How to play long-term
Fast and steady wins the race.
Most people view their calendars daily, but almost nobody has a year view enabled. That’s why days and weeks fly by, and we feel like we’re not making any progress. Not moving towards our long-term goals.
WE OFTEN GET SUCKED INTO THE DAILY MINUTIAE AND LOSE A SENSE OF WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT.
I think it’s such a waste to spend months without moving anywhere. That’s why in the past year, I spent a decent time thinking if it’s possible to create a system that could help with playing long-term.
I’ve built such a system, and it helped me tremendously to push through fear and shut down a company, fly to China to study Shaolin Kung Fu, and start a new business.
Let’s dive in.
One problem that all ambitious people face is that their motivation fades away quickly. They set aspiring goals, spend a week or two working on them, and then get stuck somewhere. And most of these ambitious people give up right there.
One of the reasons why it happens is because we use motivation as fuel. But it’s very easy to run out of it, especially when things don’t go well. That’s why they say that slow & steady wins the race, trying to discount the speed and making excuses for not moving fast.
But I don’t think it is true. I think that fast and steady wins the race.
Like Elliot Kipchoge, who kept a sub-4 minute, 34 second-per-mile pace for 26.2 miles and was the first human being who ran a marathon in under two hours. People say that he has a stunning mix of speed and endurance. An unfathomable motor. But they forget one more thing: he trains.
So the right question is, how can we train to keep Elliot’s pace while running a marathon of life? More specifically, can we somehow keep this patient, long-term mentality (steady), while also being a paranoid, focused operator who executes (fast)?
I believe we can. But we need a pacemaker.
A pacemaker is a runner who leads a long-distance track to ensure the desired time for the person who's trying to win. And that's precisely what we need in life. We need someone to convey us tangible information about how fast we're actually running.
It's a hard problem to solve because, in intellectual domains, there’s no physical pace. The progress feels intangible and non-linear. Sometimes people have to wait for decades to get results. Sometimes they never get them, dying unknown and poor.
But no matter if we get results or not, we need to work hard to maximize our chances of getting them. It's like fishing in that sense. If you throw a fishing rod, this does not necessarily mean that you will catch fish. But if you don't throw a rod, this ensures that you won't get any fish at all.
And that's what my system does; it makes sure I keep throwing the rod (at the right fishing spot).
11Q is a list of eleven questions to be answered weekly.
I do this every Sunday, and it helps me to track my progress from the birds-eye view, stay motivated & inspired, and focus on what makes the most progress.
Here are the questions:
- Recap. This is a short and dense summary of the week with key highlights that I plug into the Progress doc (more on this below). Don't spend too much time here; if something worth remembering happened, you'd know it straight away.
- 3/3 goals. Here I write down my 3 goals for 3 years. Avoid the urge to copy them from the week before and really think for yourself when writing them down: "Do these goals still make sense to me? Is this still what I want to do with my life?" Most people say that one week is not enough to change their mind on something, especially on something hard like what kind of life should I be living. I don't think it's true. I believe that we change all the time; we just let it slip and not act on what we think is right. Also, I don't believe in Big Bold numbers that much, so I set my goals as vectors and end up being more motivated by small successes (i.e., build a business or grow expertise in a given field).
- 3/3 progress. In this question, I clearly define what progress I've made in the past week towards achieving my goals. Here I prefer numbers because they're easy to track week-over-week, and they also make you think about the right things. For example, if our startup's MRR is flat for four weeks, it's an excellent question to ask why and really dig in (maybe what you've been doing is not that important?). Not everything can be measured, so milestones go here as well.
- Roadblocks? Where am I stuck? Now that I've identified what progress has been made towards my goals, I try to figure out where am I stuck and what roadblocks stop me from keeping that sub-4 minute, 34 second-per-mile pace. To give you a few examples: sometimes I don't have the expertise to do the thing, sometimes it's an unpleasant activity like filing a visa report, sometimes I don't have the cash to invest in growth, etc. By eliminating the slowest hiker, I end up moving much faster. This is extremely important for a company because I'm the CEO and one of my jobs is to be everybody's assistant and make sure that the whole machine works and nothing is broken.
- Fears? Actions to diminish fears? I've found that fears in my head block me from making key decisions. But when I write them down, they turn out to be not that scary. I also outline a simple action that I can take to diminish this fear. For example, if I fear that nobody needs the product we're making, then the next action might be to launch and see what happens. Note: I use fear-setting exercise for some deep fears that keep appearing on my radar week after week.
- How can I move faster? This might be the most important, so don't skip it. Here I draft ideas on how can I run faster and overcome the roadblocks from #4 and fears from #5. You will be surprised how much progress you can make if you eliminate the slowest hiker. "Can I call someone and ask for help? Email an expert for advice? Raise money to hire someone? Just fly there and close this important deal in person?"
- 3/3 99/1 power-law next actions? After I finish #6, I outline just one key next action for each of my 3/3 goals. I learned that describing only one thing is extremely helpful because it makes me focused, and I don't feel buried under hundreds of tasks. 99/1 is a reminder of the Pareto principle that 20% of our actions yield 80% of results (Hint: if you apply the 80/20 rule to itself, you'll get to something like 99/1 eventually).
- Anyone I'm grateful to? Anything I'm grateful for? I believe Isaac Newton was right when he said: "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." I found gratitude for small things like a tasty cup of coffee or warm weather being one of the key things that make me happy. Being grateful to people also makes you a good friend.
- Biggest achievement? Here I write down my most significant accomplishment for this week. If you have two, it's okay to write down two. Ponder on this idea: you'll only have 52 items here if you do this every week for a year. What a great way to review your year, isn't it?
- Strongest memory? This reminds me of other things besides work. "Have I enjoyed some business of living this week?". Sometimes I work too much and completely miss the joy of taking a slow walk in a park, raking yellow leaves with shoes, and enjoying the beautiful fall. It helps to prevent burning out as well.
- Who can I help? I try to spend some time every week helping other people, sometimes complete strangers who reach out over email. It makes me happy and fulfilled.
You can grab the tools here as google docs:PROGRESS11Q TEMPLATE
Some non-obvious benefits of this exercise:
- Weekly course-correction. Most people I know do this kind of thing either yearly or randomly. I think it’s such a shame to lose precious 51 weeks if you could’ve corrected your course in advance.
- Working backwards. Once you do this for a few weeks, you end up sneak-peeking into the future on Monday and asking yourself: “What can I do now to make this week’s note great?” This works amazingly well for me.
- Takes 10 min to perform. I’ve tried daily journaling and it seemed like it owned me instead of the other way around (disclaimer: this might be just my perfectionism).
- Motivation. When things go to hell on a given day, and it feels like I’m not making any progress in life whatsoever, it really helps to look back at my Progress doc.
- A week is a good cadence for getting the work done. I’m lazy and mostly work in creative sprints when I sit down and do the thing for 14 hours, and then rest for a day or two. That’s why tracking progress daily for me is torturous. But I definitely make good progress in a week.
To conclude, I believe it’s possible to move fast and steady. To run the marathon of life with Elliot’s pace. We just need to create a pacemaker for ourselves and keep running.
Thanks to Dmitry Kurilo, Darya Danilava, Valentin Pivovarov, Sofiia Shvets, Alexander Nevedovsky and Andrei Matsiavin for help writing it.