Life lessons in business: Stop working so hard

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I have noticed something when watching those singing competitions on TV (yes I like to watch them). The most common question that contestants are asked is why they think they should win. The most common answer to that question is something along the lines of “I want it so badly.”

I am bemused by that. Is it really the prevalent attitude among aspiring musicians that those that “want” it the most should succeed the most? That frankly feels absurd to me. Nevertheless you see musicians all the time who have a bit of talent but have not put in the work to hone it and expect their desire to take them where they need to go. How divorced from reality they are…

Now, while most of us would recognize that thinking as flawed, there is another prevalent idea especially found in business that is also flawed that I want to discuss today. It could be summarized like this:

If I work hard enough, I will see success.

It would be nice if that were true because it would make outcomes more predictable. But sadly, that idea is not true either. Hard work is not a very accurate predictor of success. In fact, I see incredibly hard workers who never see real success in business.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in hard work. When I first starting selling on the internet in 1999, I got up at 5 am every morning to work a few hours before driving to my full time job at Delta. When I got home ten hours later, I worked a few more hours before bed. I did that for two years before I could quit my job.

To this day, I never think of my work as an 8-5 job. Yes I have flexibility and I take advantage of it. However, on a normal day, I would guess I work about 10 hours. I don’t feel like I work a lot because I love my work but I sort of do work hard. I have lots of irons in the fire.

All that being said, here is something I have noticed from almost 20 years of running a business: at the times when you are seeing the most success, it feels effortless and very easy. It is sort of a surreal thing to experience actually. On the flip side, I can remember times when I really, really worked hard, trying one thing after another and nothing seemed to work.

While this sounds counterintuitive, it really isn’t when you stop to think about it. In fact, if you own a business and are working like a dog without seeing the results you want/expect, here are three questions to ask yourself.

Are you working on the right business?
If you read this blog, you know I like the TV show Shark Tank. I like it because while it is simplified and condensed, it really is a pretty accurate look at businesses and what makes them work.

If you watch for very long, you will see Kevin O’Leary tell an entrepreneur to take his business behind the barn and shoot it. Some ideas are just losers. There is a very fine line between not giving up and sticking with a bad idea too long.

Remember that we as entrepreneurs often get too emotionally attached to our businesses. It is very common to see a small business owner in a grind of a business with low, stagnant sales for ten years, always expecting that the breakthrough is around the next corner. The reality is that breakthrough is highly unlikely. If an idea is not showing promise within a few years, it is probably just not something you need to be doing.

There is no shame in giving up on a loser idea. If there was, I would be at the top of the Entrepreneurial Hall of Shame. In terms of business ideas, I have hundreds of failures to my credit. I have survived only because I was willing to walk away from them and live to fight somewhere else.

Are you accurately valuing your time?
All of us need to know what our time is worth and we all need to be an expert at calculating the cost of the time we invest in various projects.

For example, I know business owners that will spend 10 hours doing menial tasks with a spreadsheet when they could hire someone for $100 to do it for them. Trying to save money like that is not wise. Unless money is incredibly tight, business owners need to offload such tasks and focus on the bigger picture.

I have often fallen into the trap of trying to develop our own technology. I am a software programmer and I can hold my own in that world. However, in spite of the fact that I could usually design what we need, it would not be a good use of my time. Sometimes it is expensive but I have had to teach myself to either buy services or hire other programmers to do that work for us.

When you look at what you do every day, you really need to evaluate what those tasks would cost you in dollars if you found another way that did not require your time, either by subcontracting them out, buying better software, etc.

Are you willing to delegate and train?
I would guess that most entrepreneurs have control issues and think they can do everything better themselves. I certainly am guilty of that. Obviously, that is a big trap that not only will ruin your quality of life but stunt your growth potential as well.

I know that turning over things is hard and I know it takes time to train. You have to do it anyway. Ideally, you need to be the kind of entrepreneur who appears to be downright unimportant. It should not matter if you don’t even show up in the office for a few days and if you don’t, your cell phone should not be ringing every 10 minutes with calls from the office. That is no way to grow your business and more importantly, no way to live.

If you are in the right business, if you are valuing your time correctly (and spending the money to get menial tasks off your plate, and if you are willing to let go of things and train your team to do them, you may find yourself in that place where the profits almost seem too easy. As I said, that can feel a little strange and even uncomfortable but it is perfectly normal. Just relax and enjoy it because it never lasts forever.