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The Entrepreneur's Toughest Job (And How to Make It Easy)

Beyond a certain point, working longer hours means getting less done. Here's how to avoid that trap.
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Starting a business entails many tough jobs: creating, cultivating, selling, marketing, hiring, leasing, billing, invoicing, etc. Your must-do list is practically endless. For most entrepreneurs, though, the toughest must-do job of all is to put your work aside.

Entrepreneurs don't just expect to work long hours; they actively enjoy it. (Why else become an entrepreneur?) However, even for the most dedicated entrepreneur, there comes a point when working more hours means getting less done.

As a recent article in TheAtlantic.com pointed out:

"Even though the amount of time you work tends to match how productive you are as if on a sliding scale, length of work and quality of work at a certain point become inversely related."

Numerous studies have shown that, for most people, the "certain point" when work becomes counter-productive is around 40 to 50 hours per week. For entrepreneurs, I'd guess that number is higher, probably around 50 to 60 hours per week.

However, when you reach that "certain point" (wherever that might be for you personally), all sorts of nasty things start to happen:

  1. Loss of focus. Your ability to make a sustained effort on a single project gradually declines. You start making dumb mistakes that require expensive do-overs.
  2. Loss of perspective. You lose the ability to differentiate between what's important and what's not. Your workday starts feeling like a game of Whac-A-Mole.
  3. Loss of temper. You find yourself yelling at people not because it will help the situation but because you feel the need vent your stress.
  4. Loss of health. You stop paying attention to eating right, exercising, and sleeping well. The stress makes you ill, but you keep working anyway.

Naturally you want to avoid all of that, so what do you do? You schedule some non-work-related activities so you can "relax," right? Unfortunately, such activities actually make your work overload worse if you do them while you're still thinking about work.

For example, suppose you decide to go on a picnic with your family. During the drive, you're thinking about a unfinished project. When you arrive at the park, you check your phone for emails, send a couple of work-related texts. While you're eating, you're thinking about some customer that might cancel. You go on a walk but then fall behind because you need to make a business call. Finally, your wife says: "Could you put the damn phone away?" You do so--reluctantly--but your mind is still on all the undone tasks at the office.

Rather than relaxing, you're simply adding more hours to your workweek, which risks pushing yourself closer (or beyond) that "certain point" where your work quality will go down the toilet.

In other words, you're setting yourself up to fail because you've failed to put your work aside.

Regular folk find it pretty easy to not think about work. Heck, they can do it when they're actually at the office. For entrepreneurs, though, it takes mental discipline. It's a tough job!

Fortunately, to develop that discipline, you apply a skill you already have: the ability to prioritize.

At work, you're constantly making choices about where to put your attention. For example, if you're talking on the phone to a big client, you don't read employee emails, even if they pop up on your screen.

Prioritizing is the exact same skill that allows you to dismiss work thoughts from your mind when you're trying to relax.

When a work-related thought pops up when you're trying to relax, simply say to yourself "not right now" because right then your priority (the best thing you can do to make yourself and your business successful) is NOT thinking about work.

Just as you mentally dismiss employee emails while you are talking to a big client, you can mentally dismiss all thoughts of work when you're relaxing and recharging.

Master this mental discipline and you'll not only get more energy from your down-time, but you'll get more done in less time when you get back to work.

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Last updated: Aug 11, 2014

GEOFFREY JAMES

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.




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