For conscious business owners, the challenges of the "air sandwich" are most likely competing priorities, head trash, and no realistic plan. Let’s talk about each in order.

For many people, the gap between their day-to-day reality and their vision for their lives is quite large. No matter how hard they work, grind, and hustle throughout the week, they look back and feel like they’re no closer to doing and achieving what matters most.

I call this gap the “air sandwich.” The top slice of the sandwich are our big goals, vision, values, and aspiration; on the bottom is our day-to-day reality, challenges, and choices. Between the two is a lot of air.

But the reality is that what seems to be air is actually five universal challenges that are actively pushing the top and bottom slices of bread apart. Those five challenges are:

  1. Competing priorities
  2. Head trash (negative or limiting beliefs or stories)
  3. No realistic plan
  4. Too few resources
  5. Poor team alignment (with ‘team’ being inclusive of people in your personal life as much as your professional life)

Given that these challenges are root causes, if they remain unaddressed, whatever they’re keeping in place will remain in place or will resurface in time. Additionally, you can’t fix them with top-level hacks, apps, and quick-fixes in much the same way that you can’t remove a rooted weed by pulling off a few leaves. Lastly, they are often interrelated or compounding — for instance, “no realistic plan” can lead to or be compounded with “too few resources” such that they can create “poor team alignment” or “competing priorities.”

For conscious business owners, the challenges of the air sandwich that are most likely to be the most weighty are competing priorities, head trash, and no realistic plan. Let’s talk about each in order.

Conscious Business Owners Have More Competing Priorities

While it’s true that all business leaders have competing priorities, adding the requirements of being a (morally) good and sustainable business puts additional competition in the mix. It’s not enough for us to just maximize profit and keep our workforce engaged — we need to do that without causing unnecessary harm to our planet, communities, and ecosystem.

Those high-level priorities come up everyday for conscious business owners. Manufacturing our products overseas allows us to sell at a lower price or at the same price with more profit, but doing so also may violate our principles around worker conditions or environmental protection. Hiring additional workers quickly may compete with having a diverse workforce. Building a remote team may compete with providing jobs for our local communities.

Sorting through all of these priorities would be easier if they were rank-ordered, but that’s not the way the tensions show up in the real world. In some scenarios, one priority may be more weighty than others or the context of one scenario may be especially dissonant with one priority. When profit is the sole motive, maxims like “it’s just business” may make decisions simpler (though not easier).

Here are three ways to address competing priorities:

  1. Review the important decisions you’ve made in the last two weeks. How well do those decisions reflect your values (long-standing priorities) and short-term priorities?
  2. If you’re currently facing an important decision, articulate how the different choices relate to your values and priorities.
  3. Explicitly relate teammates’ decisions, choices, and actions to your values and priorities as you’re guiding and managing them.

Conscious Business Owners Often Carry Additional Head Trash

If we only carried and grappled with the head trash that we generate, life and business would be significantly easier. But the reality is that a significant portion of the head trash we’re carrying comes from other people, whether they’re our families, our communities, and our culture via mass media. We’re bombarded every day with messages telling us what’s right and wrong, who we should and shouldn’t be, and what we can and can’t do.

Being a business leader only adds to the potential to absorb and carry head trash. The same culture that adores business people also associates them with stories of greed, manipulation, exploitation, and materialism.

And that’s just the impersonal head trash we accrue. Many of us also have personal interactions with teachers, coaches, bosses, and other people in power positions that added to our own head trash about our capabilities, character, and opportunities.

So much of the work we need to do to grow our businesses isn’t about the actual work in front of us, but, rather, working through the head trash that’s making the work harder, heavier, and more uncomfortable. Conscious business owners have it one step harder, as well, because it’s not just enough to run a profitable business — we aspire to run a good business, which means we also have to consciously grapple with the head trash attached to business leaders and the head trash attached to good, ethical people. Resolving “nice people finish last”, “go big or go home,” and “business people are greedy” is quite the challenge!

Here are three ways to take out your head trash:

  1. Write down the head trash that comes up throughout the day. Getting it out of your head can help you sort through what may be true versus what’s just crap absorbed from others.
  2. Start to correlate specific counterproductive behaviors with the head trash that enables them. For example, if you’re struggling in sales conversations, it may be that deep-down, you don’t believe your product or service is worth what you’re asking. As long as that belief is in place, you’re going to struggle in sales conversations no matter what tactics, best practices, or scripts you use.
  3. Where appropriate, ask your teammates about the stories they’re telling themselves that are impacting their performance, decisions, or behaviors. This will help you co-create solutions that solve the deeper problems that lead to poor performance, bad decisions, and counterproductive behaviors.

Conscious Business Owners Need Even Better Plans

All three words of “no realistic plan” are important. An idea or goal is not a plan. A plan that doesn’t address your context or that isn’t focused on an achievable goal isn’t realistic.

But it’s also true that an overly detailed plan or the business plans that banks like to see also aren’t particularly helpful for translating your vision into action. The best kinds of plans are flexible guide rails rather than rigid straight jackets.

Even though the kind of plan you’ll need is highly contingent on your goals — strategic plans, marketing implementation plans, and hiring plans are all different beasts — you’re unlikely to get the result you want without doing some essential visioning, goal-setting, and roadmapping. “Shooting from the hip” is the expensive, long way to get where you most want to be.

And remember: if you don’t share your plans with your team, they can feel like you’re shooting from the hip and can only contribute to your goals as far as the last ad hoc thing you told them. A root cause of many leaders’ overwhelm is that they’re not sharing their plans with their team.

Here are three ways you can develop more realistic plans:

  1. Use available baselines to set “stretch” goals (a deliberately challenging or ambitious aim) rather than pulling aspirational goals out of thin air. It’s usually better to focus on a series of achievable stretch goals than to set unrealistic aspirational goals that are then missed.
  2. Acknowledge real constraints when planning. For instance, if your team has been under capacity for the last few quarters, bake that into the plan or address that real constraint when sharing plans.
  3. Ensure that any plans for anything bigger than a week-sized project are documented and shared. A week is long enough for details to get fuzzy and for project- and goal-creep to set in, and even the person with the idea may be unsure about what the goal and plan was.

How Are the Five Challenges Showing Up for You?

I’ve highlighted the challenges “competing priorities,” “head trash,” and “no realistic plan” based on my experience being a conscious business owner and advising them in different capacities. The other two challenges are definitely operative a lot of the time, but those three are the ones that have been the biggest individual or cumulative root-cause challenges that are keeping them stuck or throttling their momentum.

Your experience and the way the challenges show up for you may be different, though. Which are your dominant challenges, what are they keeping you from doing, and how are you addressing them?

Charlie Gilkey

Charlie Gilkey is the founder of Productive Flourishing and the author of “Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done” and “The Small Business Life Cycle.”

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