“I’m falling behind.”
I tell this to my husband at least once a week, typically while we’re watching TV and I’m sandwiched between him and our large tabby cat Puddykins (PDK).
This is a key thing I hear often from small business owners and service providers when they have some degree of success, but then a quick gander at Instagram or a sneaky peek at a competitor has them side-eyeing their own ever-growing list of “things” to do in order to do better. To grow, to scale, to be productive, to ‘move-the-needle’.
Pick your term.
The voicing of this thought can set off panic alarms, as we think about all that we are lacking in order to ‘get things done’.
This could be over timing, “I don’t have enough TIME to cross all this off.”
It could be disparaging. “I’m not good at organizing all this sh*t anyways. I need to hire someone.”
And sometimes it could just be understanding where to start. “Ok I can just start…with graphics?”
I’ve felt those feels, and ultimately they lead to me just picking at random what works and moving on, while the underlying problem continues to simmer just below the surface.
For me, that bubbled out of control into a massive burnout in 2019.
At that point, I realized that something had to give, and that simply ‘doing all the things’ was having me fall further ‘behind’ than ever before. In fact, I had to redefine what being productive looked like, and how that affected how I ran and showed up inside of my business. Because it can’t mean me running every single task, email, and process in order to get things moving.
So, before diving in, I want to establish what I hope every single coach, service provider, and creative-minded business owner knows by the end of this article:
“Being productive is NOT the same thing as being EFFECTIVE.”
Let’s start first with defining these two terms:
What does it mean to be productive?
Productivity, for online businesses, is seen as a measurement of performance. The more you can add into your day, the more you can complete, the more ‘productive’ you are.
When we are able to produce or complete a huge amount of something, we are typically labelled as productive. When I get through an entire week of content, update graphics for my website, connect with leads, AND check in with my new clients, I feel pretty productive because I’ve gotten a lot done. Productivity is the definition of doing/creating a lot.
When you are a solopreneur, the only person you are relying on is YOU, the human, running it. So naturally put more items on our plate, because we are in control of when it gets done. This is a narrative that we see often praised in the online business space–so long as you get things done, and keep pushing, you too will find success. YOU are the only one building your business.
But does that mean as long as you are doing a lot in your business, you are being productive.
What does it mean to be effective?
Effectiveness, in contrast, is not so much about how much you are doing in a day, but how you are making the best possible use of your resources. In this case, your time and your energy.
Let’s say in addition to the above, I also have a major client contract coming up, and I need to focus my time on preparing to serve that client. But trying to include preparing for this client on top of everything else on my to-do list can be overwhelming, and may lower the quality of my preparation. Instead, I may want to prioritize my time to focus on prepping for this client and one other task, in order to be at my best for this client who may stay on for a longer-term than my usual clientele.
Does this mean I’ve wasted my time compared to when I was doing those other tasks? No. Instead, I’ve made a shift from getting a lot of things done to getting the right things done.
’Right’ in this context is the high-priority task that can progress your business.
WHY ARE WE SO QUICK TO STICK EVERYTHING ON US?
A common leap I see entrepreneurs make is thinking that if they aren’t packing their schedules full of tasks, then they aren’t using their time wisely.
When you are first starting a business, everything is one big experiment. We’re just trying to figure out how to get paid for something we’re really good at. Or that we can coach really well.
As a service provider though, you ARE the product a majority of the time. It’s not just about marketing and send-then-forget payment links and products. On top of that, you are also serving your clients. You are going to have a closer relationship with the inner workings of your business because, from the get-go, you are the one pulling the strings and providing the offer. And you get into a good groove, you start serving a small number of clients, and really nail down your own internal processes for manually bringing people through your customer experience.
This is fine up until the point we start to grow. Whether intentional or not, more people start coming through your doors, and you start to feel overwhelmed by all the STUFF you are now responsible for completing each day. The nice groove got thrown off by a more upbeat tempo, and you get this sense that you are falling behind.
I want to start by saying that this progression is NORMAL.
It’s natural we start feeling the constraints of our own processes when they start to meet capacity. You are human. You have your limits.
But when we try to overextend past those limits to meet demand; to try and ‘catch-up’ by staying up a little longer to answer emails, or spending a little more time answering that DM, or taking a quick call during your rest time from a client–we start to lose the plot of our original business’s intention.
And that’s FREEDOM.
So if this is a normal progression, but we want to AVOID burning ourselves out, what are we needing to do?
How can we be more effective in our business, without falling into the productivity trap each day?
Let’s start with the type of operation you’re currently running.
The Rise of Reactive Operations
What is reactive operations?
Reactive operations is when the day to day inner workings of our business is sensitive to challenges presented during the day. It’s a break-and-fix model, where priority is shifted to whatever problem is presented first in front of you, resulting in no time to focus on bigger picture items.
Reactive operations is a term I use to describe the current state of many in the online business space. This is when the efficiency of our business processes (think lead gen, client management, conversions, retention, content creation, etc.) is solely based on what it’s reacting to. In this case, our own human emotions, and energy.
We see a lot of folks out there selling strategies that thrive off this. That is your ‘launch in two weeks, ‘always showing up’, ‘be in the DMs and sell on Instagram daily’ type of processes. And while there is merit, and data, backing these strategies working, they are all based on YOU having to manually put in the work to accomplish them.
And when you are in a high, take-over-the-world, “I can write a million posts” type of energy, this could work. You are feeling good, you feel inspired, you are creating things left and right, and people gravitate to that and purchase while you’re in this space.
However, when in a low, it can feel like you are dragging yourself to your phone, trying to send an email, trying to do a video, and not feeling any motivation whatsoever to create.
These are normal highs and lows every entrepreneur goes through, but our business operations shouldn’t be at the expense of them. Nor should you feel the need to try and stay high, in order to continue running business as usual.
Like I mentioned earlier, we have a level of capacity for what we can handle on our own. But business needs to be working even beyond the capacity that we have. That is how we are able to grow a sustainable business that can be scaled and maintained to any level we wish.
But when we are at the center of everything, we inadvertently become the bottleneck. We can’t grow, because we ourselves have a limit. We can’t scale, because that would demand more time on our plate than we can give.
When you try to step back to rest, it has a ripple effect. The business goes into a standstill, forcing you to jump back in and start manually turning the cogs again (hence the name, ‘reactive’).
It’s easy to get overwhelmed here and end up missing the gaps within your operations that are hiding behind your manual efforts to keep things moving.
It’s like you are the glue holding a puzzle with some ill-fitting pieces, and the moment you are gone, it falls apart.
And that is exhausting.
So what can we do?
Let’s take a pause and look at specifically how you are wanting this business to operate for yourself.
We all have different strengths that can build different, successful, business operations, so having a blanket ‘just get some systems to automate everything’ type of statement doesn’t work here.
It’s also important to note that on some level we need space in our business for when we want to focus our energy on business direction, ideation, and experimentation: there has to be some space to step back and try new things without feeling the pressure to get it right quick because you know…everything is relying on you to move.
So instead what we’re looking for is not how to take everything off of your plate, but how we can define what only you can do, and what the business needs to do.
Meaning we need to establish what are the priorities on your plate and what can be handled by your business operations on their own.
This isn’t to say EVERY item on your docket needs to be removed to make it sustainable, but rather, how can we prioritize what absolutely needs to be done by you, and still have the other items that are just as important, still being taken care of?
In short, the question is:
Where do I need my priorities to lie, for me to enjoy my business, and help it grow?
The more complex something is, the more it requires you as the problem solver to shepherd it. But if there are items we can simplify, tasks we know how to do that get the same result, procedures we have memorized in our heads how to do; then why should they share the same space as the complex items that need more of your space?
If there are simple procedures that you enjoy doing, say client welcome or sales, but you don’t have time for them due to other tasks that need to be completed (daily content creation, customer service, etc.) wouldn’t that cause some resentment for your business?
All work, but no time for the fun work?
There has to be a baseline–a base of operations that can be maintained with or without you and can handle the day-to-day behind-the-scenes tasks, while you focus on higher priority tasks.
That’s where strategic operations can come in.
WHAT IF YOU WERE THE CORE OF YOUR BUSINESS, BUT NOT THE CENTER OF RUNNING IT?
What is strategic operations?
Strategic operations is the pro-active approach to anticipating weaknesses and needs of the business, and fortifying them early on. Instead of making everything reliant on you, strategic operations calls for creating supports that can keep business running consistently, despite whatever capacity you can provide on any given day
If reactive operations are solely based on your energy, strategic operations work regardless of your energy.
I define Strategic Operations as a flexible, custom-made bodysuit that fits your business like a glove. It can take care of tasks that are repeatable and don’t require much customization on its own, or, it can adapt and focus on making life easier for you by handling the more mundane tasks of larger operations.
These needs are based on observing your process of working inside your business, and determining what operational gaps we can fill in early, thanks to systemization.
Take onboarding for example. This process can be exhaustive with the myriad of questions, scheduling, back and forth of documents being signed, prior to getting started with the actual service.
Potential operational gaps could be:
Forgetting to send an important document for your client to sign
Loss of important links due to back and forth emailing
Lack of communication + project expectations, leading to a lack of boundaries
So there are a few ways we can plug these gaps in early, knowing they will be coming, based on your personal strengths, and what experience you want to provide the client:
A. You decide to automate the onboarding process, pre-creating the informational emails, links that need to be sent, and the explanation of the next steps as soon as someone signs. This gives you more time to prioritize elsewhere (like setting up their project, reviewing their intake forms, etc.), without managing expectations with the client.
B. You templatize the process, pre-creating important assets like your welcome packet and informational emails, but send them off on your own, drastically lowering the amount of time needed from you, but allowing you some personal time with your client prior to jumping on board
C. You could also delegate this completely to someone else, taking the responsibility of follow-up off your plate as well, while you focus on the actual client work.
There are a variety of ways to do this, but, what matters is that the gap is closed, and it can continue to operate in a way that doesn’t depend solely on you. And you will have a birds-eye view of where your priorities lie, and what your business can take care of on its own.
Business is no longer reliant on whether you are high in energy or not; it runs independently of that.
You hear often, “focus on the numbers, not your feelings” but that’s hard to do when your business has been built to solely work off of them.
While you can’t turn off feelings, you can manage how our operations continue despite them.
You can’t manufacture energy; but you can amplify its efforts into our operations, independent of when we have it or not.
The good news in all this is that this can be done little by little, over time as you continue to work in your business. This doesn’t need to be a long overhaul or an extenuating procedure that you have to do ON TOP of running your current business.
This can be done chunk by chunk as you work through your business on a daily basis; it’s as simple as asking yourself, “what can I do to make this a little easier on myself?”
Is it templatizing part of the process?
Is it standardizing, so there is less guesswork?
Is it automating?
Asking these questions will make you more aware and confident in taking these steps to building space inside your business, and not feel that you are ever behind again.
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I live in Melbourne, Australia, but I’m from the States (Washingtonian through and through). I’m a cat-mom, wifey, and in love with a good workflow; it gives me that warm, fuzzy, Christmastime feeling. My goal is to help female entrepreneurs stop having to choose between creativity and productivity to build a successful, sustainable business.
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