I've been in business for about 30 years now, the last 10 of which have been working as the Founder of Productive Insights.
There's a ton of content out there telling you about traditional lessons learned in business like embracing failure, taking risks, working hard, being confident, etc.
These are all important lessons and I certainly don't mean to minimize their value when I say this, but I won't be talking about those traditional lessons in this particular blog post.
Those topics have been covered well here, here, and here.
What I want to share with you today are lessons I've learned in 2022 (and earlier) as a content creator and business advisor who runs a membership community for service-based small business owners.
This blog post might seem a bit self-indulgent but my higher purpose here is to (hopefully) impart some useful learnings that you can implement to achieve business growth.
I've invested a lot of time and effort, in trial and error (so you don't have to), and have arrived at these insights below.
Lessons learned 2022
The last year has been about stripping back and eliminating unnecessary elements in the business.
Interestingly, I discovered that this process is like peeling the layers of an onion (and often equally tear-inducing).
Letting go of business processes usually (but not always) involves letting go of valued team members which is never easy.
That said, regular pruning is essential to every business' long-term success.
One of the most important (and over-arching) lessons I learned this year came down to two words Seth Godin once told me years ago ...
1. Just begin (and all will be revealed)
Here's an example to illustrate my point:
I'll explain my point in stages
- In 2022, I decided to bring most of my video editing in-house (for the time being). More on this in a future episode or blog post.
- This meant I would need to reduce the frequency and volume of new content on my YouTube channel and my podcast — this wasn't an easy decision to make, but it was an important one.
- Publishing less content meant I could no longer justify several of the (considerable) podcast production-related expenses. So I went through and canceled a bunch of these production-related software subscriptions.
- As I went through the process of canceling the software subscriptions, I found myself at a new vantage point — asking myself a very important question:
What other software am I paying for that I'm not currently using?
- The answer to this question led to a wonderfully satisfying few hours of canceling another ~ 20,000 worth of software subscriptions ... on my PayPal account! While this wasn't quite like winning the lottery, it was a welcome addition to our annual profit.
- As I was getting rid of the software subscriptions on PayPal, I discovered a bunch of other (non-software related) subscriptions I no longer used (because the business had evolved). That added another few thousand dollars to the bottom line.
- This process then led me to another vantage point where I found myself examining our business model, and asking myself if all the processes we were currently using still served us.
- This resulted in our team streamlining, merging, or even eliminating (redundant) processes in the business.
- A few weeks later I found myself running a leaner and more profitable business.
Now I appreciate that the above sequence may look like a "dangerous energy and time-sapping rabbit hole", but I'm confident that the time was well spent.
Some rabbit holes are worth pursuing.
Moral of the story?
Just make a start.
Making a start takes you to a new vantage point and shows you what you couldn't see earlier. I can't recall a single time in my life when I didn't regret making a start.
2. Walk your way out of creative ruts
Steve Jobs was known for his walking meetings.
I’ve walked 10,000 steps daily in 2022, and the benefits have been subtle and gradual, but profound.
Almost every time I find myself at a roadblock as a creator, taking a walk leads to a breakthrough.
A Stanford study found that walking improves creativity.
While it's not going to turn you into Michaelangelo, walking is a great way to stimulate the mind.
This article in the New Yorker suggests that walking improves blood circulation which delivers more oxygen to the brain.
Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
Several experiments have shown that walking results in better memory and attention, and establishes new connections between the brain cells. It also staves off the usual atrophy of brain tissue that comes with age.
The key is to incorporate walking into your daily routine.
An occasional walk when you're in a creative rut is better than nothing but is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on your creativity over the long term.
I found that walking 10,000 steps each day has worked really well for me.
I get a lot of thinking done when I walk each day.
And monitoring my progress on an app helps me pace myself throughout the day to ensure I hit my target of 10,000 steps.
Watching the counter on the app increase in increments throughout the day is incredibly motivating and serves as a powerful metaphor for the value of routines and habits in life and business.
Each step quite literally counts toward goals.
Each word I write on this blog (or each unnecessary word I delete from this blog) creates a better user experience for my readers.
I use the Withings Health Mate app on my iPhone to track my steps and also syncs with my Withings scale. Since the Withings scale also measures my body composition including fat percentage, I'm able to stay focused on keeping my fat levels under control — a much better barometer of health than body weight.
Measuring body fat percentage also keeps me honest with my diet and helps me to focus on better eating habits (so I can keep my body fat percentage under control).
The Withings Health Mate app also synchronizes with the Apple Health app which is a bonus because all my health data is on there.
The key point I want to make here is that there's a profound joy to be had in watching yourself progress toward a daily goal with small incremental steps.
And when you actually achieve the goal you feel motivated and energized to replicate this incremental approach in other areas of your life.
It creates a positive feedback loop and is a great way to stay motivated to cultivate long-term habits that compound over time and deliver massive results.
3. Use Sunsama to plan and review your day
While it's true that technology can be extremely distracting, you can also use tech to your advantage if you're selective about the technology you use.
I experiment with technology constantly (so you don't have to) and have discovered some specific tools that work wonders because they're built incredibly well.
One such tool is Sunsama.
I love the simple design. A lot of deep thought has been put into building this app and the UX is some of the best I've seen.
Sunsama works particularly well because:
- It has a minimalistic user interface. This is especially important in a task management tool because most of us feel overwhelmed when dealing with to-do lists. Sunsama's features tend to disappear into the background until you actually need them.
- It integrates with a whole host of related tools including but not limited to:
The list goes on. They're always adding new integrations
- The integrations make it your one source of truth for all your incoming to-dos. This then means you can time-box everything coming at you and allocate specific times to complete each of those tasks.
- Timeboxing and scheduling tasks from various sources like email, asana, etc into your calendar means you have a much more realistic idea as to what you can actually get done in a day. Sunsama has helped me realize that I should only ever schedule about 4-6 hours of planned work each day because a lot of distractions and overheads tend to take up the rest of my time (more on this shortly).
- Triaging my tasks each day in Susnama is really easy because the tool gives me one visual picture of all my daily commitments (including emails to be processed, meetings, and tasks to be completed) in a very minimalistic visual setting.
- The daily and weekly review features built into the tool are outstanding! The process of reviewing tasks completed (vs tasks planned) and how long it takes to complete them, via Sunsama has been very helpful in setting realistic goals and therefore increasing the likelihood of success. Before I started using Sunsama, I was being very unrealistic about how much I could accomplish in my day. Most days I felt like I ‘failed” most days because I almost never completed my very unrealistic list of tasks based on blind optimism.
- This means I'm more likely to “finish” a higher proportion of tasks because I’m more realistic and I feel more successful which increases my motivation to achieve more. It creates a virtuous cycle.
I’m an affiliate of Sunsama and I recommend it.
4. Allocate an extra unplanned hour of work for every planned hour of focused work
Most tasks come with hidden overheads and tangential activities that get overlooked when we're doing our planning.
For example, I might set aside 1 hour to record a podcast episode but then I might realize a few other things need doing:
- Perhaps my recording software subscription has lapsed and needs to be renewed.
- The software might need to be updated which costs time.
- I might realize that I need to do a bit more research before I start recording because the content needs more rigor.
- I might need to reference other episodes, which means I might need to source relevant links.
- Referencing older episodes might lead to me realizing that the content on those pages needs to be updated
- and so on and so forth. You get the idea.
All of these tangential activities need to be completed and several of them are quick fixes which require less than 2 minutes of my time.
I find scheduling activities less than 2 mins long isn’t worth it. I tend to get these done while they have my attention. The benefits of context switching on these 2-minute tasks outweigh the costs.
End result is that a task I thought would take me an hour ended up taking up 2 useful hours of my time.
For this reason, I generally find it useful to only allocate about 4 hours of work if I'm planning to work an 8-hour day.
This ratio of 2:1 has been working well for me when planning, It is a less frustrating approach, gives me a feeling of actually hitting my goals for the day, and sets me up for success.
5. Reading widely and daily is valuable, but re-reading (for depth of comprehension) is aces
We've all heard about the importance of cultivating a daily reading habit. It's essential to read widely and often if you want to develop a broad understanding which spans diverse topics.
But you know what's even more valuable?
I often find that going back and reading old books is extremely helpful to refresh my memory and consolidate key concepts.
Speaking of reading, this episode is sponsored by Shortform book summaries which give you insightful summaries of important book and also adds deeper and more diverse insights into the key ideas in those books.
I recommend using shortform.
They’ve kindly sponsored this episode and if you go to www.shortform.com/ash you can get 5 days of free access and then a 20% discount.
Most people read widely but reading deeply is not as common.
In Shortform, I've discovered the value of revisiting old books and related ideas.
I often revisit books I've already read via the Shortform book summary service because their summaries include diverse views on the topic and often go beyond the actual book ideas.
They discuss tangential and related ideas and sometimes even critique the key ideas in the book.
This is very valuable and improves the depth of my knowledge by reinforcing it and sometimes even questioning the underlying ideas.
6. More is not always better and external funding is usually overrated
Seth Godin said this to me in episode 200. This was reinforced in episode 222 when I spoke to Derek Sivers (coming soon to a screen near you)
7 figure businesses aren’t as utopic as they’re often made out to be.
A surprisingly high proportion of 7 figure businesses are unprofitable — which in some ways is riskier than not having a business because the stakes are higher and you can lose more in terms of resources
Running (and growing) a business to 7 figures and beyond, is a lot of work.
If you don’t set the foundations of your business up correctly then you’ll find yourself in quicksand at the 7-figure point.
Proceed with caution.
And as for external funding ... I’ve heard this story over and over again.
A company gets a round of funding and celebrates … only to be enslaved by unreasonable (and often unachievable) financial targets that are often set with little to no understanding of the actual business.
In a high proportion of cases, the funding parties don’t understand the industry or the business they're investing in and insist on running the business off of a spreadsheet.
I’ve been approached a few times this year by companies looking to fund my business and none of them have brought anything interesting to the table.
Not all external funding is problematic but personally, I think it’s better to just exit the business.