To realize your big ideas, think in cycles

In 2009, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I had just left my full-time consulting job and had started teaching part-time at a local university. It was the first time in a long while that I had some spare time to pursue side projects. One of my business ideas was to develop a web application that would allow small to medium-sized organizations to easily measure and reduce their carbon footprint. I knew the methods involved in carbon accounting from my consulting practice, but I needed help to create the technology platform. Tapping into my network, I reached out to two colleagues, who owned and operated an agency in Vancouver that developed slick web-based applications and tools. They agreed to partner on the idea, and in late 2009 we started an online software company called Gobi.

It took us a year to develop and launch Gobi. Over the next few years, we released several new versions of the software, executed our marketing and business development strategy, and built up our customer base. It was a lot of work, but it was satisfying to develop a company from the ground up. Then, in late 2013, I got a phone call that changed our trajectory. The CEO of a consulting firm called me up and asked if we’d consider selling Gobi. Recently, they had started to develop their own carbon accounting software, but decided they could get to market and scale up much faster if they acquired an existing system rather than building their own. After a few months of negotiation, we sold Gobi and cashed out — roughly five years after I had dreamed up the original idea.

Five years. I’ve found that often, this is how long it takes to realize a big dream — to take an idea from concept to fruition. Whether my ambition has been to complete a university degree, start up a business or charity, or write and publish a book, I expect it to take about five years to complete. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll walk away from the venture after five years, like we did with Gobi, but the project can often stand on its own after that length of time. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Some ideas will take less time to bring to life; others will take more. For some people, five years might seem like a daunting amount of time, for others, not enough. You might find you tend to operate on two-year cycles, or 10. The point is that when you’re considering your biggest future aspirations, it’s useful to break those projects down into manageable (and realistic) chunks of time. Thinking this way helps to prioritize what you want to accomplish in life, and it can motivate you to get out there and make it happen.

For me, the value of thinking in five-year increments is that it breaks down my grand vision into doable chunks. It’s much easier and less daunting if I split it up into five-year periods. To use my example, let’s say you are 30 years old and you’re envisioning your future in 40 years. In this scenario, you have eight five-year cycles ahead of you. Sure, 40 years is a long time, but eight is not a big number. Here are those cycles expressed visually:

x x x x x x x x

That’s it. More or less, that’s the number of large-scale projects you have time to pursue. Barring a scientific breakthrough in human longevity, you only have so many shots to realize your big ideas and create something special. Don’t waste them. There’s a quote by David Allen that goes: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Thinking in terms of discrete cycles helps to bring this point home. Your potential is almost unlimited, but the time available to make your mark is not. Don’t let this thought scare you — use it to motivate you. Life is precious. Focus your time on the things that count and tune out the things that don’t.