How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.
As entrepreneurs, it’s applicable to how we focus our time in our working lives, but as we approach the Christmas holidays, and the humanity and traditions of the festive period, it relates to the time free to spend with family and friends too. It’s a twelve-day period when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.
I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere, from radio commercials and shopping centres. You can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas and how we spend our days?
The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby they had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or 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.
But back to Ann Dillard’s quote and how you spend you days. You can use the twelve days of Christmas to work on your business, rather than in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Take advantage of the downtime for reflection, and map your journey for the twelve months ahead.
Here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have for thinking and reflection 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 twelve months ago by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to look forward. What are you aiming for? are you going to do differently this time 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 business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The balance shifts dramatically is short time frames, so restart with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? Why should customers buy from you and not others? Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach.
Day Three: Rebalance 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 rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?
Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of competitors? Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term gain. Revisit your business strategy and model. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.
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 engagement?
Day Six: Refinance Take a hard look at your financial strategy and cash needs. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. Refinance your business model and 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 without changing it. 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 for the next 12 months?
Day Eight: Refocus Is it time to refocus your customer 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 the customer experience, and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?
Day Ten: Revamp What doe 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: Replatform Upgrade your technology assets, migrate to cloud based solutions and platforms, providing scale and agility. 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: Relive Are you loving and living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three years. That’s only thirty-six pay days. 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?
When you look back at the previous twelve months, the problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. The real problem is that we want to do too much in the time available. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.
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. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for it’s gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.
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. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.
What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist 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 twelve months develops your insight into what we need to do in the twelve months approaching.
Many years ago, in my more adventurous youth during university holidays, I was part of an expedition through the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of the trails we walked were precarious and dangerous. We had to stop many times to rest and assess our path. On one rest stop, I woke up to a misty morning and made myself a cup of tea on our camping stove. As the sun began to rise, I carried my tea to the edge of the camp to take in the vista below covered in swirling mist.
And that’s when I noticed a lone monk perched on the edge of the precipice, deep in meditation. I wondered if he had been there all night. As the rays of the sun slowly filled the valley with light, the monk came out of his reverie. He stood up and stretched, still on the edge. He looked at the rising sun, let out a deep breath and turned around to climb back up the road. I was fascinated.
As he came up to the path, I approached him and asked him wasn’t it dangerous being so close to the edge of the abyss. He responded Are we all not just two minutes from the abyss anyway? I realised at that moment how right he was. Most of us don’t recognise this or acknowledge it. What we all want is to harness the power of time, to slow it down, speed it up, recapture it or simply make it count. But the only time any of us can truly master is right now.
That morning in the Himalayas, I learned a very important lesson. Instead of coasting through life waiting for life to happen to me, I woke up to the importance of living my life with a sense of urgency, clarity and focus, taking time to look backwards and forwards at regular intervals.
All we have is now. We should get up every morning and count ourselves fortunate for having another shot at making a difference, but with urgency. I leave you with these lines from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run that defines a sense of urgency brilliantly.
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
So, use the twelve days of Christmas as a time of reflection, but also create a sense of urgency. A time to look back at how the year has gone, and what you’re going to shape for yourself in the coming year. I urge you to think about your NOW. Let that urgency fuel actions that lead to deeper connections, a higher purpose, and finding your passion and joy. Use the twelve days to make a difference to yourself and your business next year.