What a Fearful Thing a Neglected Duty Becomes!

Authored by: Fred Morgan, CTO, DocuSend, powered by MTI. Posted on March 29, 2018
Business ideas

“Procrastination paralyzes the energies…and, in the meantime, the neglected duty becomes a snare” —Hugh McNeille



When I was 17, I started a company with my older brother. He had the idea of selling mylar balloons at fairs. Having come up with the idea, he figured he had contributed his share to the effort, and I did all the work, including setting up the business. When I was filing for a tax ID number, the form asked how much I expected to sell per year. Being very naïve and overly optimistic, I wrote in 50,000 dollars (this was more than 40 years ago!).

I think I sold two balloons. But somewhere on the tax form, I had missed the fine print (I am sure it was in black and white and very clear). I was supposed to file quarterly reports.

Fast forward three months. A piece of official mail arrives from the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance (some of you are already cringing). It said I owed 50,000/4 * 0.07 = $875.00! Being young and clueless, I did what might have been understandable, but stupid. I threw it away, under the misconception that they would get the hint that I had nothing to declare.

Next quarter rolls around, and I get a bill for $1,750 plus penalties—and not so friendly either. I was freaking out. After several sleepless nights, I wrote back to the tax department a letter pleading with them that I was just a kid (see—you can get a teenager to admit this!) and we hadn’t sold anything, and would they please just dissolve the business.

Believe it or not, they took pity on a poor foolish teenager and did exactly that.

A short time later, I happened to be reading a Reader’s Digest magazine (before the internet, we read what we could get our hands on) and ran across a saying that resonated with that experience and impacted my life. It went something like, “What a fearful thing a neglected duty becomes!” I can’t find the source for those exact words, but that’s how it stuck in my brain.

Ever since those days, not completing things has put me in a bit of a panic. (Note to my wife: I don’t count not putting away the tools after I finish a chore as not having completed said chore.) Granted, I have had to learn to accept that some things must be abandoned unfinished, but usually, if it is a task I need to do, I can feel it hanging over my head until I get it done.

Business Quicksand

It seems not a month goes by that we aren’t hearing about a company that fails because, in their pursuit of more sales, they didn’t complete an essential activity. You can’t let selling more cause you to outrun doing basic things like filling your taxes, paying your bills, or making sure your data is backed up. According to worldbackupday.com, 60% of small businesses would shut down within six months if they lost their data,1 yet many SMBs have not made sure they have backups and can recover all necessary data using those backups.

Unfinished tasks seem to breed more unfinished tasks, often competing with each other, so you don’t know which one to tackle first. The result is a kind of business quicksand—as you try to move forward, you keep floundering because other undone tasks keep pulling you back in. You are trying to pay your taxes, but you have to get out the bills, but you can’t get out the bills because you haven’t gone to the post office for stamps in a long time. But you really don’t want to go to the post office till you have the bills ready, because you really don’t have the time to make two trips. (Thankfully, DocuSend can get you out of this one in a few minutes—it’s like having your own mailroom in the cloud.)

There are many more grains of sand to suck you in when the neglected duties accumulate.

One of the things I learned when I started working with developers is that many of them are brilliant but don’t have good time-management skills. Writing code is fun. Testing code, not so much—that’s when you find out you aren’t so good at writing code as you thought! And writing documentation so someone else can support your code? A root canal would be more fun, which is why when a programmer leaves your employ, you hear their replacement complaining bitterly about how they need to rewrite everything because the code is poorly written. It probably wasn’t poorly written, just never documented.

Start at the Corners

Anyone who checks up after kids to see how well they cleaned their room knows you start by looking in the corners (and under the bed, in the closet, etc.). It’s easy to clear the floor, but it’s the corners that show whether someone did a thorough job. It’s is a given that your workers will do what everyone sees—but check the corners.

I told him that when I review a job, I always start by looking for these stubborn places. It tells me a lot about the person who did the work. Often, clearing brush is paid based on the amount of land covered, so of course, if you only do the easy sections, you get paid more. But if the owner checks your work, you probably won’t come back.

My farmhand said his father always saved the burras for any child who was misbehaving or being lazy, but I, probably because of my traumatic experience with the tax department, like to start with the corners first. When I tackle a new project, I always begin with what I don’t know how to do or the parts I don’t like to do (set up the work environment, write the specs, create plans for backup and testing). Then I dive into the dessert—the actual building of the application. This works so much better than trying to get myself to do these things AFTER the thrill of the new project is gone.

So, take all those irritating “grains of sand,” including backing up your data, that you have been putting off and get them crossed off your to-do list. I don’t need to tell you how satisfying it will feel.

1. https://smallbiztrends.com/2017/04/not-prepared-for-data-loss.html citing http://www.worldbackupday.com/en/

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About the author
Printing and Mailing Experts

Fred Morgan is the CTO and Chief Software Engineer of DocuSend. He has spent a good part of his life growing small businesses and creating products and services to help others grow theirs. He lives in Costa Rica, where he and his wife founded and maintain a sustainable tree plantation business.

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