Andrea Guevara recently arrived onto our scene in a blaze of glory. She is a designer, brand strategist, and writer who’s proudest achievements are her children and surviving life this far. But that’s not what we like best about her. Andrea is an incredible combination of driven and kind- that person who you know is gonna come through in the “11th Hour” and with whom you might like to have a glass of wine afterwards to celebrate your collective success!
Building any business from scratch is hard. Like, REALLY hard. The to-do list just grows and then there are the fires that seem to crop up daily, especially when you are working with the public (humans make things so interesting + complicated sometimes!) So we asked Andrea as a small business owner, a mother, and a decent human being:
How do you handle “the juggle” of small business life with grace instead of becoming a full time firefighter?
Let’s face it we entrepreneurs are a little, well, different. We work, manage, and even think to the beat of our own inner drummers. There seems to be something in our DNA that propels us to possibilities rather than comfort zones. We’re idea people. People who break the status quo and take action when others may deliberate. Or at least, that’s what we’d like to think. The truth is these strengths—the traits that kicked our patooties into starting a business in the first place—can sometimes be our downfall.
As a designer and brand strategist I see it time and again in both my clients and myself. Our propulsion toward action actually ends up pulling us further away from our goals. For instance, I have innumerably more clients who want a website designed, than I do clients who want the more important service I offer: brand strategy. Most small business owners tend to fall into the trap of “putting out fires,” rather than focus on their own business strategy. This mentality can often be the death knell of small business. I know it sounds dramatic, but the more time we spend dousing the flames of “emergencies,” the less time, emotion, and mental bandwidth we have to work toward our true business success.
What It Looks Like
Here’s a real-life example: As I sat down to work on a client’s ad campaign I received an email from a client notifying me that my website was malfunctioning (not so great for a web designer, sigh); then another client emailed to say they needed new marketing graphics, like yesterday; and then yet another called to say they needed their font files immediately (after they misplaced them again) because they were at the print shop. Fires galore! So what did I do?
I threw myself headlong into firefighting mode. I dropped what I was doing, looked through files and sent the font over to the client at the print shop, put my website into maintenance mode and emailed one of my developers. Then I responded to the client who needed the marketing sheet “yesterday.” After that, I went back to my original project, an hour later. The fires were out, but I had to work late, so I wouldn’t miss the original project deadline. My primary goals of getting work done, being well paid and being there for my kids all went out the window because I chose to put out the flames rather than prioritize. Imagine if I did this every day. Recipe for disaster, anyone?
Why We Do It
So, why did I do it? There are several reasons, but here are a few: my self-worth was tied up in getting things done, I was trying to people please, and I forgot about my own priorities. And worst of all: I leaned in to the oh-so-satisfying act of checking things off the To Do list.
Legitimate blazes pop up sometimes and must be dealt with. But more often than not, they are not as urgent as we think. We live in a culture of better, faster, cheaper. All around, we hear the message that we need to be everything to everyone, or else.
Our worth as human beings, and even as business owners has nothing to do with the quantity of work we get done, or if we’re pleasing everyone all of the time. And thank Jeebus, because really, it’s an impossible standard anyway. Who do you respect more: the person who is frazzled, misses deadlines, but answers your every call; or the person who is honest, sets realistic boundaries and follows through on their word?
When we spend more time diffusing flames—that seem to crop up like brushfires in the California drought— than we spend on business strategy, we are robbing ourselves of precious time, energy, and focus.
How to Change It
How do we let go of the firefighting mentality we’ve held on to for so long? One step at a time.
Clear Your Perimeter. Every year my grandma, who lives in the woods, must clear a designated area around her home in order to reduce the risk of wildfire. Part of our strategy must be to reduce the risk of fires before they start.
- Set better boundaries with Email. Close your email program and only open it at designated times. This will take some getting used to, if you’re anywhere as addicted to email as I am. Email taps into that “instant gratification” center of your brain, so it can be tough. Reduce your email checking to 2-4 times per day and you’ll clear some headspace.
- Phone Calls. Let your clients know if they have an urgent need that they can call you. But that doesn’t mean you have to answer. If you are in the middle of something, remember you have a choice.
- Make a work calendar and stick to it. Having the lay of the land on a monthly basis helps you realize which tasks must take priority.
- Make a To Do list every day and number each item according to priority. Now, the hard part: Do the most important tasks first (even if they take longer). Break it up into micro tasks so you can check off each sub item, feed your reward fuzzies and continue on, motivated.
- Carve out time to PLAN. If you want to achieve your goals (or even figure out what they are) you must make the time to work “on” the business not just in it. It may be hard at first, but start with even one hour a week—whether it’s all on one day or ten minutes a day in the morning before you start your day. This can also be a great time to take an online course (like the ones offered here), in order to round out your entrepreneurial skillset.
When the Fires Come (And they will.)
- Every time you get an “urgent” request/demand, ask yourself these questions:
- How important is this item?
- Is it more important than what I am working on?
- Will it bring me closer to, or further from my goals?
- Can I fit this in with my other To Do items?
- If not, what will I have to sacrifice (is it worth it)? Make your decisions accordingly.
- Get help. Budget for a designer, a developer, a bookkeeper, or whatever will give you more time to focus on what you do best.
Remember to be honest with yourself: Is your goal to make everyone happy or build a viable business that supports the lifestyle you desire?
Suggested Books, for more tips: ReWork, The Four-Hour Work Week, The E-Myth Revisited