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:
Know where your time goes.
Start making a list of the invisible tasks you’ve been doing.
Before you consider hiring business support and assistants, consider hiring some personal support and assistants.
If you can’t get some support for your invisible tasks, adjust your plans.
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.
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.
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.
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?