You can’t throw work against a thinking problem
When things aren’t going your way, working harder won’t help—it’ll hurt.
All of us can get caught in the trap of believing we can simply work our way out of trouble. Hustle culture has taught us that the answer to any given problem is to throw time and effort against it, until we break through.
But the truth is, if you’re going in the wrong direction, going faster doesn’t help. In fact, it makes the problem worse. Like Alan Weiss said, “Something is not better than nothing. Some things are worse than nothing because they cost you money.”
On my first solo trip to Europe (before iPhones and Google Maps), I got myself hopelessly lost in Paris. It took me a while, though, to realize that fact. During the intervening time, I was walking very, very quickly, confident I was on my way and that my destination was just around the next corner. But, after a confusing conversation in my abysmal French and a stranger’s incomplete English, I discovered I had been strolling—power walking, really—in the wrong direction for about an hour.
Turning around, I contemplated just how long and just how fast I would have to walk to get to my ultimate destination, and I briefly cursed myself for hustling so hard just to end up nowhere.
But Joel, how could you screw up that badly? How could you walk so far, so long, without checking the map?
I had thrown effort against a thought problem. And for a while, I was too embarrassed to ask for help. It didn’t just keep me from getting to my destination when I wanted to, it made ultimately getting there even harder because I had more distance to travel.
Of course, no problems in business are this simple, nor are the stakes really ever this low. Business problems are more challenging, and they have bigger downsides.
Which makes it even more important to stop and think, instead of just trying to work ourselves out of a hole. Working harder isn’t the answer if you’re heading in the wrong direction.
If your prices are too low, so you’re busy and broke, working harder to acquire more customers isn’t going to help—it will hurt.
If your position is unclear, so every sale is customized and expensive, working harder to make more sales will cost you even more.
If your product isn’t differentiated, so you’re really promoting your industry and not your specific brand, hustling more will just help your competition.
If there’s insufficient demand for what you’re selling, spreading out into more product categories or services will just make your life more difficult when you eventually end up focusing to achieve profitability.
Does that mean you should work slowly, lazily, without giving it one hundred percent? Of course not.
When you’ve got momentum on your side, that’s the right time to hustle and give it your all.
When you can see yourself making progress toward your goals, kick things into high gear to see results even faster.
When your customers are happy and returning again and again, spin up your sales cycle flywheel as fast as you can.
But when things aren’t going your way, it’s time to stop and think. To make sure you’re heading in the right direction after all, and that you have what you need to get there.
If you’re not profitable now, being busier won’t help. If you’re not retaining customers now, getting more of them won’t fix the real problem.
Now is the time to think. To create a real strategy to get what you want. And to design meaningful, measurable goals that will tell you you’re on your way.
Otherwise, you’re just making your problem more expensive.
And you’re making the distance you eventually need to travel that much farther.
If you’re not sure if you’re heading in the right direction, I’d love to chat it out: email@example.com
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