Why You’re Exhausted But Not Improving

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.

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  • Sam

    Excellent post.

    For me, I find life to be a sort of “struggle” between the high growth periods and the maintenance periods. Rarely do I find the time to really grow, and that is what, I believe, keeps people from attaining high levels of success. Because we have to deal with “everyone else,” the process of growing and become better takes a backseat. The solution, I think, is to block out time in your schedule directed strictly at getting better at whatever area you wish to be good at. Stressing the limit of your abilities is of utmost importance.

  • Camilo

    I agree with your distinction. But, when starting a new project, how to make this distinction? It’s easy to go all in, and believe that everything is growth!This is how many of us went working 14 hours a day…

  • Miguel

    This is really good information.”Working on something vs working in something” didn’t really click with me and I was asking a few friends what it meant, and I just couldn’t get a good answer that sat well with me, that is until I read this. Deliberate practice vs. going through the motions is what I will remember…! Thank you.

  • Ana Reis

    Hi Scott,
    I must tell you, your blog is one of the few I still appreciate. I think you’re quite transparent and sincere in your opinions, and that’s a rare quality! Especialy hard to maintain when you own a blog about personal growth. In my opinion at least.
    This article is exactly that I needed to read. I’m currently struggling to maintain my blog while suffering from burnout because of my current day job.
    I begun my blog before I started working, and, in the beginnig everything seemed to be going well. But, in the last few months I found myself with absolutly no desire of continuing to invest in my blog.
    That’s when I realize I was trying to follow other fantastic bloggers’ advice. And although they are valuable, I realize that every blogger that aspires to be great must find his own path. Follow his own ritme and create his own advice…
    Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling exausted and, as you well said, not been able to improve at all.

    Thank for the awake up call.
    Greetings from Portugal,

  • eliudrn

    Another great article Scott! It made me wonder if there is some law of nature that follows that model–maintenance relative to growth tasks yields production. It sounds like a physics equation.

  • Andrey

    Bussiness viewpoint at the idea, described in article “Balancing today and tomorrow” – nice example of deliberate practice!
    Nice work, thank you

  • Wendy Irene

    This article has me really thinking. It is hard to distinguish the difference between working in and working on. Great thought provoking post as usual! Have a wonderful day.

  • Vic

    This is brilliant! Working in vs. working on. Some days I feel like I’m working in more than working on. They are both great in there own right. At the end of the day, you just have to remember that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

  • T. Jay Johnson

    Sounds like an expansion of “working smarter not harder.” Good thoughts on this view of personal continuous improvement. I think a lot of people struggle with plateaus, and this could help.

  • Naveen Kulkarni

    Very much true,
    It’s important that we all must work hard to achieve something, but what is more important is are we focusing our energy into the right element or we have spread ourselves too thin?

    I think, the message here is focus. Identifying key areas and putting our best efforts is the key.

    Thanks Scott for highlighting an important topic.

  • Matt

    Hey Scott,

    The example you gave about typists resonated with me, since my expertise relies on my speed of typing and with shortcuts and manipulation of information.

    I have definitely reached a plateau, and I had indeed started deliberately practicing with a software to further increase my speed (I’m already between 100 and 120 words / min).

    You bring very good points about growth and maintenance. It gives me food for thought! Thank you!


  • Laurence Mason

    Only in the last month have I applied the message behind this post to the goals in my life. I learned that I can only be exceptional at a few things, and so have drastically cut back on the number of goals that, in hindsight, I don’t want “enough”

    In fact, your comment about cutting back on the frequency of your posted articles is exactly the strategy I myself have been implementing for my own blog in the last couple of weeks! So there’s hope for me yet. I just wish I had written about the idea before you so eloquently did.