Founder Blog: Getting Off the Hamster Wheel of Reactionary Work

Energy wasted on going nowhere

By: Heather Wentler

In college, my roommate and I adopted a hamster we named Pudge. He liked to play the game we called “escape artist” and would break out of his cage at night - I still don’t know how he climbed the smooth walls and flipped the lid open - he’d then shimmy down the entertainment center in the middle of the night and scare me by climbing up the blankets on my bed and lay on the other pillow next to me. While it was cute, it was also hella annoying because he did this out of protest when we would remove his hamster wheel from his cage at night if it became too irritating that he was keeping us awake. We quickly learned that we each needed to make time every day for Pudge to be able to run around in his plastic ball outside of his cage or we would pay the consequences at night. 

This strategy worked great until midterms or finals would happen and my roommate and I would become so busy between classes, studying, final projects, and jobs, that Pudge’s out of his cage time would become non-existent. It would be no surprise when I would end up with a furry little friend disrupting my sleep reminding me that he was a priority, and triggering other problems throughout the days until we got back on track. The strategy of how to meet Pudge’s needs would fail and we would have to reset and make sure we were scheduling time for him as well as all of our other priorities.

Strategic Plan vs Reactionary Work

When starting your company and building traction a lot of times I’ll see startups have many offerings listed as their products or services. I understand why they do this 

  • They’re getting feedback to launch new offerings

  • Their offerings are filling different market needs so they’re casting a large customer net

  • They’re just chasing dollars and don’t know how to consolidate or target their company’s offerings (aka chasing shiny objects)

By the second or third iteration of your company’s offerings, you’ll want to break out of those reactionary responses, evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and create a strategic plan for long-term growth and success. 

Q3 and Q4 of each year are when I see many companies doing this work so that they’re set up for the next calendar year. But, really, strategy work can happen at any time of the year and should happen if you’re not getting the results you’re looking for.

When you think about your day, do you feel like you have a routine or know why you’re putting time and energy into certain aspects of your company? Or do you feel like you’re running but not getting anywhere - like a hamster wheel? Perhaps you’re constantly worn out at the end of the day but can’t point to anything and say “we made progress on this today”?

The hamster wheel is also known as reactionary work. You’re responding to what’s in front of you with no process of breaking out of this cycle. Some examples may include: 

  • Having a Zero Inbox

  • Scheduling meetings with no set agendas or outcomes

  • Chasing funding that requires new initiatives on top of what you already offer

  • Checking on team members to make sure they’re doing their work in a way you want it done

  • Anything that could be considered “busy work”. It’s not that these things aren’t important, it’s that they easily become distractions from where you should be putting your time and talents that will bring actual traction and success to your company.

Four Steps to break the hamster wheel effect of reactionary work:

  1. Make two lists.
    The first list of all the products or services your company offers.
    The second list is everything that is and isn’t bringing in fiscal revenues but requires your time and is considered part of your role within the company, this includes volunteer work and boards or committees you serve on associated with your company.

  2. Now that you’ve established a way of figuring out where you’re spending the majority of your time, list who is doing the work for meeting these offerings' promises. IE: Marketing, sales, development, running of the program(s), etc…
    For the list items that are part of your role, estimate how much time a week or month you’re allocating towards these

  3. What is the historical gain of each of these? What brings returns (either fiscally or in-kind) to the company?

  4. Marie Kondo the list of offerings - what offerings bring you joy or fulfillment within the company goals, mission & vision, and overall success. If something needs to be put on the shelf to be picked up later or completely dissolved from your list of offerings, start thinking about what does the process look like to do this? 

A great book to help you identify where and how you best work is At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working in Your Favor

A local company that can support this work is Relumed. I have gone through their program a few times over the past couple of years, and all of the entrepreneurs who are part of Doyenne’s Triple Threat Venture Training program all are required to work with Relumed’s team to establish their constellation System framework. Relumed has also facilitated workshops within StartingBlock.

You’ve just taken the necessary first steps to strategy work! A lot of people cringe at doing strategy work, but if you don’t make the time and take the time to do it, you’re NEVER going to break out of leading your company from a reactionary point of view. Strategy work shouldn’t be scary to you, it should be eye-opening, and create a sense of understanding of who does what and how within the company and why everyone shows up to work every day. 

A lot of people think strategy works means bringing together many, many people from across your company to influence the strategy. This is partially true. BUT, this can become overwhelming very quickly as you’ll have many “cooks in the kitchen”. My approach is to start with core leadership (C-suite and/or founders), then include the next level of management or leadership so they can see what the big objectives are and influence how their work fits in, before finally bringing in everyone else (staff, board members, advisors, etc) for thoughts and perspectives before generating the final plan. 

Having a strategy supports so many other aspects of running your company that I’ve discussed in previous blog posts

It also supports your future success. Strategic planning influences your narrative when it comes to 

  • Marketing offerings

  • Sales Cycles

  • Fundraising

  • Client/Customer Engagement

  • Overall Business Success

I recently saw this quote posted on Forbe’s social media. I don’t agree with it at all. My counter to this quote is, if you have a strategy then you don’t have to worry about needing one or the other. And also, your character should change and evolve as you evolve as a leader.

Just like Pudge would remind me when we went off of the strategy for how to meet his needs, your team and customers, and most likely board and/or shareholders, will remind you when you’ve gone outside of your strategic plan. Spending time quarterly and annually revisiting this will make sure you’re not spending as many nights not sleeping and wondering what in the world is waking me up all the time.