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But are you working on the right thing?

Erika Hall had a great line about the perks of working for yourself: you get to choose which 20 of the 24 hours you’re going to work on the business.

And it’s true that the iconography and imagery of entrepreneuring is filled with scenes of people sleeping under their desks, eating horrible food late at night while they ready presentations or new batches of code. Caffeine. Lots of caffeine.

So it was an interesting thing to see Caterina Fake claim “Working hard is overrated”. As one of the founders of the beloved photo-sharing site Flickr, and a founder of a new decision service, Hunch, Caterina has probably seen her share of startup sprints. She just doesn’t think they are necessarily that effective.

We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t — and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time.

Ok, so how many of you recognize yourself in that paragraph? I’m a big fan of the maxim “You can do anything, but not everything,” and yet microbusiness owners seem to wear their burdens like a badge of accomplishment. Trying to do it all. At once.

How much do you fiddle with your to-do list? Try out new ‘systems’ and software to make sure nothing falls through the cracks? Block out a chunk of a day to do something really important only to have it blow up when the electronic grapevine brings news about a new doodad a competitor released, a new technology you might want to use, something changing in the financial climate at large. So many things invite distraction & freakout.

And it’s a balancing act, because I don’t think the solution is to unplug and act like Emerson. Hide out and cultivate your own little garden. There is so much to be gained from staying in the flow of what your peers and customers and colleagues are thinking and seeing and working on. But it can’t pull you away from what’s really important.

More from Caterina:

Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen.

How do you do it? How do you stay connected to what’s important yet focused on the real thing you need to give attention to?

One Comment

  • On October 29, 2009, Cathie said:

    Thanks, this is really good advice. I see myself in it as far as I panic and work on the wrong things etc. I try to start everyday looking at what’s important and things I’d like to accomplish. It helps me a bit to focus. But sometimes I’m staying late very ineffectually.

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