Monday, August 17, 2009

The Second Month: A Plan Killer

How do you measure progress nonetheless success when trying to build something online? Whether it is a collection of poetry, an online business venture, or just a log of your favorite web apps, how do you measure progress? This question has racked my brain personally for years as I ambitiously try to do a lot with a little. Here are some thoughts as to why measurement can help improve online success, and how one might go about doing it on a regular basis.

Facebook is Really Distracting

It’s tough enough to get something challenging done with no distractions, try doing it with Facebook, or Twitter, or worse yet, both of them in your face all day. The explosion in popularity of social networks has had the adverse effect of making things incredibly tough to get done online, these sites are hugely distracting, and my absence for some years on them has almost entirely been for this reason. I call them time killers, because they suck away valuable productive time by egging us in with their sweet-as-honey temptation to look at pictures of people you knew a decade ago swimming in France, or alarmingly enough, working at a job that might be one you once strived for. The temptation of these networks is so strong, that the sites often kill a productive day’s work without you even knowing it. The only hope you have of keeping a consistent track of your progress is to measure daily what you are doing, and react when the daily measurement is nothing more than writing that you did nothing that day, because Facebook provided you with a lot of profiles to snoop through.

Methodical Success

When I personally started to measure the sales my business brought in each day, I was able to create a goal that was within reason of our current daily sales. After the goal was achieved, it no longer became acceptable to constantly fall beneath that goal. In other words, by creating a way to measure daily sales, I was able to create a way to measure success, and when sales dropped, it was instantly associated with success dropping, thus I, and later my team, became compelled to fix it. Within a short period of time I created a goal ladder, a bunch of short goals grouped together that when achieved would lead to a massive improvement in business. Once the ladder had been climbed, and our top sales goals were being reached on most days, it was time to create a new one. In essence you can methodically build a profitable business by simply measuring how much money it makes each day, and then making adjustments accordingly to improve, or at least keep that number consistent. This method works great for dud businesses, because if you’re constantly recording $0 sales, or worse yet, losses, you’ll know it’s time to move on to something else. Numbers don’t lie.

When you start measuring on a daily basis you’re much more apt to react to negative trends. Just as if you were trying to lose weight, knowing when you’ve gained 5lbs in a day is a sure way to keep you eating a very light breakfast the next day.

“Action is the real measure of intelligence.”

-Napoleon Hill

As Hill points out, ideas and intentions are pretty much worthless when it comes to measurement. So it makes sense to start out by stating that we should measure our progress in actions taken, not ideas furthered, or conversations had, but real actionable steps achieved.

But How?

So if we know measurement is incredibly important, how, especially if your goals are more esoteric than making money or losing weight, do we accurately keep measurement of progress? My suggestion largely comes in the form of when, instead of what, I advise people to if at all possible create a form of measurement within the first month of starting whatever it is you want to measure.

The first month is when your vision or task is making a lot of sense. Fresh enthusiasm drives your daily labor towards the goal, and as much as you hate to admit it, you think whatever it is you’re doing really will get done even though most of those other things you’ve tried to do in the past haven’t. You’re doing great, and all will be accomplished soon. And then month 2 comes, you’re exhausted, the idea starts to seem a bit stale, and apathy sets in.

Should I continue? Shouldn’t I? Maybe take a break and come back to it?

Welcome to the project killer, month 2. There is no scientific data to back up this claim that I know of, but from sheer experience alone I can attest, month 2 is a project killer. I’ve started nearly a half dozen books that stalled after the first month, I’ve even thought of bundling them together in an anthology titled a dog with no tail. How many website concepts in the past 4 years alone have fizzled out in month 2, I’d say at least 50, maybe more. The point, from my experience at least, is to create an actionable measurement tool in month 1 and stick to it to properly avoid your project’s impending death in month 2.

A Crack at How to Measure

So how in the world do you really keep track of, say, a schedule for creating a photography book based on pictures you’ve taken with your XLR of the Northwest United States?

Checking off a list isn’t bad, neither is writing things down. Needless to say there are countless online applications to assist you in this as well. The key is to have your measurement tool directly in line with your daily activities. If you’re always on the go, then maybe it makes sense to keep a small pencil and half index card tucked in your wallet, so you can record on the go. Conversely, if you’re stuck at the computer all day, why not use a dedicated pad to record the data each day? Or if you are too digital to ever put a pen to pad these days, create a spreadsheet and email it to your webmail account, or share it on Google Docs so that you can access it from any computer.

Whatever measurement tool works best for you is the one you should use, just make sure it’s created soon, ideally in that first wave of enthusiasm when your project is just getting underway. Once the habit of recording information on a daily basis in it is formed, it’ll be tough to break.

A Few Personal Examples

The ultimate irony here is I’m not an organized person. My house is less than clean to put it kindly, and my life often seems to be a series of jumping form one pending issue to the next, rather than executing some masterful plan. With that noted, I do measure a lot each day, and from my experience these measurements have helped tremendously in both gauging business success and feeling like I’ve got at least some grip on things, here are few of my daily measurement routines.

Business sales and expenses- I use an accountant’s log book for recording sales, and a similar book for recording deductions on a daily basis. These books look like notebooks but have the boxes and lines to help you record financial data easily each day. You can get them at any office supply store.

Working out- A single sheet of yellow notepad paper is always on my refrigerator door, it simply requests a check mark for each day I workout during the week. By keeping it on the refrigerator I’m constantly reminded if I haven’t worked out enough for the week.

Things to do- I have both an offline version, which is typically a single sheet of paper organized by personal and business tasks. The online version can be found at which allows for my staff to contribute to my to-do list for business. It’s accessible via any computer with an internet connection and a web browser, as well as on my iPhone.

Business projects- I’ve got about a dozen accounts with Basecamp, the leading online project management software. Visit for more information. I’ve traded emails with the owner a few times, nice guy.

Engagements- It’s not just good enough to mark a calendar these days, in the world of ominous distractions, you need automated reminders. I use Google Calendar that my staff can contribute to, it also sends out two reminders each day of an appointment via email so you’re constantly nudged to make sure you make your appointments.

Writing- Large poster board makes the perfect in-your-face reminder that your book project is falling behind schedule. I typically stick the massive chapter outline on a wall in my living room so that, even when not in the office, I’m reminded of what needs to be done for whatever book I’m working on.

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