Every entrepreneur knows that there’s no such thing as a chaos-free startup. Just as you need wind to sail, founders need movement and innovation to push their businesses forward. Without it, they risk stagnation.
Unfortunately for the control freaks among us, this constant disruption to the status quo means that chaos is inevitable. Conventional wisdom tells us to embrace the unknown and learn to be comfortable with disorder, and I think that’s good advice. But there’s a difference between learning to live with chaos, and letting it run roughshod over you.
Not all chaos is created equal
According to Clate Mask, an entrepreneur and co-author of Conquer the Chaos: How to Grow a Successful Small Business Without Going Crazy, there are several root causes of chaos that are totally preventable:
Trying to do it all: When you first launch your business, all responsibilities will fall to you. But it won’t be that way forever. Learning to delegate is crucial.
You haven’t learned how to grow your business: Even though expansion may well be your goal, never lose sight that keeping customers is priority #1. “If you aren’t serving your paying customers to the best of your ability, you better be working hard to find new ones,” Mask writes.
Failing to manage growth: As exciting as it is to add new customers and see your business flourish, keep in mind that growth equals complications. In order to stay on top of everything, Mask suggests implementing systems early — ”the key is addressing these challenges as they come up and not letting the chaos of the unknown snowball.”
Too much tech: Tech is great, and in many cases, indispensable. But too much can actually be a hindrance, and drown out your core focus.
Losing sight of your goal: Being an entrepreneur means handling a million tiny details, every day. That said, it’s important to take a step back from time to time and make sure you can still see the forest through the trees. To get a central focus, Mask suggests, formalize your business goals, and track your progress fastidiously.
You can’t control everything, but you can control your environment
Trying to control everything is a great recipe for stress-induced hair loss. But you can control how you use your own time, and where you focus your attention.
When I began my company, JotForm, I felt pressure to be everywhere at once. I answered emails late at night and on weekends, and work creeped into my relationships with family and friends. So in order to curb my burgeoning workaholism, I set boundaries. I established firm times when I would be on or off the clock, and let my colleagues know. I started limiting distractions by turning off notifications when I’m at home, and when I leave work, I consciously switch my mind away from whatever is happening in the office.
This system of boundary setting is also what helps me prioritize where my attention goes. If I acknowledged every notification or responded to every email the second it hit my inbox, I would never have time to do the important, critical work that makes my company tick. Clearing my plate of low-value work, either by automating it when I can or delegating it to someone else, frees me up to dedicate myself fully to what’s important. It’s also excellent chaos control.
Create good habits
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author and philosopher Will Durant said. It’s a quote backed up by science: According to Duke University researchers, up to 40 percent of our daily behaviors are driven by habit.
Some habits are good; others, not so much. Haphazardly bouncing from task to task is a productivity killer, and yet it’s something most of us regularly do anyway. Aside from accomplishing less, multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. Together, these hormones can overstimulate your brain and lead to scrambled thinking and mental fog — neither of which is optimal for maintaining cool and controlling chaos.
Instead of allowing yourself to be pulled in several directions, form habits that train your brain to focus on one thing at a time. Employ the Pomodoro Technique. Clear your mind with morning pages. Whatever routines work best for you, make them habits and stick to them.
No success is too small to celebrate
Building a successful company is a journey. If your eyes are only on the finish line, it’s going to be incredibly hard to stay motivated through the many days and nights it takes to get there.
Floundering through the process isn’t going to get you there any faster, and in fact may keep you from getting there at all. As James Clear notes, “There is power in small wins and slow gains. This is why average speed yields above average results. This is why the system is greater than the goal.”
Set small milestones, and celebrate when you hit them. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy: Take yourself to a nice meal out, buy yourself something you wanted, or splurge on tickets to a fun event. Little wins matter, because they will keep you on track when the prospect of building a company seems too unwieldy to manage. Collect enough, and they’ll eventually add up to big wins. Don’t take them for granted.
Give yourself a break
Ever noticed that chaos seems to show up when you’re burned out and mentally exhausted? That’s not a coincidence. Working yourself to the bone not only doesn’t make you more productive, it’s also actively harming your long-term potential.
When you feel order beginning to slip, it’s not a sign that you should work harder — it’s a sign you need a break. It doesn’t have to be a weeklong vacation, though that will certainly do wonders for allowing your brain to refresh and recharge. Research has shown that just spending time outside can reverse the effects of mental fatigue, and ultimately contribute to improved work performance. Better yet, pair your outdoor jaunt with physical movement: Even 10 minutes a day of exercise can give your memory and attention span a boost.
You can’t control all chaos, and you shouldn’t try to. But there’s a lot of space in between the inherent chaos that comes with startups and letting disorganization overwhelm you. Learn to harness the latter, and you’ll be in a much better position to take the former in stride.