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How to break the feast famine cycle in your small business

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action

Running your own business can feel like an never ending rollercoaster of exhilarating highs and depressing lows.

Too many entrepreneurs and business owners are trapped in a literal up-and-down pattern of success and struggle. Their companies wobble between successful booms of new cashflow and customers, followed by miserable lows where nothing seems to work and opportunities are few and far between.

This rollercoaster is known as “The Feast/Famine Cycle”.
Welcome to Commit Action’s comprehensive free guide to permanently breaking the Feast/Famine Cycle in your business.

The worst trap a business owner can get stuck in

For entrepreneurs trapped in the Feast/Famine Cycle, years go by without any overall business growth.

A great month will make up for the previous terrible one. Then a terrible month erodes the progress of that great one. Then the cycle repeats. On and on.

Zoom out to a long term view: The Feast/Famine Cycle creates the ultimate flat-lining of progress. It doesn’t matter if a business is a micro-freelancing operation or a large corporation. The Feast/Famine Cycle always creates a plateau. It always means total stalling of growth.

The worst part of the Feast/Famine Cycle is the anxiety and emotional stress inflicted on the business owner experiencing it. It isn’t a relaxed plateau at all. It’s a sickening ride on an endless rollercoaster with dizzying heights and stomach-churning plummets.

Eventually, the Feast/Famine Cycle will take it’s toll: Burnout, overwhelm and eventually despair.

Entrepreneurs stuck in Feast/Famine are more likely to quit their business with nothing to show for all the hard work they’ve put in.

At Commit Action, we see this happen and believe it’s abhorrent and intolerable.

Too many businesses with the potential to be great are abandoned prematurely, because the founder cannot see a way to escape the Feast/Famine Cycle. Too many founders find themselves wishing they could “quit and get a real job” when they still have incredible value to offer the world as entrepreneurs.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine being able to break the cycle. Imagine your business incrementally and unstoppably growing – like a rocket taking off to the moon – instead of a roller coaster that goes up and down… only to end up where it started.

The good news?

Through a combination of deep insight into the real source of Feast/Famine, then applying the correct entrepreneurial strategy and powerful psychological tools, any business owner can escape the cycle permanently.

With the right tools, you can create long term growth and – finally – build the business (and life) you’ve always wanted. The first step? Understanding how the Feast/Famine Cycle is created…

Understanding the Enemy: Why Feast/Famine Cycles begin

Why growth and success can weirdly HURT your (future) growth and success

The Feast/Famine Cycle is a “first world problem”. An unintended side effect of success itself.

It rears it’s ugly head when an entrepreneur and/or their team simply get too busy. Especially when that busyness comes from a sudden increase in demand for their products or services.

Examples of the Feast/Famine Cycle starting:

  • A creative service provider who wins an enormous contract for a big, important client

  • An e-commerce product company whose product “goes viral” and risks selling out

  • A consultant whose popularity explodes, filling their entire schedule with consultations

When this kind of success happens, the founding entrepreneur’s – and even their staff’s – attention is sucked away from critical growth-driving activities.

First: The business gets too busy taking care of existing customers.

Then: Seeking out new customers – or new strategies for acquiring them – doesn’t get prioritized. It stops happening altogether.

Inevitably the big contract wraps up, or the viral demand for product drops off.

The business owner might even enjoy a breather at this stage, but they will rapidly confront an uncomfortable reality: While they’ve been so busy, they’ve made the fatal mistake of neglecting sales and marketing.

After a big upward growth cycle, the business plummets into a painfully “quiet” period. The first wave of the Feast/Famine Cycle has completed and the next is about to begin…

The next wave of the cycle builds:

In the doldrums of a slow period, the business owner and team will first recover from the recent manic, busy times. Initially, they’ll almost cherish the quiet time.

Soon however, financial pressure will start to grip the business.

  • Bills will start to arrive

  • Cashflow runways grow (increasingly!) short

  • Anxiety goes through the roof

Some entrepreneurs actually thrive under these stressful conditions.

Many of the ten thousand (and counting) conversations we’ve had with business owners – and collected meaningful statistics from – indicate that the majority of entrepreneurs believe they do their best work when their “back is to the wall”.((At Commit Action we conduct weekly phone conversations with all our paying members and often conduct surveys on entrepreneurship and productivity.))

When the pressure is on, an entrepreneur will push hard to develop new sales strategies. Sometimes they’ll simply re-visit powerful and proven – but temporarily neglected tactics – to bring new business through the door. Sometimes they’ll pull miracles from thin air!

Motivated by fear of the down period they’re in, the entrepreneur will see clearer than ever what needs to be done… and be more driven than ever to produce bottom line results.
This desperate (but powerful) hustle rockets the business out of the famine phase.Things start to feel as though they’re working as they should be. The entrepreneur becomes optimistic, happy and more than anything else… busy.

The very same activities that have accelerated the business out of the darkness and driven new customers and revenue through the door… then start to overwhelm the entrepreneur and/or team.

They get busy fulfilling contracts, delivering product and clocking hours. The growth activities that got the business back on top, start being neglected again.

The Feast/Famine Cycle continues. Up and down. Again and again.

How your comfort zone sabotages your success

Your comfort zone is the psychological root cause of The Feast/Famine Cycle.

Experiencing a decent level of success – at the peak of the Feast part of the cycle – is a incredibly positive experience. It feels like everything you’ve planned is working out, that you’re winning, that your career as an entrepreneur is safe.

At the glorious peak of the cycle, it’s way too easy to get comfortable. At the Feast peak, we see entrepreneurs take their foot of the gas in a major way.

Here’s why:

Most growth-driving activities in business are uncomfortable by nature.

Sales and marketing require you to “put yourself out there” in a way that risks judgement from the market. Everything about it goes against your earliest social conditioning, which tells you to “be liked” and “don’t seek attention too much”.

To add to the discomfort, many growth-driving activities are simply mind-numbingly boring too. They can feel like a dull grind.

Uncomfortable grinds that are growth-driving activities include:

  • Cold Calling for sales

  • Networking

  • Creating material for content marketing

  • Following up with prospects/leads

  • Tribe building/interacting

These activities are so mentally painful to engage in, your unconscious mind relishes any opportunity to dodge them.

No one deliberately intends to stop driving new business growth, but in a Feast phase it becomes too easy to procrastinatethe critical, growth-driving activities you know you should be doing.

The busyness of the Feast creates the perfect conditions for a psychological condition to flourish, known as self-handicapping-to-protect-the-self.((“A task done at the last minute [or not at all] can be excused if not done well because it was done in such a short amount of time. And, of course, if the task is done very well, it looks exceptionally good for the individual.” - Solving the Procrastination Puzzle by Dr Timothy Pychyl ))

The Feast itself protects you with the perfect excuse: You’re too busy furiously working with customers. Perfect justification for a half-assed (or nonexistent) effort to continue pushing your business’s growth forward.

When the inevitable Famine part of the cycle arrives, you don’t doubt yourself. You reassure yourself that you were simply too busy with “work” to grow the business. This excuse protects you from asking the hard questions about your own performance as a business owner.

In other words, you get to stay in your comfort zone.((This isn’t just conjecture, but ties into something called Self Verification Theory. Basically, continuing to feel good about yourself and your abilities is more important – psychologically speaking – that engaging in honest self criticism (and ass-kicking of the self).))

It feels (deceptively) relieving to ignore your critical growth-driving activities. You – like most entrepreneurs stuck in Feast/Famine – tell yourself you’ll get back to growing the business very soon.

But by staying in the comfort zone of a booming Feast phase, you unconsciously lay the ground work that makes the next Famine phase inevitable.

But why would an entrepreneur allow this to happen? And, what is it that prevents you from seeing the cycle being created, as it happens?

Emotions and overwhelm erode your ability to focus

The intensity of a gloriously busy Feast phase is partly to blame. The busyness alters your mind in powerful ways, preventing you from seeing – and dealing with – the truth.

When working exceptionally hard and struggling to keep up with booming demand, an entrepreneur’s willpower is severely drained.((Known by psychologists as “ego-depletion” … but not in the sense most people use the word “ego” today. Think of it as your gas-tank for self-regulation/self-control.))

You are draining your willpower in thousands of small ways throughout the day. Emotional control in particular – the mental effort of reeling in your feelings so you can focus – taxes your willpower dramatically.

The more your willpower gets drained, the more your intense your emotions become.((A study by Baumeister & Vohs at the University of Minnesota shows that ego-depleted people react more strongly (emotionally) to all kinds of stimulus via an “increase in the overall intensity of your feelings” - Roy Baumeister))

You’re going to start to feel overly sensitive, reacting to stressful situations and urgent demands more emotionally than ever.

At such times your brain is also going to be severely taxed by the strain to remember all the additional todos and tasks that the booming Feast phase has put on your plate.((The Zeigarnik Effect is a well studied phenomenon where unmet goals and tasks tend to pop into one’s mind.))

In this distracted, willpower-drained state… it can be almost impossible to take the actions that will prevent the Famine phase of the cycle following the Feast.

Critical growth-driving activities are notorious for the massive effort of willpower they require. An entrepreneur in a busy Feast phase might as well be “willpower impaired”. In that state, it’s the growth-driving activity that suffers first.

We’ll break down specific solutions to all this. First, there is an overarching dynamic that fuels the cycle. You need to understand it:

Isolation: The side-effect of self employment that fuels the roller-coaster

While you’re wrestling with all the causes of the Feast/Famine Cycle we’ve discussed so far, there is one enormous factor making everything a whole lot worse:

Isolation.

Self-employment and entrepreneurship is a fundamentally lonely, isolating activity. More than ever, businesses are being operated from home. Technology has made it possible to build a business from the isolation of your basement. This is a very double edged sword.

Even entrepreneurs with large teams tell us they feel isolated; like no one else really understands or can relate to their challenges and struggles.

The natural isolation of self-employment means that there is very little accountability to keep you pushing for business growth. There is very little support to prevent you from getting complacent.

One of the questions we routinely ask our members at Commit Action is:

Does anyone else on the planet know if you’re really CRUSHING IT this week… or just phoning it in?

For most entrepreneurs, the answer is “No”.

There is no one holding them accountable to be the best version of themselves. They have to be their own cheerleader and coach. Every single day.

If you’ve felt this isolation, then you know the truth: It’s impossible to be your own motivational coach, forever.

Eventually, the isolation gets to you. You run out of steam and no one is there to fuel you up.

It’s in that moment that you take your foot of the growth gas… and the Feast/Famine cycle is reinforced.

If you want to escape the Feast/Famine Cycle, you simply have to fix your entrepreneurial isolation problem. Permanently. The solutions part of this guide will show you how.

Why your goals can stall your growth the second it starts happening

The final reason behind the Feast/Famine Cycle is deeply psychological. It has everything to do with what you’re ultimately pursuing as an entrepreneur and business owner.

If you have goals that are mutually exclusive or contradictory in some way, it’s very likely that you’ll create the Feast/Famine Cycle simply as you unconsciously switch between chasing one goal versus the other.
This is the definition of internal conflict. It'll make you feel like you're going nuts!

Think of it like someone slamming their foot on the gas – then the brake – of their car. One after the other, again and again.

Do they want to go, or do they want to stay? If they themselves don’t know, they’ll forever wobble back and forth without getting anywhere satisfying.

The most common example is the conflict between the goals of “Freedom” and “World Domination” … or whatever words you personally use to describe these general ideas.

Almost every entrepreneur we speak to tell us “Freedom” is their number one objective in life. Yet many of them also want to dominate their market and “take over the world”. Whatever ultimate success in their industry looks like.

The problem is, these two goals are often directly in conflict with each other.

When you chase massive growth and success long enough, you’ll eventually create a booming period of success in your business. As soon as that happens, if you start looking for more freedom in your life you may start taking your eye off the critical actions that created your success in the first place.

… and so, the Feast/Famine Cycle begins again.

If you want to permanently escape Famine and enjoy consistent growth in your business, you have to eradicate conflicting goals from your psyche. It IS possible to integrate both your ambition AND desire for the good life.

Read on for Commit Action’s specific plan of attack for doing precisely that!
Solutions: Practical steps to end the Feast/Famine Cycle forever

Leverage millions of years of evolution to make success effortless

Your unconscious behavior – the things you do without thinking about them – is programmed by millions of years of evolution. Understanding this is the key to hacking it.

For our entire history and pre-history, humans have been highly social animals. Until very recently, your status within your “tribe” was the key to your survival.

In the harsh ancient world, you better hope the other folks in your cave “like” you enough to not leave you behind when the saber-toothed tigers come.

You better be a likable enough person that your tribe always leaves some fruit on the tree for you, too.

Our ancestors with good social skills had a major evolutionary advantage.

In the modern world, psychologists believe our strongest motivational drives are still deeply tied to our ancient motivations to thrive and survive within a group.

Simply put, humans really care about what other people think of them.

There are millions of years of evolutionary conditioning that makes human beings take this social game very seriously. A ton of brain power is dedicated to it. This is why we tend to take social commitment seriously and happily invest major effort in them, whereas promises to ourselves – like eating healthier or working harder – are tough to keep.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs?


In a bubble, your motivation will fizzle out. When you have no accountability around your business, it’s terribly easy for your brain to become unmotivated.

Driving your business growth forward with new sales and opportunities is an abstract concept. Your unconscious, mammalian mind doesn’t grasp it easily… especially when you’re working in an accountability vacuum.((It’s been hypothesized that this “prioritization of social fitness” (i.e. caring about others) is something all mammals share, but certainly humans are absolutely the best at. Which is the reason why we’re the dominate animal on the planet! ))

If your unconscious mind can’t sense that another human gives a damn if you do something, then you won’t be naturally motivated to do it.

The sad truth for most business owners is that, while they might get intellectually excited about winning a new sale there’s no one sharing their enthusiasm. For even moderately successful entrepreneurs, there’s no significant social penalty for “taking it easy” versus really pushing hard to grow.

It’s not just evolutionary psychologists who believe this either. Several studies by economists have also shown that social support and accountability can drive nearly double the motivation and success in our endeavors.((Economist Felipe Kast’s study tracked people in “savings programs” with the goal of testing the power of accountability when trying to save money. The people supported by simple accountability practices and social check-ins saved nearly twice as much money as others. In another, Economist D Karlan’s 2000 participant study on smokers wanting to quit, those with a social “commitment contracts” were nearly 40% more likely to be nicotine free after a year.”))

If you want to hack your brain to turn on effortless motivation, get some professional accountability in your life and business.
At Commit Action, Accountability is one of our (four) critical pillars we focus on delivering for our members.

We’ve made a study of both successful business owners and people who seem to endlessly struggle to execute on their ideas. We are constantly reminded that accountability – or a lack of it – separates the most elite winners from the rest, by a huge chasm.

Knowing about the Feast/Famine Cycle alone won’t solve it. You need to continue pushing for growth even when you get busy during a Feast phase.

Having someone hold you accountable to your critical growth-driving activities – in the good times AND the bad – harnesses millions of years of conditioning to motivate you beyond anything you can imagine.

One unfair advantage every billionaire has and how to grab it for yourself

The next hack ties directly to the power of Accountability we described in the previous section.

So many small business owners can’t understand how the super success stories – people like Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg – seem to sustain endless motivation and focus.

The world’s most successful entrepreneurs ALL hack their monkey-mind with multiple layers of accountability. One of the most powerful of these layers is the board of directors or advisors.

When a team of smart people meet each month to check in on your business progress – and ask hard questions about your plans for the future – it’s very difficult to get stuck in complacency or feel isolated.

Most beginner entrepreneurs think that forming an advisory board is a totally unrealistic goal. They forget that the real power of a board lies in the social accountability. The expert strategy you might get from having a mega-successful board is secondary.

A simple advisory board will supercharge your focus and push you beyond the Feast/Famine Cycle for good. Your board’s members don’t even have to be stakeholders in your company. They simply have to be people who care about your success.

Make moves to start your own formal advisory board today. All you need is a few people who care about your success: Start with family and friends Ask people to meet formally, monthly or quarterly Present a summary of “Where the business is today” Outline your growth plan for the next month or quarter Ask the board to hold you accountable

There’s many more ways an advisory board can supercharge an entrepreneurial career, but you can start with the fundamentals today and get this basic level of accountability in your life.

When you couple an advisory board with other forms of accountability, you will find yourself effortlessly showing up as the very best version of yourself. Without fail. The Feast/Famine Cycle will be a thing of the past.

How to plan yourself out of Feast/Famine even when you’re stuck in it

Your actions during Feast phases of your business are what creates the Famines. This is how the cycle is created and sustained.

The unintended consequences of success itself can create the down-cycle of Famine after a booming Feast. As entrepreneurs, we have to be careful to avoid these side effects of booming success.

The best way to stop the cycle in it’s tracks is to start actually planning for those side effects.

Ask yourself questions like: What will I do if my business were to double overnight? How would I cope with the sudden growth? What effect would that kind of success have in other areas of my life?

The key here is to think through the side-effects of massive success. What else will happen in your life when you accomplish your business goals?

If you have other goals besides growth itself, you need to know if pursuing growth will detract from those other goals.

One of the most important questions to ask – at length – after you’ve answered the three above is:

How can I keep growing my business bigger and bigger, without it making me miserable?

Eventually, growth will begin to feel uncomfortable. You need to formulate a plan for either totally avoiding that discomfort, or at least minimizing it.

The Feast/Famine Cycle is only suffered by those who don’t adequately plan for the side effects of huge success. Use your next booming Feast cycle, put time into brainstorming answers to these questions. Do the work needed to keep the rocket going.

If you have accountability in place (you should!) use it to commit yourself to building this plan.

Creating an unstoppable growth engine within your business (and mind)

This guide has referred to something we call critical growth-driving activities dozens of times.

There’s a reason we can’t stop talking about this stuff here at Commit Action:

  • Growth-Driving Activities are the highest leverage to-dos on your list.

  • They’re the behaviors that result in revenue entering your business.

  • They’re the actions that create concrete, economic opportunity.

If it were easy, of course everyone would fill their days with nothing but growth-driving activities. As it is, they’re very slippery things to figure out: It’s too easy to fall into a trap where you think you’re working on a growth-driving activity when in fact you are not.

Examples: For a blogger, writing and publishing a blog post is a growth-driving activity. Planning any number of posts, outlining, proof reading and pretty much anything else that feels like useful work… is not a growth-driving activity. For a sales person, talking to prospects and closing deals is the only growth-driving activity. Organizing their database of leads, planning your day, getting into the zone and whatever else is not it. For a product-first startup, designing and shipping features that attract new customers or retain existing ones are the only growth-driving activities. Strategy planning, hiring new talent, seeking out press coverage and whatever else… is not.

Growth-driving activities are the final action – that is within your power to carry out – that makes money for your business.

If you want an unstoppable growth engine in your mind and business, you have to commit to carrying out your growth-driving activities. Then, you must also use what we at Commit Action call our 2nd “pillar”: Measurement.

Measurement tracks and makes a game of your growth-driving activities. It lets you know the truth about exactly where you are with your sales, customer acquisition or user-growth.

Tracking your growth-driving activity and reviewing your progress activates a specific part of the brain known to drive powerful motivation to change and improve your behavior.((Activity in the insula-cortex region of the brain has been demonstrated in studies tracking subjects self regulation abilities. This brain activity correlates with increased motivation to commit to positive behavior.))

Yet, so many entrepreneurs only carry out their growth-driving activities when they “feel like it”. They’re not measuring their progress and working to a plan. They’re doomed to the Feast/Famine Cycle.

Conclusion

The Feast/Famine Cycle is a real problem for self-employed small business owners and entrepreneurs in all industries. It’s driven by the side-effects of success itself, comfort-zone complacency, emotional overwhelm, isolation and conflicting goals.

By utilizing accountability, forming support networks, creating detailed plans for growth and measuring your growth-driving activities you can permanently escape the Feast/Famine Cycle. Hacking your own thinking is key to building a growing, healthy and successful business.

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