On Focus

Focus is hard for me.

I don’t mean focusing on one thing at a time in the moment. Rather, I’m bad at focusing on one project at a time. I’ve stretched myself too thin for as long as I can remember by happily starting new projects in a moment of excitement, only to find those projects become a mental burden. I’m an excellent starter, and a terrible finisher.

One data point to illustrate: This website has 38 partially drafted blog posts saved, dating back to  2012.

Another: At this moment I have five different personal projects in progress where I’ve actively invested time in the past six months, none of them near completion.

Never let me volunteer to videotape your wedding. I’m ashamed to admit that over a decade ago I shot two weddings for friends who are still waiting for me to finish in post production. That’s ridiculous! I’m a monster!

For most of Rocket Lift’s history, I’ve let my lack of focus affect the company as well. It’s been a major problem.

Websites? Yes, that’s “what we do”.

You need video production? Hey, we do that too!

Reinventing shared hosting? We have pages and pages of documentation on our thoughts and plans for how to build a better system than exists, because obviously we were the best people to tackle that.

Sustainable food startup ventures? That’s my enduring passion in life so we spun our wheels in that direction a lot, too.

You need someone to turn around your startup’s website that’s going south? How can we help!

Naturally we sucked at all of it. I mean, we were decent at some of it, but we hadn’t set ourselves up for greatness, nor doing even the basically good work we were capable of.

We had high switching costs, jumping from one service to another. There were too many skills to keep up to date with and we did worse at that than we admitted to ourselves. We were never able to benefit from systematizing sales processes (or any processes), because it was different for each service. For too long, we lived with the mediocrity that came from my compulsion to try doing everything at once.

Way back in 2012, we had a team meeting where we debated the merits of everything we did, asking what we could cut in order to go deeper into whatever remained. I don’t recall exactly how many things we considered, but it must have been at least a dozen or more. It was far from a natural process for me — it was painful — but we were able to whittle it down significantly to around 3 or 4 I think, and I recall feeling a lot of self-congratulation over that. Ha!

It was desperation that brought us to that point. There was always too much stress, never enough money. It was awkward whenever someone asked what we did and it took us five minutes to answer.

I also grew tired of being in an industry where plenty of our peers were doing amazing things, serving enviable clients, living quite comfortably, and preaching an abundance mentality — while we struggled.

At that point, I was fed up with the consequences of my own denial, and admitting that we had a problem was easy. Yes, we had a problem.

And actually it was me. I had the problem.

I have the problem.

Rationally, I know that trying to do everything simultaneously is impossible. Obviously. But my tendency to take everything on has been a lifelong character flaw — my Achilles heel.  It’s like a kind of insanity I’ve been unable to shake.

Looking back over the years, I recognize several moments where I thought I was focusing, but really I was just ratcheting in my expectations for what was a reasonable number of foci. (‘Foci’ is a plural of focus. Or course I know this.)

That meeting in 2012 was one of many. Each time, it was painful to let go of things, so we only let go of one or two, instead of letting go of all but one as we should have. It would have been easier in the long run to rip the bandaid off all at once, and truly focus on One Thing. But I didn’t.

Where does this come from?

Well, there’s fear of commitment. This was justified to some extent. New business has rarely come easily for Rocket Lift, so I wanted to keep our options open, to do whatever sort of work came along. But I didn’t see this for what it was, a self-reinforcing cycle: Lack of opportunity, led to lack of focus, led to lack of quality, led to lack of opportunity. I didn’t trust to the magic of abundance mentality.

Also, being overwhelmed has (bizarrely) been my comfort zone, and being focused is outside of that zone. Being overwhelmed is what I know, and so there’s something scary to me about feeling I have a sustainable work load.

But, focus is a discipline I didn’t have. No discipline is joyful. Focusing is painful. That’s actually a paraphrase of Hebrews 12:11, a passage I have so cherished that I’ve internalized it over the last 15 years, and had to look up to remind myself where it came from. Here’s the thing, though: I completely missed the point of it until recently. I used to think that my experience with focus being painful was something I experienced especially, like that was a particular part of my own personality. I imagined that focus was easier for other people, that somehow its difficulty for me meant that I could be excused from it and from the truth that I have only one life to live, with scarce time and resources to use. It excused me from the discipline of focus.

That leads me to conclude that the root of this problem has simply been a lack of maturity, which I struggle with even today. I’ve lived in denial of the basic fact of adult life that you can only do so much as one person, or even as one group of people. That’s true for you, and that’s true for me.

So note to self: Knock it off.


Set human expectations for yourself

My cliff notes from “Working yourself ragged is not a virtue”:

At this point in the series, we have something to fight for (something to change in the world), and we are free of obligations (we do things because we want/decide to). Now, to begin to actually remove guilt-based motivation.

Most guilt comes from people deciding to do one thing, but doing something different. For example, staying up late to binge on tv, after intending to go to bed early.

This post covers the tool for dealing with this kind of guilt, one form in particular: Having a lot to do, working as hard as you can to accomplish it all, and only stopping work before you are physically forced to drop — which makes you “bad” because you weren’t good enough to keep going.

This can stem from confusing an external standard of quality for one’s own (summarized in the Avoiding the Slacker/Tryer Dichotomy). But not always: Sometimes people do this to themselves over something truly important to them.

Their error is in maximizing your productivity today — “local velocity” — instead of over time. The goal should be maximizing the total difference your efforts make.

(When all is said and done, and Nature passes her final judgement, you will not be measured by the number of moments in which you worked as hard as you could. You will be measured by what actually happened, as will we all.

You lose points for effort; you gain points for improving the world.

Sometimes you do need to push yourself to the limit, but before you do, acknowledge the costs and weigh the tradeoffs, while keeping your long-term goals in view.

We are humans with human limitations; acting as though we are gods who can transcend our ape backgrounds isn’t admirable, but foolish.

[Damn, I need this reminder all too often!]

The point is not that you should restrict yourself (say, to 40 hours/week), or to stop when it gets hard.

The point is, you should pace yourself (“Do as much as you can, but don’t be constantly taking damage”), and you should incur soreness from effort, without strain and damage. Train to push your limits in a disciplined way, without excess.

Please treat yourself well today; doing so is an important component of long-term productivity.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

WCSEA 2015: Eric Amundsen — An Introverts Guide to Marketing Your Web Business

I’m at WordCamp Seattle today and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are posted right after the session, and could be a little rough.

This is a talk from Eric Amundson, team lead at IvyCat. Find Eric at @sewmyheadon on Twitter and at ivycat.com on the web. Here is the WordCamp.org session description.

I distinctly remember first meeting Eric at WordCamp Portland’s Developer Day three years ago. Eric was quiet, but knew what he was talking about when he spoke up. He came across to me as intensely smart and credible. It’s fun to imagine what he might’ve been thinking at that moment, given what I learned about his perspective in this talk.

What is an Introvert

Introverts generally favor solitude and alone time, live a lot in their heads, and find social gatherings draining.

Extroverts in contrast are very outgoing, don’t like being alone much, and prefer to be among people. They tend to obtain gratification from things outside of themselves. They’re energized by social gatherings.

There are many introverts within the developer community, which makes sense because it’s a solitary activity. There are many companies employing hugely talented introverts all over the world. There are many introverts among us.

Eric at WordCamp San Francisco

About four (I think) years ago Eric felt that IvyCat was at a cross roads. He was in debt, and needed more business. He needed some new employees. He thought he needed to do more than just learn more, or he was at risk of shutting down and folding.

His best idea for what to do about this was to take two days to drive from Gig Harbor, Washington down to San Francisco. During the drive he enjoyed being by himself and “making progress on his audiobooks”.

But once he arrived at the venue, he was completely overwhelmed by so many people. He kind of closed down. He wasn’t rude, but he left early, and kicked himself on the two day drive back for not taking more advantage of the opportunity.

These things are really hard for shy, introverted people. They’re scary. Extroverts should realize many people are like this. Introverts should realize they aren’t alone in this, but they can overcome it without changing themselves but by engaging more to build profitable, growing businesses through relationships — like Eric has.


Marketing is relationship-building. It’s trying to build enough trust to get to do business with people.

Seek to build relationships with people with complementary strengths.

Marketing Tactics for Introverts

One on One

One on one in-person interactions are always more efficient. When you meet in person, you can use all of your senses to get to understand and know them, and be more focused on a meaningful interaction.

You can tell so much more about someone from this kind of interaction than from group interactions.

View conferences as rich opportunities not to interact with everyone, but to find people to have meaningful one-on-one conversations with.

Keep it simple

Eric had spread himself too thin, and been the “jack of all trades, master of none.” Growing out of this, and finding focus, was very difficult and painful. But it’s been worth it: Clients don’t want generalists, so more focused bidders tend to win contracts.

So, build one-on-one relationships with people who’ve focused on things you choose not to focus on, so that your focuses can be mutually complementary. You can share meaningful referral relationships.

Have an elevator pitch

Have a simple one-sentence answer to the question “What do you do?”

Introverts hate it when people are on the hunt with their pitch, trying to give as many business cards out as possible in a “target rich networking environment”. Not because they hate people, but because it’s a trust issue. You get one chance with this approach, especially with introverts, and you probably blow it if you’re more focused on giving out cards to the next person than focused on the person you’re talking with right now.

Instead, give people your pitch in casual, natural conversations. Build relationships over time and you can build trust and come to rely on people over time.

Have a goal (or two)

Make a game out of having a checklist to focus on, for what you’d like to accomplish at events — rather than focusing on how nervous you are.

Be Engaged

It takes time to be available to people in this way. Put in the time.

Put down your devices. Despite what you think, you really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. People see how you interact and what you’re doing with your time, so if you’re on your phone, that says something to people — about how you’re not interested in them.

Write down peoples’ names if it helps. Take notes on their business cards, so you can remember.

Business cards are important still. They allow you to take notes to remember people later, and they also give introverts something to fiddle with if they’re feeling nervous.

Embrace the small groups you find yourself in.

Ask questions. It’s hard to find the courage, but it’s a very effective way to break the ice: Ask hard questions first to get them out of the way. And then, ask open-ended questions. They get others talking, which an keep the focus on them instead of yourself.

Volunteering to help others is easy to do and build cred.

Look Stupid: it’s the new Smart

Imposter Syndrome: Living with the fear of being found out. Both introverts and extroverts deal with this, but extroverts tend to live it out loud, which is the right way to deal with it, whereas introverts ruminate it, which can sink them.

Eric’s story of breaking the fear of looking stupid

At an event with breakout groups, Eric noticed the user and blogger group were chatting up a storm, loud as heck, while the developer group he was a part of was quiet — introverted.

So he said: “Hey, I’m not too proud to ask a stupid question”, and asked one of his developer group cohort a question. This had neat side effects:

  1. He got an answer to his question! Which is what he wanted.
  2. It got people talking — and then it kept people talking. It began a conversation that’s kept going.
  3. Other people attributed smarts to him.
  4. It made the experience fun. It was a great experience.

Keep an Open Source Attitude

Marketing isn’t about making sure everyone knows your name, etc. It’s about building relationships. Contributing. Showing up and trying to help others. If you put good energy out there, it comes back to you.

So many good things come out of it, including: Mutually profitable friendships that you can strike up just by sitting down next to someone and saying hello.


Watch wordpress.tv for an engaging and moving story at the end that I’m not going to try and capture here.

This talk has been a positive emotional highlight so far for me today — a feel good victory for everyone in the room. :)

This post is part of the thread: 2015 WordCamp Seattle Live Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Value Quadrants: A system to prioritize your tasks

2014-12-30 update: Fixed a few issues with the diagrams.

The task prioritization tool I’ve used for nearly a decade

Back in my College Pro Painters manager days, I was a bit overwhelmed with everything I had to do.

Max, my general manager (and the best boss I ever had), taught me a simple tool to help answer the fundamental question of what to do next.

I don’t recall his name for it, but I call the tool Value Quadrants.

Since I learned it almost ten years ago, I’ve found Value Quadrants useful in every job I’ve had. I’ve mentioned it casually to a few of my teammates at Rocket Lift, and they were interested to learn more. So, here’s a write I hope you’ll find useful, as well.

Too much to do! What to prioritize?

To set the scene: Any given day running paint crews, I had to check in with clients on our progress with their houses, fine tune our schedule for upcoming projects, pick up supplies from a handful of stores, check in with my three crews, respond to email, knock on doors, schedule calls with leads, go to sales meetings, finalize estimates, total up job costs, deposit checks, process payroll, fuel up the truck, and so on.

Those were just my routine tasks, not including any fires that needed putting out.

There were so many things I had to do at any given moment, and everything seemed urgent. When you’re trying to provide great customer service, anticipate problems to nip them in the bud, and go above and beyond, there’s no end to the todo list you can come up with. So I was never “done”.

It was tough to identify the right things to do first, and have peace of mind knowing that anything I wasn’t working on could wait.

Sound familiar?

Breaking down Importance: Urgency versus Impact

The basic principle Max taught me is that importance isn’t a very helpful way to order tasks. Tasks are “important” for different reasons. Some are time sensitive, some make a big difference, and some are both. So, trying to sort “important” things into a priority order is really tough.

The Value Quadrants tool breaks tasks down into two distinct kinds of importance. You consider them separately, then combine them in a way that makes their relative value more clear.

Impact is one kind of importance. Something is impactful if it makes a big difference. If there is little or no consequence if a task doesn’t get done, ever, then it is a low-impact task. Impact is completely separate from time sensitivity.

Filing taxes is high-impact, because if you don’t file them, you’ll have serious consequences. Sending out holiday cards to thank your clients is a nice thing to do, but it is relatively less impactful — you aren’t likely to lose money if you skip it.

Urgency is the second kind of importance. Urgency has strictly to do with time sensitivity, and nothing else. If a task must get done today or else you may as well not do it, then it is urgent. If there is no benefit to doing a task sooner than later, or if it can be done much later without consequence, then it is not urgent.

In early December, sending out holiday cards to your clients is urgent, because it won’t look good for you to send them after the holidays. Filing your annual taxes is not urgent — not until the deadline looms. If you get them done sooner, there is little if any benefit.

Put them together to calculate Value

Now we can say that something is important because it is impactful, or because it is urgent, or both. Of course, a task may also be neither urgent nor impactful.

With these separate qualities defined for each task, now we combine them to identify the task’s value. You can visualize the relative value of tasks by plotting them on a grid into four quadrants.

Start by drawing a horizontal line, and label it “Impact” underneath, with an arrow pointing from left to right. Divide the line in half with a little vertical line. You’ll plot more impactful task on the the left side of this line.


Now add a vertical line to the diagram, intersecting the left side of the Impact axis at a 90 degree angle. On the left side, label it “Urgency”, and draw an arrow pointing from the bottom to the top. Divide this line in half with a little horizontal line. You guessed it: You’ll plot more urgent tasks in the top half, less urgent tasks in the bottom half.

Graphing Impact and Urgency of tasks

Let’s extend our small lines to the right and above our existing lines, to create our quadrants. Label the “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”, as shown:

Value Quadrants

These quadrants correspond to the following:

Quadrant A: High Value tasks, that are Impactful and Urgent
Quadrant B: High-Medium Value tasks, that are Un-impactful and Urgent
Quadrant C: Low-Medium Value tasks, that are Impactful and Not Urgent
Quadrant D: Low Value tasks, that are Un-impactful and Not Urgent

Value Quadrants Diagram 4 - Quadrants Labeled

Here’s another view:

Value Quadrants Diagram 5 - Quadrants Labeled Alternate

Using the Tool

Here are four simple steps to use Value Quadrants to help identify “what to do first”:

Step One: For each task, identify whether or not it is urgent, and whether or not it is impactful.

Step Two: Score each task using the Value Quadrants. Each task is an A, B, C, or a D.

Step Three: Look at just the tasks in the “A” quadrant first. Set tasks in all other quadrants aside for now. Theses are your High Value tasks, both urgent and impactful. Nothing else on your todo list matters as much as your “A” tasks, so put everything else out of your mind! Decide on an order to tackle your A tasks.

Step Four: Get to work! Prioritize your A tasks. When they’re complete, move on to your B tasks. Your B task are the next most valuable to be working on. Sort your B tasks just like you did with your A tasks, and get started. And so on.

Do you still have too many High-Urgency, High-Impact tasks?

Going through steps 1 through 3 and still ending up with more A tasks than you know what to do with can be demoralizing, so I find it helps to sort them further into sub-groups.

Try considering other ways of measuring importance besides Urgency and Impact. Perhaps some of your A todos are worth a higher dollar value, so you may choose to prioritize them above others.

Some tasks are harder to complete than others, or take more time. I usually try to tackle the harder or longer ones first, to get them out of the way. If you’re the kind of person who can use some early victories to boost your morale and build up steam, you might get some easier ones crossed off the list first.

Incorporating Value Quadrants into your life

It’s great when you finally get to your C quadrant tasks, because you’re working on impactful things without the pressure of working under the clock. When you get to D quadrant tasks, congratulate yourself on having the discipline to do everything that was more important first. You can attend to these remaining chores with a calm, peaceful state of mind.

Here are a few recommendations for using Value Quadrants successfully:

Draw the diagram. Don’t just imagine it — actually draw it! Put it on the white board near your desk, or draw it habitually in the corner of your scratch sheet of note paper. Keeping even this empty grid in sight as a visual aid helps instill the habit of thought about what’s most impactful, and what’s the most urgent.

Score tasks on the diagram. Again, don’t just imagine it. With the visual representation of the most important tasks grouped together, I find it easier to put everything else out of mind.

Experiment with spreadsheets. For a while, I set up a spreadsheet that took “low” or “high” urgency and impact input for each task and automatically calculated and sorted tasks into their quadrants. That sped up the routine process of scoring and then sorting tasks.

Try a larger grid. When I have an extra large heaping pile of todos, I score them on a 3 by 3 grid, with a a “Low, medium, or high” scale for urgency and importance. It takes a little longer, but I you’ll get a more manageable list of the most important things to do first.

What do you think?

I hope there’s something useful for you here. Perhaps just this mindset alone will help you make better decisions about how to spend your time.

Let me know if there’s value for you in Value Quadrants (heh). I have some more follow-up thoughts drafted to go deeper into the this tool, that I’ll spend some time polishing if people are interested. So, I’d especially love to hear if you’re interested in more of this kind of thing from me.

True Fact: The comment box down below a little ways is useful for these things.

Get an update when I publish the follow-up!