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First Steps Pt. 2 - Knowing Where to Start

Hey there,

Last week we spoke about starting; about identifying a task that will help you create momentum, then jumping right in and knocking it out.

A few of you pointed out that we’d left the most important question unanswered:

How do I know which actions will help me create momentum?

When we start something new, we lack the experience necessary to tell whether something is going to be momentum-generating or not. Lots of tasks look and feel important, but don’t actually move our project forward. Sometimes we’re able to filter out all of the fake work but are left with a laundry list of tasks that all seem like good—but not great—places to start. Nothing is more demotivating and paralyzing than running face-first into a wall of unrelated tasks of apparently equal importance.

It’s easy to fall into the Just F*cking Do It mindset and decide to grit your teeth and power through them all. This is a recipe for burnout. New endeavors are marathons, and sprinting hard and fast at the beginning because you’ve placed your trust in a hustle culture is a surefire way to end up exhausted and stalled.

What we need is to identify one of our tasks as our current priority, then execute on it until it’s time to find the next.

So how do we choose?

The best way to find our current priority is to start at the end and move backward. Take the goal you’re hoping to achieve, and identify the single preceding task that unlocks it. Keep going, until you’re left with a completely unblocked task. Then start there.

Let’s try this process with the goal of publishing a short story in a literary journal:

  • To publish the story, you need to have written it (shocking revelation, I’m sure).
  • To write the story, you have to write all the scenes.
  • To write all the scenes, you have to write one of them.
  • To write a scene, you have to start your first sentence.

Eventually, you’ll run out of reductions. You can only add so many layers of procrastination (“before I sit in the chair, I have to pull the chair out”) until you’re left with nothing but an obvious next action. And once you’ve identified it, there’s nothing left to do but sit down and knock it out.

Now maybe you disagree with our example. Maybe you think, “I can’t possibly write my first scene before I have a full outline.” And maybe you’re right! But that’s the beauty of the backward process: if you sit down to knock out your identified priority, but find you can’t because another task is blocking it, you’ve just identified a more pressing priority.

This process is incredibly valuable: not only have you identified your next immediate step, but you’ve also laid out all of the subsequent steps to keep moving forward from there. Because each task directly unlocks the next one in the list, moving forward becomes as easy as following each falling domino to the next.

We call this step-by-step path, a “roadmap.” Its the first thing we do with all of our clients, and it helps us make sure we’re working on exactly what each client needs, exactly when we need to be.

This process keeps you focused and enables you to avoid unnecessary work, as long as you’re honest about each step’s true pre-requisites. If your goal is to become a freelancer, do you really need business cards before you send your first outreach email? Does your app really need a logo before you’ve started developing it? Does your novel need a title before you’ve started the first chapter? Staying honest about what’s truly necessary at each step will help you continually identify only those tasks that generate momentum and help you continue to make forward progress.

Roadmapping also keeps you from investing time and energy in tasks that don’t yet have value. It’s entirely possible you may need an agent to publish your novel. But it’s ridiculous to think you need one before you’ve written any of it. If you find yourself working on tasks that many steps down the path of your roadmap, stop! You have more pressing priorities lined up ahead of you.

When roadmapping, it’s okay to leave later steps painted in broad strokes, then return to fill those details in later. A roadmap is supposed to be a living document, continuously being updated and refined. Think of it as an outline that we’re continually expanding as we move through it. First, we lay down Act I, II, and III. Then we start laying out the scenes in Act I, leaving II and III for later. You know that Act I comes before Act II, so you don’t need Act II’s complete details until you arrive there. This keeps you from investing in work that isn’t yet valuable to us. And since what you’re doing is new and unique, you’re likely to come across new information that forces you to reevaluate your next steps. As long as you’re focused on your end goal and continuing to knock down the dominoes stacked between here and there, you’ll continue making progress.

Take note that “priority” throughout this process is singular. It is impossible to have multiple “priorities” at one time: either a task is the most important, or it’s not. Sometimes, a single task is dependent on multiple preceding subtasks. In this case, it can be challenging to identify any single task as the most important. When this happens—and it will—we have a number of options:

First, you can rank the tasks by its ease of completion, and start with the simplest. Remember, you should always be seeking ways to build momentum: knocking out small tasks is one of the easiest ways to do that. Accomplishment is energizing and can help you “get in the groove.”

Second, you can rank the tasks by interest, and choose the one that sounds the most fun. Let the enjoyment motivate you forward, and save the more arduous tasks for last. That way, you won’t be distracted by the alternative possibility.

Finally, if the subtasks are all of truly equal importance, equal difficulty, and equal interest, just pick one. Close your eyes and throw a dart. Or start the one that’s first on your list. Either way, do whatever you do quickly—its easy to let indecision take the wind out of your sails and slow your progress.

Go now and build your roadmap. Start with your dream finish line and walk slowly back to the starting blocks, taking note of each step along the way.

Choose your first step, then jump right in. And then tell us about it here.

Until next week!

James

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