The Adaptive Agency Blog

Your Most Critical Budget

by | Dec 19, 2023 | Strategy

Have you ever thought, “I didn’t get anything important done but I’m exhausted!”

A lot of things can lead to that feeling. Things like:

  • Never-ending task work.
  • Putting out fires all day.
  • Doing things yourself to make sure they’re done right.

You might think these are taking all your time. But that’s not the big problem.

The big problem is they’re burning your most precious, scarce resource: your focus budget.


Focus, Not Time

Back in January of 2023, in “Six Ways To Get Your Time Back,” I mentioned a few time-saving tips that might have been counter-intuitive. They were:

Taking Walks: let your mind wander and refresh itself.

Disengaging: recognizing when you are wearing down and taking a break.

Timeboxing Deep Work: calendaring your most productive time for your highest-value efforts.

In reality, those don’t represent immediate time savings. What they do represent is the preservation of your focus budget.

“Focus has a budget?”

Yes, you have a limited amount of focus before it’s all spent. And you want to use it for your most important work. You know, those things you never get to because you’re “too busy,” such as:

  • Clear thinking about big challenges
  • Strategizing
  • Developing your people
  • Data analytics and planning
  • Compelling customer interactions

You didn’t run out of time. You ran out of mental energy. You felt exhausted. Your brain was done.


Why Does That Happen?

Your prefrontal cortex is in charge of complex thinking.

Suppose you decide to learn to juggle. At first, you’re jugging with your prefrontal cortex. It’s messy, confusing, and exhausting. But the more you get the hang of it, the more it becomes “muscle memory.” You can do it without thinking.

That’s how exhausting it is to use the front of your brain.

Apparently, your prefrontal cortex stores and uses glucose for energy. When the supply gets low, you get mentally exhausted.

One name for that is “decision fatigue.” It’s why Mark Zuckerburg wears the same outfit every day, and it’s why many successful people build routines around task work: they want to minimize decision fatigue. They want their brain to be ready when they need it.

They don’t want to be exhausted and have nothing to show for it.

Just imagine this: what if all you did was make one decision every day that moved your agency in the right direction? Those 365 decisions might be worth more than all the work you do.

Instead, we run our most important decisions (hiring, investing, targeting new business, etc.) on autopilot. Then save our best thinking for our least valuable tasks (fixing small mistakes, answering the same questions over and over, filling out mindless reports, etc.).


What To Do About It

The answer is simple, though not easy: stop doing things that someone else could do instead.

And that’s the rub. We’re drawn to low-value work like moths to a flame. We can’t resist doing work that we do better than everyone else, even if there’s no value in it. We love answering questions that only serve to negate someone else’s accountability. We take pride in being “busy.”

Recall the phrase attributed to Bill Gates: “Busy is the new stupid.”

So here’s how to move forward.

  1. If there’s work that you think only you can do, you’re trapped. Figure out how to give it away.
  2. Picture yourself at 5x your current business. Your calendar and your task list will look very different than they do now. May as well get started.
  3. Change the way you think about your own value. If you have the “if you want it done right you have to do it yourself” mentality, it’s time to let it go.

And then start filling your time with empty space and important things.

Watch what happens.