“Thrashing” is Killing Your Productivity

Last year we traded productivity for some hard lessons about prioritization.

The trade was unintentional, and I‘d be lying to say there are no regrets. But we walked away with a skill that forever changed the way we approach growing a company and leading a team.

For many months after we acquired Churn Buster, our team felt like we were being held back by…something.

We were working our butts off and not making meaningful progress toward anything.

The urgency to grow revenue, respond to feature requests, find and fix bugs, and overcome performance problems NOW meant we were always behind, always underperforming — with rarely a moment to float and catch our breath.

On top of that, we had so much excitement about all the things we could do to grow and improve CB, that we overloaded ourselves with more ideas and brainstorms than we could possibly execute on. It was fun. It was crippling.

How could we be working so hard and not getting anywhere?

As we tend to do in life, we never stopped to acknowledge we had a problem until the pain was too great to ignore. When we finally stepped back to catalogue our symptoms it was a big wake up call for each of us.

If you can name it, you can tame it…

Simply acknowledging you’ve got a problem (common advice) is a misleading oversimplification of what it takes to actually make a change.

The only way forward is to get to the real root of what you’re feeling, and give it an appropriate name. Simple, but not easy.

We could have collectively agreed we felt stressed. Or slow. Or spent time going down rabbit holes of broken processes, pointing fingers, and looking at our day-to-day on a micro-level. That would have been the easy thing to do. And it would have helped temporarily, like Advil, masking the underlying issues and keeping pain dulled.

But we would have missed the root of the real issue, and we would find ourselves facing it again in weeks or months.

By stepping back to look at the company and ourselves from a very high level, treating day-to-day pains as symptoms of something larger, we were able see through the fog and assign an appropriate name to our current state: “Thrashing”.

“Thrashing” (verb)

Definition: Expending continuous effort, but not making [much or any] progress toward a goal (similar to treading water).

Origin: “Thrashing is computer activity that makes little or no progress, usually because memory or other resources have become exhausted or too limited to perform needed operations. When this happens, a pattern typically develops in which a request is made of the operating system by a process or program, the operating system tries to find resources by taking them from some other process, which in turn makes new requests that can’t be satisfied. A system that is thrashing can be perceived as either a very slow system or one that has come to a halt.” — Source (whatis.com)

Are You Thrashing?

Tip: Consider the following both on a personal and a company level:

Signs and Symptoms

  • You’re moving slower than you know you can, but you don’t know why
  • You frequently miss deadlines
  • You’ve stopped shipping regularly
  • You’ve lost direction
  • You’re easily distracted
  • You’re frequently context-switching
  • You’re not performing at (or even near) your best
  • You’re stressed and cranky
  • You’re always too busy
  • You don’t feel in control
  • You assign blame
  • You struggle making decisions
  • Your cognitive load is maxed out
  • You avoid the important tasks
  • You start more tasks than you finish
  • You feel burned out

Identify with several symptoms on that list? You’re probably thrashing. But it’s okay — there’s a cure!

Causes => Treatment

1. Bloated roadmap => Manufacture focus

On the highest level, thrashing is a direct result of roadmap issues. Whether it’s bloated, non-existent, or poorly communicated, start your treatment with a roadmap overhaul and you’re 80% of the way to a cure.

If your roadmap is bloated…you may as well not even have one.

When I look back at the scope of initiatives we were trying to accomplish last year, I laugh. A few of us were trying to tackle the jobs of a 50 person highly-funded company, and do so with the same or better quality.

We’re not Slack. And that’s ok!

Our goals and resources were hilariously out of sync. I’m not sure if we got there out of sheer optimism, or by comparing ourselves to companies that were several steps ahead, and I’m not sure it matters. We set ourselves up to thrash, and then we made good on that foundation.

Late last year we sat down to correct our course. Our revised roadmap felt skeletal. I mean bare. bones.

Now, looking back a few months later, I think we could have simplified it even more. The most valuable takeaway:

Could does not equal should.

Creating genuine focus is a deliberate process. It’s an ongoing exercise in saying no. It means regular reality checks — looking at what you’re doing from 10,000 feet. The things we could do are endless. Zooming out helps avoid getting lost in the infinity.

Aside from setting direction, a tight roadmap is invaluable to team communication and motivation. The simpler it is , the easier it is to feel and track progress.

More importantly, everybody knows that whatever their focus may be, there was a deliberate “why” behind it. Nothing is more motivating and empowering than having confidence that what you’re working on every day has value.

2. Repeating, manual tasks => Automate, delegate, or delete.

Your time is valuable. Start treating it that way.

There are almost certainly things you do on a regular basis that you could eliminate with little or no consequence.

“Never automate something that can be eliminated, and never delegate something that can be automated or streamlined. Otherwise, you waste someone else’s time instead of your own, which now wastes your hard-earned cash. How’s that for incentive to be effective and efficient?” -Tim Ferriss

Tasks and to-dos are going to create themselves. Processes will get bloated. It’s just how things go. It’s like accumulation of junk around your house. It’s on you to constantly be aware of creep and ruthless with what stays and what goes.

So when a repeatable task is important enough to stay, that means it’s important enough to empower someone else with.

3. Trying to do everything for everyone => Empower your team.

When you try to do everything yourself you’re not a hero. You’re impeding. Use the opportunity to teach and empower.

Give your team what they need to be the hero themselves!

They’ll grow as individuals, improve processes you don’t have the time to look critically at, and you’ll be free of one more task eating up your limited cognitive bandwidth.

4. Saying yes to too many things as a practice=> Say no.

You are here to serve your customers and team. But one of the best ways you can serve them is by zooming out and thinking strategically about your business.

If you don’t prioritize that because your calendar looks like a unicorn vomited all over it, everyone suffers. And it contributes to the feeling that you’re spinning out of control.

Think you’re doing yourself a favor by telling people to check back with you in a month? You aren’t going to be any less busy next month.

Kicking the can down the road doesn’t help you, and certainly doesn’t help the people asking for your time. Get comfortable saying no.

5. Overcommitting weekly => Don’t stack to-do lists.

It’s easy to pick 10 things to do in a given week. We operate with a sense of inevitability that we won’t get to everything, yet we commit anyway.

Then, we just bump remaining tasks to our new list, and voila…dominoes.

Next thing you know, you feel like you aren’t getting anything done, despite being busy all day long. Your team might wonder why you can’t deliver. And you start to doubt yourself. Important tasks get jumbled up with with everything and become easier to avoid.

“I’ve wanted to work on ______ for three weeks and I just can’t get to it!”

  • Don’t stack to-do lists.
  • Pick only a few major commitments for the week.

We hold a Monday meeting where we cover our major focus for the week.

No one ever has more than 3 things on their list. If we see someone’s plate stacking up, we help prioritize, remove, and set each other up for a successful week.

Every day we post a quick update to Basecamp sharing what we did that day. Progress, interesting conversations, things we’re struggling with, etc.

We also meet briefly on Friday to recap the week and hold each other accountable to our major commitments.

The result? We feel momentum every. single. day.

6. Focusing too much on a finish line => Enjoy the process

Above all else, thrashing is a feeling. We can talk all day long about fixing processes, defining roadmaps, and prioritizing tasks. But the most impactful thing we continue to do as a company is reflect on where we’ve been, not just where we’re going. (Inspo: Gary V)

We’re okay with slowing down to speed up, because we love what we do. We are building the company of our dreams. And while there are big things on the horizon we’re hungry to accomplish, we don’t let false urgency or blind ambition cloud our ability to see how amazing things already are.

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Joelle Goldman

Partner, Marketing

When she’s not busting churn, Joelle also co-hosts the Rocketship.fm podcast, sips San Diego IPAs, and takes orders from her Labradoodle, Kahlua.