What’s The Highest And Best Use Of Your Time?

Some years back I was speaking with my accountant about burnout and how grateful I was to do some monotonous work now and again because it didn’t have to engage my brain.  The equivalent when I was making signs was those nice long afternoons when the phone wasn’t ringing, but I had plenty of work, and I just had to assemble 10 banners or something while watching TV or listening to good music.  You know, “brain dead” work that kept me happy and busy but didn’t require too much real thought.

I said to my accountant, “I feel guilty because I feel like I should be doing more valuable work, but sometimes I just need downtime.”

And she replied, “well, what’s the highest and best use of your time?”

OK, Carol, I thought, that’s what I just said – I’m trying to make the highest and best use of my time, but I’m burned out! Didn’t you hear what I just said? Grrr, grrr…

… but then she said, “so sometimes maybe the highest and best use of your time is to take a break.”

Take a BREAK? Highest and best? What? Carol, you don’t understand, if I don’t work work work work work I’ll never get anywhere!  The sky will fall, the doors will close, the earth will fly off its axis.  How can I not work?

Then I realized the real wisdom of what she said.

If I didn’t give myself downtime, I wouldn’t have anything truly valuable to offer, and I’d just be spinning my wheels.  Kind of like when I make a conscious decision to go to bed and tackle a problem in the morning, because I know if I do it late at night it will take an hour, and if I do it in the morning it will take 10 minutes.

For me, it’s my “programming”

You see, I grew up surrounded by a full-on Protestant Work Ethic (AKA “Workaholic”) and embraced it wholeheartedly.  I believed that if I wasn’t working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, I wasn’t really “working.”  I felt massively guilty about every minute spent in downtime, and still fight those tendencies to this day.

Over the years, what Carol said to me really sank in, and I have learned to take breaks sometimes.  Last weekend Jennifer and I spent the weekend gardening – building big garden beds in our yard – and it was a real triumph for me to spend the weekend *not* at my computer programming or working on EstiMate’s website.

I should take a minute here and give a shout out to Integritive for the new website – these guys are some of the best designers I’ve ever worked with and ended up giving us a site we can take to totally new levels.

But That’s Not Really What This Article Is About

What really got me started on this article was one I read this morning about opportunity cost when commenting on other blogs. Reading this made me think back to my conversation with Carol, and wonder, “what’s the opportunity cost of what a sign shop does every day?”

Opportunity cost is defined as “the value of the next best alternative foregone as the result of making a decision.”

In simpler terms, that means that any time you make a choice of how to spend your time / energy / money, you are paying the “opportunity cost” of spending your time / energy / money another way.

For example, if you spend time surfing the internet, watching TV or reading a novel instead of working, you are paying the cost of not getting the work done now.

What I learned from Carol is that there is another side to this – you are gaining the strength in your downtime to attack the work more effectively later.

You all have seen me mention Tim Ferriss a lot, and I’m a huge fan of his book The 4-Hour Workweek.  I think it’s very important to always do the 20% of work that really matters, and let the other 80% slide.  By focusing on the absolute key tasks you have to do on any given day, you free up time to spend on other pursuits.  That’s why you see me talk about the tradeoff of time vs. money so much, because I strongly believe that our job in this life is to make the most of it for ourselves and those around us.

The workaholic ethic really keeps us from being “all that we can be” — it actually takes us away from the world and keeps us in tunnel-vision mode.

So This Rambling Article Is Really A Poll

I’m curious, what activities do you do every day that you realize are a tradeoff for other activities?  How do you juggle time and manage burnout in your sign shop?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments!


  • Jackson says:

    Good stuff to think about for sure.

    I must be one of the most fortunate people alive today because I have a great business, a great place to work and live. I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. I have a steady flow of work, a customer base that is thriving in these troubled times, and I have my health. How good is that?

    It is so good to be able to close the shop on a nice sunny day and go hiking, bicycling, or ride my motorcycle. I know the work will be there when I get back. I also don’t mind working in the evening or a rainy weekend because my time is my own. No GUILT involved. When I signed on to this lifetime,
    I figured out early that I was in charge of me. I could do anything I wanted to do, as long as it harmed no one or no thing. I have kept to that idea and made my life my own. I answer only to myself…..and I am very forgiving. I know that whatever I need to survive in these times, I will create. No need to sit around and worry…that is a complete waste of time. Just understand that on a higher level…you are your own creator.

    I can truly say that I am happy and content and I am comfortable in my skin. I never lack for anything…I have all I need. I have a happy life, a long and happy marriage, two loving and well adjusted children and 3 grandchildren. All content in thier understanding of life and thier journey thru it. I have all the business I can use, the money seems to be there when needed and things get done when the are promised. I never feel guilty by having all this in my life. I wish everyone would understand that they create thier reality….good or bad. Your choice.

    Ok…I know what some might say….however, take a good look around and see the positive parts of your life and then try to create those happy times every moment….after all….it is just a series of moments that we have.


    • Mark says:

      Jackson, it sounds like you’ve carved out a fantastic life for yourself – I’m glad you’re over here joining the conversation, I like your style! Thanks for posting.

  • Diane Crowther says:

    I’m reminded of the Dale Carnegie story about the woodsman.

    Dale Carnegie told the story of two men who were chopping wood. One man worked hard all day, took no breaks, and stopped only briefly for lunch. The other chopper took several breaks during the day and a short nap at lunch. At the end of the day, the woodsman who had taken no breaks was quite disturbed to see that the other woodsman had cut more wood than he. He said, “I don’t understand. Every time I looked around, you were sitting down, yet you cut more wood than I did.” His associate said, “Did you notice that while I was sitting down, I was sharpening my ax?”

    A lot of things that we do outside the realm of our productive work can be seen as “sharpening our axes”. Boating, bicycling, golfing, breathing our wonderful east coast salt air, and just turning the mind off for awhile are the ways that I like to sharpen my ax.

    I’ve also found that when we’re working long days and weekends, the work expands to fill the space available. When I know I’m going to be at work till 7 or 8 every night, I’m sure that I slow down my pace or find time to comment on blogs, etc. But, if we’re scheduled to leave at 5pm for some reason, I keep up a higher pace during the day to get everything done because we’re “leaving early”.

    So, essentially, we’re getting more work done by keeping shorter hours, and we have more hours for fun things that actually do “sharpen the ax”. Knowing that is one thing – mastering it is something we’re still working on!

    • Mark says:

      Diane! I haven’t talked with you in ages. That’s an awesome story, and “sharpening the ax” is something I too work every day to master. Thanks for stopping by and posting, it’s great to hear from you!