How to think about time to make real progress

Gary Vaynerchuk uses the term micro speed: macro patience to describe his approach to business. This goes a long way to explain the seeming contradiction between his 100-miles-an-hour life and his Zen-like view of when things will come good.

Looking back on the last two and a half years working mostly for myself, this is a useful mindset for anyone who’s starting out on their own, part of a startup or busy small business.

However, I think it’s also a useful mindset to have for life in general. Something brought home to me by some personal events that cropped up since I started writing this piece. The last week has been frantic and it’s going to stay that way for a while but, at the same time, I’m not going to see any results for months or years.

However, it can be hard to cultivate this mindset for lots of reasons, the main one being that we are hardwired to seek out gratification for what we are doing and the faster we see results, the better. We’ve now exacerbated this tendency by building a whole Pavlovian system which quickly rewards us with a taxi, a pizza or a date for pressing buttons.

Unfortunately, this complicates things when it comes to meaningful rewards or progress because these aren’t things that happen quickly.

So how can you balance tactical impatience with strategic patience? How can you have this mix of micro speed and macro patience?

It’s not easy but I’ve discovered that this is easier if you focus on three things: goals, hours and months.

Goals

Goals are the tangible outcomes we are trying to achieve whether that’s for our business, at school, our health or in a relationship. Remember, being rich in itself isn’t what most people want. You want a new house, to pay for your wedding, to clear your college debts or to pay for mom’s medical treatment. Money is just the means to this end. Moreover, by focusing on the outcome, you might discover other paths to achieve your goals along the way. Once you have these goals in mind, then you need to map out the micro-goals (or tasks, actions, or objectives, whatever term you prefer) that will get you there.

Then it’s time to get after it and this is where we need to think about time a little differently.

I’ve found thinking about time as either hours or months (nothing in between) is pretty useful.

Hours

Because hours are where you get things done. Block off a couple for writing or coding or clear several small, admin tasks in 60 minutes. Dinner with your family or friends: an hour. Working out: an hour. Going to the dentist: an hour . Watching a show: an hour. An hour is a great base unit.

Remember, even though eating a sandwich only takes 10 minutes, leaving your desk, ordering or making a sandwich and quickly checking the news is going to eat up more time than that.

Beware of anyone who suggests you build your day on a series of 12-minute blocks. A tiny percentage of people can make this approach work and most people will find that managing their time like this is very ineffective and they fall behind almost immediately. By all means, use an extra 10 minutes here and there to wipe out a bunch of small to-dos but don’t try to build your day that way.

So keep it simple and think of your day as a series of hours and plan your activities and desired outcomes – your micro-goals that keep you moving forward – on what’s reasonable in these hours.

Importantly, the number of hours you have available, when these occur, how you balance family, friends and work (and sleep) is up to you, your situation and your goals. Everyone is different and things will change over time so make up the schedule that works for you today and get on with it.

So that’s the productivity aspect but what about measuring progress?

That’s where the months come in.

Months

Why a month? Because a day or week isn’t long enough for most things. Growing your email list won’t happen in a week. Climbing up the Google search rankings and staying there takes months. A/B testing needs time. Remember, the lean startup concept requires you to conduct fast experiments but ones that give you meaningful data. That might mean months because a week of data might be an aberration.

Here’s the problem: a week can feel like a long time, especially when you are sitting on the hot stove of a startup that’s not taking off and are burning cash. However, you’re putting yourself under a lot of pressure to make progress in an unrealistic timeframe. Sometimes you need to ask yourself if all that worry is helpful.

That’s not to say you won’t be busy: those hours each day will be pretty full. But you also need to set realistic expectations about how long progress this will take.

Finally, thinking in a months-long timescale teaches patience and forces you to develop routines and rhythms to keep going for the long haul. Thinking in the macro (months, quarters or even years) encourages you to plan, build and operate in a way that’s going to give you the time to succeed. Remember, a lot of people’s ‘overnight success’ took them ten years and the journey can be pretty rough.

The value of perspective

I appreciate that all of this is hard to do and it took me a long time to make this mental shift even though I have a secret advantage.

I’m old.

Like really old. Older than Gary V even.

Ok, I’m not quite dead yet but I’m 46 and on my third career (if we even have those now) which means that I’ve got the advantage of perspective. I can look back and see how long things really take which helps put things everything into perspective.

I recently found myself thinking about pausing work on a software project for six months or so. Six months is well beyond the half-life of most startups and is probably an unimaginable length of time for most people reading this. However, it’s also a project that’s been percolating for over a decade so pausing for six months to get into better shape isn’t so daunting. On the personal side, I’m about to start something where progress will probably take years. Again, that’s easier to cope with when you’re in your fifth decade.

People often say that something’s ‘not a marathon; it’s a sprint.’

I run a lot and think most things of importance are both: they’re marathons comprised of sprints.

To succeed you need both speed and endurance. Your sprints are maximizing how you spend your hours. The marathon is going the distance and measuring your progress towards your goals in months, quarters or years.

So use these concepts to help achieve this mix of micro speed: macro patience. Have clear goals, sprint in hourly-long blocks but have a marathoner’s long-distance perspective, measuring progress month by month. That’s going to give you the perspective and routine you need to keep you going until your ‘overnight’ success in a decade or so.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

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