🧠 How to find a project that works

After launching all kinds of projects during the past 18 months, I became convinced that I should finally start doubling down on one thing rather than starting new ventures.

There are tons of good reasons why focusing your efforts makes a lot of sense. Spreading yourself thin is definitely not a smart strategy.

But what’s the one thing I should focus on?

To answer this question, I started creating lists of all the projects I had launched and all of my project ideas. Then I assigned a score to each of them based on how promising and how exciting they seemed, how much time would be required, and how easy it would be to find customers. I gave bonus points if I had some unfair advantage that would help me with the project.

But here’s the thing. Despite spending hours on this exercise, a clear picture never emerged.

I always knew deep down that the way I assigned scores was completely arbitrary. Hence the exercise didn’t give me a sufficiently convincing answer to the question what project to go all in on.

Then I remembered I had bought a book titled The One Thing by Gary Keller a while ago. It’s one of these 130 page business books about a concept that can be summed up in 1 sentence.

It gets recommended over and over again and I only paid $0.99 or something. So far I hadn’t read it, but now seemed like a good time to dive in.

In the first chapter, Gary tells the story of how a business coach helped him take his business to the next level. The key was, well you guessed it, to focus on just one thing: finding new people for 14 positions in the company.

Wow wow wow… wait, what?

I thought the whole point was to focus on ONE thing. But now you’re telling me about the life changing magic of finding 14 new people? That’s 14 things, not one Gary.

It’s kind of hilarious that a book titled The One Thing starts by talking about how the author found success by focusing on 14 things.

The hypercritical part of my brain immediately started pointing out that by using this trick you can package any number of things and call it one thing.

That, of course, would render the whole concept meaningless.

If I choose something broad enough like “improving my business” as my one thing, I can put any number of things under this umbrella and still argue that I’m laser focused on just one thing. After all, launching new marketing campaigns, working on new features and products, and doing joint ventures, all fit nicely under this umbrella.

Taking the one thing idea to its logical extreme would mean in Gary’s case that he’d focus on finding just one new person for a specific position rather than 14 people for different positions. As soon as you deviate from this logical extreme you’re immediately in muddy water.

Isn’t me working on 14 projects in parallel not exactly the same thing as Gary trying to find 14 new employees at once?

I stopped reading Gary’s book after the first chapter. Maybe he’s talking about these issues in later chapters. But I doubt it. Otherwise, he would’ve at least given a hint in this first chapter.

So I’m still convinced that focus is a key to success. But what I was looking for was a manual that would help me implement this idea in the real world and apply it to my situation.

After doing some more research and reading a few essays by Taylor Pearson, I found the answer I was looking for.

The correct way to think about focus is in terms of working in sequence vs. working in parallel.

It would be really dumb for me to pick one project and then stick to it no matter what happens just for the sake of focusing on one thing. Exploring multiple options until you find something that works is a great strategy.

But the key is to explore these options in sequence not in parallel.

In my case this means that I can definitely use my scored project list as a starting point. But rather than having to pick the best option and then be married to it forver, I can slowly work my way through the list, one project at a time.

If you’re working on many projects at once, you guarantee they will all fail since none of them gets enough of your time and energy to succeed.

That’s exactly what I did in the past month. My mistake was spending a few hours each day on different projects and going nowhere.

It’s much smarter to be totally committed to one project for, say, a month and then give yourself the option to switch after carefully reviewing your progress and alternatives.

This way, you’re giving each project a real chance of succeeding.

It then also doesn’t really matter that the scoring system you’re using is largely arbitrary. Each project is an experiment and you could also flip coins to find out in what order you’re going the carry them out.

A scoring system just seems like a slightly better way to order them. But it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect or not. Maybe number 3 on your list is really the thing that will make you rich. Or maybe it’s number 7. You will find out sooner or later anyway.

The truth is that you will never find the one big project you should go all-in on in an Excel sheet. You need real world data and no one can predict in advance how a market will react. Hence you simply need to carry out these experiments until you find one that works.

But the order in which you carry them out is not important. After all, each experiment only takes a month.

What really matters is that you do the experiments in sequence, not in parallel. Otherwise you’ll always be thinking “maybe that idea would’ve worked if I only gave it a bit more attention or added this one feature”.

These kinds of thoughts will take up so much of your mental RAM that you won’t be able to dedicate sufficient energy on new projects.

This is exactly what happened to me. I never killed my old projects but instead kept working on them while at the same time I tried to get new projects off the ground.

Each of my existing projects got maybe two hours of my time each week. But if you’re running lots of projects at once, this adds up quickly and the time available for new projects gets less and less.

Moreover, I tried to do multiple new experiments at once which then naturally stretched out over multiple months. This left even less time for each one of them. As a result, I never got clear data and was never able to tell which project is worth pursuing further.

On a typical day, I would improved the landing page for one of my projects, then added new feature to another one, wrote a bunch of cold emails for a third one, and tweeted about a fourth one.

I have to stop doing that.

From now on I will start focusing exclusively on one project at a time until I find one that is a success the day it launches and keeps holding that traction.

This kind of commitment seems very doable as I’m not making a choice I have to live with indefinitely. Instead, it’s always just a commitment for one month at a time.

At the end of each month, I will make a decision if it makes sense to continue working on the project or move on to the next one on my list.

Moreover, my singular focus will be carrying out this plan. That’s my one thing.

I’ll keep you posted how it goes.

Written on April 28, 2022

PS: In case we just met: Hi! My name is Jakob.

I'm on quest to explore the opportunities and challenges of permissionless entrepreneurship.