Every year on January 1st, like many others, I get motivated to start a healthier diet. I’ll get a gym membership, search up a new recipe or two, drink lots of water and eat kale — until there’s an obstacle. A big project at school, a night out with friends, or simple forgetfulness is all it takes for my diet to slip through the cracks. After that point, I give up, only to start again the next year. Creating a healthier lifestyle, like entrepreneurship, requires discipline. Motivation alone isn’t enough to be sustainable. Just like the latest dieting fad, it can be easy to glamourize entrepreneurship. The allure of “Be Your Own Boss” and “The Four-Hour Workweek” combined with an inundation of startup success stories, can easily make the life of an entrepreneur appear idyllic. However, many entrepreneurs more closely identify with the swimming duck — calm on the surface, but paddling furiously beneath the water.
From pursuing and satisfying investors, to researching your market, to fostering a positive work environment, starting your own company is filled with challenges. To balance these potentially competing interests requires hard work, though that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Establishing the right mindset to tackle these challenges today, will benefit you and the company later on.
Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, offers a strategy to develop discipline. Her key insight is the importance of seeing progress, as detailed in her book “The Progress Principle”. Goals like “Build a Succesful Company” and “Hire Good Talent” are unhelpful as they are too vague for you to measure progress. Words like “success” and “good”, without clear definitions, can make these goals seem forever out of reach. Moreover, with vague goals comes equally unclear steps to achieve those goals. Building a successful company could be profits of 1M dollars, or one thousand. Instead, Amabile proposes that we set clear, highly specific goals, and then detail the small required steps to reach them. If you can see that your effort is working towards your goal, then you are more likely to continue to work hard. Setting concrete goals like “Hire 10 software engineers with 3–5 years of experience within the fiscal year”, can help you clearly see your progress with each new hire.
Even with explicitly outlined steps, procrastination can also be an obstacle to creating a disciplined mindset. Heidi Grant, a social psychologist from the Harvard Business Review offers solutions to help develop positive habits. She describes if-then planning to help reduce procrastination. First, the person determines all of the steps necessary to achieve a goal. Then (and more importantly!) they decide when and where each step will occur. Take preparation for an investor meeting. Following if-then planning means to set rules like, “If it’s 1 pm, then I’ll start the pitch deck.” or “If the team doesn’t provide a clear timeline, then I’ll ask for their contact information.” or “If I haven’t heard back in one week, then I’ll send an additional email.” etc. If-then planning alleviates decision fatigue, where people tend to make poorer decisions after a long period of decision-making. If the decision is already made and set by the rule, the task can be easier to accomplish and place you one step closer to achieving your goal.
Adopting these two strategies can shift our mindset in entrepreneurship, and in other areas of our lives. Creating specific goals and using if-then planning to achieve them can be the start to our own startup success story, or to finally lose those pounds.
Milan Williams is a current third-year student at Harvard University studying Computer Science and Physics. She is interested in Entrepreneurship and Product Management.
Entrepreneurship Requires Discipline, Not Motivation was originally published in Strategica Partners on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.