When Working Harder Just Isn’t Working

You are running a creative business. But does it feel like it is running you?

Does it seem like the harder you work, the less (important) work actually gets done?

I hear this all the time. As a coach to Creative Studio owners, I find they particularly fall prey to working harder and harder every year. Do you find this to be true of you? If so, there are two big contributing factors.

First, as an owner, you are running a business that grows more complex every day. Growth is good but it comes at a price. It’s the nature of the beast.

You are running a business. But does it feel like it is running you? Click To Tweet

Second, you produce creative (read: subjective) work that is, by definition, never finished. No matter how much time is available for creative work, every last minute gets spent improving it, right up until the deadline.

The result is workaholism. Is this pattern inescapable?

Designing Your Life

My friend and Creative Studio owner at Undefined Creative, Maria Rapetskaya, wrote an excellent article for 99U entitled “Stop Apologizing for Wanting Work/Life Balance.” It struck a nerve with many creative folks:

This industry demands workaholics. We can spend countless days perfecting every pixel, yet not find a single hour to hit the gym. Throughout our careers, we’ll design hundreds of projects, but few of us will opt to take on the most rewarding and complicated creative project of all: (designing) our own lives.

Maria got me thinking about how we indeed have the power to design our lives. Whatever our companies look like today, it’s because we set it up that way.

So let’s play a game to see if we can make a change. Take a look behind a hypothetical Door #1 and Door #2. Which will you choose?

• Door #1: Work harder. Be spread thinner. Feel stressed. Struggle to maintain focus. Worry constantly if you’re making real progress.

• Door #2: Work less. Focus on what you love doing. Make just as much – or more – money. Take time for yourself and your relationships. Be calm and confident about the big picture.

I know you’re already thinking, “How fast can I run through Door #2!?!?”

Door #1: It’s Not Enough to Recharge

Let’s first acknowledge that Door #1 is what you experience naturally. Your internal operating system responds to complexity with its “I can do it all!” survival program. Then when you run out of energy, you recharge. Here is how it usually goes:

1. You work yourself to near death hitting a deadline.

2. You take off a few days to “recharge.”

3. It takes you a few days to relax and stop thinking about work.

4. About that time, it’s time to head back to work.

Sound familiar? This pattern is so common. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so epidemic. And damaging to yourself and your relationships. How is this “work-harder-then-recharge” pattern working for you?

Door #2: The Business Owner Reboot

Door #2, on the other hand, sounds too good to be true. But what if walking through this door was only possible by taking a step back, getting a bigger perspective and making some tough commitments?

Why? Because Door #2 does not involve a recharge. It’s a reboot.

This reboot is not the latest life hack. It’s not a tweak to your routine. And it’s not about slicing your time into ever thinner chunks spread across more and more activities. Don’t fall for increased complexity disguised as “time management.”

It’s not about working harder. It’s not even about “working smarter.” It’s about working less. So you can work differently. Because what you need – especially as a creative – is not complexity, but simplicity.

It's not about 'working smarter.' It's about working less. So you can work differently. Click To Tweet

Here I credit entrepreneurial coach Dan Sullivan with teaching me a time system that enables entrepreneurs to break through to higher levels of simplicity and creativity. I adopted his system a decade ago and later adapted it to the peculiarities of Creative Studio business owners.

Reboot Part 1: Focus Time

As your Creative Studio grows in complexity, the natural tendency is for you to handle it all. This is why you find yourself – over time – working harder and harder, but getting less and less (of the truly important work) done.

What you need – especially as a creative person – is not complexity, but simplicity. Click To Tweet

As your business succeeds, it gets worse. Much worse. And even though you know you must “Stop majoring in the minors,” how do you start? Here’s how:

Step 1: Write down all the activities it takes to run your business. (Your list will likely contain somewhere between 20 and 30 roles. No wonder you’re overwhelmed!)

Step 2: Study your list and pick the top three activities that you love doing and/or which generate the biggest results for your business.

Step 3: Schedule large portions of dedicated time to focus on only those three activities. This step is far easier said than done.

Step 4: Follow through on your focus time. You will achieve big results. I guarantee it. Your work will improve. You will make new discoveries. Your creativity will soar. You will find yourself playing at the top of your game. All of which will better serve you, your Creative Studio, your clients and your team.

Speaking of your team: in order for you to spend a large portion of time focused on your top three activities, you will feel an immediate need for help to fill in the gaps to run your business. This is good. The big ideas is to delegate all those activities which you are not good at doing to others who count those specific activities among their top three. Build a team where each player – including you – is playing at the top of his/her respective game.

experiences-make-you-more-creative

Reboot Part Two: Free Time

We’re not done yet. Committing to focus time is one half of the equation. The other half of the equation is committing to free time. Because performing at the top of your game at focus times requires you be rested and refreshed.

Ponder those things that really rejuvenate you, like a journey through a foreign country, a photography course, volunteering for charity, a road trip with your kids, reading a good book. These experiences don’t come easy. They take time!

Investing quality, free time in these rich life experiences fill you up, inspire you and make you more creative. Taking free time also helps you rest, so you can be more productive.

More creative and more productive? Now we’re getting somewhere.

Rich life experiences fill you up, inspire you and make you more creative. Click To Tweet

You might say, “But if I take more time off, my company will spiral out of control!” Perhaps. Or will committing to more free time force you to build a solid team who can run your Creative Studio in your absence? And isn’t that one of your goals? But if you never leave, they will never learn.

Pressing the Reboot Button

When you are ready to break out of the recharge pattern and move forward with your reboot, here are the steps to put it into practice:

  1. Go through the 4 steps above to identify your focus time activities.
  2. Tell your team about your decision to invest in focus time and free time. (Your team will surprise you with their support because secretly they worry about you burning out and the business failing!)
  3. Schedule free time: look forward to being rejuvenated.
  4. Commit to focus time: get ready to be massively creative and productive.
  5. Begin it. I call this, “Don’t wait for all the lights to turn green down the street before you hit the gas.” You can course correct as you get moving.
  6. Tell your clients, if and when they need to know. As an entrepreneur, you’re already a great salesman so just sell your clients on how your plan to be more creative and productive will benefit them.

What Is Now Possible

I realize this “Do more of what I love / take more time off” concept seems irrational. Or absurd. On the surface, it is both.

On the other hand, think about it: if you could perform at the very top of your game – surrounded by a team of experts each playing at the top of their game – what might be possible? That sounds like the kind of team that wins the Super Bowl or the World Series.

I’ve seen it work miracles in the lives of entrepreneurs. And it worked for me, too. Over the years of running my own production company, I steadily grew my team and worked at delegating all but my top three activities. Then one year I looked back and realized I’d taken 13 weeks of time off. Ironically, that same year I had earned my greatest income. It is possible.

So when you’re ready, go for it. But don’t work harder. Work less so that when you do work really hard, you are confident you’re working at the right things.

And enjoy running your business, not the other way around.

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