When you’re starting a business, beginning a project for school, or even just deciding the next steps for something you’re working on, it’s important to separate the stuff you can or want to do from what you absolutely have to do. Have-to-do is where you need to start.
The guys at 37Signals talk about this in Rework. They call it, “Start at the epicenter” and advise that you find it by asking, “If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?” They use the example of opening a hot dog stand. What’s the epicenter? It’s not the condiments, the cart, the name, or the decoration. It’s the hot dog. You could get lost in all those other details, but without hot dogs, you’ve got nothing to sell. Start by getting the hot dog right. Then worry about everything else.
It might seem obvious to focus on the most important thing. But when I’m in the middle of a project, the most important next step isn’t always clear. I used this epicenter concept just today. After seven months, the manuscript for my next book, our guide to college admissions, is officially done and edited. I made a long list of next steps that involve everything from laying out the book with a designer, to building a promotion site with our web developer, to writing copy for the official announcement to our blog and newsletter audiences. My list is two pages long, and everything on it feels important (to me) at first glance.
But if we don’t get the book up on Amazon, the Kindle Store, Borders, etc., nobody will be able to buy it. That’s the epicenter. The items on the list that get the book into those sales channels are where we need to focus now. Everything else is just condiments.
Their hot dog stand example seems to help me. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.