September 28, 2022

Getting your heading right: The outsized power of one degree

The flight between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles’ LAX is the second most popular route in the United States. Crossing 2,475 miles across the country end-to-end, 26,286 planes make the 5-ish hour trip each year.

Every one of these flights is a tiny miracle in precision.

If the pilot leaving from New York missed their heading by just one degree, instead of Los Angeles International Airport, the plane would end up on Catalina Island, 40 miles away. Over the span of a long flight, tiny changes add up to big differences. One degree off course means that you’re off by a mile for every sixty that you travel.

Now, planes, and people, can make adjustments mid-flight. We can fix a missed heading, swerve around dicey obstacles, and even change our destination altogether. But for lots of things, it’s worth spending time to double check your heading.

Branding is largely the act of setting your heading in marketing before you commit to big investments in your advertising, print collateral, or sales outreach. Spending a few days developing and interrogating your positioning will make it easier each time you need do anything: you’ll better know what you sell, who its for, and why you’re the best.

Sketching wireframes before jumping into full-fidelity designs is how you set your heading when building an app, website, or other digital product. Wireframes, whether doodled on the back of a cocktail napkin or built in dedicated software, help you determine what needs to be built before actually doing the heavy lifting. It’s much more expensive and annoying to change a software project on day 100 than day 10.

Writing a thesis statement and outlining is setting your heading when you write. Blueprints are setting your heading when in construction. Agendas are setting your heading in meetings.

It’s so tempting to jump right in, and sometimes that’s actually the right call – it’s far too easy to be stuck on the launchpad with an idea or project because you plan yourself to death. But like one of my favorite books on user research, Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research, most things benefit from “just enough planning.” Take a breath, take a look out the window and down the road. Figure out where you want to go, then push the throttle.

In my time as an agency owner, we’d often find ourselves in a pinch: we needed time to do planning and preparation, but clients wanted ACTION on day one. It takes constant communication to push past this friction. What we eventually learned was that this planning needs to be visible – you needed to have regular meetings, send status updates and reports, and deliver some early wins to keep the momentum going.

James Clear has written what is possibly the biggest blockbuster book of this decade, Atomic Habits, all about the simple idea, and outsized power, of incremental improvements. Here’s the big takeaway:

“If you get one percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”

1% improvement makes a big difference over time. The corollary is that suffering a 1% decline over that same year leaves you at just 3% of your original power. Small difference in direction, but a big gap in destination.

It’s worth taking a beat to figure out which direction you’re heading.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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