How Much Are Invisible Tasks Costing You?

A few months ago, I ran out of toothpaste. I instinctively opened a drawer and pulled out a new tube, but, in the process, I thought about the fact that I had no idea the new tube was in there. I hadn’t bought any toothpaste in a long, long time, and I hadn’t told Angela that I needed any new toothpaste. I didn’t even know I needed toothpaste. And yet, there it was: a new tube of toothpaste.
 
I started thinking about all of the other things that get done invisibly around the house. A new bag of coffee when we go through the old bag. Toilet paper stocked in the bathroom storage for when we run out. Blankets folded on the back of the couch.
 
I could go on, but it was a gentle reminder of all the things Angela does to keep us going. Invisibly. Silently. And, here’s the kicker: without really knowing how much time and effort it takes to do those invisible tasks.
 

Each of us has different invisible tasks, but here are some common ones you might be familiar with:

 

  • Taking an impromptu call from one of your kids’ teachers or caretakers
  • Making beds
  • Packing school lunches
  • Running the packed school lunch to your middle daughter who always forgets hers
  • Changing light bulbs
  • Sorting mail
  • Feeding pets
  • Cleaning up after the pets who made a mess with the food you just gave them
  • Calling the cell phone company to confirm that, yes, your daughter did send 1327 texts to her girlfriends (on her 800 SMS text plan)
  • Negotiating with your kids so that they play less video games and study more
  • Making sure your husband doesn’t wear the blue socks when he thinks he’s wearing the black socks
  • Smelling the milk to make sure it’s still good when your kids say it smells funny

 
Though the list is long enough to be comedic, it’s also not nearly long enough to capture how your days fly by. What makes the tasks invisible is that it’s rare for you or your loves ones to fully see how much management goes on – it’s not like you put them on your calendar or have that nifty time-tracking app at the ready to account for them.
 
It’s the kicker that deserves the most attention because that’s precisely where mom entrepreneurs and businesswomen face a lot of difficulties. In short, they don’t know how much time, energy, and attention that they actually have because they don’t know how much of those resources are spent doing invisible tasks.
 
 
 

Know Thy Time

One of the cardinal rules of business management is to know where your time goes. Many people think that home-based and microbusinesses are exempt from that rule, but it’s actually quite the opposite. When your business is in your home, you have to be extra vigilant, especially when you, as a mom, make managing your home and family more important than managing your business.
 
Think back to where your time went in the past few days. (I would say “business” days, but I’m in this life with you and know that’s an abstraction from the way things really are.) Though you might not be able to answer the question quantitatively, you probably have a good qualitative feel for the fact that a lot of your time, energy, and attention were spent on invisible tasks.
 
I’d bet you spent more time on invisible tasks than you did generating new business. I’d also bet that you can make progress on the email you’re behind on, the posts you need to write, the connections you need to make, and the opportunities you need to work in the time that you spend doing invisible tasks every week.
 

The reason I’d make this bet is because I work with a lot of moms. When they express productivity concerns and we take a proper accounting of their time and how far they’re behind, we find that it’s about 6-8 hours per week. In perspective, that’s about a day and a half lost per week, given that most people don’t work 6-8 creative, productive hours per day.
 
In the types of businesses we’re in, the limiting factor for growth is usually the finite time, energy, and attention of the entrepreneur-executives running the business. Executives in big business can get away with being ineffective at the doing of their business because their job isn’t the doing – it’s the leading and managing. We, however, have to balance the managing and the doing.
 
On the one hand, invisible tasks cut into the bandwidth that you would otherwise spend on managing your business. On the other hand, they cut into your ability to concentrate on your business activities. The fact that you don’t know how to account for them makes it even worse because you don’t really know of the productivity seepage. If you don’t know how and where you’re losing your time, you can’t address and overcome the sources of the losses.
 
 
 

Making Invisible Tasks Visible

Before we go on any further, I want to make it clear that I am in no way saying you shouldn’t spend the time you do on invisible tasks. Taking care of our loved ones is a critical component of who we are, and being a good parent is being productive.
 
That said, we have to ground our businesses in the reality of the capacity we have available. Just as we wouldn’t operate a business thinking we had 30% more money in our checking accounts than we actually do, we shouldn’t operate a business thinking we have 30% more capacity than we do. To do so is to set yourself up for the inevitable tension of underserving your clients, customers, and yourself.
 
If you’re ready to make your invisible tasks visible and address them, here’s what you can do:
 

  1. Know where your time goes.
  2. For an easy way to get started, guess how much time you spend on invisible tasks and then be mindful of all the invisible things you’re doing – now that I’ve illuminated the concept, you’ll notice how much you’re doing them. If you want a more comprehensive exercise, try Heather’s Buck for Your Bang exercise.

     

  3. Start making a list of the invisible tasks you’ve been doing.
  4. Can you ask your loved ones for some help? Note: they’ll need some education and training – they don’t know you’ve been doing them.
     

  5. Before you consider hiring business support and assistants, consider hiring some personal support and assistants.
  6. The cost for business services tends to be much higher, and if a babysitter or housecleaner can free up 6-8 hours for you, it’ll be cheaper than a VA and a lot easier on you since it can be challenging to train a VA to understand how you and your business works.
     

  7. If you can’t get some support for your invisible tasks, adjust your plans.
  8. You’re not broke, stupid, or unable to run your business – you just have less time, energy, and attention and you have to run your own race. Better to know what you’ve got and use it to the fullest than to think you have more and beat yourself up for not using what you never had.

 
Invisible tasks keep you from accounting for your time, and if you can’t account for your time, you can’t use it wisely.
 

Which of your invisible tasks is the worst or costs you the most time, energy, and attention? What are you going to do to address it?

 

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Charlie Gilkey

Charlie Gilkey helps creative people thrive in life and business at Productive Flourishing. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook to get bit-sized slices of mojo, inspiration, and biz advice.
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28 Comments

  1. haze yap (@hazeyap)

    time mgt article for moms pero helpful even for awkward 20 somethings hihi : http://t.co/KUY6eyMP

    Reply
  2. haze yap (@hazeyap)

    time mgt article for moms pero helpful even for awkward 20 somethings hihi : http://t.co/KUY6eyMP

    Reply
  3. Karen Lee

    You know what I need to take care of those invisible tasks you speak of? A wife.

    Reply
  4. Alison Golden

    I agree with the focused work time – power hours, I call them. I have started to do that.

    Recently I broke my arm and it has been a real eye-opener into what I need to do and what I can delegate..to my family. They are far more competent than I thought πŸ˜‰ My husband cooks, the kids are great at food preparation and small household tasks, they can write lists, pull things from shelves, they have become quite the little helpers (they are 10.) It has freed up my time and bonded us as a family.

    Reply
  5. Beth Cregan

    I have worked from home for one year now and often feel myself pulled in two different direction: family and business. I realised those invisible tasks were really impacting on my available time. So last I hired Lisa to help with the ironing and a cleaning company to clean once a fortnight. I no longer have piles of laundry on the dining table and having someone come into to clean the house means I am inspired to be more organised and put things away etc. This article is so timely. It has clarified that I need to urgently talk to my family!!

    Reply
  6. Tamara

    I have been painfully aware of this for some time. I WOH part time, have a teenager, a 2 yr old, 11 month old, and three pets, I’m constantly thinking I need to get a babysitter in here to help on the weekends…the problem with that is that I know when I hear the baby start screaming, and then the toddler screaming and then the dogs barking, I’m not going to be able to let go and let someone else handle it. So, it’s not just as simple as hiring household help..those of us that have that drive to do it all have a really hard time asking for help and then accepting that help.

    It’s something I really need to work on…and call the babysitter! Great article!

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      I hear you, Tamara. Maybe the answer for you isn’t a babysitter then – maybe a cleaning lady or having your groceries delivered or hiring a virtual assistant would work better for you.

      πŸ˜€
      Heather

      Reply
  7. kim

    Like most of the other posts noted, this has come at a good time. This was very useful in realizing all one actuallly does during the day…I always want to do everything myself. This past week I had my Mom’s maid help me ticket some items. It really helped me concentrate on other things. After reading this article it makes me think about having her help me with other tasks too. Thank you!

    Reply
  8. Doro Soucy

    What a great article! It helped me realize why I don’t have the time that I thought I should have. Most of it I spend by taking care of my 8 month old daughter, 3 cats, and a dog. Of course that a baby consumes a lot of time, but home pets can as well, too. From feeding them, cleaning up after them, giving them attention, to playing a negotiator in their daily disagreements, pets can really drain your energy. I wish there was a school I could send them to every day.

    Reply
  9. Natalie

    By far, my favorite email to date!!! Wonderful advice…and I have to admit, as a work at home mom…my day is loaded with invisible tasks! Thanks for the wake up call and plan!

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      Thanks, Natalie! SO glad you enjoyed Charlie’s post!

      Heather

      Reply
    • Charlie Gilkey

      You’re welcome, Natalie. As I said in the post, now you’ll see them all over the place. :p

      Reply
  10. Wendi Gratz

    My husband and I both work from home – and our 8-year-old daughter homeschools. We realized time was just evaporating away – constantly – without us realizing it. We’ve starting designating 2 three-hour work blocks every day where we all work with no interruptions. None. The three-hour block is sacred.This has worked wonders! Not only are we not losing random minutes/hours to invisible tasks, we have gained tremendous focus during those work blocks. And we’ve made a point of taking a REAL break after every block. If I’ve been sitting at my computer – I go for a walk or build a snowman with my daughter. If I’ve been standing at my worktable I take an hour to sit and read a book or check Facebook or personal e-mail. It’s a lot easier to work in a really focused way for a few hours if you know there’s a break waiting for you at the end of it.

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      WOW – that is a great idea, Wendi!

      How do you keep yourself so focused? For instance, if you’re working on the computer, how do you keep yourself from checking email or cruising Facebook? Would love to share your tips! πŸ˜€

      Heather

      Reply
    • Charlie Gilkey

      It’s a lot easier to work in a really focused way for a few hours if you know there’s a break waiting for you at the end of it.

      For reals. Great insights and solutions here, Wendi.

      Reply
    • Marcia Francois

      Fantastic idea, Wendi. I’ll bet you have your breaks without a bit of guilt because you’ve worked in such a focussed manner πŸ™‚

      Reply
  11. Jenn

    This was a very timely reminder. I just lost 2 days to unexpected errands. And the point about domestic help being easier to find and train is excellent! Thank you

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      Glad you enjoyed it, Jenn! I think Charlie’s onto something with the domestic help idea! πŸ˜€

      Heather

      Reply
  12. Elise Adams

    I really enjoyed this post…and needed it today! Somehow it is easier for me to see the holes in someone else’s life-style and time management challenges then to look at my own particular difficulties. My favorite point you made is about hiring personal help before company help. This makes sense to me on SO many levels…training someone to have my tenacity, passion and drive for my company’s mission sounds overwhelming to me, but I know some great babysitters and some kids at church who could clean my house once a week! Thank you for articulately expressing the value of the little things we must keep up with along with the tendency to let those un-accounted for necessities steal our time and energy. Great article!

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      I loved that tip, too Elise – because I tend to always want to hire business help before personal help. Gonna change that. πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Elise!
      Heather

      Reply
    • Charlie Gilkey

      Thanks for the feedback, Elise. And it’s quite common for us to not be able to see what’s going on in our own businesses even though we can see it others’.

      Reply
      • Marcia Francois

        How true. And this is why I tell people who ask me why I need a coach if I coach others – because I’m blind to some of my own issues πŸ™‚

        Reply
  13. Cydney

    This is so timely for me. I have been thinking along the lines of needing an assistant to help in the afternoon. And this helped to clarify this decision. I’m taking it as a sign .. πŸ™‚ Thanks.

    Reply
    • Heather Allard

      Yep, it’s a sign, Cydney. I need to do some hiring, too. πŸ˜€

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Heather

      Reply
    • Charlie Gilkey

      I’m glad this helped, Cydney. When are you going to have a firm decision and solution in place? :p

      Reply

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