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The Most Crucial Lesson I’ve Learned This Year: Avoiding Project Noise

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Don’t miss out on bigger opportunities because you’re afraid to invest in the long term.

I used to be a contract copy editor, which meant that I juggled multiple projects from various clients simultaneously. At the same time, I was in graduate school, pursuing a PhD in English literature. While in grad school, I had my first child. I also taught three English classes a year as part of my financial assistance package. As you are probably thinking to yourself, my life was very hectic. I was teaching, publishing articles, writing a dissertation, attending conferences, copy editing on nights and weekends, parenting, maintaining a household, running—the list goes on and on. I would occasionally hit burnout and have to scale back on commitments, but inevitably I would return to the same level of busyness. It was difficult for me to sit with unscheduled time.

Fast-forward to life post-PhD, where I traded contracting work for remote employment and began teaching courses as a visiting assistant professor and then as a lecturer, and I found myself doing the same thing—always juggling multiple projects, some paid and many unpaid. I was constantly going in multiple directions—I can’t say “pulled” in multiple directions, because I was voluntarily overextending myself. For what reason, I do not know. It seems like the frenzy of graduate school and the habit of piecing together small jobs to make a living were difficult to get out of my bones. But because I was always doing so many things, I was never doing the quality of the work I wanted at one of these things. For someone who tends to be all-or-nothing, this was very difficult for me. I was doing OK at all the things on my list—sometimes I was even doing great at these things!—but even when producing excellent work I felt completely miserable. Plus, I was losing time with my children, the one thing I hoped to have more of as someone who primarily works from home.

I finally had to listen to that nagging voice in my head: You have to choose.

Shark Tank investor Marnus Broodryk explains in a recent interview for Entrepreneur the importance of what he terms “sizing the prize.” I call it “avoiding project noise.” He’s an entrepreneur interested in business growth, so my focus is a bit different, but the principle is the same. He says: “Some projects will keep you super busy but make you very little money, while others will make you more money with the same or less effort. And before you start anything, you need to size that end prize.” This is the most crucial lesson I’ve learned this year: Not only can I not do everything well when I’m doing too much, but I’m missing out on the bigger opportunities by fearing to invest in the long term. By taking on too many side projects, for instance, I might have made more money in the short term, but I would never make more income in the long term because I was just doing maintenance work and not focusing on more promising opportunities.

This principle has been around for a long time. Napoleon Hill called it “definiteness of purpose” In Think and Grow Rich, he writes: “There is one quality which one must possess to win, and that is DEFINITENESS OF PURPOSE, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning DESIRE to possess it.” Without the ability to decide on a clear focus, you end up scattering your energy and effort in different directions, never developing your long game. Definiteness of purpose is one of the distinguishing elements that make the great entrepreneurs, innovators, and thought leaders so great, as James Whittaker reveals in his modern update to Hill’s book, Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy. And it was the one thing I didn’t have. But why?

I could have given you countless reasons why I kept taking on small projects: extra income, a safety net, a concern about closing a chapter in my life. But after doing some soul searching, I realized that my hesitation primarily was coming from a fear that if I stepped out and single-mindedly pursued my most treasured dream, I wouldn’t actualize it. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but this fear of failure was certainly a major obstacle for me in my success journey.

By doing so many different little things at once, I was keeping myself busy, keeping myself in a loop of self-justifying excuses that I didn’t have the time, money, energy, etc., to pursue the big ticket items: one long-term career, a book, etc. All the adjuncting in the world wouldn’t earn me enough money to achieve financial freedom, nor did the effort involved match the payout. All it did was fill any spare chunks of time I had, cause me to miss out on family experiences, and prevent me from writing my book. And for what—a couple thousand dollars? Not worth it. This year I vowed to work on eliminating project noise and start investing in the projects that really matter to me—because that’s an investment in myself, and I’m worth it. You are too.

What small projects could you drop in order to focus on your long game with more definiteness of purpose? Comment below to share!