Do you ever look at your calendar and wonder where the week (or month) went? Thinking back, you may be startled that you've become one of those people who responds with "crazy busy" when you're asked how things are going. You're exhausted, overwhelmed and concerned about what the future holds. After all, how long can you and your team keep running at 100% capacity without a break?
The answer: not long. Whether this is your situation now or you're headed here, it's a bad idea to spend 100% of your time on-task. The outcomes of doing so are terrible, since you'll miss out on opportunities to grow. Worse, you'll actively put the health of yourself, your team and your entire business at risk. In this post, we'll break down some of the negative impacts of using 100% of your time on current projects, how businesses end up in this trap and what you can do to keep it from happening.
There are a few problems with booking out 100% of your time. Here are the ones we see that have had the most negative impact on clients we've worked with in the past:
Processes aren't just a "set it and forget" thing. They're the foundation of everything you do in your business, from marketing to client onboarding, project management, accounting and disaster recovery (see below).
They need to be kept lean, reviewed regularly and updated when required. You should scrutinize all your processes annually, preferably before you take end-of-year holidays since everyone is in a reflective state of mind.
When you've got 100% of your team booked and 100% of your calendar full, there's no time for those critical breaks to work on your business vs. in it. That's a huge problem for companies of any size, because outdated or incomplete processes mean things start to slip through the cracks. Dedicating time to assess your priorities and processes, and whether you're on course to achieve your goals, is crucial to your long-term success.
It's often the little details - a last review before sending your work to a client, a brief phone call to clarify a request, or 20 minutes spent helping them solve a problem - that differentiate you from the competition and turn your client into an ambassador for your business.
Tragically, these are also the first details to be missed when staff time and workload aren't managed appropriately. And if neglect of customer service becomes chronic, important details are overlooked, leaving clients frustrated (and depending on your service, potentially at risk for security breaches, embarrassing downtime or worse).
Clients are the first ones to suffer, but if they leave to work with your competition, the impact can be devastating - not only on the project and on your current cashflow, but the long-term damage to your reputation could be severe (since customers are more likely to talk about poor experiences than good ones).
In the lifespan of any business, disaster is likely to strike at least once. It could be:
- within your physical environment (an earthquake or other natural disaster)
- personnel-related (you have to quickly discipline or terminate an employee, help them through a crisis or allow extended time off for medical reasons) or
- virtual (your website or network goes down or is hacked, you get locked out of your accounts, or a data breach occurs)
Emergencies require both effective immediate response and ongoing care to address issues. If you're using 100% of your staff's time on day-to-day tasks, addressing the emergency would require you to pull them off the project, renegotiate any deadlines, then reallocate work to existing staff while that employee addresses the emergency.
While you can't predict which emergencies will come up or when, it's important to assume that at least one thing will go wrong, plan for disaster recovery and leave room to implement your process.
Business development and growth can be compared to growing a vegetable garden in your backyard; it as long as you consistently maintain it, plant regularly and balance out your crops (grow your business using a number of different methods), you'll be well-fed. But forget about it, or do too much of one thing, and you'll be in trouble. It's imperative to make time to plant these seeds of growth before you're (quite literally) starving for business, because your busy days won't last forever.
Your ability to effectively serve your customers and attract lucrative new clients relies partly on your commitment to honing your skills, then adapting them to solve your client's problems.
When all your time is blocked for client work, every day is a race to beat the clock. You constantly churn out work, send out invoices, chase payments, follow up as required and repeat. There's no time to take inventory of what's happening in your industry and which skills you need to sharpen. Eventually, that skills deficit makes you less relevant in an ever-evolving climate. Neglect learning and you'll start to become bored, not to mention your competitive advantage will evaporate.
Self-care and sleep aren't luxuries, but we often treat them as if they are; cutting back or forgoing them when work gets busy. But neglecting our need for basic self-care can have severe impacts on our health. In particular, sleep deprivation can actually shorten our lives and make us sick.
In his TED Talk "Sleep is your superpower", sleep researcher Matt Walker talks about the advantages of getting a proper seven-plus hours of restorative sleep per night. On the flip side, when that doesn't happen there are devastating short and long-term consequences for our brains and bodies. Since sleep affects everything from our learning ability and memory function to our cardiovascular and systems, a lot can go wrong when we lose even four hours in a single night, never mind consistently pull all-nighters.
"In fact, the link between a lack of sleep and cancer is now so strong that the World Health Organization has classified any form of nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen, because of a disruption of your sleep-wake rhythms," said Walker, who adds that the old maxim that you can sleep when you're dead is mortally unwise advice.
"There's a simple truth: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. Short sleep predicts all-cause mortality," he said. "There is simply no aspect of your wellness that can retreat at the sign of sleep deprivation and get away unscathed."
Research has also shown that even a few late nights in a row can disrupt your circadian clock, and that it's almost mathematically impossible to make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping in on the weekend.
In short, it's fundamentally important for those of us in programming or creative industries to get adequate sleep, since it directly impacts our performance and even our lifespan.
When we're using 100% of our time, every conversation has to have explicit objectives attached to it. Otherwise, why waste our time when there's so much work to get done, calls to return and emails to read?
While it's true that scheduling hours of meaningless meetings each month will thwart productivity, every team needs a chance to touch base about the work they're doing, new ideas that come up, challenges that affect the group, etc. Those open-ended sessions often fall off the calendar when everyone's calendar is full. And why not? You assume that anything that can be said in a meeting can be put in an email (that will probably get buried in your inbox).
But have you ever considered the value of not attaching an objective to complex issues? Kenneth Stanley, a professor in Computer Science, founding member of Uber AI Labs and author of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, proposed in his talk Discovery Without Objectives that highly ambitious objectives ultimately block their own achievement (in other words, it's "probably not a good idea if you have a really ambitious objective to try to achieve it.").
"Almost no prerequisite to any major invention was invented with that invention in mind. This should give us great pause for those who think that objectives should drive achievement."
If you want to achieve something that's many stepping stones away, "forget having an objective. You can not define your goal, and you may achieve greatness, but you won't know what that greatness ultimately will be. You have to let go of the idea that you have to define where you're going in order to get there. Then you may find something great, and who knows where that may be."
He argued that "great invention does not mean seeing many stepping stones into the future, although we think of visionaries in that way. What it means is seeing one stepping stone ahead. That's the nature of great invention."
As for what this means for your team, "free hours" or open-ended team sessions are often fertile ground for new ideas to be proposed and discussed. Scheduling 100% of our time robs us of the ability to have any of those conversations, effectively preventing discovery of opportunities, challenges and problems. Not to mention that even in 2019, nothing replaces in-person interaction.
'How did things get this out of hand?' you ask yourself. There are a few reasons this can happen:
In both corporate and startup cultures, the toxic mindset of presenteeism abounds. Many labor under the notion that to be seen as productive, we need to be in the office, on our computers, and that we should book up 100% of our time.
The (counter-intuitive) truth is that aiming to use less than 100% of your time actually makes you more productive, because you give yourself a finite amount of time to accomplish your task. Think of the last time you set a self-imposed deadline on a personal or work project, rather than procrastinating and taking all day (or week!) to complete it. You probably felt more productive when you focused on finishing your task in a shorter time span, then rewarding yourself with an afternoon or weekend off.
There's no way to sugarcoat this harsh reality. Some businesses are badly managed for so long that toxic culture permeates the company.
Bad leaders often use fear to wield power over staff, and implement unrealistic expectations and policies. One of those is that staff are seen as nothing more than behinds in seats, cost centres who must generate revenue for the business. And they're always expected to be productive and within reach. Good employees either wither under this type of leadership, or leave in search of healthier environments.
We've all had those months where we've pulled consecutive all-nighters to hit a deadline, only to barely take a breath before moving on to the next item on our to-do list. You promise yourself you'll get a handle on your time before kicking off the next project, but it never seems to happen.
This scenario can happen in companies managed by well-intentioned but overwhelmed leaders. Left unchecked, it can become the norm by default. However, the results are the same: leaders model acceptable behavior, and both longtime and new staff take note (consciously or sub-consciously) and behave accordingly. The result: an erosion of best practices and a descent into dysfunctional culture.
Now that we understand the problem of 100% time utilization and how it's caused, let's look at how to prevent it from happening at all. It amounts to religiously blocking off time each week that's not assigned to client work. Here are some tips on how to do that:
Sometimes, when a large project stretches out in front of you, it's tempting to pour all of your time and energy into making progress toward large milestones. Although it's great to be focused, spending time on a singular project to the exclusion of all others is bad practice for both creative and practical (time management) reasons.
The popular Pomodoro Technique is based on this rationale. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it involves taking either a small or large task and breaking it down into small, manageable chunks. Set a timer for 25 minutes, work on the task uninterrupted until the timer rings, take a break, and repeat. It's a great time management practice for when you need to get a significant amount of work done in a few focused sprints.
When it comes to deciding how much time to spend on each task, it's critical to find a balance between working on (and thinking about) one exclusively and multi-tasking, which isn't possible, because although we can do many things in succession, we can't do more than one thing at a time.
New tools and technologies are released all the time, and we can either learn to use the ones applicable to us or fade into irrelevance. A serious skills deficit is difficult to recover from, but you can avoid the panic-inducing feeling of lagging behind by dedicating time in your week for learning and skills development.
This could include:
- taking an online or in-classroom course to obtain or renew certification
- reading books, trade publications or industry websites
- attending a conference, networking event or workshop
- learning how to use new technologies, software, apps, etc.
You may choose to divide and conquer - decide which skill or technology you need to learn first, second, third and so on, and prioritize accordingly.
Need to work on strategy and planning? Do the same - make a list of processes and assign them to one of three categories: Build (for processes you need to create), Revamp/Update (for processes you need to revise), Implement (for processes you need to execute or enforce) and Kill (for outdated processes), then prioritize based on which are most critical.
To be their most productive during work hours, everyone needs unqualified time off. That means building and sustaining a workplace culture that actively encourages work-life balance, and helps employees achieve it. This can be as simple as insisting that employees take time off to recover when they're sick, modeling the work-life balance you expect, and setting expectations that time off is indeed time off.
While filling 100% of your time is easy, it can have a devastating impact on your business as customer service can suffer, we miss opportunities to grow and even neglect our health and well-being. As entrepreneurs, it's incumbent on us to lead our teams by example - manage time appropriately, encourage learning and skills development and insist on a healthy workplace culture that encourages work-life balance.