The artful blow-off

If ever there were a topic that I shouldn’t write about, this could likely be it. When Dave challenges us to “blow off” the right people it is sound advice, but something I’m completely terrible at doing, and I’m stuck in very counterproductive patterns of behavior that make this especially challenging.

I just want people to feel good

On the whole I feel like our culture is pretty dehumanizing, and one thing I endeavor to do is actually put people first in everything that I do. My grandfather, a successful entrepreneur, always said,

“When people come in my store I want them to feel like they are the only person that matters.”

It’s great advice, but possibly advice I should have learned to temper with a little business sense. When people stop by my office I tend to give them as much time as they take, and occasionally that means I’ll lose half a day to listening to someone’s personal problems, or shooting the breeze about photography. Even this morning, what should have been a quick touch-base turned into a morning-long discussion about philosophy and art.

While all of that can be fun, sadly I can’t meet payroll with intellectual curiosity and great conversation. What’s worse is that often these distractions pull my time, energy, and focus away from clients, deliverables, and deadlines.

It happens all the time

It’s not just the people who stop by, it can be clients, or potential clients too. For a while I had a client whose weekly touch-base meeting became an afternoon-long marathon of chit chat and lost productivity. At some point the client wanted to negotiate a lower rate of retainer and I found myself shocked. I’d never billed for all the “extra” meeting time, and I couldn’t imagine charging less, given that the client wasn’t very profitable to work with as it was.

I wish I could say this were an isolated incident, but honestly when I really stopped to look at it I found myself trading a great deal of productivity for time and interactions that were not only unprofitable, but possibly not even appreciated.

It’s all about resources

A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with a potential client who I’d been talking to off and on for months. Although frustrated, I kept circling back trying to land him as a client. During this particular conversation I mentioned that we’d now discussed three different possible projects and he hadn’t committed to anything. I suggested that maybe we start with the smallest of the projects while he gathered his thoughts about the others because we’d both benefit from some forward movement. His reply has stuck with me,

“You know what, I don’t want to waste your time, that isn’t fair to you. It’s the one resource we have that is absolutely finite and I try to be respectful of that above all else.”

He committed to the smaller project, and since I’ve bid on a few larger ones. We haven’t had unproductive conversations since and I’ve grown to realize that this is exactly how I need to think about my time.

Time is money

I’ve never been one to live by the old expression that time is money, but what I’ve learned is that time is so much more. It really is the most valuable thing we have, and yet often I’m pretty cavalier with it. When a meeting runs over it usually impacts some other part of my schedule, and thus some other person, or even just me. Every day that I get behind on my day at work I end up working after my kids go to bed. That usually means taking time from my relationship with my husband, or my own self-care. Usually both.

I’m always over-busy, buried in to-dos, and stressed out. In fact this Spring I developed a neurological condition that causes chronic pain, and although I can’t prove it, I can’t help thinking my state of constant stress helped create this monster.

Cutting back

Suddenly I found myself physically unable to keep going at the same pace. One by one client problems started creeping up, deadlines were passing me by, and everything was crashing in around me. It seemed like I needed to double down and work harder, but this cruel twist of fate meant I couldn’t.

Something had to give, and so I decided to take Mondays off for the summer. It would give me more time with my kids, and hopefully a chance to heal. I signed up for yoga classes, played with my kids more, and much to my surprise I only found myself more stressed out. Even though I took Mondays off I hadn’t done anything to change my work, thus I was now cramming five busy days into four.

God only asks for 10%

While I was looking up some numbers in my accounting software, on a whim I decided to do a search for “in-kind donations” because we donate a certain amount of our services to charities. I actually was surprised by just how large the number was. In fact it turned out to be well over 30% of our billable hours. Then I started thinking about all the non-billable hours that I’d also given to all of these organizations. And then there were the favors for friends, family, and so on. No wonder I was so overwhelmed.

Early in my career I worked for a straight-talking woman who was all of five feet two inches, but a tower of strength. Nancy is a jewish atheist and she always had little bits of wisdom that she would drop on me like truth bombs. At some point I was up to my eyeballs in projects, overwhelmed and exhausted, and getting behind on my work. She pointed out that I was taking on too much “extra” stuff, and said, “Good grief Tracy, even God only asks for ten percent.”

Of course she was referencing the practice of tithing, which although called various things, is common to many religions, but she wasn’t trying to teach me a religious lesson. She was trying to teach me balance, setting priorities, and maybe even letting go a bit.

So I’m “blowing off” that which isn’t billable

As my client, who also happens to be in the finance industry, so aptly pointed out, time is my most valuable resource, and I haven’t been treating it as such. While I can’t make more time, I can make more money with my time if I give less of it away. And guess what? I could give money instead of time to those charities. Something tells me they’d appreciate that too.

I’ll keep giving of my time and talent because I like to, but I’m not going to let that number creep above ten percent anymore. Life is too short, and it might be nice to get well and enjoy it.

Join me!

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