The Accordion Principle

The start of a new coaching engagement is pretty predictable.

The new client will say something like “I don’t even know where to start. There are so many things going on right now, and they are all kind of swimming in my head.”

“Just start anywhere,” I say.

Little do they know that this is my favorite thing to do: capture a big mess of ideas and organize them into distinct buckets.

I spend most of my client time moving between creating a big picture strategy, then getting extremely specific and narrow with the next step.

Because staying in the “these are all the things I want to do this year, these are all the programs I want to create this year, these are all the problems I need to solve this year” zone is overwhelming and exhausting.

I think this is the reason so many business owners have tidal waves of activity and then grind to a halt for weeks, or even months. If you don’t have an organized way to capture and stage ideas and projects, you will burn out quickly.

The key is not to avoid looking at the big picture, it is to consistently move between the big picture and the small picture.

I have termed this practice The Accordion Principle.

The Accordion Principle:
You must go wide before you go narrow. Then go wide again. Then go narrow again. Repeat.

Let’s take a specific example.

You have just gotten a book contract and you are super excited to dig in and start writing.

But then your peers have told you that you need to start thinking about book marketing before you even draft your first paragraph. You have to choose the right writing tools (Scrivener is my favorite!), and figure out how to make time to write while running your business. You also need to update your website, and start to collect names of people who could write blurbs for the front and back covers. It would be smart to learn from experts so you write the best book possible, so maybe you need to take Malcolm Gladwell’s Master Class on Writing. Do you need custom research to validate the ideas in your book? How can you do that if you aren’t a researcher? And you need to be really careful about making sure you save time for self care so you stay healthy and feel mentally alert as you write.

See how our minds work?

All of these things are important and will be required in order to write and launch a successful book.

But you can’t do all of them at the same time. And you can’t hold all those ideas in your head while you try to complete the first step.

Here is how to implement the Accordion Principle to prevent overwhelm and get big things done (hat tip to that book title to Ericka Dhawan).

Step 1: Scope, Block and Tackle

In an earlier article, I shared how you can break down a big project into distinct phases. This will ensure you do the right things in the right order.

Step 2: Set Out the Buckets

When you have a big project with multiple phases and moving parts, it is essential to have a system to capture your steps and ideas.

I am partial to Trello because I am highly visual and like to see the big picture of a project in a wide view. Others prefer Basecamp or Asana.

Whatever you use, make sure it is easy to use, update and understand. You use it both for the wide and narrow lens of the Accordion.

Step 3: Plan to Plan

You must set up time in your schedule to specifically focus on planning your business. Ideally, this is a daily time (15 min), weekly time (30 min) and monthly time (2 hours).

I am writing this article during my “Work on Your Business Fridays” that I host at my learning lab in Mesa where I and local and virtual friends look at our big picture, and also get specific small things done.

Step 4: Play Your Accordion

In your planning sessions, you want to alternate between looking at the big picture (wide) and getting extremely specific (narrow) about what needs to get done right away.

You also need to apply the Accordion Principle at times where you feel stuck and confused.

The problem is usually because you are either so focused on the big picture that things get muddled or overwhelming, or that you are so focused on small tasks that you get bored or lose your purpose.

At these times, practice going wide and narrow.

Go Wide: These are all the things I need to get done, and here is where they fit in buckets.

Go Narrow: Now these are the 3 very specific things I must get done this week in order to move the project forward.

The Power is in the Practice

While it may take a bit of effort to get yourself organized in the 4 steps, it is worth it.

Practicing the Accordion Principle will keep your projects clear, your energy strong and your motivation high.

Here is to changing the world with your work!

Reader Interactions


  1. Mia Sherwood Landau says

    Hi Pam. I have been playing the accordian thing with my ideas, only I didn’t know it. It just seemed like my thought process was unstable. Thanks for bringing clarity to a good, normal, healthy way of thinking about my writing and my business! Happy 2019!

  2. Tamara Kemper says

    I totally do this with my work and never had a name for it, but it’s SO helpful to think of it as an “accordion framework!” Thank you for helping me see the system I couldn’t see for myself.

  3. Lawrence Fox says

    Love the name for this process! I think it’s something I’ve also been doing without realizing that I was doing it (but not consistently, which is a whole other kettle of fish!).

    I think I’ll definitely add it to my arsenal of “things I do and things I suggest to clients”


  4. Patty Grasher says

    I listened to your awesome talk on the live SCORE program today (Thursday, Jan 24) and it was so helpful. I decided I had to find out more.

    I loved the fact that you mentioned Robert Middleton as I have been following him for a long time. I sent him a brief note telling him about your mention. 🙂

    Your Accordion principle – sounds workable. Sometimes I feel like I am flip-flopping and you provide a fresh way of making the flips not flop but rather something to go back and forth with. Not giving up when I experience overwhelm with the big picture – but putting things in little buckets.

    I plan to go and read many of your previous blog posts. Thanks for doing this.

    • Pamela Slim says

      That is so kind, thank you for leaving a comment Patty! Robert is great, and I have used his strategy as an example for almost 2 decades. Now that is a memorable marketing technique!

  5. Zanne says

    I’m giving Trello a try. I feel overwhelmed at the moment figuring out what tool to use! A To-do list? A calendar with tasks/to-dos? Project management software feels way too heavy-handed and none really lets you actually zoom in and out. We’ll see.

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