Why We Just Keep Squeezing More In

Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

Sometimes it feels like I just can’t slow down.

I rush all day while I work—and then I rush to fit in a walk, make dinner, fold the laundry, run to the store. My internal pace is frenetic—but so is my external pace. I’m speeding around the house, bumping my hips into corners because I take them too fast. Sometimes Sean says, “Tara! Slow down!”

I’m sure you have experienced something similar. “Rushed” is the perfect word to describe life in the 21st century.

Why are we so busy? Why do we end up compressing more work, more play, more family, more friends into the small amount of time we have each day?

We can say that it’s technology. We feel compelled to move at the pace of the software we use. Sure, that’s part of it.

We can say that it’s our 21st-century expectations. We’re trying to have it all—when “all” has come to mean so much. And yes, that’s part of it, too.

We might even say that our sense of busyness is due to the breakneck speed of the daily news, whether that’s world events, domestic politics, Wall Street, or Silicon Valley. Definitely a contributing factor.

But what if we’re busy, so squeezed because the system is designed to produce that result?

What if the system works according to design?

Over the last 7 essays, we’ve been exploring the intersection of time and money, inspired by Ben Franklin’s aphorism: time is money. We’ve looked at how our conception of money is formed, how technology influences both time and money, and how our ideas of work have evolved over time. Today, I want to wrap things up by taking a closer look at busyness. And specifically, how busyness often plays out in building businesses or slash careers—a challenge I call “The Squeeze.”

If you’ve ever felt like, despite all your best efforts, your business revenue has stagnated somewhere you don’t want it to be—and you just can’t work any harder to get ahead, you’ve felt The Squeeze. Honestly, I don’t know any business owner who hasn’t. And I know plenty of business owners that find themselves in a perpetual state of being squeezed by their businesses—ebbing and flowing through conditions of excitement, growth, stagnation, and exhaustion. Why does this happen? Why do we squeeze our work and our lives to pursue greater returns or more stability?

There are some surface-level answers to these questions—technology, media, expectations. But those answers don’t address why making adjustments to how we interact with those factors doesn’t lead to feeling less squeezed.

The economist John Maynard Keynes said: “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

One form that training has taken is the regular reminder that “time is money.” And so we strive to squeeze as many money-making work or opportunities into our days. We hustle and manage our time so that every minute is filled with something productive—and that something is done as efficiently as possible. We live with the accumulated results of over 200 hundred years of industrialization, technological revolution, financialization, and for-profit data mining.

Busyness is the unsurprising result of constant optimization. Fast and efficient are the guiding values of that optimization. But what if—just maybe—we chose different values to optimize for? How would your relationship to time, tasks, and money shift? How would your needs evolve?

Keynes also distinguishes the two different kinds of needs we work to fill. As he sees it, there are the genuine needs of life—and the way I read it, these needs can include comforts beyond subsistence. And then, there are the needs that arise because we want more than others have. We want to feel like we’re rising up the social order. It’s these so-called needs that are insatiable, the ones that keep us striving to accumulate more and more.

In this, I hear echoes of a question that writer & activist adrienne maree brown asks, “Are you satisfiable?” To me, this means not only having enough but the practice of satisfaction itself—the slow, deep breath of gratitude and pleasure. Do you know that you are enough, that you do enough? Or are you always looking for more proof? I know how I answer those questions—and my answers aren’t great.

I also heard this echoed by novelist Margaret Atwood on The Ezra Klein Show last week. She said researchers in both neuroscience and social psychology are increasingly finding that happiness is tied to our perception of whether we’re better off than others around us.

Now, I think it’s really tempting to take on a moral fatalism as we consider what makes striving for more such a bellwether of happiness and satisfaction. Is this just how we’re wired? Maybe this is just the way it is? Maybe insatiable ambition is good for me? But to do this ignores another aspect of our psychology—our deep and abiding love of incentives. And the incentives that keep us striving, rather than enjoying, are many.

How The Squeeze Works

A couple of months ago, I was exchanging text messages with Kate Strathmann, and we were both celebrating the big decisions we’ve made how we’re doing business now. We were both playfully disgusted with ourselves.

Kate said, “Why didn’t we figure this out sooner?!”

And I responded, “I have no idea. I just want to shout from the rooftop: MAKE BIGGER DEALS. Stop trying to make tiny clients/tiny offers/tiny audiences happen. Just sell bigger stuff to fewer people and RELAX.”

Bigger deals, fewer customers. It really is the key. This does not mean that I think everyone should start working one-on-one as a coach or consultant. I don’t. Kate doesn’t either. I’m trying to say that squeezing in more and more—whether we’re talking labor hours, customers, or offers—is always going to lead to more stress, not less. The Squeeze is not a ticket to greater happiness or satisfaction. It’s not even a ticket to earning more!

Yet few of us can ignore the siren song of The Squeeze.

So again, I ask: WHY?!

Before I try to answer that question, let’s look at precisely how The Squeeze so often plays out in a small business.

Let’s imagine that you started your business with a conservative revenue target. Maybe $80,000–enough to cover your old salary and a bit more for wiggle room.

There are lots of ways you can get to $80k in revenue over 12 months. You could close 8 $10k consulting contracts or offer a service to 12 clients at $560 per month, or create a $1000 course and sell it to 80 people. Once you decide what you’ll sell and to who you’ll sell it to reach your target, you start to consider your strategy for actually making it happen. What are you going to do to find the people you want to sell to? What goes into actually delivering the product or service? How are you going to set it all up?

In the beginning, there’s a good bit of trial and error.

You’re figuring a bunch of stuff out on the fly. Some days it’s stressful. On other days it’s exciting. Eventually, you get everything worked out, and you regularly hit your revenue target. You’ve determined precisely what you need to do and how that impacts your resources—like time, money, energy, and mental bandwidth. Along the way, you’ve picked up efficiencies. It doesn’t take you nearly as long to do that work as it used to. So you can actually squeeze the time it takes you to run your business into a smaller container. Maybe you worked 50 hours per week before, and now you’re down to under 40.

That’s great! But what happens next? You realize that you’re working less—and since “time is money”—you decide you can fit in more work and more money-making opportunities. You take on an extra client, close an additional consulting deal, or add another marketing channel to your workload. Now, you’re back up to 50 hours per week, but you’re also generating more than $80k per year in revenue. It seems like a good trade-off.

Well, the same thing happens. Over time, you pick up a few more efficiencies, a little more leverage, and it doesn’t take you 50 hours a week anymore. You’re back down to under 40, making more money than you initially hoped for, and seeing lots of potential for future growth.

So what do you do?

It might seem like the obvious choice would be to take the money and run away with the extra time! That’s the dream, right?! But that’s not what most people do. Most people squeeze in even more work to generate even more revenue.

Each time we realize greater efficiency and then rush to squeeze in more work to take advantage of that idle time, we’re intensifying the labor of each hour.

Think of it this way: each hour you have is a balloon. When you blow into the balloon, it starts to fill up—the pressure builds inside the balloon as you literally compress more and more air molecules into the container of latex. At first, the balloon easily stretches and accommodates all those new air molecules. But if you keep blowing, the latex starts to reach its capacity for stretching. As the pressure inside the balloon continues to increase, the likelihood that the structural integrity of the balloon will fail goes up. Eventually, you try to squeeze in one too many air molecules, and POP—the balloon is no more. The intensity of the pressure inside the balloon just got to be too much.

Now think again of your time. How close are you to losing structural integrity? How much pressure has built up inside each hour of your day? And are you still trying to squeeze more in?

This is a process called work intensification.

Remember when we met Frederick Winslow Taylor, the creator of scientific management? Taylor was the one who thought the workers he managed should work harder. So he studied their jobs and workflows, devised faster ways to do things, and set new standards for the length of time it would take to do each job. The workers were now doing the same amount of work in less time. Did that mean that they could be sent home when they completed their original amount of work for the same pay? Of course not! Their work intensified—now they were responsible for producing more in the same amount of time they’d always worked.

Ford built on Taylor’s strategy. With Fordism, workflows were optimized along with each and every individual task in a workflow. A job was broken down into the smallest, simplest, fastest task, and each task was given to a different worker. That’s the assembly line. An individual’s daily work not only increased in intensity—but in banality. Both Taylorism and Fordism treated people like machines—tools for producing more and more stuff at cheaper and cheaper prices. Time is money, after all, and if a worker’s time could be managed just so then, you could eke out the most possible money in the least amount of time.

This is the world we were born into.

This system guided us from kindergarten to middle school to college to our careers. It’s a system of incentives that teaches us to view the world as full of raw materials for manufacturing profit. It’s a structure that incentivizes us to squeeze more money-making, power-grabbing opportunities into our days. To look at our time as a commodity that can be sold off or an investment that can be leveraged for ever greater returns. Our economic incentives have even subverted social, religious, and ethical values. Once the building blocks of our communities, those values have been hijacked and redirected to fit the economic incentive.

This way of life is so integrated into the way we think that it seems as if there is no other alternative. Mark Fisher, who dubbed this “capitalist realism,” argues that this economic system has become so absorbed into our current social order that we can’t help but see history through its lens. Not only is there no other alternative, but all human progress has also been leading us to this moment of insatiable production, consumption, and accumulation of wealth. Fisher writes, “capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”

This extends to every aspect of our lives—so that even when we’re working for ourselves, ostensibly making decisions about how we run our businesses based on our own values, we self-manage ourselves until we can’t bear the pressure anymore. Fisher continues, “What we are dealing with now, however, is a deeper, far more pervasive sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility.”

We succumb to the exhaustion not by finding ways to rest—but by resigning ourselves to the way the world is.

We continue to squeeze more into our businesses and lives because that seems the only way to make it all work.

Earlier, I mentioned that one way to escape The Squeeze is by making bigger deals—selling to fewer customers at higher prices. That can take shape in all sorts of ways. You might structure your coaching business so that you only work in 10-month packages. Or maybe you have an agency that only works with the kind of clientele that has sees the value of your work and has the budget to pay a high monthly fee. Or maybe it means that you work with organizations instead of individuals—so that you can still reach lots of people but only worry about closing deals with a few key players each year.

There are plenty of ways to de-intensify your workload without sacrificing revenue. But you have to be willing to push back against the incentives baked into our economy. When you hit your target, you have to be willing to accept working less as you gain efficiency—instead of rushing to fill those empty hours with more work.

I almost said that it’s easier said than done—but I don’t believe that.

I think this is an easy choice to make. You just have to know that that’s the goal you’re working toward. You have to realize that the option is even available—because everything in our culture is designed to hide that choice from us.

To figure out why opting for less work is so challenging, I went back to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Weber distinguishes capitalism from what he calls economic traditionalism. Economic traditionalism isn’t an economic system—but a general character of economic relations. Economic traditionalism is characterized by basic structures which allow people to meet their traditional needs. That might mean subsistence farming, local trade economies, or early free markets. Business development under capitalism, however, isn’t about needs meeting. It’s about acquisition. Acquisition of wealth above and beyond satisfying needs—with that wealth privately owned by those invested in building the business. And also, the acquisition of stuff since consumption keeps the machine running.

Weber points to the individual entrepreneur—who is not a capitalist per se nor not a person employed by a capitalist. The entrepreneur invests in raw material of one sort or another, owns the means of producing their product or service, and brings the product or service to market. They recoup their costs, meet their own needs, and hold on to any profit generated. The whole endeavor is a closed-loop. Weber says it’s hard to argue that this kind of business isn’t capitalist—or at least made more accessible through capitalist economic & political structures. But he says that it has a “traditionalistic character.”

Sound familiar? It should! Do you run a business of one or a few, do freelance work, or work in a slash career? Then, this describes your business to a T. Weber explained that this type of business, from about the 1600s on, hasn’t been an exception, “but rather the rule, with continual interruptions from repeated and increasingly powerful conquests of the capitalistic spirit.”

Increasingly powerful conquests of the capitalistic spirit. 

That seems to be why we aren’t satisfied with straightforward business models that generate more than enough with very little work time. In the 21st-century, we’ve been exposed either directly or historically to this mounting influence of the capitalist spirit. The potential for massive wealth accumulation seems so tantalizingly close that going for anything less seems to be settling. The conquests of the capitalist spirit haven’t been merely in the industrial and political realms. They extend into our education, our businesses, and even our families. We forget satisfaction and instead strive for superiority, even at a high cost to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

We allow dissatisfaction to guide our production, consumption, and accumulation of wealth.

There was a time, Weber notes, when workers recognized the power of doing the same work in less time. Because they were being paid for the work they got done, workers happily went home early with the same pay for the job. But employers? They saw the opportunity for more work to be done for the same payment. They changed how work was compensated so that it was an exchange of time rather than value. And we live the consequences of this “innovation” every day.

Social theorist Barbara Adam puts it this way:

“When time is money, then any un-used time is money lost. This means, any time that machinery is not running is money lost. Any time that paid workers are not productive is money lost. Any time that shops are not open is money lost in terms of potential sales and opportunities. When this approach to time is combined with the assumption that time is a neutral decontextualised resource, the logical conclusion is a move towards the 24-hour society where people are servicing machines and working productively night and day so as to use the facilities to their full capacity and where shops are open around the clock, every day of the week throughout the year, so as not to miss out on any potential business opportunity.”

I’ve squeezed myself & my business, too.

I didn’t set out to build a business that made 6 or 7-figures per year. I was hoping for a few hundred dollars per month blogging while my brand-new baby slept. Once I built the business to where it was earning 6-figures per year, I wasn’t sold on building a team or generating multiple 6 or 7-figures. When I first met my husband, I probably worked 15 hours per week and made great money. But I got swept up in the incentives to do more, be more, have more. I saw what others were accomplishing—and I decided that I wanted that, too. There are many days when I wish I had that business back—the one that did about $150k per year on 15 hours per week. There are days I wish I didn’t know that time is money and that unused time is wasted money. What would my life be like if I had those extra 9000 hours that I filled to overflowing in the last 9 years?

I don’t know. I don’t dwell on it. I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience the things I have in the last decade. It allows me to do what I do today. Without having built what I built, I wouldn’t be able to see the system the way I see it today.

But what I do know is that I don’t have to do more than meet my needs if I don’t want to. And whether I want to is something to be carefully considered in light of the economic forces that bear down on me. Our production agency doesn’t have to constantly grow to be successful. We can enjoy the extra time instead of squeezing more and more work into our limited capacity.

The Squeeze is a race—a sprint to fit more and more into a business or a life.

It’s a test of will to see who can keep the pace for as long as possible. As Anne Helen Petersen writes, “The only way to make it all work is to employ relentless focus—to never, ever stop moving.”

Have my choices about life and work turned me into a perpetual motion machine? And what, at the end of the day, is this machine producing? Am I doing work that satisfies me or work that satisfies an algorithm? Am I using my time to sustain myself, or am I using my time to get ahead? And does getting ahead mean climbing over others to get a slightly larger piece of a pie that will never satiate my hunger?

I desperately want to answer adrienne maree brown’s question, “Are you satisfiable?” with a resounding “yes.”

But I’m not there yet. My weekdays are carefully divided up—each hour is dedicated to specific use to fulfill professional and personal ambitions. The weekend often fills me with a strange sort of distress—there is so much I could do with that time. So much I want to use that time for. But there never seems to be enough time to actually accommodate it all. I think some of this is just life—the growing realization, as I creep into middle age, that there won’t be enough time for everything. I’ll have to continue to squeeze in as much as I can to experience even half of it. Or, I have to make choices about what I care about most to not lose the beauty of the experience in all the squeezing. It feels like the choice is to squeeze it in, or else it gets squeezed out…

Katherine May’s book, Wintering, is a meditation on the value of hunkering down. She captures how seasonal the need to slow down and retreat inward can be. She writes, “I used to think that these were wasted days, but I now realise that’s the point.”

Beautiful things happen in the wasted time—the time where you’re not scheduling social media posts or answering emails or reading Very Important Books, or planning your next launch. Sure, those beautiful things might be ideas, but healing, rest, and savoring are beautiful, too.

My biggest takeaway from this deep dive into the intersection of time and money has been that time is not a thing to be used.

Time is something to be experienced. I lose connection with that experience when I’m trying to squeeze more and more into a decontextualized block of time. When I know that time isn’t something to be used, I can let go of the idea that unused time is wasted money. I can recognize that the potential of an hour isn’t how many tasks I can cram into it but instead satisfaction.

May put it this way:

“I didn’t feel that the two should be in conflict—achieving your potential and not being completely miserable. Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn. It is not a part of ourselves that should be hived off into a dark corner, the shameful territory of the willfully naive.”

What else could time be if not money? What if time is happiness? What if time is care? What if time is intimacy? I don’t think happiness, care, or intimacy are susceptible to The Squeeze. These qualities don’t operate at frenetic paces. They aren’t easily compressed into smaller containers.

When those values become the real incentive, it’s hard to keep pushing yourself to do more and more.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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