Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Focusing Your Energy: The 80/20 Rule

Most creative professionals, with or without a day job, have to juggle a variety of tasks and responsibilities. You must expose yourself to a variety of inputs to have a constant stream of fresh ideas, you must turn those ideas into products, and you must find a way to market yourself, i.e. put those products in front of people who will buy them. The specific logistics differ according to whether your products are blog posts or books or paintings or apps, but the general principle is the same. When you are trying to establish yourself and your reputation, there is an endless series of things to do. That can be pretty overwhelming.

It doesn’t help that although we are lucky to have access to a lot of excellent advice on how to succeed in these endeavors, we have access to a lot of excellent advice. Some days I feel like Sisyphus, writing, posting, tweeting, just to start it all over again tomorrow. Lately, my enthusiasm started to dip, as I faced the harsh reality that I wasn’t really getting too close to my goals, and yet it felt like I was putting in the hours on a regular basis. Sure I have a lot to learn as an independent author, attempting to establish a career as a writer, but it felt like I wasn’t moving much further along.

In the realm of “independent author-dom” or being an “indie”, there are many other writers who have been there and done that, and are luckily sharing their wisdom. However, just starting out, it can all seem just a bit too much - all the list of “musts” that one must do as an indie to ensure that you come across professional and committed, and move your career along. I started to despair that I could ever do enough, or work hard enough, to get where I need to.
And then I had a bit of an epiphany. I have been reading a few varied books - and a few ideas started to crystallize in my mind. I realized that the advice wasn’t ordered - these are the most important, these are somewhat less important. Either in terms of what gives results, or what you need to do depending on where you are in your career. [A notable exception to this is the excellent book Write.Publish. Repeat. which does give ordered advice, and was a book that influenced my thinking for this post.] There was a lot of information sure, but perhaps not all of it applied to me right now, and maybe there was a hierarchy of advice - absolutely do this, then if you have time, do this. As a complete newbie, I simply assumed I had to do everything, and beat myself up for not accomplishing enough, or seeing enough results from the things I was ending up doing.  

I am sure most people have heard of the 80/20 rule or the Pareto Principle. It was posited by an economist, Vilfredo Pareto, that the distribution of most things follow a disproportionate division - 20& of the people control 80% of the assets, 20% of the clients provide 80% of the sales. Well this rule applies also to your creative endeavors, and the potential results you can expect from them.

Each avenue of creative work is different, and it also matters where you are personally on the journey. In my case, I have written some books and long articles over the years, but I haven’t really completed some projects that are not only close to my heart, but also definitive of my style and what I really want to convey. Until I can finish those, its not easy for me to “find my unique voice”, or to “create a coherent narrative of your work”, or to “find my tribe”. I am myself not totally sure what my tribe is, so how am I supposed to find it?
Confused by all this advice, I found myself trying to be on every social media platform, trying to implement all the book promotion strategies I read about, reading endless articles debating the nuances behind hiring editors and cover designers and the like. Sure, I was in the midst of self-publishing a couple of manuscripts, but they are books I had already written a while back, and were publishing to get my toes wet and prepare myself. But here I was, wading in the deep without remembering to wear a swimsuit - I hadn’t even finished revising my current manuscripts, for which the advice would be relevant, if only they were ready to be published. But they weren’t.

And for all the time I was spending implementing the 10 cent advice, I had neglected the 100 dollar principle - do the 20% of things that will give you the 80% of results. Sure getting some retweets and followers is great, but not at the expense of actually writing and publishing books. Sure, without marketing you won’t sell too many books, but without having the books out there in the first place, you won’t sell any. And in my case, the time spent on the 10 cent activities that weren’t netting me any results were actually de-motivating enough to not work on what was really important - writing.

Not all those who read this are writers, but still advice can still apply to you. In your line of work what results are you most responsible for? Are you spending a sufficient amount of time on those results, or on doing things that are tangentially relevant? This could actually make a big difference in what you achieve, and ultimately, what you are known for.

Sure, its great to work hard and try to get everything done. But when everything can be overwhelming, decide which few activities deserve the lion’s share of your time and energy.

I’m off to work on my writing - in the meantime, do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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