Working Smarter, Achieving More

Too many entrepreneurs wrongly believe that long work hours are a measure of success. Here's a way to reclaim your life

By Dan Sullivan

I work with a lot of entrepreneurs, and the way many of them talk about time is reminiscent of the talk about gasoline during the energy crisis of the 1970s: "There isn't enough to go around! It's running out!" To compensate, some adopt time-management systems as complex as the gasoline solutions. ("Only even-numbered license plates can fill up today!") What they need, however, isn't more complexity. They need simplicity.

Ultimately, the fuel crisis wasn't managed by figuring out how to keep doing things the same way, but rather by adopting new ways of working with the resources at hand. Innovative technologies like fuel injection systems emerged, and the energy supply -- which experts projected would be depleted by now -- continues abundant. The same is true of time: It may seem to be a limited resource, but there is actually as much of it as you need if you learn to use it in a new way.

Still, many entrepreneurs operate in a time system far more obsolete than a 1970s gas-guzzler. Indeed, theirs comes from the era of the Model-T.


  At the turn of the last century, factories revolutionized the way goods were produced and delivered to the public. With factory work came a different attitude toward workers. They were parts in a machine and could be replaced. While they were working, it was necessary to ensure that things ran as uniformly and predictably as possible. Every day's work was the same, and compensation was given in exchange for the length of time worked. Working long hours was a sign of loyalty. In sum, it was a bureaucratic time system. I call it the Time-and-Effort Economy.

Today, bureaucratic systems are breaking down. Advances in technology have radically shifted our thinking, emphasizing the limitless creative potential of the individual. Entrepreneurs are on the leading edge of this trend, stepping free from old structures to innovate and create value with greater speed and adaptability than lumbering institutions, which are focused on perpetuating themselves rather than serving their markets. Entrepreneurs live in what I call the Results Economy. They get paid only for the results they produce, based on the value these results create for their clients and customers. For them, it is an entrepreneurial time system.

Why, then, do so many entrepreneurs still operate as if it mattered how long or how hard they work? An unhealthy notion of virtue has become attached to burnout, regardless of whether the long hours have produced any results. This thinking completely misses the point of being an entrepreneur, which is freedom.


  In 1988, I co-founded The Strategic Coach with my wife, Babs Smith. We specialize in creating breakthrough strategies and tools for highly successful entrepreneurs. Among our many offerings is Entrepreneurial Time System, the purpose of which is to create an ever-increasing amount of personal freedom for the entrepreneur, while generating the greatest possible results for his or her business. What follows is a discussion of its essential elements.

At its core, The Entrepreneurial Time System completely alters an individual's relationship to time. It allows one's personal and professional lives to receive an equal amount of attention -- indeed, to be in balance -- and thus generate energy for each other. The program calls for dividing days into three distinct types, which we call Free Days, Focus Days, and Buffer Days, and attending differently during each.

Free Days. A Free Day is a 24-hour period, midnight to midnight, in which you, the entrepreneur, do not engage in any business-related thinking, communication, or actions. Admittedly, it's a difficult concept for many company founders, who might feel they are abandoning their child when they take time away from the business. However, the opposite is true: You become a detriment to your business when you don't. When you refuse to delegate tasks, you slow down your team. When you run out of energy, you don't have the creativity to seize opportunities. When you become reactive, you harm the organization you want to build and protect. Your personal life suffers, too. One successful entrepreneur I know says, "I was boring! I only had one thing I could talk about: work." The best Free Days are planned in advance -- and are protected, inviolate, and non-negotiable. When you learn to disconnect from the stream of demands and information (much of which is soon irrelevant) and invest attention and care in the other aspects of your life, you start making choices against a broader backdrop. Your life becomes more integrated, less a tug-of-war between conflicting elements.

In 2003, Babs and I are taking 150 Free Days. We booked them before the year began. Imagine the trust in our team that this demanded of us! But until we made the commitment, we couldn't have a team equal to the challenge. Now, our free time is devoted to rejuvenating ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. When we return to work, we're able to be more creative, confident, and productive, and the whole company benefits.

Focus Days. A Focus Day is a 24-hour period, again midnight to midnight, in which you spend 80% of your time on the activities that create results for your business. To use a sports analogy, these are "game days." On Focus Days, you concentrate on your most important business-related activities, relationships, and opportunities. If you've planned your Free Days strategically, you will be rejuvenated and thus able to be fully "on" and "present" for your performance on Focus Days.

By communicating to your team in advance that you'll be "focusing" on a particular day, you will enable them to clear a path for you, setting up whatever you need to help you be your most productive and achieve results.

What should you be doing on your Focus Days? Think about what you do personally that makes the greatest contribution to your company's bottom line. Pick the three activities that create the best results for your company. These are likely the activities that also energize you personally, because you feel a sense of progress and accomplishment when engaging in them. Imagine how productive you could be if you could spend a day attending to just these tasks, without interruption, and with full preparation and support. This is what Focus Days are for.

Buffer Days. If Focus Days are for performance, Buffer Days are for rehearsals. On Buffer Days, you handle all of the details that would otherwise distract your attention on a Focus Day. You use these days to catch up, clean up messes, delegate, and learn new skills. You use them to maintain and restore simplicity and order in your life -- what could be more satisfying than clearing a week's worth of phone calls to return from your to-do list? Most importantly, you use them to do the necessary planning that will ensure that nothing intrudes on your Free Days and Focus Days.


  Consider the emphasis and breakdown -- Free Days first, then Focus Days, and finally Buffer Days -- in a ratio of roughly three, three, one. Now, imagine applying this system to your week, your month, your year -- indeed, your life. What would you have to change, physically and mentally, to make it work for you? Is there anything you would lose as a result? What would you gain?

Thousands of entrepreneurs have learned this system in The Strategic Coach Program. Many struggle initially with the seeming paradox of working less yet getting better results. Time and again, though, I've seen individuals surpass all their previous business achievements while finding new satisfaction in their lives, because they now have more freedom than ever to do what they feel passionate about, to be with the people they love, and to enjoy a richer array of experiences.

Dan Sullivan is co-founder and president of The Strategic Coach. A visionary and innovative creator, Sullivan has more than 25 years' experience as a highly regarded speaker, strategic thinker, resource, and coach to highly successful entrepreneurs. His strong belief in, and commitment to, the power of the entrepreneur is evident in all areas of The Strategic Coach® and its coaching programs, which work to help entrepreneurs reach their full potential in both their business and personal lives.

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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