Hey small business owner – are you trying to boil the ocean?

Updated to Business on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

We all have limits.

Like how much information we can hold in our short-term memory at any given time.

Turns out, it’s about 7 things.

Princeton cognitive psychologist, George A. Miller coined this limit as the “Magic number seven, plus or minus two.” His paper on the subject of short-term memory became so popular it became one of the most cited papers in his field.

The same limitations can apply to your small business. 

Every day you are trying to do too much with not enough time and conflicting priorities all screaming for your attention.

That’s when you make bad decisions.

Of course, business wasn’t always so complicated.

It wasn’t always so complicated

When I first stumbled into business, life was simpler.

Our office had an IBM Selectric typewriter, two phones and a photocopier that could crank out (on a good day) two passable copies a minute.

If you wanted to speak with a client you picked up the phone. If you wanted to send a proposal you started typing on two sheets of paper (one printed stationery, one blank) with a well-used piece of carbon paper sandwiched in-between. 

At the end of the day, we bundled up our letters and packages and headed to the corner mailbox.

It seems so ancient now, but when the workday ended, it really ended. No texting in your car or emails during dinner—when the day was over, it was really over. Life was simple.

Enter the modern age of trying to boil the ocean.

Trying to boil the ocean

In our modern age, when everything seems better than what was before, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

We are tempted by new, bright, and shiny ways to market and grow our company. New tricks for reaching our target market, attracting our avatars and converting followers to sales. In short, we are trying to do too much.

And there are lots of them. 

By the way, I would be remiss to not point out that the most successful “guru’s” teaching new fangled marketing and sales techniques didn’t actually make their millions until they figured out there was more money to be made teaching poor saps like me. Now back to boiling the ocean…

We are told we need email sequences, drip funnels, lead magnets, Facebook ad campaigns, videos going viral and web sites that convert. 

All good stuff, but here, dear business owner, is the catch. 

All of these wonderfully seductive plans take a whack load of time (ever tried to set up a CRM or sales funnel program?) and energy and here’s the real catch…

you might never see a dollar in return.

I know. I’ve tried most of them.

Your first mistake might be trying to boil the ocean – trying to do too much – trying to reach everyone but reaching nobody. 

It’s like thinking you need to build a brand and be recognized when what you really need is to start earning enough to pay yourself.

Of course, a brand is wonderful and we all want the phone to magically ring with new clients eager to throw money at us. 

[Of course, a brand is wonderful and we all want the phone to magically ring with new clients eager to throw money at us.]

But, often we need to walk before we run. Here’s an example.

One sale at a time

Last week, at BlogWorks HQ it occurred to me that we have a handful of clients who only use our social media service, but not our blog writing service. I saw an opportunity to help them.

So one morning I identified 11 clients who I thought might want us to write their blog or to refresh and republish old posts. I fired off a 3 sentence email invitation to a call and by the end of the day had booked 3 calls. Two more clients booked calls the following day. By the end of the following week, I had upgraded 3 clients to add a blog writing service (the other 2 are also considering the upgrade) and enjoyed a nice bump in MRR (monthly recurring revenue.)

Let’s look at what happened.

Eleven emails, 5 phone calls and now 3 happy clients who have a better service. Here’s the interesting part: in all cases, my clients told me my timing was perfect and they had just been thinking about getting help with their blog.

I could have chased after a dozen new, sexy marketing ideas. Or I could invite my clients to get on the phone to find out how I can help them.

Sometimes instead of trying to boil the ocean and reach everyone, we need to look for one sale at a time. You can begin by tying yourself to the mast.

Tie yourself to the mast

You will be tempted.

We all are tempted by the latest, greatest marketing, branding and sales strategies. I know of many colleagues who seem to have a “new and exciting” plan every month.

Like Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, sometimes we need to tie ourselves to the mast of what we have already committed resources to and avoid the temptation of the next “amazing, greatest” thing.

At BlogWorks, I am constantly reminding myself that only a few shortlist of actions will create the biggest results. Everything else is a waste of my time. 

So I have given myself 3 rules to follow. 

  1. Show up with urgency – adopt a day-before-vacation attitude and “let small bad things happen”. Instead of constantly trying to do too much, start by blocking off Friday for writing, planning, reading, and thinking.
  2. Stop doing low-value work – make a list of what fills your day and then remove all low-value work with a Stop Doing list. Examples: constantly updating social media, learning new software, checking email and making lists.
  3. Think revenues, not branding – this is a hard one. Remember you are in business to make money (of course, you want to make clients happy and save the world, but first you have to put gas in your car). Evaluate all options in terms of the potential to return a profit in the immediate future. Remember, brand building does not pay your bills.

If you are serious about your business and tired of falling down unprofitable rabbit holes, I challenge you to follow this simple formula. Tell me in the comments what you think, or write to me.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to get you focused on what matters most:

The secret to getting sh*t done and 6 ways to get started
Why Working Less Might Make You More Productive
My ultimate productivity hack – do the hardest 50 in the first 90


Photo by Holly Rouselle on Unsplash