Over the past nine months, I’ve made headway on some crucial “internal” projects—rebranding and relaunching my consultancy Wunderbar, redesigning this AustinLChurch.com website and blog, and finishing the Earn What You’re Worth guide, to name a few. A simple practice has powered my progress. I encourage you to put your goals first.
“What you will be most proud of a decade from now will not be anything that was a result of you simply responding.” – Tom Rath, Human Behavior Research & Best-Selling Author
Like most freelancers, creatives, and consultants, I know the difference between doing the work and running the business. Yet, in the past, without fail, some urgent task, conversation, and obligation would always sideswipe my plan to work on the business.
What prevents us from meeting business goals usually isn’t the failure to recognize important things as important. If I asked you about keeping in touch with clients or updating your portfolio, you would probably say, “Yes, it’s important. Absolutely. I need to make that more of a habit.”
What trips us up is allowing the Urgent to trump the Important. Other people, particularly clients, often create urgency for us and force us to choose between two roles: the hero and the villain.
The Hero and The Villain
As the hero, we swoop in, squash monsters, and save outcomes. We rescue our clients in the nick of time, and they shower us with praise: “You’re a lifesaver. I really don’t know how we’d survive without you.”
But if we were to ignore the extraterrestrial threats, the evil mutants, the ridiculous deadlines that only those with superhuman copywriting or coding skills can beat, then we run the risk of disappointing a client.
We work hard for and feel very protective of our clients. And we genuinely enjoy solving problems and helping them. So we can’t help but empathize when a client sends an email stuffed with heartfelt pleas and fervent promises: “Can you make this happen? Can you save me yet again?!”
Only a villain would send this response: “I’m sorry. I wish I could. My day is full.”
So we sigh and set aside the day’s original plan to finish the helpful blog post or add a stellar new case study to the portfolio.
Our goals (and dreams) get pushed back for various reasons:
We genuinely want to serve our clients.
We want to keep the people who pay our bills happy.
We let the day get away from us.
We don’t have clear goals (e.g., four new blog posts per month).
We don’t establish clear boundaries.
We check email too often.
We don’t turn off devices and their notifications.
Willpower is a limited resource.
We’ve spent years reinforcing the wrong habits.
We don’t put our goals first.
Put your goals first.
My goal here isn’t to validate or to invalidate your reasons for not. I would like, however, to convince you of two things:
- There will always be a new emergency, monster, or meltdown.
- Respect for your time must start with you.
If you don’t start saying no to any and all requests at certain times on certain days, then your clients won’t stop asking. And if they keep asking, then you’ll keep being the hero. You’ll keep delaying your dreams.
Let me help you by sharing what has worked for me:
- The morning is a safer bet. If I don’t work on business development in morning, I rarely get around to it in the afternoon.
- A morning routine is a safer bet. If you don’t already have one, read this.
- A closed inbox is a safer bet. If I don’t check my email in the morning, I don’t find potential distractions. I don’t have to exercise willpower to ignore
- Silent mode is a safer bet. Have you ever noticed how much more you get done when your phone dies? Do that on purpose. Put your phone on silent so that you can focus. Take off the cover and put it on backwards. Put it somewhere out of reach. (Don’t worry, you’ll live.)
- Monotasking is a safer bet. Multi-tasking is totally bogus. You’re really just switching tasks. Constantly toggling back and forth between tasks can decrease your productivity by 40%. Research suggests that interruptions cause you to take 50% longer to complete a task. You’ll also make 50% more errors.
- Trusting history, not urgency, is a safer bet. Most of our clients’ emergencies aren’t true emergencies. Have you ever moved heaven and earth to ship something only to get a small change request two weeks later? People are smart. They will consciously or subconsciously create a false sense of urgency because they know they can get your attention that way.
Clients sometimes fabricate panic so that you’ll make them top priority. They’ll stroke your ego: “I know I can always count on you.” They’re smart so they spin up a Code Red: “I have a big, important deadline tomorrow morning, and so-and-so dropped the ball. I hate to ask, but can you help us avert this catastrophic event?”
They’re not always fudging the true deadline. UPS once shipped my client’s tradeshow materials to Ontario instead of Puerto Rico. But this caliber of screw-up is the exception not the norm. Most of the time, the client could wait without any damaging the outcome in any way.
Don’t allow other people to turn their lack of planning into your emergency. Put your goals first.
Spend every Monday (or better yet, every morning) working on your mid- and long-term business development goals and passion projects.
Don’t worry. You’re smart. You’ll figure out how to squeeze in all of your client work in the remaining workdays. It’s that simple. You’ll figure out a way. You’ll raise your rates, make the same money in fewer hours, and free up the time. Or you’ll work more hours. Or you’ll put in a few hours on Saturday mornings.
Putting your own goals first doesn’t make you selfish. On the contrary, you’ll be able to serve your clients better when you’re happier, and you’ll be happier when you carry with you throughout the day the knowledge that you’ve already made progress, however small the increment, on a long-term goal.
Over time your clients will come to respect your unavailability. They will say, “I should start doing that!” when they realize that they too have been putting a business partner’s, boss’s, or colleague’s goals before their own.
Put your own goals first in the mornings, and your business will actually start growing.
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.
Also published on Medium.