Early in my business I remember going months without making any increase in revenue. Despite this, I was exhausted from trying to keep up with my business. I was working hard, but getting no results.
Eventually I learned a distinction that changed how I viewed work. Now my business grows faster, even though I’m working less than I was during my lengthy plateau.
The Difference Between Working In and Working On
The distinction I learned was between working on my business and working in my business. Working in your business is the maintenance needed to survive. Working on your business is growing your success.
My problem was writing 7-8 articles per week, trying to sustain the blog. Eventually, I realized that most of those articles weren’t increasing my traffic. It was like running against a treadmill; I was working hard, but not getting any further.
This distinction doesn’t just apply to business—it applies to your life. The more time you can spend working on your life, instead of working in it, the faster you’ll be able to improve.
The Problem with Work/Life Balance
My problem was that the key distinction I was making was between work and leisure. If I wanted to improve my business, that meant grinding myself out to work more hours on it. Those hours at the grind took away from other areas of my life.
While working more is one way to improve, it turned out not to be the most important distinction. Instead of thinking about work/life, I should have been focused on the difference between maintenance/growth.
Making a Maintenance/Growth Distinction
Work/life balance isn’t a terribly useful concept. It only suggests that you avoid working too much, it doesn’t offer up an ideal solution. Maintenance/growth is a more useful concept because the solution is obvious: maximize growth and minimize maintenance.
If you ask how much you should work, you won’t get a consensus. Some argue that you should work as little as possible. Others suggest you should find your passion and work even more.
However, the question becomes trivial if you start seeing work in terms of maintenance/growth. The goal is to minimize maintenance work and maximize growth work. Whether total work goes up or down isn’t nearly as important.
If I’m currently focused on my business, I may work far more than full-time to reach a new milestone. If I’m focused on my social life, health or learning, I may work only a few hours per week. But in both I’m maximizing the effort I spend on growth, so the two states aren’t really that different to me.
Which Tasks Maintain and Which Grow?
Unfortunately, the distinction between maintenance tasks and growth tasks is less obvious than with work and free-time. Take writing this article. Is it a maintenance task, sustaining my writing schedule on the blog? Or is it a growth task, allowing me to improve my writing skills and create evergreen content pulling in traffic?
There’s a temptation to think of every task as a potential growth task. After all, even something as seemingly routine as washing dishes could be a chance for mastery if you are mindful of it.
It’s important to resist that temptation, however. While, in theory, almost any maintenance task could be an opportunity for growth, in practice, that is rarely the case. If a task hasn’t resulted in growth in the past, then it probably isn’t a growth task.
When I started writing, I thought creating new articles was a growth task. It took experience to learn that individual articles contribute only a small residual to growth—they are mostly necessary for maintaining readership. New projects, strategic guest posts and site improvements are all more reliable growth tasks.
Once I learned this, I completely altered my strategy. I cut my writing from 5x to once per week, and invested considerably more time in projects. The result? Traffic remained constant and I was able to build out a business to more than quadruple my income.
A side lesson of this story is that many assumptions are empirically testable. “Expert” wisdom said article writing was a growth task. Rather than blindly following it, I ran an experiment and showed that, at least in my case, it was not.
What About Practice?
Some of you might be concerned that trying to eliminate all maintenance tasks would eliminate your source of practice. After all, won’t my improvement as a writer slow if I’m writing only a fifth as much as I had been?
Practice too, it turns out, follows a maintenance/growth dichotomy. Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher into what makes people skilled, draws a distinction between deliberate practice and performance.
According to Ericsson, if you want to improve rapidly at a skill, just spending a lot of time working in it, isn’t enough. Typists he studied would reach speed plateaus, even after decades of full-time typing. More performance of the task did not increase speed.
What allows people to break through plateaus is deliberate practice. This is where you set aside time, not for work, but to specifically focus on improving technique. This is the difference between athletes playing games and running drills.
The key is not just to do more work, but to do more of the specific type of work that creates growth. You can exhaust yourself working to no improvement, if you don’t carefully discover which tasks actually create growth, and ruthlessly minimize the ones that don’t.