"Work Like the Client Is You in Two Years"
by David Cain
"When I had a job, it was easy to know how much work to do in a day: somewhere between as much as I could, and as little as I could without someone calling me out on it. Now I’m my own employer, and that clear standard for “a respectable day’s work” is gone. I’m constantly negotiating with myself over how hard to work, when to tackle the trickiest tasks, and when to take time off.
I realize that many people, both employees and self-employees, don’t have this problem. They work as hard as they reasonably can every day. These people get a lot done, and face problems of burnout and obsession, rather than lack of productivity. This article is not for them. It’s for those of you who perpetually struggle to get the important things done, especially when there’s flexibility in what and how much you do on a given day: entrepreneurs, novelists, inventors, or really anybody aspiring towards something that may or may not happen.
If you were a purely logical being - think of Data, the android from Star Trek - you’d always do the most sensible (and valuable) next logical step: write the next chapter, finalize the current build, call the next lead. But you’re not Data from Star Trek. You’re a fearful ape living in an absurd future. The Next Logical Step often entails a big decision, a point of no return, exposure to criticism, or some other emotionally daunting prospect.
So you balk on doing the Next Logical Step today. Instead, you do something that feels productive in some general sense but does not move your goals forward: processing email, clearing your desk, or doing “web research.”
Generally speaking, bosses help people work more like Data, by steering you back towards the NLS before you develop a complex around it. They carrot-and-stick you through the more daunting steps, for better or worse. But it’s hard to serve simultaneously as the shrewd manager and the thankless grunt, given their diverging impulses. The one that prevails tends to depend on mood, which for many of us tends to darken at the thought of tackling a crucial, looming NLS. Thankless grunt wins out, cleans his desk and calls it a day.
One surprisingly effective way to navigate this problem is to pretend you’re working for someone else. I’ve had some of my most focused, rewarding workdays by pledging my efforts to an imaginary client. (I call her Sally.) I treat all my work as though Sally has hired me to do it. My daily to-do list is essentially a work order. I write down how many hours I logged on each thing. I charge a lot, I like to imagine, so I’m determined to make those hours valuable.
This solves several self-management problems immediately. Firstly, I always have to know what I’m trying to do with a given hour, because a client is on the clock. When I’m working for Sally, it makes no sense to “work on” an article for the afternoon. All my efforts must be connected to a real-world deliverable - a draft, a published piece, a module for my online course. There must always be a clear finish line, and I have to stay aware of how much time it’s taking to get there.
Treating my hours as billable keeps perfectionism from bogging things down. I know Sally would rather I take an hour to complete a task to “good enough” standard, than spend five hours courting perfection without even finishing the damn thing.
Sally isn’t necessarily watching me work, but I need to work as if she were, because she’s getting a freaking huge bill and will be very much aware of what I’ve provided for her investment. My old self-defeating tricks - interrupting myself with websites or email, keeping a dozen browser tabs open, cycling through my three favorite smartphone apps - become absurd.
There’s an intrinsic pleasure in working a tight, killer hour for Sally, and delivering something pleasing and profitable for both of us. It makes me want to get better and better at what I do, becoming capable of more every hour (and commanding a higher rate).
Not every hour I work is a “client” hour. If I’m just playing around with article ideas, or learning a new application, Sally’s off the clock. I don’t charge for everyday email and other administrative stuff, which makes me want to minimize those low-value activities (rather than indulge in them) so that I can get back to doing the stuff that deserves compensation.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this way of working. I now get more done in a couple of hours than I used to in entire days. The approach has one significant flaw, however: Sally doesn’t really exist. That doesn’t usually matter, but when my mood approaches the low end, it can be hard to sustain the fantasy. The cranky, scared-ape part of me knows there isn’t really anyone to please, or disappoint. There’s nobody paying my expensive hourly rate, and nobody to fire me if I spend the morning watching fast food reviews on YouTube instead of finishing vital tasks.
However, I recently made a subtle but significant adjustment to this strategy, and now it no longer depends on fantasy. Instead of working for Sally, I now work for Me in Two Years. I’m 38 years old, and my star client is 40 Year Old David. I can picture him even better than I can Sally. I’m even more loyal to him, more determined to reward his trust in me. And unlike Sally, he is absolutely real, or will be very shortly.
Working for him confers all the same benefits as working for Sally. I still need to stay aware of what my time is actually creating in the world. I still need a very good reason to work on anything other than the Next Logical Step. It still feels absurd to get lost in online diversions, aimless nitpicking, and low-value administrative crap.
Just like with Sally, his interests are closely aligned with mine, but he’s not me. He’s a little older than me, a little more serious, and a lot less tolerant of shoddy work and wasted time. I want him to regard me as a professional, so I’d rather tough something out today and get it done, than embarrass us both by trying to give him the runaround. He’s not stupid, so I can’t be either.
Most compelling of all, in two years I will be him, and will either be enjoying or suffering the karmic fruits of my efforts today. If you’re struggling to get yourself to do the vital, difference-making tasks on your list, work like the client is You in Two Years.
Why two years? Two years is enough time for a few big, valuable projects to completely change your life, if you work on them like a high-value professional. It’s also a short enough period that you could completely squander it without really noticing.
You can easily picture the two corresponding versions of You in Two Years. There’s the one who was lucky enough to have a killer contractor who was worth every penny and more, who really understood what was at stake, who really put themselves in their client’s shoes. And there’s the one who’s pretty much where you are now, just older. Work like the real client is you in two years. Because it’s true."