I need time to focus.
I’d say it’s actually one of my most basic needs in terms of quality of life. Food, shelter, focus.
I’m easily overwhelmed by what seem to be conflicting needs or priorities. To be happy, I absolutely cannot do two things at once—let alone several. That means no interruptions, no responding to others’ needs, no reacting to the unexpected.
Last year, I did something that felt—at least to me—pretty radical. I closed the permanently open Gmail tab on my browser. I didn’t check my email until noon and only once or twice a day. I know, I know: this should not be news. Productivity experts have urged us to do precisely that for more than a decade.
But I was already a productive, focused person. So I figured it couldn’t be doing much harm to have that little tab open in the left corner of the window.
I realized just how wrong I was within a day or two.
I wasn’t just getting more work done—I was getting noticeably better work done. And my brain felt just a bit more at peace. I had my focus back. Every morning had at least a couple of hours of quality time.
I think most of us would say that we’d love to have more quality time.
More time to create. More time to connect. More time alone with a book. But what are we actually doing to make quality time happen?
I spoke with Elisabeth Jackson, a business operations coach for creatives, other coaches, and service providers, about how she thinks about maximizing quality time as a business owner. And the first thing about Elisabeth that you should know is that she’s not a fan of the word or concept of productivity. She told me, “I come from a place where I tried to make everything super productive, and it burned me the hell out.”
That’s not exactly what you expect to hear from a business operations coach. There’s a prevailing attitude that quantity equals quality—or at least that quantity is an excellent way to cash in. While there has been plenty of talk about doing less and the joy of missing out, I don’t know that it’s really changed our relationship to productivity in meaningful ways. Elisabeth explained that so much of the messaging she and her clients receive is “focused on machine-like productivity.” And in the quest to live up to those standards, “we forget that we are human beings.”
Productivity is sort of a catch-all term for how much value we can create in a certain amount of time.
You can measure it in all kinds of ways: how many words I write in an afternoon, how many podcasts we can produce in a month, how many clients one could see in a day.
The 21st-century economy (and most of the 20th-century) loves to measure things. By measuring output, we can manage performance and optimize that output. We have Frederick Winslow Taylor to thank for that. Taylor worked his way up from a machinist on the shop floor to foreman to chief engineer of a steel company. Along the way, he recognized that workers weren’t working quite as diligently as he thought they should. They could do more—and Taylor wanted to prove it. So he started measuring. From there, he analyzed his findings and devised new workflows that would increase output. And thus, modern management theory was born.
Modern society took this idea and became obsessed—like it so often does. Today, a considerable portion of the labor force works under surveillance inspired by Taylorism. You might have heard horror stories about how Amazon warehouse workers are tracked and timed for every action—including going to the bathroom. Or maybe you worked a retail or service job where a mystery shopper was paid to measure the quality of your service. Perhaps someone you know working from home who is tracked via keystrokes and webcam. Or maybe, you obsess over likes, shares, and page views—trying to get a feel for how you’re doing and how you might do better.
Productivity is such a totalizing force in our lives because it’s a way to measure economic output for both organizations and individuals.
It gives us a way to know ourselves with a single ratio of time to value. And remember, time is money! Productivity doesn’t have to be a bad word—but if our productivity becomes correlated to our self-worth… we’ve got problems.
In her book, Lost In Work, Amelia Horgan says that constantly measuring ourselves against ever-increasing standards is a natural source of pain and frustration. It feels like we always could be, should be doing more. To compete in the market, it seems we have to do more. Unfortunately, with so much of our world valued in the marketplace, productivity often comes to stand in for self-worth.
No amount of helpful tips or positive affirmations can shake that without, as Horgan puts it, “building durable and shared sites of worth outside of market relations.”
The limitation of this kind of thinking is that while reconfiguring our individual attitudes can act as a balm against a person’s feelings of inadequacy or failure, they do little, usually, to address the reality that your socially measured worth and your productivity, at work or for future work, are related.— Amelia Horgan, Lost In Work
Barring that, Horgan says we end up with the jobification of life.
This brings me back to Elisabeth’s story.
Elisabeth told me that she’d experienced incredible success in her first year of business.
She was “living the entrepreneurial Instagramable dream.” But at the same time, she started to notice that her relationships were suffering. She didn’t have time to talk to her friends—she spent every minute talking to clients. Her business growth even started to plateau. The grind to fit it all in prevented her from seeing the ways her business wasn’t working.
Her breaking point was her first vacation abroad in Thailand with her now-husband. And she spent the majority of her time in that beautiful location indoors doing client work. Her boyfriend had to drag her out so that they could spend at least some time together enjoying the experience! Elisabeth told me, “I would get so mad because I was like, ‘I have things to do!’ It was at that point I realized something isn’t right.”
It wasn’t just her relationship with work, the structure of her business, or the needs of her clients, though. Elisabeth realized that her business had become her whole identity. She was consumed by staying productively constantly for fear of losing steam. Her personal priorities took a backseat to making a profit.
Even when you know better, a more is more approach to our time and tasks can be hard to resist.
All of those efficiencies we pick up thanks to tools and technology can quickly turn into new compulsory expectations for what we accomplish—the eggbeater effect. And often don’t stop to consider whether those new expectations are really serving us or our goals. We don’t stop to think about whether those expectations are respectful of our varied identities and experiences. Elisabeth told me about the friction we cause when we don’t take that into account when it comes to how we spend our time.
While she’d let her business become her sole identity for a time, Elisabeth realized that she was missing out on the parts of her life that had given it color before. She was a beauty queen, a fitness influencer, a bodybuilder, a game show person, as well as a Black woman in an interracial relationship living abroad. Spending all of her time on her business, she neglected the incredible influence and value of these other identities.
Yet even though she’d let these other identities slip away to focus on her business, she realized it wasn’t even helping her to grow her business! She told me that flattening herself into that Instagrammable business owner life, she ended up blending in with everybody else in her space. Elisabeth has made some significant changes in this area; today, she’s mentoring other young women in pageants and passing on how that experience shaped her.
Further, carving out that time for mentorship in the middle of her workday means that she’s putting firm limits on her availability and capacity, leading to a more sustainable working life. She told me the mantra she lives by now is, “Freedom isn’t something that you chase. It’s something you build in.”
She recognizes that the clients she serves now are coming to her with a mishmash of tactics and strategies they’ve learned through social media, courses, and workshops. They got something going by putting them to use. But the mishmash just makes a mess of their needs and goals—rather than leading to a sustainable, profitable business.
Of course, many of us suppress our needs out of good intentions. We don’t want to let anyone down. We want to meet the expectations others have of us. We want our clients and customers to feel fully supported and appreciated.
But what I’ve found over the years is that “always available,” “overdelivering is my superpower” energy is really more about compensating for fear of not being good enough. We’re not just optimizing for maximum output. We’re optimizing for maximum likeability, wow factor, and brownie points.
Most customers have lower expectations than we expect them to have.
We assume they want the sun, moon, and stars. When more than anything, customers and clients want to know you have a plan. They just want to know how things are going to go down. Elisabeth moved from Seattle to Australia and worried that either her clients would be upset that she wasn’t working at the same time they were—or that she’d end up working through the night so that she was. But instead, the move to Australia taught her some valuable lessons about quality time.
She told me, “Oh, I’m spending all this time thinking I have to respond to them immediately… you know, customer service and making sure they feel take care of. When in reality, what they want from is my best and my best isn’t always on their time.” Moving to Australia gave her the push she needed to set clear expectations and policies so that her clients know what to expect from her.
It’s not so much about how much time I’m putting in that makes the experience great for my clients. That’s not the reason why they work with me or what makes me a productive or successful business owner. It’s about the quality of the time that I put in.Elisabeth Jackson
Elisabeth told me she thinks of it like eating at a buffet—like Golden Corral or, my central Pennsylvania favorite, Hoss’s.
“The goal of it was to try and eat as much food as possible,” she said. Yep, that was always my goal, too. You paid for all you can eat (or mom did), so you better put as much on your plate as possible. But you know, once you sit down at your table, there’s no way you’re going to want to eat all that. Then all that “clean your plate” conditioning kicks in, and you do your very best to finish every last bite. You end up stuffed, maybe a bit nauseated, and definitely not interested in anything that’s not taking a nap.
Business owners do this, too. We see all the options at the business buffet and put a little of each on our plate. A scoop here and a forkful there. Then when we sit down at our desks to actually execute, we’re nauseated by the prospect of getting it all done and exhausted by the reality of actually trying to make it happen.
But you do not have to fit a little bit of everything on your proverbial plate. Pick what you like, what intrigues you, and what makes you feel your best.
That’s the only way to—hopefully—avoid the trap of becoming in-over-your-head with the plans you make and the way you run your business.
And keep in mind, as Elisabeth said, that we’re all going to have a different plate after we go through the buffet. I might go for red meat and leafy greens. You might go for the vegetarian casserole and spinach salad.
It all comes down to the more effective and supportive selections for you. And for your business.
Elisabeth told me:
We need to really focus less on what’s going to be the most productive thing and focus more on the most supportive thing. Because that is naturally going to lead to a better quality of your business.
This has come up repeatedly for me in the last 18 months or so. People want to know how they can fit it all in: the marketing, the content, the products, the services. But they’ve rarely paused to consider whether the things they’re trying to fit into the limited time they have are going to be effective or supportive. They’re measuring the value of their time in terms of productivity rather than quality.
I’ve talked more people out of plans and ideas in the last year than I can count. I’ve convinced a bunch of folks to stop doing something for their businesses they thought was essential but wasn’t actually producing results or satisfaction. They’ll say that they just can’t seem to take the time to be on social media more—so I ask them, “Is not being on social media actually hurting your business?” Or they’ll tell me that they just don’t seem to have the time to build that entry-level product they’re supposed to make—so I ask them, “What purpose is this actually going to serve? Why do you think you need this?” Scratch at these worries just a bit, and you realize that they really are just worries and not important tasks.
That said, it’s not like I always get this right for myself! I’m prone to overcommitting and under-resourcing myself, too. I work fast—and it feels like I can always fit one more thing in. So every time I have one of those conversations, it’s a good reminder to me, as well. Slow down, pay attention to what you’re working toward, and strip away anything that’s not helping you get there. I need to remind myself to measure quality time rather than quantity time. I know that’s easier said than done, though.
So how do you actually do that? Keep a time diary.
Elisabeth’s clients often come to her wondering where all the time goes—and she says, “Exactly! Where does it go?” She told me that she has all of her clients keep a time diary. Every time they switch tasks or really do anything during their day, they make a quick note:
- 9-10am wrote blog post
- 10-10:30am reconciled books
- 10:30-11am scrolled Instagram
- 11am-12pm made Canva graphics
Just the simple exercise of recording your time and tasks can be game-changing. Maybe you think it takes you an hour to write a blog post—when in reality, you’re spending 3 or 4 hours on the task. Perhaps you think you’re spending 15 minutes making a graphic in Canva, but it’s really taking you an hour. It’s incredible how divorced our perception of time can be from the reality of it (just like with me and my email!).
Your time diary becomes an artifact you can study. What story is that artifact telling? What can you learn about the person who is spending time that way? What can you learn about the work being done or the effectiveness of the business?
Does that story actually match your goals? Your values? Your strategy or guiding principles?
If it doesn’t, you are so not alone.
As you start to consider how you might spend your time differently, I think it’s essential to make sure you know how you’re measuring the effectiveness of your time.
This leads me to the central question of this series: is time money?
“Money can’t be the only measurement of time effectiveness. When I hear time equals money, or time is money, I think money is your measurement of how effective your time is,” Elisabeth answered. “Effectiveness of time doesn’t have a price tag.”
She measures time effectiveness broadly to look at how effective you might be in your rest, on vacation, in your focus blocks. Our obsession with measurement makes it easy to fall back on measuring the effectiveness of our time in terms of money—it’s easy to quantify what you’re doing. But a more holistic approach will lean more on qualitative measures than quantitative ones. It’s going to take your many identities into account. And it’s going to take more than just your business goals into account.
I took away from my conversation with Elisabeth that quality time can be a tool for creating money, but that time itself shouldn’t be all about making money. A well-run business is one where you measure your quality time—your time effectiveness—over multiple dimensions. New customers, new clients, bigger revenue numbers should be an eventual result of time spent, of course. But if we only ever measure our time by how much money it’s generated or how many likes we produced, we’re probably missing out on quality of life.