Why You Should Pursue Only One Initiative

Image of seven rockets side by side, with No. 6 (from left) launching, steam coming out the bottom.

I found an old article of mine arguing that you should pursue only one initiative at a time. It was a little embarassing to read, because I am still learning this lesson the hard way. My latest conclusion is that you need to distinguish initiatives from other projects. When you really see what's involved in an initiative, then you can also see that having two initiatives ensures both will fail.

So, what's an initiative? It's a major project you undertake that is going to be disruptive. It is going to require changes to your normal routines. It will take an unpredictable amount of time. The ups and downs will push your emotional buttons. 

For example, if you undertake a serious weight loss program, every area of your life will be affected. You will need to shop differently, eat differently, and plan the day differently.  You will need to negotiate meals with your family and learn to decline wine, potato chips, and dessert when you socialize. If you ever eat to make yourself feel better, you will need to deal with those negative feelings another way. Plus, the extra time you spend paying attention to food will need to come from somewhere. You will feel time pressure where you didn't used to. Will all of this affect your sleep? Probably. Chances are, you'll be kinda grumpy, or worse.

Honestly, this is why many people don't make these kinds of changes. When you think about the result, the future seems wonderful. Who wouldn't want to be at an ideal weight? Wouldn't it feel great? But the future is on the other side of a lot of concrete actions that will be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unglamorous. Otherwise, you'd be taking those actions already.

In my class, Do What Matters Most, I teach how to take important but uncomfortable actions. At this point, I have the opposite problem. I am eager to undertake any beneficial initiative that beckons. I have so many tools for solving productivity problems and dealing with emotional ups and downs, that I feel like I can handle anything that happens. Upgrade the Thinking Lab while writing a book? Why not? Add in a weight loss program on the side? Sure. Oh, by the way, experiment with a wildly disruptive scheduling system at the same time. You bet! That will be great! 

Okay, I exaggerate. Somewhat.

I see both legitimate confidence and ridiculous foolhardiness in such an attitude. I can handle it, but should I want to? The question I have been asking myself is: what is the objective test for whether I am pushing the limits of what is productive? 

Experimenting with a new scheduling system helped me answer this question. I now truly understand that there are two kinds of projects:

1. Projects that are well-understood and predictable. They may require intense focus, but if you have the time and energy to do them, you can count on getting them done. They don't have to be just routine work. They can involve creative work, but you have enough skill to ensure predictable results. For example, for me, writing a newsletter or giving a 1-hour class falls in this category, even though they always involve new ideas. I've developed skill over time, particularly in writing newsletters, which used to come out erratically instead of once a week.

2. Projects that are poorly understood by you. You don't know why they're so hard, they just are. These are the projects that are disruptive. These are the ones that suddenly require significant extra time to solve a problem you had no idea was part of the project. These are the ones that take you on an emotional roller coaster that then affects other parts of your life.  

Why would you take on these projects? Because these are also the projects that require you to grow your skills. You will need to experiment to understand the issues more broadly. You will need to take actions that you've never taken. You will need to deal with intense emotions, because these projects require that you form new values and let go of ones that are less important now. 

Initiatives are type 2. They take a lot of emotional energy. They require constant managing. They will throw you for a loop from time to time. They need flexibility.

This is why, if you want to be highly productive, you should have only one initiative at a time.

Initiatives will add some chaos to your life. That will then create a little pressure on everything else you are trying to do.

Pressure is not a big problem for predictable projects. Because you understand the work, you can figure out how to slim down the project or adjust your approach so you can get the best result in the available time. 

But pressure on a second initiative will exacerbate all of its difficulties. There is a multiplier effect on the chaos. 

For example, my major initiative this fall has been to get a draft of my book done, in a fraction of the time taken for previous drafts. This project has made me challenge many assumptions, deal with emotional issues I hadn't expected, and truly stretch myself. The schedule has slipped some, but the early results are already transformational.

But I got ahead of myself. Excited by early success, I started thinking about my next initiative: Thinking Lab 2.0. At one point I thought I could roll out a new program in January, using a draft of the book as a resource. I didn't think it would hurt to start thinking about that in the background. However, when the book schedule slipped into November, I started panicking about the Thinking Lab project. Mind you, I was already distressed about the book schedule slipping. So I now had two major projects pushing emotional buttons and disrupting everything else. For a week, I got the bare minimum of routine work done as I dealt with the turmoil. That created another source of emotional distress. 

I dealt with it. I learned a lot. I gained another level of emotional resilience. But folks, I learn this stuff the hard way so that you don't have to. In hindsight, this kind of turmoil is 100% predictable and essentially avoidable. 

If you have more than one initiative, such a disruption will happen, the only question is when. Then everything  — all of the projects that matter to you — will take a hit. You will lose momentum. You will pay a price in time and energy to get back on track again. For what? There is no upside. 

I have changed the Thinking Lab upgrade from a goal with a schedule to a research project in the background. I can think about it opportunistically, but I will wait to plan the changes until I finish my current initiative.

I have convinced myself, hopefully for the last time, to take on only one initiative at a time. I hope I have convinced you. No matter how many great projects you are working on, make sure all but one are well-understood by you. Give yourself the flexibility you need to stay productive. Ensure you have the time and emotional energy to handle the ups and downs of that one challenging initiative.

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