If you are starting something you are very aware of the feeling of being overwhelmed. Every day you are confronted with a to-do list that can't even reasonably be completed by the time you turn off your night-light. We further exacerbate that problem by engaging in activities that have no material impact on the business.

In our data-driven startup culture today, the phrase "vanity metrics" has emerged as an actionable insight that can change the direction of your company. Vanity metrics are the types of data we gather and report on that are supposed to represent progress but actually have no relationship to the outcome of the project or company.

The word vanity in this phrase means that we think they are important but they are not. One example is the number of page views our website receives over a period of time. If our site sells widgets online then the only metric that counts is the number of widgets sold online. There are many ways to artificially increase the number of page views but if none of them result in the sale of a widget then increased page views is not to be celebrated and can be thought of as a vanity metric.

Vanity Activities represents a similar notion. Every day we work on various tasks that have no bearing on the outcome or goals of the company. Over time we somehow have rationalized those activities as progress. Regardless of whether this is you or someone on your team, vanity activities creep into the business and have a real negative impact.

John Wooden, the famed basketball coach first coined the clich, "don't confuse activity with progress" and this is never more apparent in today's multi-device, always-on, push notification-driven world. Which means we have to seriously fight the urge to let these activities dominate and prioritize our day.

The first task is to have a clear and realistic sense of what your company's goals are over the next 3 months. I love 3-month goals as the timing feels the most relevant to a startup business. 1-week goals lack some relevance or bite and 1 year goals feel squishy and not very actionable.

As a business organization, go create 3 meaningful and measureable goals for your business 3 months out. Then you and/or your organization can audit your activities to determine which activities impact those goals. Do you have the guts to perform a personal audit and match that against your goals?

Here are a few vanity activities that creep into your day, which you rationalize as progress:

  • Checking, reading and responding to email. This has been noted in so many places but today it represents that dominate time waster in your life. If your day is spent responding to email--the email is setting your priority. Its time to move on.
  • Sitting in meaningless meetings. Do you really need to be there? Do they really need to be meeting? Could this have been solved in 5 minutes instead of an hour? Ever try stand-up meetings which are designed to be short and to the point? (The entire meeting dynamic is changed when everyone is standing instead of sitting.) This also includes meetings with those outside your organization.
  • Generating vanity metric reports. Enough said.
  • Creating processes that do not relate to the outcome of the goals.

I do want to offer that part of every day/week must have some serendipity baked in to meet with interesting people, or read a few blogs or books or magazines. However, I would posit that most of these should reasonably be related to your 3-6 month goals.