I didn’t make any New Years Resolutions for 2013.

In my mind, that is a kind of resolution: don’t make vague promises about the future when simple, focused action will suffice.

Do something focused and simple. Change will happen naturally. (That’s it, I’m starting my own fortune cookie company).

Resolutions Are Usually Overreaction in Promise Form

The failed resolution thing happens a lot with entrepreneurs and not just at New Years, either: the trigger is usually that something goes horribly wrong with a very small corner of a business. like one client in particular – or perhaps, a huge corner like “finances”. The entrepreneur makes an invocation, a declaration of sorts, that this shit will not stand. Broad, sweeping changes are made.

  • “I feel fat, so I’m going on a diet consisting of Diet Coke and celery seeds.”
  • “I want to make more money, so I’m taking on ten new clients I’ll probably hate.”
  • “I don’t feel motivated or productive, so I’m going to bail and take on a 9-5 for a while.”

Swift, decisive action is taken to reverse course, usually with totally unforeseen and dire consequences severe enough to warrant yet another invocation.

  • “This diet blows! I look like I ate a refugee camp. I’m getting a party sub and eating every last inch. Subs are healthy, anyway.”
  • “Those clients sucked! I’m totally burnt out from their scope-creeping jackassery – I need a very, very long vacation.”
  • “My boss makes Congress looked like Mensa, I’m going back to my business and it’s going to kick ass this time!”

Any of those sound familiar? Good. Me too.

Like the time I swore I’d never do web design again after a particularly difficult client. Or like the time I wrapped up a huge project and could not be bothered to put on pants for the rest of the week.

I still do web design and *love it*. I still sometimes wear pants.

Stop Overreacting, or Decision Entropy

Just like in physics, for every action in business, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Your reactions might be governed by seeking a sense of security, fairness, or balance. And just like in physics, there’s entropy for our decisions: a waste byproduct of our efforts.

That is, every decision comes with a trade-off.

A “security”-seeking reaction often costs balance or fairness. A “fairness”-seeking reaction often costs security or balance. A “balance”-seeking reaction often costs security or fairness.

Confused? Let me drop some more fortune cookie-sized Zen on you: When order is created in a particular area, chaos results elsewhere. (Seriously, I’m buying kitchen space right now for Nick’s Fortune Cookies You Put Them In Your Mouth LLC)

If you eat a dozen donuts (you know, to clean up the countertop), your stomach will be in chaos. If you fire all your jackass clients at once, your bank account will be in disarray.

Most problems in business – especially the kind that tend to lead to burn-out – come from making too many similarly-typed sacrifices. If you have no security, you might love your work, but be too broke to continue doing it (or work all the time to make ends meet). If you have no balance, you’ll work all the time or get nothing done at all. If you have no fairness, your clients (or you) will get the short end of the stick every time.

So what’s the solution? The Prime Directive.

Dealing with Entropy: The Prime Directive

In case you’re not in the know (that is: you got laid with some frequency in high school), the “Prime Directive” is an idea from Star Trek. Starfleet officers are strictly forbidden from interfering with the internal development of alien cultures. With less-advanced societies, Starfleet officers can’t help that culture advance faster than they would normally.

In business, a Prime Directive is set of guiding principles that allow you to equalize Security, Fairness, and Balance decisions. You create them by first identifying where the most painful things go wrong most often and then by creating a rule (or a system) to handle it.

The inspiration for this whole rant on business prime directives came from my friend Nicole. She sent me an email which outlined her business’s Prime Directive: “I don’t bid on a project unless I know I can deliver a result that grows my client’s bottom line.”

It got me thinking that I needed a similar Prime Directive, a set of rules to identify catastrophic points of failure in my projects (the point of diminishing returns) – so I made some. You can feel free to borrow these, make sure to let me know your additions in the comments:

  • I cannot help helpless or hopeless businesses (no matter how much I may want to)
  • I cannot affect change in a business unilaterally (no matter how much I like my own ideas)
  • I cannot initiate a project which does not have a clear Return on Investment for the client business
  • I can walk away from a project or a client without guilt when I feel my counsel is being ignored
  • I taking on a project isn’t mostly fun, I should avoid those types of projects again in the future

Notice how these prime directives deal with security, balance, and fairness in their own way? Each one has a pain point that they deal with (sometimes many pain points).

Usually, these are things you write into your contracts over time (for example, if I need a sick day, I can take it – contractually). Sometimes they’re just guidelines, though – you can’t exactly call a potential client “helpless” or indicate you can’t get ’em out of a bind if necessary. In the mind of the client, those often feel like the same thing.

What are your Prime Directives?

This post is part of the Word Carnival series – each month, a series of brilliant people (and me, too) publish some thoughts around a collective topic. This month, the topic is: Beat The Small Business Motivation Blues – Reenergize and Learn to Love Your Business Again (I published a bit early, so this link won’t work until Tuesday. Until then, visit the Word Carnival here for more brilliant business insights.)

(Header photo: Exhausted)