Elliott Hauser is the founder of Coursefork, a group of university and online educators building open teaching tools.

There’s a book I’ve never read called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, about not letting the little things hold back progress. You’ll hear a similar sentiment expressed often in startup context. The message is to find key drivers and focus on them — everything else is just details.

This is related to what’s generally called the Pareto principle: In many cases, if not most, 20% of your X produces 80% of your Y. Many imply that the Pareto principle implies “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” i.e. if you focus on that 20% of X and maximize it, you’ll maximize your Y and everything will be wonderful.

In practice, however, I’ve found that the bottom 20% is also important to pay attention to and take care of. The remaining 60% forms a messy middle that I’ve found can be mostly ignored until it happens to slide up or down the scale.

The Top 20

What occupies the rarefied space of the 20% most important things for your startup? Things like understanding your customer, having a killer idea, and choosing the right investors are crucial to your success; you can’t win without them. So it might seem like you should prioritize things on a great big list and just work your way down from there.

The Great Big List is something everyone should have in mind, but the list gets so long that if you’re constantly starting from the top, where your biggest and most difficult items are, you’ll rarely cross anything off. Plus every week you’ll be adding to it.

This leads to “Todo debt”: Undone things that accrue interest in the form of anxiety and inefficiency. Startups have lots of “soft debt” (technical debt, leadership debt, etc.) and it’s unavoidable. But by not sweating the small stuff, it’s very easy to nickel and dime yourself into being constantly behind and very stressed out.

A strategy that has worked for me has been to attack my Great Big List from the top AND the bottom simultaneously. Here’s how it works:

  • Every week, make sure someone from your team is making progress on the most important items
  • Every day or so, take some time to knock out the items that take the least time or effort. For most founders this will mean email. For me it can also mean writing or editing blog posts, which take time but not much effort, since I enjoy them.
  • Everything that’s not a big thing or a small thing falls into the messy middle. Unless there are deadlines (real deadlines, with consequences), ignore these things. 

Some examples of medium stuff for us:
** Executing documents regarding the legal formation of your company
** Finding an office space
** Calls or meetings with anyone other than investors or customers

Look back periodically over what you’ve done to see where your energy has gone. If you’ve been spending time on medium things, actively exclude those things from your future plans.

Now, the actual content of your list will change over time. So, a few months ago when I was looking for cofounders and building connections in the community I took lots of open ended meetings with people – “Get-to-know-ya” meetings.

Now, though, I mostly keep meetings to customers and investors out of necessity. ExitEvent Socials and other entrepreneurial events are the way I keep up with contacts during this crucial phase in Coursefork’s life.

There are seasons in any startup. Make sure the way you order your list changes along with them.

The Bottom 20

For a founder who’s used to prioritizing and knocking things out in priority order (a good and essential skill), it might be disconcerting to actively spend time on admittedly unimportant items on your list.

But, by choosing ones that take little time or effort, you are in control of how much of each you want to spend. And you’ll likely find that crossing anything off the list gives you momentum and energy. Your team, your advisors, and your customers will notice this as well. If little details are done correctly in your product, for instance, or typos fixed, that can have a more positive impact than the addition of a new feature.

I find that there’s a huge psychological boost to the process of completing things. So many of the things we work on in startups, like fundraising, product building, and team building, are constantly in progress and will never be truly done.

Small things on your list get done and never bother you again. I find that switching between the two helps me do more of each.

Go Build Your Great Big List

When you simultaneously attack the top and bottom of your list and to ignore the messy middle (again, unless there’s a deadline or the middle migrates to the top or bottom), it keeps the motor running by letting you build momentum and get little things done every week. And it keeps your startup on track by focusing on the key things that will keep you afloat: strategy, customers, product, and investors.