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If you’ve spent time around dogs, you know that they tend to be pretty easily distracted. Most of them leap from object to object, their internal dog-monologue probably going something like “Tree! Fence post! SQUIRREL!!”
An especially well-trained dog, however, is able to withstand those distractions, often because they have some sort of job to do. When’s the last time you saw a guide dog succumb to the allure of a dropped french fry, or a herding dog wander idly off to sniff some grass when it was supposed to be keeping sheep in line?
Entrepreneurs similarly vary in their ability to avoid what experts call “shiny object syndrome:” The pull of new strategies, new technology and even new projects that threaten to detract from a founder’s core mission.
It’s a paradox that distractions seem most abundant whenever you’re executing especially successfully on one thing. But are distractions always a bad thing? Much of the advice for entrepreneurs out there emphasizes the need to be flexible. So which is it? Unwavering focus, or enough flexibility to pivot if the occasion calls for it?
Sources of distraction
Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, distractions often present themselves as opportunities. Maybe an important client wants you to develop something slightly different from your current product offering; maybe a major VC is tugging your sleeve with tempting offers to grow your business. These propositions are almost always flattering, and flattery is hard to ignore.
On top of that, you’ve got all sorts of new tech vying for your attention: APIs, cloud services and even the very tools that are meant to keep you focused all have the potential to pull you off course. Keeping an eye on what’s out there is part of your responsibility as a founder, but the line between “awareness” and “distraction” is perilously thin. The same goes for new markets, which can be especially hard to ignore if they’re adjacent to the product you’re offering. What’s a little pivot if it means attracting a whole new client base? Which leads me to my next point….
The “how hard can it be?” trap
Launching a business requires a large degree of optimism. After all, you have to believe you’re going to succeed in the face of overwhelming evidence that you won’t. But too much optimism can also lead to the common affliction of biting off more than you can realistically chew. There’s a reason that Jim Franklin, the former CEO of Sendgrid, calls “How hard can it be?” the five most dangerous words in business.
Misestimating time management isn’t just a pitfall for entrepreneurs. Humans as a whole are notoriously poor at predicting how long tasks will take, to say nothing of our innate inability to effectively multitask. As a bootstrapped founder, I know that dividing my focus from JotForm would be a mistake, because we have to be so much leaner than venture-backed organizations.
Establishing the scope of your business is not a one-and-done project — it’s something you need to keep an eye on at every step of the way. This isn’t to say it’s never right to expand into new territory, but it is a decision that should not be made lightly.
Evaluate the potential
The shiny object that keeps winking out of the corner of your eye isn’t always a sure path to destruction, and a huge part of the entrepreneur’s mindset is noticing opportunities and acting on them accordingly. But that doesn’t mean every opportunity that comes your way is one worth pursuing.
Rather than pulling up your blinders to shield yourself from every potential diversion, be strategic. There’s a difference between chasing a distraction because it seems easier than your original vision and exploring an opportunity that stands to have real value.
The first step to this is to really, deeply familiarize yourself with your vision, advises Aha! founder Brian de Haaff. This exercise will not only help you distill it down to its essence, but it will also help ingrain it in your mind as you explore ways to potentially expand. Then, when opportunities present themselves, you can “use your vision as a lens, rather than a blinder,” he writes. To make sure your team is focused on the same thing you are, remind everyone from time to time what the goal is. That way, any deviations will make sense rather than appearing to come out of the blue.
Of course, doing something new usually involves giving something up. Weigh the cost of what you’re eliminating against potential gains before you take the plunge. How will it impact your team? How about your customers?
Finally, you can apply some of the same tactics to pursuing new projects that you use in organizing your day-to-day schedule. Creating an effective action plan to achieve your goals will keep you from chasing stray shiny objects, as will grouping tasks into a timeline to prevent needless distraction.
Doing a little legwork will help you determine an opportunity’s actual value, versus wasting time on another shiny object that turns out just to be a gum wrapper.
Focus vs. flexibility
It might seem as though these concepts are at odds with each other, but they’re actually complementary. Think, for example, of a bridge. Yes, its essential structure and the locations it connects are fixed. But bridges are designed with a certain amount of flexibility, allowing them to sway, bounce, expand and contract as conditions demand. If they didn’t, their rigidity would cause them to snap.
Being focused is not the same thing as rigidly sticking to a plan regardless of circumstances. Instead, it’s about establishing a core vision and calibrating where necessary to see it through. Covid-19, for example, has forced many companies to rethink their strategies. But having to adjust for the unknown — in this case, a global pandemic — doesn’t mean scrapping the whole idea altogether. Change is inevitable, whether we like it or not. Flexibility means figuring out how to address change with an open mind and make it work.
The distinction between useful opportunities and unhelpful distractions isn’t always immediately obvious. By taking time to consider how they fit into the big picture, you can learn to tell the difference.