t matter. What are the few activities you do that bring about the greatest results? Concentrate on doing these and delegate or ignore the rest.
  7. Put the work in. There is a troubling trend to denigrate hard work, that if you’re working hard, you must be doing something wrong. One thing is certain: people like Elon Musk, Jay Z, Jeff Bezos and Sheryl Sandberg didn’t get to where they are by putting in a 4-hour work week. Even if you don’t have similar aspirations, hard work is still an essential component of achieving anything worthwhile. You can waste precious time trying to shortcut the process, trying to make easy money or achieve success without putting in the work but you’ll probably get further, faster if you roll up your sleeves and put your shoulder to the wheel.
  8. Don’t procrastinate. You can get lost in endless planning, research and waiting for “the right moment”. This is simply procrastination under a different guise. Gather facts, do your reasearch, sure – but there comes a time when you know enough to start. You may not know everything but here’s the thing: no one does. Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines in three months. Did he know everything about operating an airline company? Unlikely. But he no doubt knew he would have to – and could – learn as he went. He covered the important bases – sourcing planes, pilots, ensuring safety, necessary compliance – then started knowing the rest will likely fall into place.
  9. Make sales. If you’re in business, concentrate on making your first sale. Just one. A sale is validation of your idea and that gives you confidence and momentum. If you can sell to one person, you can sell to two; if you can sell to two, you can sell to three and so on. And even if your project is not business-related, you’re always selling something: a vision, an idea, a novel, your talents, confidence in you – regardless of your activity, somewhere down the line you need to sell or promote it to someone unless you are happy to hide your work from the world (and many are).
  10. Resist perfectionism. Perfectionism is fear masquerading as standards. Fear of being judged; fear of being rejected; fear of being criticised or embarrassed… Get in the habit of shipping your work. Aim for excellence, yes; keep improving, sure; but don’t let the trivial stop the important. You always have a choice: do little/nothing (perfectionism) or do something (imperfect) and make progress. Opt for the action that takes you further in the direction of your goals, not the one that protects your ego. It may be uncomfortable to begin with – especially if perfectionism is a habit for you – but as you persevere and start to make progress you’ll never be a perfectionist again.
  11. Make connections. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of starting any project. Focusing on the work is important but arguably more important is making connections with people who may be interested in what you’re doing. Future customers, venture partners, investors, fans… these play as much a part in your success as the work you’re doing. In a fair world, your work should miraculously attract the attention it deserves – and it might – but history is littered with stories of superior products, works and people falling by the wayside because they were not properly promoted to the world and others. You do not operate in a vacuum. Meet people. Send out emails. Make connections. Pick up the phone. Invite people to coffee. The world opens up in accordance to the number of people you know and your connections. Many people complain that they don’t know the right people but so can you. You just need to reach out, risk occasional rejection and continue to put you and your work out into the world.

Takeaway points

  1. Have realistic expectations. There will be obstacles and things will take longer than you think. Instead of wishing it were different, learn to enjoy the journey.
  2. Identify the important tasks – the ones that produce results – and concentrate on those. Put the work in but be sure to focus on the stuff that matters, i.e. don’t confuse busyness with effectiveness.
  3. Don’t work in a vacuum. Reach out to others. Let people know what you’re doing. The world is a big place and anything is interesting to someone. Try to find as many of those people who care about what you’re doing and connect with them.

Action steps

  1. Start now. Enough research, waiting, planning… It’s time to start. You know enough to begin and that’s all you need. You don’t need to see the entire journey, just the next step. There’s something you’ve been putting off doing – writing an email, reaching out to an influencer, painting a picture etc. – that’s what you need to do now. (And if you fail?)
  2. Identify your process goals. What are the actions that if you took on a daily, consistent basis, will result in success? If you’re writing a book, it may be to write 3,000 words a day. If you’re launching an app, it may be to learn to code. If you want to be a chef, it may be to practise a new recipe every day. Whatever it is, break the goal into a series of process goals to focus on.
  3. Don’t break the chain. Adopt this productivity tip from Jerry Seinfeld. The short version: pick a goal; work on it every day; mark off each day on a calendar when you successfully work on the goal; don’t miss any day.

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