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It was the end of the year. I was in my home office, recovering from bronchitis. With a toddler at home, we were getting hit by cold after cold, and it didn’t feel like it was getting any easier.
Late one night I lay down on my bed, laptop open, writing my annual reflection and review. I was starting to think about the year ahead, and all that was coming up: thinking about a second baby, building Startup Pregnant (my company), and already having an active toddler. My business was working, but it was also maxing me out: I was running a twice-yearly leadership mastermind, building my new company (Startup Pregnant), hosting a podcast, and I had just signed a contract to become a writer for Women@Forbes. And also on my desk: I had a book proposal in progress that I’d been working on for nearly two years.
Projects were coming onto my plate faster than I could learn to say no to them, and it wasn’t always clear which things I should say no to, or when.
I was beyond thankful, of course, to have these problems: I knew how fortunate I was to have these opportunities—but even that idea, that I should somehow do them all—was maxing me out.
It was making me sick. And exhausted.
And by trying to get all of these things done, I wasn’t fully doing any of them.
I scribbled on one of my mantra cards (I keep a set of mantra cards by my desk, yes, because I believe exercising the brain is as important as exercising the body): Fewer, richer, deeper. This year, I want to spend more time with friends, one on one. I want to have girlfriends I see every week, regularly, to hang out with. “Networking” to fly around the world and meet more and more people wasn’t lighting me up. Staying busy made me feel emptier.
I craved something different.
I wanted to focus. To streamline. To figure out what was really important, and let the rest of it go.
And to be honest, if I was thinking about getting pregnant, the way I was currently building my work wouldn’t work. I could try to run full-steam ahead and just ‘figure it out on the fly,’ but I wanted to be more strategic than that. The last time I got pregnant, I got sick for nearly 18 weeks, and had to really slow down my workload to focus on what was most important.
The ways I was working weren’t working. And I had an inkling that the way work looks today isn’t working for a lot of people. There are so many people who are burned out, over-done, and trying to somehow “do it all” in their business.
The way the world looks today isn’t working for a lot of people.
The truth is, most of us are doing WAY too much, and it isn’t working.
So for 2018, I decided to take on a rather radical experiment. What if I did less? A lot less?
Here’s the system I used to cut back on my business.
Part 1: Track how many hours you have in your best week.
The first question is this: how many work hours to you have in your best week? I know, I know, so many of us start with “40” as a gut answer. This is part of the problem in our work culture, and I want to undo this myth that we all have 40 perfect hours to work.
We’re going to start with what you have.
How many real work hours do you have in any given week?
If you’re a parent who is also an entrepreneur, count how many hours of child care coverage you have. For example, we have childcare in our house from 8:30 am until 5:30 pm every weekday, Monday through Friday. That’s 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, or a total of 45 hours.
If you’re an employee who works at a job, count how many hours you spend in the office, or how many work hours you want to boundary your time with. If you work nights or weekends, too, and you’re okay with that structure, count how many hours you have — maybe two extra hours at night, or a four-hour shift on Saturdays.
Be honest, too: how many actual hours do you have to do work at your office? How many actual hours do you have to get work done in your home office, or in between kid’s naps?
Now, start to factor in the following:
- How long is your commute? Is it ever delayed?
- What does your lunch break look like, if you have one?
- Are there regular client events, meetings, or social events that are required?
- Do you work out? Is that time that you need to use child-care coverage for?
- Do spend any time during the week on healthcare items (making and managing doctor’s appointments, scheduling things for others)?
- Do you spend any time during the week managing the household (buying food or groceries, online purchases, etc?
When I first started planning like this, I always assumed I had (roughly) 40 hours in any given week. And was I ever off!
After I sat down and wrote out my schedule and factored the time it takes to get my little toddler out the door (sometimes an extra 20 minutes), the commute to and from daycare, lunch every day (even if only 30 minutes), household items I was responsible for from schlepping recycling out to grabbing groceries from the store to dropping off mail to throwing dinner together (about an hour a day), and my ideal exercise schedule (an hour a day, on average, assuming little to no commute to the gym) — plus doctor’s appointments for me and the toddler…
All of a sudden my week was looking like this:
Start: 45 hours daycare
- Subtract 5 for household management (an hour a day, usually 4-5pm)
- Subtract 5 for health/exercise (an hour a day in my best week)
- Subtract 2.5 for doctor’s appointments (including commute)
- Subtract 3.75 for eating/lunch (average 45 minutes a day)
- Subtract 2.75 for the wiggle room and commuting to and from daycare with wee ones.
Result: 26 actual work hours each week.
All of a sudden my schedule became more accurate.
On my best weeks, I had about 26 hours per week of real work hours.
Your turn: how many hours do you have in your best week?
The trick is to do this given your best week. What’s the most you exercise in a week, take care of yourself, and make sure to prioritize the things that matter to you? Don’t skip exercise if that’s something you need in your life or something you want to prioritize.
At the end of Step 1, you should have a more accurate hourly count of the time you truly have available in any given week.
Part 2: Track how many weeks you have in your best year.
The next step is to get out your yearly calendar and start to make a broad-strokes assessment of how many weeks you have in a year.
We’ll start with 52 weeks in a calendar year as a base.
First, think about your vacation and holidays. What’s your ideal year include?
As an example: in our family, we take two weeks of holiday travel time (a week for Thanksgiving and for Christmas). We’ve also started taking a one-month sabbatical each year as a family. My partner negotiated an 11-month work schedule so that he has a month every year to spend with his family and kids. In his words, he didn’t want to just take paternity leave and then miss their lives growing up; he wanted to be an active part in the years to come.
Subtract whatever typical holidays and vacation days you take.
Remember to plan it according to what your ideal year would include. Many entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed have told me that they thought they would take more vacations once they became business owners, but learned the hard way that they had to plan ahead to make it happen.
So plan it in, right now! If you don’t plan it, it probably won’t happen.
In our family, we’re trying to focus on living our best lives right now, while we’re here for them, rather than save a bunch of vacation days for some mythological future.
Next, subtract typical national holidays
There are between 9 and 12 standard holidays in the United States, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, etc. For the sake of this exercise, I used 10 standard holidays as an average, which translates to two weeks’ time if you’re working off a traditional work week that goes from Monday through Friday.
(For the sake of this exercise, we are assuming that weeks have 5 work days and 2 weekend days, and they can be arranged however you like. If you work a different schedule or fewer hours, this exercise will still work.)
Note for those of you that work alternative schedules: if you typically work, say, two days per week because of childcare coverage, but you include federal holidays as part of your work schedule because your partner is home to help watch the kids, in this case you would ADD those days to your work schedule and account for them as your regular work days.
The thing to really pay attention to here is your mindset and boundaries: do you have a clear relationship with your family that those days, for you, are work days? This planning exercise can help, too. Once you have your tally of work days, you can pin it up on the wall and use it to tell your family that these are your crucial work days throughout the year.
Alright, next subtract sick days — this is an estimate.
Typically, people take between 10-15 sick days per year, which is a standard company allotment for time away for sick leave. This is also true for general health and wellness. If you’re someone that gets sick a lot, add it up, unless you want (or need) to work through your sick days. For the sake of this exercise, I counted 10 sick days for myself.
Now subtract sick days for your children.
Yes! If you’re a parent, you know that your kids can bring a plethora of germs into the house, and it’s not always well-timed or equally distributed. For this part of the exercise, I am using another 10 sick days for my kids, because they get sick, certainly, and it’s not always the same time I get sick.
Here’s what that it might like when you put it all together:
Start with 52 Weeks
- Subtract 2 weeks of travel holidays (more if that’s what you do)
- Subtract any weeks for school ski week, winter vacation, spring break.
- Subtract 4 weeks of sabbatical (less if that’s what you do–don’t forget summer vacation for kids)
- Subtract 2 weeks of standard federal holidays
- Subtract 2 weeks of standard sick leave for yourself
- Subtract 2 weeks of standard sick leave for your kids
Total actual weeks in the year: 40 weeks
Well isn’t that interesting.
My actual year only has 40 weeks in it… not 52.
This blew my mind when I first did it. First, because pregnancy is also 40 weeks, and I realized that this might be nature’s way of saying a sanity framework for working and building anything is 40 weeks, you should pay attention to what I’ve designed. Also, if you had asked me to guess how many weeks I’d be working each year, my mind would have jumped to 48-50 weeks. Not 40.
Some additional explanatory notes:
First, if you start to scoff and think this math and outline seems generous and insane, take a minute and ask yourself: how many days do you really travel in the year? Are you squeezing trips in Friday to Monday? And how many days do you get sick each year? If you catch a cold or two, why not treat this as the standard baseline rather than pretending each year that somehow you won’t get sick?
We’re estimating our best year here.
Plan for what you want to design your life around, even if it seems lofty that you’re taking a 4-week sabbatical every year soon.
If you don’t plan it or try to build it, I can guarantee it won’t happen.
Entrepreneur and parent Kate Northrup shared a story in which she realized that even as an entrepreneur in charge of her own schedule, she wasn’t taking the breaks and vacations she really wanted until she shifted into planning it intentionally. “Optimal doesn’t happen by accident,” is a phrase of hers I have written down and live by.
Either you’re living a life with vacations—or you’re foregoing them. Which is it? And do you want to plan ahead for your best life, or hope it happens to you?
So… try it.
And if you’re a numbers person like me, and as a pregnant mama building Startup Pregnant, I found it fascinating that a typical year might actually have closer to 40 weeks in it, by design.
Was this a key that I was unlocking somehow?
It felt like it.
Your turn: how many weeks do you have in your ideal year?
The trick is to do this given your ideal year. What’s the most vacation, rest, and space you need to make your work life work? How can you prioritize what matters to you?
There is no right answer here — there’s just wisdom in knowing how much time things actually take, and where you want to put your energy and attention. Maybe you have a ton of time each year and you want to move rapidly. Maybe, by design, you want to build a business that can function on 18 hours of time from you each week. It’s up to you. Use the system to reflect accurately what you’re trying to build.
At the end of Step 2, you should have a more accurate count of how many weeks you really have to work with in any given year.
Bonus: How many hours do you have in a year?
Take the results you got from Step 1 and Step 2 and put them here. Then, multiply column 1 by column 2 to figure out how many hours you have in each year:
Time is precious and limited.
Here’s the thing that this exercise revealed to me in a major way: we do not actually have that much time.
For me, I had 26 hours per week (in my best week), and 40 weeks per year. The result? I have about 1,040 hours in a given year to focus on my goals and business. Compared to the common assumption that we have 2,000 working hours in any given year (50 work weeks, 40 hours per week), this was a radical shift in my understanding. What if I was stressed out and frustrated because I kept trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? Could a huge part of my stress be the assumption that somehow, magically, I’d find a perfect week (50 of them, in fact) to get 40 hours of work done and then I’d finally be able to make it work?
Could a huge part of my stress be the assumption that I’d magically find a perfect week to get a perfect 40 hours of work done and then be able to make it work?
None of my weeks look like that.
They haven’t, and I’m tired of trying to “fix” myself into fitting this schedule.
Now, rather than get stressed out and disappointed (I know the urge), remember that this limitation is an opportunity. If you have fewer hours, the way you spend them becomes more important. Most people are more wasteful with time than dollars, and spend far too many hours on things that they don’t really have time for. That’s where the opportunity is.
Part 3: Estimate (broadly) how much time each aspect of your business takes you.
In the first two questions, we looked at how much time you have in any given week and year. Now, we’re going to look at how much time things in your business take you.
Full disclosure: for me, a lot of the time, I operate under the idea that I can just push through the day and if I only get started fast enough, with enough caffeine, I’ll somehow finish my writing session, get through all of my emails, do a marketing campaign, learn what I needed to learn, stay in touch with people, and build out all of my necessary programs.
The truth? I never got everything done. To-do lists lay by the wayside like sad forlorn items waiting to be checked-off.
I was exhausted.
And: I was missing information about how much time each thing was taking.
This might be the hardest step for you—it was for me. So I’ll walk you through how to estimate it, by using broad categories and writing a quick estimate under each one. Don’t dig too far down; the point is to start with broad strokes to get a first picture of how much time things take.
How much time does each part of your business take you?
First, write down the major categories of work you do.
For me, as a writer and entrepreneur, my categories look like this:
- Business Development
- Relationship Building
- Team Management
Your categories will depend on your business.
Write down the things you currently spend time on, the activities that take time, or the projects that you want to spend time on but haven’t yet been able to fit into your schedule.
Include things like relationship building (all those lunch meetings you might be having to find prospective clients, or the hourly nightly Facebook Group posting you’re doing to meet and connect with other entrepreneurs).
Take a look at your calendar from the last few months and flip through it. What’s on there consistently? What days did you fill up, and what did you fill them up with?
Take into account things that might happen every so often but still take a chunk of time when you do them—like hiring people, or a speaking event). In that case, estimate the quantity of time it takes, and then find the weekly average. There are 13 weeks per quarter, so if you do something like “hiring” that takes 10 hours once per quarter, it’s about .75 hours/week.
Write down your major business activities:
Next, estimate the weekly allotment of time it takes per activity. How much time do you spend on each category in an average week?
I scribbled estimates for each category. It took me about 20 minutes to get a quick estimate for each one, and it didn’t matter if I was over or under by a few hours. What matters is that I got a relative amount of how much time things are taking.
I wrote out each category and the type of work I did under each one. In just a bit, you’ll do the same.
What this exercise should do for you is reveal what things are taking the bulk of your time, and what is working… and what might not be working.
Here’s what a few of mine look like, as examples. I definitely had a big “aha” moment with my “speaking” category, as you’ll see.
- Podcast — Each week I do about 2 hours of prep and research, 0.5 hours of scheduling with various guests, 2 hours for the interview, 2 hours of post-production and another 1.5 hours a week researching and finding new guests. 8 hours/week on average.
- Team Management — 1 hour meeting every Monday, 0.5 hours of emailing each day (2.5 hours total), Contract reviews and interviews about 10 hours/quarter, or 1 hour/week. — 4.5 hours a week on average.
- Speaking — Let’s see, I do about one speaking gig per quarter. I spend 30-40 hours preparing the deck, more if it’s a brand-new talk, and additional time researching the team, coordinating logistics to get there, and practicing/rehearsing the talk. And a fair amount amount of time goes into thinking and prepping for the outfit! Probably 50 hours per talk, on average, plus the actual amount of time it takes to travel over the course of two days + the day of the talk. Call it 6 hours/day of relative work time lost per day, or another 18 hours. Plus recovery the day after the event (6 hours) and the follow-up pieces afterwards (2 hours). Total 72 hours per talk, or 5.5 hours per week.
For many of these categories, during my business lifetime, I didn’t know how long they would take until I had more data.
Sometimes you have to act in order to collect data, and then evaluate later. For example, I didn’t realize how much time speaking gigs took from me. I always said yes, even if they were unpaid, because I knew they’d be great practice, and I wanted to evaluate the importance of speaking gigs in my career after I’d had a few gigs under my belt.
But after a year of doing unpaid gigs, I realized that they took a tremendous amount of time away from other business activities, and, even if I got paid $5k for a gig, at 72 hours per event, that’s an hourly rate of $69/hour, which was far less than I was charging for my copywriting work. This really surprised me! So I asked myself: is this a good use of my time?
Where does your time go?
Now, take out your own notebook and jot down how much time you think you work on each category in an average week.
Write out everything you work on, and how many hours it takes. Remember to look back at your calendar, and to include an ideal frame of what would work best. Also—is there anything else you might be leaving off your plate?
Next, include categories you wish you had time for, but don’t currently get around to. For example, “writing a book” might be something you want to spend 4 hours/week on, or “consistent weekly marketing implementation” might be something you wish you had a few hours a week for. Include those as well, because it’s important to see it all on one page.
Gathering Data: Now for the insights!
The shock of my results
After I added everything up, I realized that I was planning out 63 hours of work for myself to do every week! And, if you remember from the first question, “How many hours do you have in your best week,” — I only had 26 real work hours every week. No wonder I was getting so stressed out! I was trying to do almost three times more than possible.
I had to make some tough decisions.
Surprisingly, I saw things clearer. Speaking took a tremendous amount of time, and I wasn’t able to commit to it. Could that be wholesale eliminated from my plate?
And if I could cut speaking from my list, what other non-essential activities could I eliminate?
Now, there’s advice in startup lore that you can just hustle harder to get everything done. I think that’s bullshit.
To be truly effective, you’re going to have to get good at deciding what’s important and ruthlessly eliminating the rest.
Sure, there are times when you should work harder. But if you’re making working 60-hour weeks the default norm, be careful that it truly is the business you want to be building. And be clear on what the benefit is. You’re not making big dollars if the dollars take all of your time, your energy, and your youth. You’re not making a huge hourly salary – you might be making half or a third of what you think you are.
And, if this were true, the people with the most time in the world would be the ones with the greatest ideas and products. It’s just not true. It doesn’t work like this. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs made something out of nothing in their spare time, on the side of day jobs, or in stitches of time. The real gem is when you figure out what to prioritize and how to distill what you do into a core essence.
The opportunity: limits and constraints set us up for success, if we listen.
There is something in your business that’s more valuable than everything else you do. This, also known as the Pareto Principle, is the most important thing to realize about the work you do.
A lot of the work you’re doing can be cut, eliminated, or left until later. Now, I told this to a photography friend of mine and she balked at first. “Seriously, Sarah? I can’t stop editing these photos!” She had about 60 hours of work each week in photo editing after all of her weekend shoots. What became clear, quickly, however, was that her prices were too low for her to have a stable business. By increasing her prices to reflect the true amount of work it took to create her portfolio offering, and by hiring a part-time assistant editor, her workload shifted. This exercise made it clear that she wasn’t going to be able to keep going the way she was going.
Now that we have your three numbers — your weekly, yearly, and business blueprint — take a look at all three to evaluate what you can cut.
Questions to use in your evaluation:
- What’s the most important thing?
- How can this be simpler or easier?
- What can I eliminate from this list?
- If I had to cut half of these activities, which ones would I cut? Draw a line through them.
- If I could only do one thing the rest of the year, which one would it be? Circle it.
- What can wait until next year?
Now, create a “Don’t List”!
Once you have an idea of the most valuable areas of your business, it’s time to create a “Stop Doing List,” or a list of all the things you’re no longer going to do.
Here’s a copy of my don’t list, and what I replaced the activities with. Speaking can be replaced with a podcast tour (I’ll be on 12 different podcasts this year, and they take about 5% of the time and energy as speaking tours, with about the same results.) Conferences I’ll replace with early dinners at my house, or 15-minute virtual coffee sprints. Product launches, too, can be a distraction!
We’re turning this blog post into a mini-book, complete with worksheets and helpful questions so that you can reduce your workload and add more sanity back into your life. If you’d like to get the e-book when it’s ready, enter your email address below.
Freedom. It comes from doing less.
What about you? Leave a note in the comments with what you’re eliminating from your life this year, what causes you headache or stress, and whether or not this exercise gave you some insights for planning your year ahead.