Sam Holstein

Figure Out What Works, Then Do More of That

Originally published in the Medium publication Better Humans.

It’s safe to assume the readers of a publication called “Better Marketing” are trying to achieve something, be it launching a new product, jumping into a new career, or growing their audience to 1000 true fans. Regardless, everyone here is trying to achieve something.

And as anyone who has ever tried to achieve something knows, sometimes it feels like climbing a mountain. In your bare feet.

It feels that way because that’s kind of what it’s like. When you’re doing something you already know how to do, such as ride a bike, you don’t need to focus on how you’re riding the bike. You just ride the bike.

On the other hand, when you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before, you need to focus both on what you’re doing and learning how to do it. It’s like learning to ride a bike while on a biking trip. Or learning how to climb a mountain for the first time while you’re climbing one.

What makes it worse is that most of us don’t have teachers. We have each other through Medium articles and books. But when you’re learning to ride a bike or climb a mountain, you have a teacher right there with you, giving you one-on-one lessons. Most of us can’t afford those one-on-one lessons; the most we can afford is a stack of books. No doubt learning to ride a bike would be a lot harder if we had to teach ourselves with nothing but books on bike-riding for help.

Given that we don’t know what we’re doing and we don’t have one-on-one teachers, we’re bound to make many mistakes. We’re going to try a lot of things that don’t end up working, either because it was the wrong thing to try or because we didn’t have enough skill to make it work. Our efforts will go to waste.

According to the 80/20 principle, 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions. That means of all the different things you try, only 20% of them will result in a payoff.

This may sound like bad news, but it’s actually good news. If you can just figure out which 20% of your actions are responsible for 80% of your success, you can focus all of your energy on that 20%. The bad news is that most of us don’t take the time to really figure out which 20% that is.

My favorite example of this is social media marketing. Many writers claim they need social media for their marketing. Without social media, how will their writing reach new readers? When I quit social media, this question weighed on me.

Then, I took a look at the numbers. Most people who use social media do so for about two hours each day, or 1/3 of an average workday (because, let’s be honest, very rarely do we truly get eight hours of work done in an eight-hour workday).

Alternatively, I could spend that time writing. Which activity will grow my audience more? Which activity will improve the quality of my product? Which activity will make me more money? Hint: Not social media. Not by a long shot.

If we’re going to achieve what we set out to do, we must be ruthless about how we use our time. We need to be smart about what we spend our time doing because hard work alone isn’t enough to achieve our goals. We need to take a hard look at what we do with our time and be honest about whether or not what we’re doing with it is actually going to get us anywhere. Only once we’re honest about what does and doesn’t work can we double down on what does work.

Some things a lot of us spend time doing that don’t work include:

There are also many situations in which the 80% of activities that aren’t working apply only to you and your circumstances. For instance, maybe your ebook provides value to subscribers, and as a result, it sells very well. Or maybe what is supposed to work, doesn’t for you. For instance, calorie counting is the holy grail of dieting, but if counting calories isn’t helping you lose weight, you may want to change it up and start doing more aerobics at the gym.

Trying new things — and watching them amount to nothing — is part of the journey. Each failure allows us to say, “yep, that didn’t work either.” Something out there is bound to work, and all you have to do is find it. The only thing standing between you and success is the tenacity to keep trying new things until you do.