For entrepreneurs, it feels like the mark of success isn’t turning out a viable product, building a sustainable (and profitable) business model, or creating an awesome website and sales funnel. Instead, it feels that a busy schedule, in and of itself, is seen as an achievement. As the reasoning goes, a Google calendar packed with appointments is progress.
But it’s not. If anything, it’s a distraction from fulfilling your vision and tackling the long-term obstacles towards company growth. Less meetings and distractions means more time to think, plan, strategize, and achieve.
The cult of busy-ness
A lot of first-time entrepreneurs make the mistake of overloading their schedule. I certainly made this mistake in my early companies, insisting on packing my schedule (and those of my team) with extraneous meetings, check-ins, status reports, and deadlines. Honestly, if I had just gotten out of the way, founding a company would have been much smoother (and likely far less painful).
But it’s so easy to fall into this trap. After all, our culture idolizes being busy, perceiving frenetic, packed schedules as a sign of success. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true: today, instead of luxury objects, being “well-off and time poor” is actually perceived as a status symbol. As the reasoning goes, this person’s packed schedule is a sign of high demand resulting from positive traits, such as talent or ambition.
In certain societies, individuals can even boost their status simply by pretending to be busy. Part of this is due to the nature of our economy as well: the highest paying jobs not only require a lot of intellectual capital, but are also highly competitive as well. This fast-paced, dog-eat-dog dynamic tends to reinforce the positive connotations of being busy to the point of frantic.
Now this isn’t true all across the world, and varies by culture. There is a completely different system in Italy (where leisure time was seen as a mark of success), while nations like Denmark and the Netherlands seem to have the best work-life balance (and the highest productivity per hour).
Busy doesn’t mean productive
Some entrepreneurs may unconsciously use busy-ness as a hedge against their fear of failure. That’s understandable, because starting and running a business can be terrifying, and can take a psychological toll. As business leaders, giving our lives structure and routine (even if it’s an overplanned one) is comforting and reassuring. Even if I fail, you might think, at least I did everything I could!
But here’s the catch: being busy isn’t the same as being productive. I’ve learned that dedicating more time and attention to putting out brush fires means neglecting long-term goals. Unfortunately, these lingering issues tend to compound themselves and snowball into even bigger problems later on.
Strip down your calendar
I find it helpful to prioritize instead: I just narrow down my goals to the most important things that I need to get done for a certain period of time, whether it’s today, this week, or this month. One expert even recommends that you only put three items on your agenda for any given day. Whatever the case, I always avoid massive to-do lists, so that I’m not forced to jump from one task to another, without clear directions or goals.
Technically, it’s impossible to multitask. The vast majority of humans don’t multitask; instead, when we try to do more than one thing at once, we simply switch tasks very rapidly.
Unfortunately, this task-switching comes at a cost. Rapidly alternating between checking your email, designing a component, and chatting with someone on Slack will seriously degrade the quality of all three. Communications, whether it’s with speech or the written word, use the same region of your brain--which leads to a serious drop in quality.
Something that has worked for me in the past is to batch tasks instead. Group everything into categories, and carve out specific times for them. For instance, check email only three times a day, such as in the morning, in the afternoon, and once again before leaving the office. Or schedule all your phone calls for immediately after lunch, when you have enough energy to tackle client concerns.
Know when to drop everything
Finally, leave some unstructured time for yourself, whether to stimulate your creativity or just take a break. Rest and productivity aren’t diametrically opposed; instead, they’re two sides of the same coin. Rather than powering through your day, take some time to go for a walk around the block, exercise, or simply unplug for 10-20 minutes.
In my personal experience, I also find that I am at my most creative and insightful when I have unstructured time, without any obligations or meetings. Creativity seems to be a fragile thing; by putting pressure on yourself, you might get more done--but you actually think less creatively than you might otherwise. Time pressures may be unavoidable at some points, but if you’re constantly fighting the clock or dealing with an unrealistic deadline looming over your head, you certainly won’t be able to do your best work.
Part of this comes back to poor planning and prioritization. If you spend all your time dealing with minor crises, then you won’t have much time left to tackle the serious, long-term issues, which will come back to haunt you later on.
Another part of it has to do with creative flow. In the early stages of running Titan Aerospace, we had to do a lot of inventing, which is extremely difficult to schedule. It needs a naturally creative environment, one without constraints like micromanaged deadlines. The important thing was that we were making progress towards our vision of building a lightweight, solar-powered drone.
In the end, don’t settle on being busy as a sign of success. Whatever society may think, it’s the most productive entrepreneur who wins, not the most frantic one. With more unstructured time, fewer urgent (but unimportant) deliverables, and a lack of multitasking, you can take your business further than you think--and preserve your mental health in the process. Isn’t that worth something?