Of the many statements I hear from founders, "I don't have the time" is the one I might hear most often.
It seems to be their go-to response to any question around work they aren't directly interested in.
In my conservations with founders, I often ask questions like: "Have you tried X?", "What work have you done around solving this problem?", "Is X something you could do yourself?"
The answer I most often receive from founders is "I don't have the time"
To a certain extent, this answer makes sense. We would expect startup founders to be busy.
Startup founders have a wide range of important tasks they must complete to make their business successful.
Founders must validate customer interest, sell their offerings, organize the process of building their product and service, delegate responsibility, and manage the people who are responsible for executing their vision.
They are also responsible for providing the incomes their employees use to live their lives and must persuade these people that the value of working at their company is the best use of their time against all reasonably accessible alternatives.
Founders should be busy because if they were not, these founders' lack of perceived work ethic and drive would inspire either resentment or lack of faith in the company's future success.
For all of these reasons and others unmentioned, founders should work very hard on their business and demonstrate their commitment to success to all important stakeholder groups.
But it often seems that startup founders take the value of being busy at face value.
This is also easy to understand. Being busy is seen by most people as a proxy for success.
Appearing busy has real value
The people we know to be very successful are highly sought after and have many opportunities that consume their spare time.
We also know from psychology that when resources are perceived as scarce, other people are instinctually drawn to them.
Many founders take advantage of this dynamic.
By creating the perception of being busy, founders who merely appear busy can use the appearance of being a scarce resource to generate legitimate interest and become busy with actual work.
Being busy with busy work has real costs
While appearing busy has legitimate advantages that founders should consider, doing busy work for the sake of appearing busy is a mistake.
Doing busy work by working on the wrong things is something it seems many founders do for the sake of appearance, but then damages their leadership effectiveness and corrupts their business vision.
If founders can identify what work is busy work, they can reorient themselves towards meaningful work, but this harder than it seems. We all have a psychological tendency to rationalize the meaning of our own work, even when we should know better.
Busy work leads to reactive decision making
Busy work unravels founders impact and prevents founders from achieving their business vision.
Often I meet smart and hard-working founders who by forcing themselves to stay busy struggle to work proactively and instead become swamped by a vicious cycle of reactive decision making.
A sample of this vicious cycle in action: "What're are competitors doing?" "Let's build feature X" "We need X to stay competitive"
When business founders are reactive instead of proactive, they stop being leaders and start being followers.
Reactive decision making makes you a follower of your competitors, your worst fears, and the thoughts and whims of everyone except those that matter: the stakeholders that matter to your business.
Reactive decision-making decreases faith in the business by key stakeholder groups: employees, investors, and customers.
Reactive decision-making kills leadership.
How to avoid busy work and prevent reactive decision-making
Use the Pareto Principle to divide how much time you spend working on the tasks in front of you and how much time you spend deciding what you should work on.
Aim to spend 80% of your working time towards completing the tasks you have on hand and commit 20% of your time deciding what you should work on and why.
Setting aside a significant portion of your time to assess if you are working on the right things in the right way will help you avoid losing sight of what's important in your business.
Aim to spend around 80% of your time working and not meditating on ideas. It's just as easy to get lost thinking about ideas as it is to get lost in busy work.
My experience working with founders tells me that founders who apply this 80/20 ratio to how they work are most productive.