Why working on multiple projects is a huge mistake

by Peter Shallard

Why multiple projects is as stupid as betting on all the horses

“The number one priority of an entrepreneur who gets out of their creative vortex… is to do whatever it takes to get back in it.” 

…Said my friend Julie, a few weeks ago when we met up to chat. As fellow entrepreneurs, meeting idly mid work day, the topic of conversation naturally gravitated toward business, thinking and success.

This creative vortex is Julie’s (and Abraham Hick’s) metaphor for what you might know as “The Zone” – that place you go where your work just flows, the best decisions get made and your success is created. Getting people there is what I do for a job. Staying there should be your biggest concern.

There’s a number of factors that can pull an entrepreneur out of this sweet spot. One of the most unexpected and deadly is the act of juggling multiple projects. 

It’s a tricky issue to define. As entrepreneurs we see the big picture; every project requires us to juggle. Every business contains many moving parts.

Multiple projects hurt us when we treat them as multiple horses in the race. It’s dangerous to hedge your bets by not betting big on one important thing.

Were you to dedicate yourself to nothing but the single biggest project or business idea you have, you run an enormous risk. What happens if that project fails? You’ve just spent the last year(s) betting big and when your horse doesn’t finish, you’re humiliated.

At an unconscious level, you know this. That’s why you juggle three projects at once – if one fails, at least you can tell people you were juggling two others. Those other two are still full of potential and might just work out, right?

Entrepreneurs juggle multiple projects to insulate themselves from the Failure Bogeyman.

To commit to that one thing, the thing that matters most, requires enormous courage. It requires you to believe that the commitment and the risk of failure is worth it. It demands that you eliminate all your secondary horses-in-the-race. It insists that you lean into the the fact that if your single remaining horse falters, you have to make it get back up again or admit defeat.

It’s tempting isn’t it, to have a few horses? It feels good.

“I’m working on a couple of things right now – and X isn’t going so well, but Y is looking good!” 

This might as well be the meta-motto of every networking group ever, where terrified business owners meet to chat about big ideas.

So why is it better to commit to one thing?

It comes back to the question of creative vortexes. AKA getting into (and staying in) The Zone.

When you’re flipping your focus between three different business projects, it’s too easy to hit resistance in one then switch to the other. There isn’t any reason to try to outsmart your obstacles or do the inner work required to overcome them. If one horse stops moving, you just start focusing on (and talking about) another. Easy.

You fail to do the most important work an entrepreneur can do: Finding your creative vortex and figuring out how to stay there, even when things get tricky.

This failure means that your three (or seven!) horses all proceed very slowly. Unless you’ve developed herculean powers of delegation, the rule “Energy flows where attention goes” remains true. Your pack of horses fall behind as you jump between them, losing precious time and energy with every switch you make. Every time you start to get into the zone, you have to pull yourself out to attend to one of those other projects.

Admittedly, the people who bet big on the one important thing sometimes lose. Just don’t get sucked into using those examples as proof that the “many projects” way is better. Ever met anyone who simultaneously hit three home runs?

Entrepreneurialism has always been a crazy game. It’s always been high risk. You’ve always been insane to try in the first place. This is why you’re awesome.

Don’t let the fear make you “diversify”. You’re an entrepreneur not a stock broker, so act like it. Pick what matters and crush it.

What do you think? How do you decide what to focus on? Are there any examples where more projects are better than fewer? There’s no wrong answers, just quality discussion to be had in the comments below…

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Michael Motorcycle November 14, 2012 at 1:22 pm

I seem to always have a lot of horses in the race and I can really relate to your article.

But…. I have ADD-like tendencies, and its hard to just focus on one big thing. Is there a technique for focus or a tip that you have for me to stay on track? The ADD state of hyper-focus is great, but its hard to predict and I don’t have the level of control I would like to have to maintain that state. It can last for 6 hours or a week, but that state of mind itself seems to have a life and a mind of its own.

MMM

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James Chartrand - Men with Pens November 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Maybe I can help, because I have mild ADD and need to cope with it most of the time. (Takes ‘tendencies’ to a whole new level!)

I work in short bursts – long ones can either drain me horribly from overworking my brain or keep energizing me to the point that I can’t stop and look like some crazy person on crack.

I work on single tasks for short period – doing any X task for an hour is a recipe for disaster for my attention span (unless I’m deeply engrained in The Zone), so I always tell myself, “Just 15 minutes on this.” Then I switch.

But switching between tasks is also draining, so when I switch, I stop and take a break. This lets my brain know that one task is ended and gives me a chance to relax a bit and start to think about my next task. (Which helps me slam it out faster.)

Interestingly, forcibly slowly myself down has proven far more productive and successful – set a timer to prevent hyperfocus and give yourself (and your brain) big breaks of restful stuff like taking a walk or reading a book.

Works for me, anyways!

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Michael Michael Motorcycle November 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm

That’s a great suggestion, James. But I have always enjoyed the state of hyperfocus and feel that, within that state, I’m more productive than at any other time. Plus the energy and enthusiasm feels good and is really motivating. If I could control that state and bring it on as I wished, wow, I would be unstoppable. (Assuming I didn’t things to the point of hospitalization, LOL.)

Your 15min/task rule sounds good and I’ll take a shot at that. But why do you wish to avoid the hyperfocus state?

Mike

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James Chartrand - Men with Pens November 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I don’t particularly try to avoid hyperfocus – that just kind of happens. And hyperfocus when you’re on a real roll can be really great, for sure!

But it has its downsides.

What I do try to avoid is 1) chasing bright shinies, 2) doing the “fun” stuff before the work, 3) getting drained from hyperfocus or overworking myself without noticing it and 4) allowing hyperfocus to the detriment of more important work.

Focus of any kind on important, prioritized and nicely-progressing work is, I think, very valuable (to anyone, not just the ADD folk!) But focus that results in lost hours, neglecting other work that needs to get done and ignoring important tasks is bad for any entrepreneurial adventure, I feel.

You need rest time. You need downtime. You need breaks. Food. Relaxation. That’s where the best creativity comes from – a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

And hyperfocus means intently focusing on NOTHING else but what you’re doing, and that can’t be good!

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Peter Shallard November 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Michael, James has the wisdom here.

I would try the short bursts technique – ULTRA short, if it’s a real issue. Check out http://www.pomodorotechnique.com and use a system like it.

You will eventually gain control over when and where the last focus switches on… but you need to start by reeling it in and channeling it in short bursts.

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Chris Wandel November 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Hi Peter,

Fantastic article and btw your webinar about setting goals that achieve themselves was fantastic, if it wasn’t for my expensive membership to a mastermind group than I would definitely take up the service you mentioned. I may well do in the future actually.

My question is this, I see how concentrating on one thing is absolutely necessary, and have been giving it a lot of thought.

I’m looking at self publishing on Kindle, so I’ve decided to spend the rest of this month forcing myself to get my first kindle book out. My only goal is to get into the zone of my first kindle book for November and get it published.

Then in December when I watch how it does, in this time I also create a niche website about Kindle Publishing and interview already successful kindle publishers about how to write to sell. Seeing as it is an online wealth niche, I feel that it would be a website that I can monetise by growing a list and selling useful products in between providing value to aspiring writers.

In January my goal is to take what I’ve learnt and then try again and publish another kindle book.

So my second goal for December is a different business model, but in the same area. I’ve allowed myself time to focus and not deviate too much whilst achieving progress.

What do you think of this plan?

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Peggy Dallmann November 14, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I think you have to be smart about managing your time as a creative entrepreneur, unless you are independently wealthy. (One can only dream!) Obviously, you can’t spend months or a year writing a novel, hoping it will sell, while having absolutely no other income in the meantime. One must take advantage to freelance, write short stories or teach and speak if the opportunities are there. Perhaps, if the author blogs, there might be ways to monetize the website as well. So then attention must go to social media and all that. So, just the act of marketing can pull you away from the focus of creating itself. From all I read, creative people, at least in the written arts, are required to do so much more marketing these days than in the past. It’s all that “buzzing” in my head that bothers me. I actually deactivated one writer’s group from my email because there was so much activity about “Oh, look at me and what I’ve done now” in place of discussion about the craft itself. In other words, too much marketing and not much about the art of writing. Bzzz, Bzzzz, Bzzzz in my head!!!

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Joy Livingwell November 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Brilliant article, Peter — this sort of insightful content is exactly why I subscribe to your blog.

I doubt multiple projects is NECESSARILY a problem. Some entrepreneurs thrive on many projects — see for instance successful entrepreneur Don Aslett’s books “How to Have a 48-Hour Day” and “How to Do 1,000 Things At Once.” Don, who is a master of productivity, recommends switching horses as a way to AVOID getting stuck and keep momentum and creativity going.

I think you nailed the real problem here:

> When you’re flipping your focus between three different business projects, it’s too easy to hit resistance in one then switch to the other. There isn’t any reason to try to outsmart your obstacles or do the inner work required to overcome them.

A person who FOCUSES ON outsmarting their obstacles and doing the inner work required to overcome them can probably switch horses all day and not create problems for themselves.

A person who AVOIDS dealing with obstacles, whether by switching horses, focusing on non-critical aspects of the same project, or other means, will almost certainly cause themselves major grief.

So from now on, I am going to be paying a lot of attention to whether horse-switching helps me deal with and outsmart obstacles… or whether I’m using it to avoid dealing with them.

More importantly, I’m going to focus more on zeroing in on obstacles, whether or not I’ve been avoiding them, and proactively outsmarting them.

(Outsmarting is nice terminology, BTW.)

Thanks once again for thought-provoking and USEFUL content. Keep up the great work!

Joy

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Linda Spector November 14, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Great article Peter, I also have ADD and have issues with clarity and organisation.
The state of hyperfocus is one I know well, unfortunately I can get in that state , raise my head above the parapet and realise days have gone by and vital things have been left undone. because I am testing various projects at the moment I have to do a lot of ‘switching’ and in any case I would have to do that because within each project there are periods of time when things have to waited on. During those periods it’s essential I get on with other projects.
However what I do take from your article is that if you find a process that you believe is the right path , then don’t dilute your focus by woking on something else in case that belief is mistaken. In my opinion the risk of wasting a lot of your life on a project unless you have clear evidence that it has ‘traction’ is a big mistake. I have just spent 6 years of my life doing just that which is why I am now testing other projects, I am looking at projects that can be tested quickly and cheaply and will hyperfocus on the one that shows clear evidence of having early success in the market place.

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Cindy Meitle November 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm

This is a very interesting post. I’m a one-person PR, Advertising and Events Agency. I’m known as a multitasking animal, but I clearly see what you are talking about. In my line of work, I have to be extremely careful not to dilute my efforts towards “any” of my clients. What I have found is that the most important factor has become organization, scheduling and time management. I have just signed the first of five new contracts moving into 2013. I will have to pay close attention to this and report back to you on my experience and findings. Keeping your thoughts in mind will definitely mean that I’m paying strict attention to balance.

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Norcross December 4, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Funny enough, I get bogged down and lose motivation when working on only one project. The issue for me is that often times, the speed of any particular project varies due to a lot of stuff that’s outside of my control, and the scope is often narrow enough that I simply get bored with it. Having 2-3 things at once (even if some are just personal ‘pet’ projects) keeps me in the flow better.

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Rosangela Ballesteros December 10, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I believe in the power of focus. If we dilute our efforts by focusing on too many projects we won’t get any accomplished. I agree with you.

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