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Noticing What Works — A Powerful Life Lesson

May 29th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

Many years ago I met a businessman who said he'd turned his $40,000 per year business into a $400,000 per year business in just 2 years. He asked if I wanted to know how he did it. I replied that of course I wanted to know. At the time I was struggling with my computer games business. I was able to pay my bills, but I wasn't getting ahead.

The lesson he taught me was quite simple. In fact, it's so simple that you're likely to dismiss it as obvious. I agree that it sounds like common sense, but it's not commonly applied. When you really put this idea into action, you can take your results to a whole new next level.

In a nutshell this was the lesson:

In life you will always have your ups and downs, your successes and failures. Sometimes things go well for you. Sometimes they go poorly. When you succeed or fail, there's always a cause. You can backtrack your results to figure out what caused them. You might not be able to do this perfectly, but you'll usually have a pretty good idea of the contributing factors. What caused your income, your health, and your relationships to improve over the past several years? What caused things to get worse? Can you identify the specific causes of your best and worst results? Once you know the contributing factors to your hits and your misses, your goal is to deliberately do more of what causes the successes and deliberately do less of what caused the failures.

Of course some of the contributing factors may not be under your direct control, but some of those factors will be. Focus your efforts on what you can control, and don't worry about what's outside your control.

I must admit that it was hard for me to take this exercise seriously, but I decided to try it anyway. The businessman was certainly doing a lot better than I was, so maybe he knew something I didn't. I figured I had nothing to lose.

Let me give you a specific example of how I applied this to my games business.

When I first did this simple exercise, I noticed that my sales went up whenever I released a new computer game, and they tended to decline if I went too long without releasing something. That probably sounds obvious, but it was a powerful distinction for me at the time. You see... most of my time was actually spent developing games, which is definitely not the same thing as releasing games. I thought that as long as I was working on creating new games, I was doing intelligent, productive work that would eventually benefit my business financially. How wrong I was!

I got the idea that maybe I should turn my attention to releasing games instead of spending so much time and energy developing them. So instead of developing a whole new game from scratch, for my next project I created an expansion pack as an add-on product for my most successful game. The original game took six months to develop, but the expansion pack only took two weeks because it didn't require any special programming. It was just a pack of 20 extra levels for the same game.

This expansion pack earned about 35% as much money as the original game, which was an excellent return for so little effort. How would you like to permanently increase your income by 35% just by doing slightly different work for the next two weeks?

Next, I released a second expansion pack for the same game. This time I didn't even create the levels myself — I had someone else do the work. Again there was a similar jump in sales. We're talking sustained increases, not a temporary surge followed by a drop.

Later I released a new version of the same game with five times as many levels as there were in the original release. Most of those levels were created by other people, so all I had to do was bundle everything together. I raised the price to reflect the added value, and that new version sold well for many years, earning many times what the original release earned. If I'd stopped at the original version, I'd have left most of the potential sales untapped.

Then I turned around and licensed that game to other companies, so I earned royalties from their sales as well. When another publisher released one of my games to their audience, my income went up again. It was the act of releasing games that made the difference. I didn't have to be the one to do it personally. I just had to set the cause in motion in order to enjoy the result.

Finally, I went on to publish other developer's games, paying a sales-based royalty to the original developer. By introducing other developers' games to my audience, I was able to release many more products than I could develop with my own team. This was a win for me, a win for the developers, and a win for my customers. In one month my business managed to release three new games whereas previously I was lucky to release one game per year. For my small business, that was quite an achievement.

I stopped publishing games years ago, but to this day I still receive monthly royalty checks. The checks are admittedly quite small now, but it's a nice reminder of the power of noticing what works.

By noticing that my results were improved by releasing games, not by developing them, I found a way to do more of the work that caused my sales to increase and less of the work that didn't. My business began to thrive, and it was profitable every year after I started applying this simple yet valuable lesson.

I used a similar strategy to build my personal development business, especially during the first year. When I somehow managed to get a small traffic increase, I figured out what caused it and tried to do more of it. When my traffic stagnated or went down, again I figured out the cause and tried to do less of it. Once I had a decent level of traffic, I did the same thing with respect to generating income.

When I was first launching StevePavlina.com, I didn't know how to build a successful business in this field, but by noticing what worked and what didn't, I was able to adjust course to increase the hits and reduce the misses. Some of those lessons seemed counter-intuitive at first, but the hard data doesn't lie.

You can apply this same idea to improve your results in any area of your life — your income, your career, your relationships, your health — even your spiritual development. Notice what creates a hit for you, and do more of it. Notice what causes a flop or a dry spell, and do less of it.

A corollary to the above is that if you haven't had a hit for a long time, you can basically throw out whatever you're currently doing in that area because it clearly isn't working. You'll have to experiment more to figure out what does work. If you already know that your current efforts aren't working, there's no point in continuing along the same path.

You aren't doomed to become a victim of your past, but your past surely contains clues that can help you enjoy an even better present and future.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.