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Three Ways to Conquer your Startup’s To-Do List

By: Ed Borromeo

Anyone who’s ever been in a leadership position knows how stressful it can be. You have a lot of responsibility and people depending on you. The decisions you make affect the entire company and its future.

When you’re a founder, that pressure is compounded exponentially. On top of the leadership responsibilities, you likely wear a number of hats from guiding the strategic vision, to branding, marketing, and probably even some administrative tasks. Particularly in the early stages, you may not have a budget to hire on people to fill some of those roles. It can be a lot to handle when you’re making decisions on the fly and trying to keep everything chugging along toward your desired goal.

I see founders and startup leaders battle this challenge frequently. Even the most seasoned business veterans struggle with the stress of the seemingly never-ending to-do list from time to time. How do you see around the mountain of tasks and focus on the ones that will truly move the needle?

Having worked in hyper-growth companies, startups, and serving in our armed forces, I’ve picked up a few tactics that have helped me hone in on my goal and remain focused on the most important tasks that will get me closer to reaching it.

1. Take it month by month.

You have a long-term vision for your business, it’s very important to periodically visualize achieving those goals and continually tweak the strategies to get there. But you can’t “live” in vision and strategy all the time; it can actually be distracting. If you’re overly fixating on where you’ll be in three or more years, you might dilute your hyper-focus on the more immediate obstacles that might be in your way. You also risk not being grounded in your current reality, and may actually get discouraged especially given an audacious goal in the face of numerous roadblocks. I encourage startup teams to take it one month at a time. This means understanding what’s truly important in the coming 30 days and fixating on those handful of things. If that’s too much of a challenge and seems too narrow, look at your plans quarter by quarter.

The three, five, or 10-year goals are necessary, but you have to break it down to get to the most important thing you need to be doing right now to get your business to that end goal. Start big, then get narrow. Often, finding the one to three things you need to be doing this month, this week or even today, will help make everything else easier and even eliminate some of the unnecessary.

2. Focus on outcomes, but limit it to 3.

When you’re under such a tremendous amount of pressure to produce and get things done, you start to crack under the weight of so many top-tier priorities. Founders sometimes lean on their endless to-do lists as their high-level view of what needs to be achieved in the company and to feel like they have a handle on everything. Taking on too many things at once can lead to burnout and overwhelm you quickly. You’ll soon find yourself in the weeds, no longer able to see the big picture.

I encourage teams to set a limit of three top priorities - articulate them in the form of outcomes for yourself and your business. Once set, make sure everything you do goes back to those outcomes. With every investment, every task, every project, you have to ask, “Does it help get us closer to one of those three goals?”

Clarifying three main outcomes that are really going to make a difference for your business helps you avoid getting in over your head by trying to do too many things at once. It’s better to execute well on three items than execute poorly or mediocrely on 10.

This exercise will also help cut out the superfluous tasks, time or money you’re spending. Remember, always ask: Does this get us closer to our three outcomes right now? Which one, and how effective is it at doing so? If you can’t answer those questions, it’s time to cut that line item and move on.

3. Carry your objectives in your pocket.

I didn’t come up with this method, so I can’t take credit for it, but I use it to this day and it helps me tremendously. Every week, I take a three-by-three sticky note and write my top goals or objectives for that week on it (admittedly it often goes a little beyond three, but I always highlight the top three). Then I take it off the pad and stick it in my pocket. Every time I go for my keys, phone, or handy chapstick, the goals are also there – literally at my fingertips. If I haven’t yet accomplished the top objectives, it motivates me to devote more attention to it. Once I have accomplished them, it’s a little validation for me of what I’ve done that week and I know that I’m a couple steps closer to the outcomes for the month or quarter. Either way, it’s a great reminder of where to keep my focus and what’s important to me right now.

As a startup founder, you know what your business needs. You might only be thinking of it in a macro sense at this point: I need customers, I need to get investment, I need a brand. But by breaking it down into one-month segments, clarifying a limit of three main goals, and writing only a few main objectives on a sticky note each week, you can start thinking of your success in terms of micro-level accomplishments.

You have to think micro (what is today’s objective) to get macro (reaching your 5-year goal). As I mentioned, finding your one to three things right now will often make other tasks easier or render them unnecessary.

Written by Ed Borromeo

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