Mom: “Ray, the least you could do is…”
Dad: “The least I could do is nothing.”

I often heard this dialogue between my parents when I was young. My mother would express displeasure about something that my father did/didn’t do. She would express a desire for a little more effort (usually in the form of some small gesture).

“Ray, the least you could do is…”

His response was always the same.

“The least I can do is nothing.”

It was my earliest introduction to my Dad’s personality.
It was sarcastic.
It annoyed my mother to no end.
And to a 10-year old weened on comedy, it was incredibly funny.

I was always looking for ways to inject the phrase into conversations. I even tried to mimic my Dad’s delivery, down to the smirk, head tilt and raised eyebrow.

As an adult, I would learn 2 things:

  • No one I dated would ever find it humorous/clever and no amount of nodding and winking would save me
  • The Least You Can Do is a powerful concept when used for good

On the path of 80 Hours to MVP, I found myself revisiting and repurposing that phrase. Instead of stopping at literal interpretation, I turned it on it’s head. By doing two simple things, I turned what was a joke into an effective approach for maintaining momentum in pursuit of my goals.

The first part is turning the phrase into a question. What is the least I could do? I find that asking questions keeps thoughts flowing and prevents me from getting stuck. For example, when I’m debugging, I ask myself questions to work my way through the current state of a problem to a viable solution. However, that alone would not transform the phrase into a powerful tool.

The second, equally important, part is adding an actual outcome. By providing a narrowly defined outcome, I can devise a pathway to completion. What is the least I could do to achieve the desired outcome?

I find this approach effective at both the macro and micro levels. In determining the success metrics that I defined in the Kickoff Interview, I have provided the macro version. I know what would make this endeavor successful in my eyes. The least you can do is the defining trait for the MVP.

Success requires consistent action. The difficulty is in the implementation and it’s easy to get stuck in the details. If you’ve spent too much time working through issues, frustration and discouragement can set in. Many projects are abandoned when some seemingly trivial tasks become more difficult and start to eat away at your time. It is at this point that you’re most susceptible to quitting.

You must resist the temptation to weigh your endeavors with the scale of frustration.

It is at this point that going back to the mantra of the least you can do proves effective at the micro level.

For example, in implementing the MVP for Puffin, I knew that I wanted reports on my activities. I knew implementing something robust would take too much time. Even implementing a chart library was going to eat into my development schedule as there was still a learning curve. So I asked myself, what’s the least I can do to get some metrics for my work activity? I decided that instead of providing a fancy chart, I could provide aggregate date (e.g.. total # of sessions, total time worked). In doing so, I had one of the solutions the app was designed to provide (how much did I work today?).

Another example of where I use this technique is in fitness. It’s hard for me to stay in shape on the road, since I tend to get tunnel vision on projects and am loathe to actually go to the gym. I solved this problem by asking what’s the least I can do to maintain a basic fitness level? My MVP of fitness is 30 minutes of HIIT training 3 times a week. And even when I’m struggling with motivation, I take it one level lower and focus on the least I can do to kickstart this workout. For me, the answer is usually a minimal action of few basic stretches/jumping jacks just to get my body warmed up. I then build on the inertia and add another small chunk and before I know it, I’ve completed 30 minutes.

Setting minimal metrics provides a clear stopping point as well. If I lack knowledge or experience in an area, I can complete the minimal actions given my current level and return at a later time, when I’ve acquired sufficient skills. By putting an cap on this iteration and enhancing it later, I minimize delays, the accompanying frustrations and maximize efficiency.

Make the least you can do work for you.

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