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What is on your plate today?

My guess is that you are busy. You are running around with a To Do list one mile-long with things that need to get done, right now, no exceptions. There are meetings, and project status reports, and deliverables all requiring your immediate attention. If this sounds like you, you are in good company. Good company too focused on today, instead of future-proofing your business for tomorrow.

That was harsh. I’ll back up.

There is a quote attributed to Bill Gates that I really like. You might be familiar with it:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Think about that, and how it may apply to your business.

Modern software companies (heck, most modern businesses) are too focused on the right now and how an idea impacts today. The effect is that anything that may take more time to unfold (two years, five years, ten years, etc.) is seen as too risky or something the business simply can’t afford. We don’t even consider it; it’s just struck from the conversation. We make laundry lists of everything that has to get done today, tomorrow and next week, but beyond that, crickets.

I wonder if Bill is right that we underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade or if we’re too distracted with today to even think about it.

The trouble with this is obvious – how do you build a future-facing business when you’re rushing to achieve today’s inbox zero?

You can’t.

However, by flipping your thinking, weighing decisions on the value they’ll offer long-term, two big things immediately change.

You Prioritize Time Differently

Go back to that mile-long To Do list. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? Take a step back and analyze the items on it. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a connection between what’s on the list and where you see your business 10 years out?
  • Is that side project you are working on adding long-term value, or is it a distraction?
  • Are you moving your product to where the market it is today, or where it will be in a decade?
  • Are you busy, or are you being productive?

These are hard questions because many of us won’t like the answers. Being busy fulfills our ego, the guilt and the silence of our day. But being busy isn’t how you’ll grow a business.

You grow your business by weighing every action and every decision against the value it will bring. Not today’s value, but long-term value. If it won’t add value in 10 years, it is not valuable today. It’s busywork.

You can never know, of course, if what you’re doing today will really payoff in 10 years (we’re still waiting for that time machine…) or if your visions for 10 years from now are even the right ones, but the thought exercise alone is revealing when you take it seriously.

You View ‘Big’ Projects Differently

Judging today’s actions by tomorrow’s metrics has the power to change your perspective, especially for larger projects. This is something that has been very important to us recently. There are some large scale projects that we have been putting off because they just seemed too big to take on. These are projects that will take at least one year to complete, maybe even two years.

Two years.

In software, that seems like a long time. It seems like forever, actually, especially for a small company.

But let’s turn the tables on that thought process. Instead of thinking about how long it will take to accomplish the task (the initial two years), think about the value you will create for the business for eight years after that by having done that work.

Two years of work in = Eight years of value out

That equation helps add important context to our decision-making, focusing on the benefit, not just the time investment.

Spending two years to achieve eight years of value is smart investment.

Spending two years and NOT achieving eight years of value is NOT a smart investment.

That’s easy to see and to understand, right? This is how we have begun to make business decisions at HelpSpot– weighing the investment against the value. Again, you won’t always be right, but just thinking about it has the power to really impact your business.

Try this out in practice today – take a look at your To Do list and really consider the tasks making up your day. Will accomplishing these things move your business forward and continue to provide value 10 years from now, or are they distractions keeping you from what you could be tomorrow? If they are distractions, consider which tasks you can weed out to make room for the work that really matters. You can achieve a lot in 10 years, but only if you start today.

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