Paul Jarvis. Small is beautiful.
the bottom line
The harvest: via Sunday Dispatches
Paul Jarvis has spent the last two decades freelancing as a web designer and a writer of a weekly newsletter called Sunday Dispatches. He know has 30,000 subscribers for the newsletter, three podcasts; the freelancer, Invisible Office Hours and Company of One, based on his book of the same name (2019).
The book version of Company of One came about after one of Paul’s Sunday Dispatches newsletter subjects struck a chord. Over one thousand replies came in after he dispatched a piece around why he didn’t care about growth, “It was all people saying, ‘I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” …
I like having a boring business. I’ve purposefully worked at making it as dull as possible.
There are no all-night hackathons of one or jam-packed days where I sit and work for 16+ hours. There are never, ever just-under-the-wire deadline achievements.
If you watched me go about my day, you’d be bored to tears. You likely wouldn’t see me excited, frantic, or even that energetic. I sit at my computer, get my work done as quickly as possible with the least number of distractions, then I stop working.
This doesn’t mean I don’t work hard or consistently, or even that I don’t really love what I do, it just means I plan my work and schedule in a way that keeps me just busy enough to propel my business forward, but not so busy that I’m constantly reacting and overwhelmed.
Being non-reactive with work means that my schedule exists to get ahead of it. So, for example, since I write a weekly newsletter, busy would mean I was finishing an article at 1am every Saturday night, just in time to hit the 6am Sunday morning blast. Busy would mean putting in an 18-hour day, just before a product launch. Busy would mean waking up at 4am to research a person I’m interviewing.
In the above examples, my business is boring because I write my weekly articles a month or two in advance […] That way I have time to write them as best I can, without deadlines looming. That way I’m not rushing to get something to my copyeditor last minute. I work on products at least months, more than likely a year or two in advance, so I have the space to make sure they’re well made, well researched, and well tested. This pace seems like it’d result in less income or less everything, but the opposite is actually true for me:
working slowly, and being boring, means I can make sure the things I do in and for my business are based on things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and not just quickly reacting to.
I’m really not that busy with work. Outside of a few times a year, that’s just never the case. Busy is an exception, not a rule. Busy is being reactive, and being constantly reactive doesn’t seem like the best way to run a business for the long term. I work about 36 hours a week, spaced out over 7 days (since I enjoy working in the early AM on the weekends, I do it). Being busy often means I’m completely failing at pace and scheduling.
This isn’t to say I do boring perfectly. There are times when I’m stupendously busy and 36 hours a week is blown past, waving frantically in the rear-view mirror. But in those times, I think about two things. First, is there an end that I can see to the busy-ness? If so, then it may be worth it for a short while. Second, is this busy-ness accomplishing something that could be done in a slower and more boring way? If there’s no a good answer to that, then I’m going to look hard at how to get un-busy as fast as possible.
Let’s get clear as well on this point, having a boring business isn’t something you need to work towards and achieve once you’re successful. Having a boring business is a mindset and model you can adopt at any time, at any place in your business journey. All it requires it getting real about how much you can do each day before you hit a wall of inefficient work, planning when it’s ok to be distracted and when it’s not, and setting a schedule for your work that doesn’t leave you constantly playing catch-up. There’s no magic formula for getting more work done quickly, some folks just allow for less distractions and more focused work.
Take a product launch (assume the product could be a client project, if you have a service-based business). A busy business, is going to set a deadline that’s leaves just enough time to get it done, as long as nothing goes wrong. Businesses do this because launching something sooner means you’re getting paid sooner. So in theory, that sounds like a good plan, because businesses need to make money.
But consider this: nothing ever goes according to plan, and no project or product ever launches after a series of every single thing going right. A boring business on the other hand, may set a deadline further into the future (meaning it’s further from getting paid), but a boring business assumes that some things are going to go wrong, because they always do, even with great plans and strategies. Some tasks are going to take longer than expected. Life is going to pop up and take up more time than you thought it would. Some communication is going to go off the rails and require a bit more time to sort out.
With a busy business, you’ll stress out about meeting a quick and looming deadline, and stress out even more when it’s missed (I’d be rich if I got a nickel every time I heard about someone missing a deadline).
With a boring business, you’ll have the time and space required to do a good job, a thoughtful job, and line everything up properly to meet the sane deadline that was set.
And best yet, the thing will launch at the same damn time. While busy leads to stress and lost trust from missing a deadline, boring leads to slowly and carefully and hitting the same end date without breaking a promise (to customers or clients).
How we work is another huge driver of having a boring or a busy business. Busy means allowing ourselves to be constantly interrupted and then having to react to those interruptions. Emails that stop our work so we can read/reply. Notifications that stop our work so we can see who tweeted to us or tagged us in an email. Unscheduled calls that mean we’re now focused on something else we didn’t plan for. Boring means we do our best to schedule distractions—so the work we have to do gets done first and with huge chunks of uninterrupted time spent doing it. Only then we can be interrupted with whatever else our business needs to do.
Busy is like sprinting, whereas boring is like a marathon you don’t care about winning.
I’ve worked for myself for 20 years and would have burned out, living in an ashram in the mountains with a long beard and vow of silence by now, if I had kept up a busy and frantic pace of work. I want to keep working for another 20 years, so I work hard at pacing myself.
I like having a boring business. There’s nowhere set in stone that business has to be frantic, fast-paced, and stressful all the time. Give me boring forever and I’ll be happy.