My friend Vinicius Vacanti wrote an article back in August entitled How New Ideas Almost Killed Our Startup. I missed reading it back then, but it had a resurgence on Hacker News in late December, which brought it to my attention. His central point is that new ideas lead to "uninformed optimism," which in turn lead to "informed pessimism" and only the most persistent people will get to a "crisis of meaning" and break through. Those people who lack persistence and focus will keep reverting back to a new idea and "uninformed optimism" all over again. I wrote about this briefly in a article entitled Idea Shaping that urges entrepreneurs to focus on one idea at a time, preferably one you love. His idea, and mine, can be boiled down together to one word: focus.
What Causes Loss of Focus
Sometimes I find myself so focused that I forget to eat or drink. Often that same focus leads me to forego sleep or toss and turn because I can't shut my brain off. Other times, I find myself losing focus. I've tried to figure out why I lose focus, and after much thought and discussion I think it all boils down to: (1) not setting enough clear and achievable short-term goals, (2) letting my mind wander too often into long-term future goals, and (3) distractions.
Setting Clear Short-Term Achievable Goals
You can easily solve the problem of not setting enough clear and achievable short-term goals. All you have to do is look at your company and your product and outline "things I want to achieve within the next three months." This exercise should be simple for anyone. Next, take your list of achievable goals and rank them according to what has to follow from what. Some things clearly need to be done first before you can do others. Then take the goal at the top of your list and make that your single to-do item. Once it's done, cross it off and make the next item your only focus. Rinse and repeat.
Mind Wandering Too Often into Long-Term Goals
Long-term goals are a mixed bag: we need something big to build toward, but they can easily be distracting. Ideas like that are best brainstormed and then only revisited in detail every three months. As the year wrapped up, Dave, Jason, myself, and the rest of the Carbonmade team did a lot of thinking and strategizing about what we're doing in 2011. While this is a must-do exercise, we've done it, and now we've got to get back to work on the short-term goals. You can literally feel in your gut the distracting pull of planning too far ahead. It's 2011, so I don't even want to hear the word 2012 enter our discussions. Even anything other than a casual reference to the end of 2011 is a distraction.
Agonizing too much about long-term plans is the biggest cause of loss of focus. When you start prioritizing the future rather than focusing on building the best damn product you can, you'll start slipping. It's really why there's no room for an "Idea Guy" in a startup. Not only is it distracting to the production side of things, it's a role that has no place in a business that's still focused on building a particular product. Whatever he or she might be later, the Idea Guy in a startup should be an "Operations Guy" who should be mainly focused on adding and supporting production of your product.
My co-founder, Jason Nelson, hates distractions. He can't work with them. He doesn't even like programming any heavy-duty code at the office when others are around. That's why he usually checks in to the office around 4 o'clock and checks out early in the morning. Distractions are the immediate cause of lack of focus — the in-the-moment disruption that can pull you out of whatever tunnel-vision, Zen-like moment you find yourself in that gets your best work done.
I respect Jason not only for his work ethic, but also for the way he zones in on whatever he's working on by eliminating distractions around him. He knows he's susceptible to overhearing banter around the office — we all are — so he chooses to do what he needs to do to limit distractions in his life. We could all learn from him.