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Experimentation and Interval Training

Prefer to listen rather than read? This essay is on the podcast here.

As you are probably well aware, as self-employed people we wear many hats. While many work days do look the same, many do not! We will often be doing very different tasks on any given day, week, or hour.

If we were employed to do something like data entry, we would show up every day to our job and do the same task over and over. Even in high level corporate roles, your job tasks will be precisely defined. No company will give you a job description and then also expect you to pay the building’s electric bill, for example.

I know a few people in fact who transitioned out of being employees at high level positions and into working for themselves, and they would all often say a similar thing to me during that transition period: “Oh my God I do so much work ‘for free’ in my own business!”

When I would ask them to elaborate, and now I’m thinking of one specific friend who left working in finance to start their own boutique investment firm, what they meant by ‘for free’ was that they were doing things they didn’t consider to be their job description.

They were used to getting paid to do capital T The capital J Job they had been hired to do. Anything else: let’s say the website breaks, you have to write proposals which may or may not get accepted by new clients, the carpets need vacuuming and you’re either going to do it yourself or figure out how to hire someone to do it, the client you just started working with is sending you constant emails you have to respond to: in their mind this was working “for free”.

Naturally what I explained to them was that no, as a self-employed person, a person now with a small business in this case, it was all their job! All of it contributed to earning their revenue- it wasn’t working “for free” and it was more about a mental shift from being an employee to running a very small service-based business. Their work was just no longer narrowly defined where that “other stuff” was taken care of by people who had other job descriptions like the IT department, the customer service department, the marketing and sales department, and so on.

If you’re used to getting paid by someone who precisely defines the scope of your job and what you are responsible for, I can see how this might feel initially like an overwhelming bummer.

As a self-employed lifer (my last salaried job ended in 1999, 2 years after I finished my bachelor’s degree…) I actually find this wearing of many hats delightful and stimulating and creatively engaging.

What is less delightful however are things like burnout, over-giving and under-receiving, and trying to do everything in your business, even the things you could hire out for and delegate for.

So just to clarify: I am not advocating for doing everything, all of the time, and loving it. It is important to prune away the over-giving, the overdoing, and the things that someone else would just plain be better off doing. Hire that web designer if that’s not your work, hire that bookkeeper if you can’t seem to get yourself to keep your own books, and on and on. You have to put on the what-should-I-not-be-doing glasses from time to time so you can see what you need to take action on to get those things covered by someone who is not you.

And it is incredibly valuable to figure out what your most important and most valuable role is within your business and to fiercely protect the time you spend on that role so that you are not just “in motion”, but are “in action” on the most important tasks. This is a reference to James Clear’s definition of these phrases which I talk about more in the episode and article on How to Make Progress .

Now that I’ve clarified that I’m not glorifying overwork: you do, in reality, have stuff to do right! Sometimes you’re delivering work to clients, other times you are sending out a newsletter, and still other times you are paying the bills or responding to emails; You wear many hats! So what to do when we are wearing the many hats? How do we find more enjoyment in that (provided we aren’t clutching all of the hats all of the time)?

The answer for me has been experimentation and interval training.

I’ll start with experimentation. It’s as simple as it sounds: I consider my work an ongoing series of creative experiments, rather than a fixed, concrete thing which is either failing or succeeding. When we work for ourselves, all things will fail sometimes, and succeed sometimes. If we take the my-work-is-a-series-of-experiments approach, we are less rigid about this reality. Instead, we become curious: what works? What doesn’t work? Why? What are my clients saying they need over and over? How do I shift my work to reflect that need?

Ideas, as they say, are cheap. We don’t actually know how any idea we might have for our business will go until we try it out and see how our clients interact with it. We can certainly be informed about what we try, I’m not saying we should be shooting in the dark. But the more we experiment and are curious, the better informed we are over time.

To ground this in an example, I’ll trace the lineage of my current work from where it started. We can zoom out and look at the topography:

In 2009 I began working to help people in the healing arts to grow their private practices. That’s because at that point I was 9 years into my own private practice and had grown a practice successfully in 3 states. I created what was then called the Practice Abundance Course to teach other folks what was primarily lead generation: aka marketing- how do you let people know your practice exists and get enough clients to sustain you?

I worked with hundreds of providers in many different countries. I got to speak at conferences as far afield from my home as Munich which was super fun, I was featured in the book The $100 StartUp by Chris Guillebeau and, lest you think I am only boasting about wins here, I was able to earn enough from Practice Abundance that I paid off the debt from a failed experiment: A business that sold small batch artisanal foods from American producers online. Which I had attempted to get going when my son was a newborn. Side note: do not attempt to start a brand new business in an industry you don’t know using tools you are not well versed in (internet sales and drop shipping in my case) when you have a colicky newborn! That’s a free tip from me.

Practice Abundance went well, but I decided that I personally did not want to have a career dedicated to teaching marketing. Remember, this was the beginning of the social media heyday. There was a lot of focus on learning the magical ins and outs of things like Twitter and Facebook in the marketing space at the time. And this, in my field of health and wellness, began to bring with it this new phenomena called The Influencer. So everything became about how you could grow an audience as an influencer which, as I’ve discussed in the very first episode and article here on the influencer business model, is a different animal than the small service-providing businesses that I have and do run, and that I have and do support.

Hindsight is 20-20. I could have taken a more nuanced approach and spoken to my right people: small service providing businesses, rather than aspiring wellness influencers. And I could have begun to articulate that running a small business is so much more than just marketing, as I do now. But at the time it felt like this tidal wave of the new social marketing tools eclipsed everything. Or I got overwhelmed or whatever. Short version: I closed Practice Abundance.

Years passed and people would still reach out to me for that work on how to grow a private practice. In the meantime I was still running my own businesses and learning as I went about what did and did not work. I was encountering, and often trying, all of the trendy business models. I heard all of the promises of passive income or 4 hour workweeks I, in short, experimented a lot. It was fun! It was a learning experience. I happen to love this whole entrepreneurship thing. For me, it’s like my art. I don’t make paintings anymore, not yet anyway, but I make businesses. It’s a creative endeavor. courtesy of the intervening 10 years or so of experience, I had a lot more to offer small service providing businesses.

So, I started the Healing Arts Business Incubator as a 12-week hybrid course and group coaching program. It included the full framework I believe is important for small businesses: marketing yes, but that’s a tiny piece. Before you go ahead marketing your offering how is the offering structured? What is the business model? Does that business model cater to your strengths or is it going to wear you out? Will it meet your financial needs when we actually do the math? Basically, it had all the foundations to launch a business that had informed staying power. And once you learned the clutch foundational pieces of any business, you could then pursue your own business as a series of informed experiments. Emphasis on informed.

I ran the Healing Arts Business Incubator for about a year with a couple of wonderful groups of people. I loved it! As you may have guessed, I love to teach about being a small business owner. And the members of the incubator were able to launch some beautiful things. And my experimentation mindset meant that I was really listening to what I was hearing from those who participated in the incubator.

I might love to teach about being a small business owner, and they might enjoy and really benefit from learning about it, but/and there are also certain things they would just prefer to have someone else deliver for them.

For example, we aren’t all going to fall in love with writing copy, or building a website, or creating a marketing, financial, or launch plan.

You know who does love making those things? This gal!

So I transitioned to Simple Prospering, where I deliver these things to small business owners in a done with you and done for you intensive format.

If you’re bummed the Healing Arts Business Incubator will go away- fret not! I am in the process of making that a go-at-your-own pace course, now titled the Seed Starter Course. Seed Starter because it’s everything you need to foster healthy, strong roots from the very beginning of your business: whether you are striking out on your own for the first time, or old hat at self-employment but are changing up your offerings. And, as you may have guessed, I have expanded from serving healing arts service providing businesses, to any service providing businesses. Are you a personal chef, a bookkeeper, a landscape designer, or any other kind of business that provides a service rather than a tangible product? I’m your gal.

With the Healing Arts Incubator I was dividing myself over too big a space: I was trying to help people learn how to do things for themselves with the course component, and I was trying to do some of the done-for-you pieces through the one-on-one coaching feedback. But this last part, helping out through coaching feedback, was too clunky and slow for both of us. In many cases, people just needed things like their website, their sales page, their marketing plan done and ready to get out the door.

So I split the divide: learn all the important foundational pieces in a course over here, and hey, if you want me to work with you just to get stuff done and ready to launch already, you can hire me to do that separately.

I hope that’s a valuable exploration of how the experimentation mindset works over a period of many years. If you talk to any small business owner who is successful, you will hear the tales of how they had to go through an iterative process to make sure they were really meeting the needs of their clients and really meeting the needs of the business.

On to interval training. I have done HIIT, or high intensity interval training, on and off for many years. If you are unfamiliar, it is a workout based on periods of work, interspersed with periods of rest. Like 20 seconds jump roping, 10 seconds off, back to 20 seconds on, etc.

I think working out this way seeped into my work life at some point, and I now fully embrace interval training as an approach to my work life.

Because we wear so many hats, and because we are experimenting and iterating as we go, there’s plenty to do! If we are just trying to do everything all the time every day, it’s a mess of burnout and dysfunction.

We can not do all of the things all of the time! So we need to build in breaks for our own sanity and focus and efficacy. Here are some examples of how that can look:

  • Within any given week we have client days where we are delivering our service (aka working in the business), and marketing days where we are writing newsletters, creating workshops, connecting with potential referrers (aka working on the business). If you try to do both of these things everyday, it will get overwhelming and will be less effective.

  • If we run ongoing content resources: we write a blog or a column, we produce a weekly podcast, we run an online course: create it in seasons. I know everyone’s advice is to just keep pumping out content 100% of the time, but I disagree with caveats. Yes, we can’t just disappear and expect our business to keep sailing along indefinitely. But if we strategically follow an interval training approach, we can be more effective. In the off season of your podcast or blog, update your website. Explore creating that new offering you’ve been debating as a pivot for your business. Increase the amount of time you spend networking- yes networking! We hate that word but… Meeting real people in the real world is the lifeblood of most service providing businesses! If running an online course is a major part of your business model- there will be different seasons. The season the course is open and running, the launch season leading up to that, the rest and re-configure season after it concludes when you take what you learned and apply it to the next cohort or the next launch push.

  • You can even make your day a series of interval trainings with the handy Pomodoro Technique. This is a format of working in 20 minute intervals with rest periods in-between, which also trains your brain to single-task. So you decide what an interval is, for example, writing a newsletter, and you can only do that during that interval. Intensity is not required, unlike in the workout name… So if you are writing a newsletter and you think “Oh crap, I forgot to return so and so’s email” you don’t break concentration and go return that email. Instead, you write it on a to-do list where it will get assigned to a different interval, called a Pomodoro, in this method.

As with everything, you don’t need to make yourself crazy optimizing the perfect intervals. It’s intended as a prompt, or permission if you will, to think of your work in intervals so that you can free yourself up from any treadmill you feel stuck on. You can turn the treadmill off and attend to other stuff for a while!

And on that note folks, I will be back with new articles and episodes in January. I have a long list of essays I want to write, and a long list of fantastic guests I want to have on the podcast. I’m busting with ideas and yet… I threw up my Simple Prospering website in an hour. I want to make a beautiful digital home for my own business since, you know, website design is one of the things I offer, my site should reflect that. I also have some client work making beautiful digital homes for other people. And, I am adapting the Healing Arts Business Incubator into the Seed Starter course which will be available in October. So… I’m off to hop into different creative intervals!

If you want to come hang out and learn in the near future, I will also be running a free live workshop on October 19th which takes a deeper dive into the foundational building blocks of your business. You can register for that here.

I’ll still be around and working with people- the business itself is still open as is the ability to hire me. You can always contact me through the website.


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