Tuning out the Noise, When Not to Finish a Project, and Planning vs Doing

In the comments section of my last post Rob left a comment with some really good questions that I thought were worthy of an entire post. These are all things that I constantly struggle with, which makes them great questions to think about, write about, and discuss:

How do you tune out the noise? How do you manage to avoid the Firehose of great ideas from every direction – colleagues, friends, yourself, the internet? There seem to be opportunities around every corner.

I have a hard time with this, so it starts for me with controlling the input as much as possible. That’s why I try not to read too much of the news. My partners and I typically meet once per week, so we save our ideas for that meeting instead of randomly interrupting each other throughout the week. That has the perk of putting some time between the initial thought/idea and the pitch. I find that time to think often changes or refines my perspective. Plus knowing that I’m going to pitch it to my partners helps me think through the pros and cons, as opposed to just shooting from the hip.

It also helps me to step back and think – is that really something I’m interested in? Meaning, would it be worth the time, effort, opportunity cost, and other trade offs? For instance, it’s enticing right now to want to start something new and big. But I have a young child and a growing business, so it probably isn’t the right choice right now. It challenges me to think about maybe trying something simple, or simply just enjoying life right now and getting back in the game with something new in a few years.

As the person who is managing our programming projects and also doing the programming, I’m constantly fighting this battle to keep focus on what’s most important, not on the new idea. The latest programming project always seems like it’s the most important. I like to pull up my Google Doc and literally talk through with the guys – is this more important than X or Y? This has become a habit over the years, and has probably inadvertently helped me apply the same mentality to other things.

Sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to judge whether it’s worth finishing a task – some things are useful even if they’re only half done, but lots of things I find aren’t useful until they’re 100% complete – and that jump from 95%-100% can often be longer than you realise as issues are uncovered.

This is so true. When we spec out a project, we often spend a lot of time on that last 5%. A proof of concept vs getting something out the door are two totally different things.

One area where we have been able to make this work is programming. For years I finished the front-end consumer experience while leaving the back-end features incomplete, meaning if there’s a problem I’m digging through the database and manually adjusting something, vs having an admin interface that anyone in the company can use or even automating certain tasks. But we were able to get more revenue generating projects done. This year I’m spending quite a bit of my time wrapping up projects like this from 5+ years ago. It’s exciting in that you get that feeling of completion, and we get some much-needed efficiencies internally, but also somewhat boring in that I’m not releasing cool things for our customers.

How do you judge when things are worth completing vs considering sunk costs & opportunity costs of doing something different?

We discuss opportunity cost almost every time we’re making a tough decision. I think just being aware of it puts you ahead of most people. We try not to let the sunk costs on a project determine what we’re going to do in the future. I think having multiple partners helps here, because usually at least one of us is emotionally removed enough from the decision to think logically. We’ve killed quite a few almost-done projects that just weren’t right – usually because they’d take up too much time or money to complete, but sometimes because the market has changed or we have some new information we didn’t have 6 or 12 months ago.

But, unfortunately, I don’t have any great formula to follow. These types of decisions are always hard.

How distinct is your time set aside for planning and your time set aside for “doing”?

I don’t set a ton of time aside for planning, other than our weekly meeting. It’s kind of always running in the back of my mind, for better or worse. Especially at night or if I’m doing some mundane task like shoveling snow or folding laundry. Other than that, I probably spend an hour or so each week reading my industry RSS feeds and newsletters, and during that time I’m trying zoom out and think if anything I’m reading is applicable to us. The only other time I’ll set aside for planning is when we’re about to embark on a new project. Then I’ll spend time researching, writing up a plan, and creating a short pitch to run by our team. Otherwise, I’m trying to spend as much time as possible “doing”. The hard part at this stage of the business is that a lot of that “doing” is stuff like HR or IT that’s not exactly my preferred use of time.

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