The last few working weeks of December often feels frantic, I try to go faster to complete as much as I can with an all-or-nothing mindset as I navigate the available time before shutting the laptop for time-out. But I calm as we enter the Christmas holiday break. As we step across the winter solstice, a curious lure of personal hibernation emerges. I like the thought that I can retreat – what I really like is a break from work with a lowercase ‘w’ – answering emails, scheduling meetings, making deals, etc – press pause and just think about what I want to achieve for the twelve months ahead.
Right now, in hedgerows and under sheds, hedgehogs are curled in deep masses of dry leaves waiting out the winter, breathing once every few minutes, heart rates slowed to twenty beats a minutes, their body temperatures lowered, metabolisms minimised. Hibernation, like many natural phenomena, is a ready human metaphor. With dark mornings and dark afternoons, the idea of escaping and slowing down, indoors with a ready supply of tea, oblivious to one’s surroundings, cutting out great swathes of time, noise and unwanted friction feels beguiling.
However alluring the metaphor, hibernation isn’t what happens to us, we can’t stand still, and the current paradoxical telescoping and extending of pandemic time has seen to that even more so. But whilst I’m ‘hibernating’, I adopt the maxim ‘What would David do next?’
Throughout his life, David Bowie seemed to possess some kind of ability which enabled him to look into the future and create art that was ahead of his time, a mirror reflection of a future yet to come, the resulting art echoed backwards future trends. When he released an album, it was the sound of what would be happening next year.
Ziggy Stardust, Life on Mars, Aladin Sane, Jean Genie – whatever the sound, look, or thing, Bowie knew it. He had a knack for understanding what would be popular long before it actually was and being that thing. Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming, Bowie famously said in reflection on his own perceived clairvoyance. It’s a quote that embodied his propensity for recognising change, capitalising on it, and being ready for it when it comes.
Because when you can see tomorrow coming, you can own it. Of course, Bowie didn’t have any ability to look into the future, but he did do some extraordinary things that made it look like he did. Bowie’s legendary work ethic, work-smarter-not-harder attitude enabled him to lean around the corner to see what was coming next while the rest of us were running to keep up.
There’s a lot of things we can learn from Bowie’s visionary statement that can help to try and gain perspective on what’s coming so we can own tomorrow as well, and the Christmas holidays offers us a twelve-day period of reflection to do this. Indeed, I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere this year, the Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? Well, the carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, where they had to recite all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, such as a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6.
You can use the twelve days of Christmas to press pause, and get on your business, rather than be in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Don’t hibernate fully, do take a few steps back, and take advantage of the downtime for reflection, and map your journey for the twelve months ahead. What would David do next?
I’m good at doing nothing and just thinking. I find after one afternoon of laziness doing nothing but googling and mind-mapping I’m fired up with new ideas. My laziness is somehow connected to my productivity, like they’re two poles, keeping my life’s rope tight enough to walk on. I’m the most ambitious lazy person I know.
The bookish nerd that I am, I have a small library about doing nothing: Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, which speaks about the importance of interiority, Tom Hodgkinson’s How To Be Idle, which promotes antidotes to our work obsessed culture, Roman Muradov’s On Doing Nothing where he talks about the pleasures and possibilities of slowing down, cultivating idleness. Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson did their best work whilst lazing around.
So here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have for thinking and reflection, as I imagine David Bowie might have done, in the Twelve Days of Christmas:
Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve over the last twelve months by citing COVID or your competition resulting in a lack of customers won’t help, you need to look forward. What are you aiming for? Are you going to do things differently that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, reframe your own future.
Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done this year, it was good enough then, but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The balance shifts dramatically in short time frames, so restart with a clean sheet of paper, and ask yourself: Who is my ideal customer? Why should customers buy from me and not my competition? Press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach.
Day Three: Rebalance Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, The results of your endeavours should be freedom and fulfilment, not a feeling of déjà vu. Seek to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and reset your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?
Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of larger competitors? Thinks David v Goliath. Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing strategies offer no sustainable gain. Revisit your business strategy and model. Identify what markets and products will work in the next twelve months and redevelop your value proposition.
Day Five: Revitalise Now is the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience. How can you improve customer attraction, engagement and retention by revitalising your value proposition?
Day Six: Refinance Take a hard look at your financial strategy. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. Refinance your thinking. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.
Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years, simply adding to it without reworking it as their market changes. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities? Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where are the skills and people gaps?
Day Eight: Refocus Refocus your customer marketing strategy and look for new customers in new markets. We often develop a myopic, inward facing view, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. Are you clear in what your brand stands for?
Day Nine: Replace: When was the last time you checked in on your internal processes? Are there opportunities to execute business routines better? Today it’s about simplicity, self-service, the customer experience, providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?
Day Ten: Revamp What do you stand for? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what have you done to refresh the culture and inspire your people based on vision, purpose and values? Think inside out, think about purpose, and share it again.
Day Eleven: Rescale Upgrade your technology, migrate to cloud-based solutions and platforms, providing scalability, and reduced operating costs. These efforts are rarely quick ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking and analysis, but with the thinking time available now is the time to make it happen.
Day Twelve: Reenergise Are you loving and living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want from your business personally in the next twelve months? That’s only twelve milestones – twelve paydays. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?
The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow – like Bowie. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for it’s gone, instead, try your best to shape your future.
We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings. Not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. Time is a very misleading thing. What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility; both exist but only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage, which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.
Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past months develops your insight into what you need to do in the twelve months ahead. I would advocate doing nothing over the coming holiday period, other than relaxing, thinking and jotting stuff down as it comes into your head, using the above Twelve Days of Christmas framework, as Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.