Eat That Squirrel: How to know which ideas are worth your energy

09.04.20 02:34 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

There’s a really common struggle people go through when trying to launch something new: we become overwhelmed because there are so many possibilities. So many things to think about, so many potential (awesome) features, so many opportunities to optimize!

And all of those possibilities are relevant and important things to consider… eventually. But when you’re in the thick of things, sometimes it’s hard to know what details should be given attention now, and what details can wait.


Imagine two dogs: Rover and Fido.

Both Rover and Fido have boundless energy. They LOVE to play; they’re exhaustingly energetic. And on this particular morning, both would love nothing more than to catch a squirrel.

You’re in the park, and it’s like Squirrel City up in here — squirrels everywhere.

Both dogs run off chasing their chosen squirrel…


Now let’s take a moment to go back to hunter-gatherer days.

You’re the one hunting the squirrel. (I don’t know why you’re hunting a squirrel as opposed to any other animal, but go with me on this.)

How do you know which squirrel to go after? You can filter out a few of the sickly-looking ones — but what about all the rest? How do you know which one will provide the optimal level of protein for the day? How do you know which one will be the easiest to catch? How do you know which one will help you prove your prowess as a hunter and return triumphant to your tribe vs. which one will leave you looking a fool, to return empty-handed?

You don’t. But one thing is certain: if you don’t narrow your vision and select one specific squirrel, you’ll never find out. You’ll never catch any.


We’ll return to our two dogs…

Rover bolts after his first squirrel. Boundless in his joy.

But wait — what’s that? Another squirrel! And off he goes, chasing down a new comrade. But then — oh wait — there’s another one! And off he goes in that direction…

Rover runs around until he’s completely exhausted himself, disappointed that he never caught up to any of his prospective playmates.

Fido, meanwhile, continues chasing his one squirrel. And eventually… the squirrel gets a bit slower as it runs out of energy. Fido gains steam as his already boisterous energy multiplies at the glimpse of victory.


Going back to you, the hunter:

If you don’t catch a squirrel, your family may not eat tonight. What’s more, your status is on the line. Each time you fail to come through, your tribe loses a little bit of faith in you, your evidence of competence goes down, and you lose a bargaining chip in the game of reciprocity.

There’s a lot at stake if you don’t focus and nail this.

It doesn’t matter necessarily whether you’ve chosen the meatiest squirrel. It doesn’t matter that there are other squirrels running around that may be “better” than the one you’ve selected. What matters is that you bring one home. Pretty much any one.


What this means for you, today.

You know a lot. And not only that — you know a lot about a lot.

And you’ve got a project.

Your project starts out simple. A simple concept, with a simple goal. But you quickly begin accumulating more and more features — more and more tasks and ideas, pulling you in every direction. Some of them are your own thoughts, some are “helpful tips” from others. Some are the result of all the research you’ve been doing. Throughout, you’re thinking about all of the things you know. You’re trying to optimize every feature to the best of your ability, to make this the best you can make it.

But after a while (probably sooner rather than later), you find yourself feeling a bit like Rover — you started out excited by all of the possibility, but as you find yourself chasing one squirrel after the next, it begins to feel like you’re never going to catch any of them. You start to lose steam.

We know so much about what the best version of our idea might look like. The problem is that our first iteration is absolutely not going to be the best expression of our idea that it possibly can be.

If you’re hunting squirrel for your tribe, you might want to bring them the best, beefiest, Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque squirrel. But if that’s what the hunter goes looking for, his tribe will starve. It will take far too long before he ever finds “the best squirrel,” and by then it doesn’t matter even if he does find it — he’s lost the chance to serve and make a difference in his un-iterative pursuit of perfection.

The same applies to our ideas — unless we take a moment to identify what constitutes the core work of our project and separate that from all the distractions and optimizations that are so readily available, we’ll never catch anything. And we’ll lose the chance to serve and to impact in the process.


The best thing to do for your project is to sit down and make some choices.

Choosing means excluding. It means ranking things in order of precedence, which means that some things are necessarily at the bottom of the totem pole.

It can be painful placing things at the bottom of the totem pole — because you understand their value, and because you want this to be the best it can be. The problem is that if nothing is ever placed at the bottom in your hierarchy of tasks, then none of it gets done. And that’s much worse than getting some things done later.

  1. List out all of the possible features you might include in your project— everything from creating a logo to integrating some complex, spicy perk.
  2. Rank-order them — with no duplicates (no adding a 2a and a 2b).
  3. Draw the line, and do it higher than your perfectionistic self would like to. Everything above the line is critical for launch. Everything below the line is a distracting squirrel.
  4. Execute on each of the tasks above the line, and only on those tasks. Whenever you’re tempted to do work on something below the line, remind yourself that it’s a new & different squirrel and that you’re going to focus on this one squirrel until you’ve caught it.

Choose which features are going to matter, and which features aren’t (yet). And mean it.

The things that are at the bottom of your project’s totem pole now belong on your Avoid At All Costs list. They are glittery squirrels running around in your periphery. Choose your one squirrel, and then eat that squirrel. Don’t stop until you’ve caught it, and it’s on your dinner plate. Then you can go after the next squirrel.

Whenever you’re tempted to work on a below-the-line task, put yourself back in the state of mind of the hunter: catch this one squirrel so that you’ll have dinner tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll need a new squirrel anyway.

Do the hard work of making choices.

It’s your best bet if you ever want to catch a squirrel.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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