I've been chronically ill for a few months. Like, extremely ill. Like, moving to another country for long-term treatment ill (don't worry, I'll be fine).
But as part of accepting my chronic illness, I made an agreement with myself to pull back on work and globe-trotting to focus on my health. I accepted that I wasn't feeling well enough to go country-hopping and take those massive day-trips that I love so much. I accepted that earning as much as possible wasn't a priority, and I even scouted a few extremely low-cost locations to extend my financial runaway (Hello Thailand and Indonesia, my beautiful old friends).
Imagine my surprise when Q1 profit blew the other quarters out of the water, despite me intentionally scaling back, dropping clients and working much, much less. I was blown away.
But when I inspected a little bit closer, this wasn't as counterintuitive as it seemed on the surface. There were a few things that I did differently that led to the shift. Let's explore a bit.
First - I'm talking exclusively about clients over at smartwork.greatwork where, as a baseline, I had already committed spending under 20 hours a week because I'm semi-retired and I'm committed to spreading my time across work, leisure, creative projects, exploring the area I’m in and learning things for fun. I don't travel all around the world so that I can be glued to my screen.
How could I possibly drop my already part-time work (15-20 hours a week) to even more part-time (5-10 hours a week), while earning more?
Well, in order to maximize my impact and income while minimizing time, I used five key strategies.
1.) I shifted all of my projects from "hourly" to "project-based."
Although I've maintained a relatively high hourly rate, when my end-goal shifted to "working as little as possible" it ultimately began to work against me. Shifting over to project-based fees allows me to work as efficiently and quickly as possible without effectively being "penalized" for it - meaning, if I work quickly on an hourly project, I miss out on money. Hourly billing incentives you to take as long as possible. If I work quickly on a flat-fee project, I save time.
2.) I prioritized premium clients and long-term contracts with flexible (or long-term) deadlines that are deep in my area of expertise.
I only accepted long-term or ongoing contracts (as opposed to short, one-off projects) from high-quality clients. When I accidentally caved or misjudged a client and ended up with a cheap or otherwise low-quality one, I fired them. Focusing on long-term projects has two benefits:
1.) Guaranteed income for a set amount of time
2.) Time saved on having to constantly search for and onboard new clients
I also focused on projects with monthly deliverables, which allowed me to spend a week in bed if I needed to and batch work when I was feeling well. By working in my top areas of deep expertise, I was able to work faster than when I try more experimental or exploratory projects in tangential areas.
High-quality, premium clients also tend to be much more invested in the work, the impact and doing it well. Low-quality clients tend to make you feel like they're just filling a quota or request. Working with people that are just as committed to excellent work and impact -without being nitpicky- is inspiring in its own way.
3.) I focused almost exclusively on revenue-generating activities.
With limitless time, my mind felt free to procrastinate by working on the business in a way that wasn't truly moving the needle (like spending an entire day tweaking a website when I know it's not a lead generator at the moment). But only having two hours a day or two days a week forced me to evaluate every single activity: Is this a revenue-generator?
Getting to Inbox Zero? No.
Responding to clients? Yes.
Writing pitches and proposals? Yes.
Tweaking website copy? No.
Writing a piece of long-form or evergreen content? Yes (although long-term).
Creating a social media post? No.
Connecting with people in the industry on both sides of the table for potential collaborations? Yes.
Accepting random meetings with no clear purpose from strangers? No.
It's no wonder that a laser-sharp focus on activities that make money....made money.
4.) I refined the scope of my work.
In previous quarters, I've done general research and consulting in psychology and organizational science, which I enjoy - but when every single project is net-new, it's tough to predict pricing and timing. One project might have been advising an HR SaaS start-up; another project might have been research and whitepapers on the soft skills education landscape. The novelty required a new approach, new materials and new techniques for every single project.
I narrowed down my services to core content areas, specific content types and signature consulting programs that already have a framework - because I've streamlined it in that way, I can now immediately assess a project proposal and estimate it's time. It's easier and faster to customize an existing signature consulting program than to create brand new materials from scratch for every project.
Refining my scope also meant refining my market and niche, which made it easier to qualify leads and write proposals and pitches.
5.) I practiced continuously getting better at my craft.
Getting better at my craft allowed me to work at a higher quality and a faster pace. Compared to a year ago (or even six months ago), I'm completing work in 1/4th or 1/8th of the time, because I've gotten better at it.
Outside of strategic changes though, I think there’s another reason why working less has helped me achieve more: rest helps spur creativity & recovery is critical for the brain.
When we work nonstop, whether it's all day or all week – after a certain point, we lose effectiveness. We’re tired. Our brains are tired. We’re processing things at partial speed, and we find ourselves re-reading the same paragraph over and over again but still not retaining it. Even tasks that we can normally do on autopilot start to feel like a drag.
Rest, sleep, leisure and downtime are crucial for high-performance. In fact, I’ve found that returning to projects after long breaks leaves me feeling refreshed and full of creative energy. I develop new ideas daily, but my most refined and polished ones come to me when I’m not working. If I take two weeks off to walk along the beach, ideas start connecting and thoughts begin clicking together in a way that never happens when I’m sitting at my laptop.
So once I’m feeling better, I’m holding onto these strategies and applying them to other business models. I'm even expanding and optimizing the way that I manage my rest and recovery periods because rest and recovery unlock peak performance - doing them well gets you 10x results.
Now it's April, and I'm working two days a week (and it's actually more like 1) - leaving the other days open for creative pursuits, passion projects, and creating courses, books and materials outside of client work that I’m just as passionate about. I’ve also been island-hopping which has been incredible (and time-consuming) in its own right.
My favorite thing about this lesson is how counterintuitive it is: You don't need to work longer or harder to get better results.
I don’t take on client work at smartwork.greatwork purely out of necessity – I do it because I genuinely enjoy partnering with businesses to create better workplaces where employees can grow and thrive. It’s one of my projects that passes the lottery test. But I’ve been in consulting for almost a decade – it can easily eat up all of your available time and leave you with no room for your own pursuits. I want to expand the impact of smartwork.greatwork, so instead of working longer, I’m packaging my consulting knowledge into whitepapers, ebooks, courses and toolkits. This is a very different approach is from the traditional work model of spending more time and taking more clients.
And as I prioritize doing better work, getting better results and optimizing my performance in order to increase my impact, I'm excited to see what lessons and learning Q2 holds. I'm already working on a new set of experiments for the quarter. Stay tuned.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!