Jenny Blake, FREE TIME: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business

Jenny Blake, FREE TIME: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business

Zibby is joined by Jenny Blake, co-creator of Google’s acclaimed Career Guru coaching program and award-winning author of Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business. Jenny talks about the power of heart-based businesses and outlines several powerful entrepreneurial techniques, such as designing intentional calendars with dedicated free time, delegating the tasks that drain us, automating the processes that frustrate us, and identifying our productivity golden hours. She and Zibby also discuss their strategies for coping with stress and burnout.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jenny. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business.

Jenny Blake: Yay! Thank you so much for having me. Thrilled to be here.

Zibby: It is like you wrote this book for me. You were like, wait, you want free time? What’s that? That’s what you want? This is so wonderful. It’s the ultimate guidebook for entrepreneurs. It’s just amazing. It’s so helpful in every way. I was just blown away by the utility of it. I went and listened to your podcast. I’m totally a fan. Thank you.

Jenny: Thank you so much. That means the world to me. That’s why we go into business for ourselves. Of course, sometimes there’s a broader mission and purpose behind it, and also so that we have autonomy over our time. I really see free time more as a verb and a skill. It’s a muscle we build. It’s something we can get better at. That’s the spirit of this book. How do we all get better and better at freeing our time so we can do more of our best work?

Zibby: I love it. You had so many great concepts and principles and things that now help me think about my life differently. Let’s see. One thing was even just recognizing that business stress is a systems problem. This was in your introduction. It’s like, oh, that’s interesting. The stress that you feel is not necessarily because you’re a stressed-out person. Something fundamentally is not particularly right with the environment you’ve created. That was really good to know, business or not.

Jenny: That’s it. My motto for years was, stress is a systems problem. By the time it got to the book, I didn’t want to offend anybody because there are bigger things going on in the world that sometimes it’s not an individual systems problem. It’s broader systems in society. I think when it comes specifically to business and even running a household, oftentimes, stress is a systems problem. If my husband and I are fighting because the house is too messy, there’s a system that we can solve for. One of the best things I did was hire a cleaning service once a week automatically where I don’t have to think about when we need a cleaner. They just come once a week. Something that simple is a system that enabled me to stop fighting with my husband about the house being too messy. I think sometimes solving for the household stuff is as important as the business because adulting is annoying sometimes. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of friction at home and at work. A lot of business books are written by men. I find that they don’t always include that perspective of what’s happening at home because in a lot of cases, someone’s taking care of it for them.

Zibby: Interesting. I like that. I also love this heart-based business and how companies these day are not just the bottom-line focused, but it’s so much more than that, and what it really means to be invested fully emotionally, not just financially.

Jenny: I see a heart-based business and specifically, a heart-based businessowner as somebody who wants what’s in the highest good for all involved, for themselves, for their team members, for their clients, for their community, for their family. Sometimes I find in the business press, it’s this growth-at-all-costs or creating a turn-and-burn culture. The businessowner has all kinds of free time, but then the team members are stressed and overwhelmed and overworked and underpaid. The heart-based business is one that might make decisions in the short term that, let’s say, impact revenue, but for the sake of something bigger. Sometimes it means sacrificing money or growth, but oftentimes, it doesn’t. That’s another one of my missions in this book and in general, is to break the pattern of linear thinking. If I want more free time, then I’ll earn less. That’s not necessarily true. It might be the case that the more you engineer for free time, maybe you’ll earn four times as much because your systems are smarter. You free your time, and you start doing even more strategic work and creative work and creative thinking. There’s no linear correlation, necessarily, that if we work less, we’re going to earn less. That’s just a habit that I’ve been trying to break myself and encourage others as well.

Zibby: Speaking of this free time and how it makes you more productive — I’m now forgetting what it’s called. It’s not personal time off, but what did you call it?

Jenny: Founder time.

Zibby: Boundary time. When you’re taking time off for you and you have to put it in your calendar. Of course, now I can’t find that page. I’ve dogeared every other thing here.

Jenny: I love it. I call it, free up founder time.

Zibby: Yes, that’s it. Thank you. Free up founder time. Tell me about that. How often are we supposed to be doing this?

Jenny: This fits into a bigger idea of even just intentional calendar design. It’s so easy to get caught in what — I’ve lately been thinking of it as the riptide of reactive work. I actually felt like that the other day. I felt like, I’m in a riptide. It’s pulling me under, just reacting to everybody else. Sometimes our calendar can be the same way. We react to what everyone else around us needs. Then we’re left with the scraps. Researchers call it time confetti, where your calendar is just a mishmash of shards of time. You can’t quite get anything meaningful done. Freeing up founder time is, for starters, putting a block. Maybe it’s one hour to start, or two hours. It recurs every week. That’s your time. Specifically, it’s your time to work on your business, on your career, on the really high level of it. What do you want? Where are you going? What do you want to say no to? Just every week, carving out that time to recalibrate and really strategize about what’s most important. I do recommend setting it to recur every week so that it’s on there.

You could be even more aggressive with calendar design, especially heading into a new year. I look at the year ahead, and I will block off, from now, mid-December to mid-January. I have a “do not schedule” block. That recurs annually. Not only am I going to take this mid-December off, but every year, my calendar is already blocked from now into infinity. Things like that where you can be more aggressive up front about creating “do not schedule” blocks, then you’re kind of corralling your calls and meetings to a shorter window. Maybe you only have calls Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Maybe you only meet with team members on Thursdays. Maybe you only meet with clients on Tuesdays. I know it sounds radical. It might sound impossible. There’s more than you might think that’s doable within these type parameters. Then you can always make one-off exceptions as needed.

Zibby: I love that. I try to do that sometimes. For a while, I was like, I’m only going to do podcasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then that never works. I block time out in Calendly. I’m like, I’m only going to use the Calendly, but now I have to change these six podcasts. I love it in theory. It’s just, it doesn’t work.

Jenny: It does get hard. It gets hard if you suddenly have some kind of speaking engagement or something that’s going to pull you away on that day. I’ve had that happen too, where I have two shows. I do interviews on Wednesdays, but if I get invited to a keynote on a Wednesday, now I have five calls to move, or four. It’s tricky. Let alone taking a week off where you’re shuffling all kinds of things around.

Zibby: I’m like, I’m going to fly to LA this weekend. Oh, wait, now I have to — or I have to do all these podcasts at five in the morning. It’s fine. I love the notion, the whole theory behind it. I love how you look analytically, too, at the detail work. Are you focusing your energy even on the right things? The whole podcast I listened to about the low-hanging watermelon and all of that, are the things you’re doing things that someone else should be doing, like the tedious things or the ones that just take up so much time? Basically, evaluating each thing as you do it because the little things add up to become really big things.

Jenny: Even observing, let’s say, over the next two weeks — I recommend having a piece of paper at your desk. It could be a notes app on your phone. Even if I would ask you right now, “What kind of work drains you the most? What energizes you the most?” you might have a few off-the-cuff answers, but it’s the nuance that comes when we observe for a few weeks with intention that all of a sudden, you’re in the midst of your day and you go, aha, this is something I could delegate. This is something that drains me. This is something I don’t like to do. Sometimes people tell me, I’d love to free up my time, but I don’t know who I would delegate it to. Delegating is its own morass of energy and effort. I don’t feel like doing that. There is a category — let’s call it the low-hanging watermelon — of this arena, which would be the stuff that you’re not even good at, and you hate doing it. That’s the most ripe for delegation. You will be absolutely thrilled if you could figure out a way to get it off your plate. It is possible, but you don’t even need to know how yet. Just observe what you would delegate if you could, large and small, over the next few weeks.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I hired someone — her name’s Chelsea — a while ago, maybe two years ago. She’s like, “I love spreadsheets. I love them. I live in spreadsheets. I get so excited about spreadsheets.” I was like, “That is the thing I like the least, so what a great team we are.” It’s proven true in everything she’s done. When you have somebody who really — you think that if you don’t like it, no one will like it. It turns out that’s not at all true. You have to find the people who get excited by that stuff.

Jenny: I know. That’s how I feel about my email inbox. I dread it so much. I have so much guilt associated with my email that I cannot imagine anybody wanting to work in my email inbox. Then when I find the person that says, “No, I love helping. I love managing email,” it’s such a dream. They’re out there. It’s true. They’re out there.

Zibby: What else? You give all this amazing advice to entrepreneurs, to people running businesses. There is this hope. Even this very optimistic, beautiful Free Time, I want to put this at the end of the tunnel of every day. It’s this glowing beacon with the little gold flecks of sunshine and happiness and all of that. Tell me about the joys of running businesses and why it’s so great and then the combination of some of the easiest things to implement. What makes it worth it? What makes it worth it for you?

Jenny: For me, it’s just questioning any narrative, anything that involves the word should. There are a lot of best practices in the business world of how we should work, how we should build our business. Even the idea that we work Monday through Friday nine to five, and it’s just so engrained in us, but who does that serve? It has never been what’s best for me personally, for my energy, for my health, for my family, that I work from Monday through Friday nine to six, these factory hours. For starters, if you’re someone who has time autonomy, being willing to question that — lately, the last few weeks in a row, I’ve just told my friends — it’s a Monday. I go, “I’m declaring it. It’s still Sunday. It’s Sunday again because I need another Sunday. I’m just not ready for the week.” Even what you were saying, Zibby, about rescheduling a bunch of stuff, I find that by having really tight calendar parameters, at least by default, then when you do take a spontaneous trip, you have room to reschedule. You actually have room to move those calls and meetings into another week because you have some margin. You have some spaciousness. I notice myself — when I was growing up, I was always going to all kinds of activities after school. My calendar, even though I didn’t have an app at that time, my day was jam-packed from seven to seven of school and activities. It was really hard for me as an adult, and even as a businessowner when I was no longer an employee, to break that pattern.

That’s what, to me, free time is about, is breaking our own patterns, our own inner time blueprint of how we think we need to work in favor of something that’s more life-giving. I genuinely believe that everybody benefits. One of the central inquiries of the book and of my life in business is, how can we earn twice as much in half the time with ease and joy while serving the highest good? It doesn’t have to be literally earn twice as much in half the time, but what if we held that as an inquiry? What would that look like? For me, I don’t do calls after three. I go take my dog out for a walk. I spend family time. I go to bed really early. Then we have more flexibility to create a life that actually works where it’s not just these crash-and-burn burnout cycles, which is so common. I’ve been through so many burnout cycles in my own career. That’s kind of the vision here. To each his or her own. It’s not for me to say what you should do, but to just drop the prescription of what we feel like, even on social media — I call it sailing the sea of shiny shoulds. There are so many shiny shoulds that we can impose on ourselves when we look across the fence to see what other people are doing. I encourage everybody to just really question, is this energizing me genuinely to my core, or is it something I can drop altogether?

Zibby: Interesting. I’m totally going to do the “Is this draining or energizing me?” test.

Jenny: And for your team as well if you work with team members. I once spent an hour just having that conversation, that one question. Of the work you’re doing with me, what do you find most energizing? What’s most draining? Then I would ask, what else? What else? What else? We spent an hour just unpacking. I always tell them, you can’t offend me. You won’t offend me. Whatever you tell me that’s draining, I don’t take that personally. I might not be able to take it off your plate tomorrow, but together, we could solve for it. We could figure out if there’s a way to streamline it, delegate it even to someone else, stop doing it altogether. There’s always a way. I don’t want anyone on my team to be doing work that they find draining because they’re probably not going to do a great job at it if it’s not things that they enjoy.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. I love this golden hour. What’s your most energetic window of the day? Then how should you spend it? That’s such a smart way to think about time and productivity. I know a lot of authors talk about this because they feel most productive and creative, particularly novelists, I’ve found, when they first wake up in the morning. Get up, and just go right in it when you’re sort of in a dream state or whatever. I’m like, that is not necessarily when I would be best at writing a novel. I tried it once. I knocked over a glass and broke it. I was like, oh, my gosh, no. Not for me.

Jenny: I know. I almost lit the house on fire when I was up too early once. It’s in the book.

Zibby: Yes, I saw with your pile of papers of everything. Tell me about that. Should everybody just go through and think, when is my most when I’m in the zone type of timing? What should I be doing at that time of day? It’s so simple, but it’s so smart.

Jenny: Golden hour, that’s the period just before sunrise or just around sunset when people are bathed in golden light. Photographers shoot at that time often. It’s to our own circadian rhythms. Exactly as you said, Zibby. When are you most energetic? McKinsey research shows that executives are five times more productive when they’re in a flow state than when they’re not. That’s kind of, to me, stating the obvious. We all know when we’re at our creative and energetic best, we can get ten times as much done as when we’re in the lull in the afternoon when one of my clients said to me, “I don’t even know my own name.” The idea is not letting anyone else have that time. Don’t allocate it to email or meetings or calls. Carve it out. That’s a good place for those founder time blocks, which is when you’re at your best so that you can get all your work done for the day, practically, if it’s in that window, instead of getting drained by emails and calls. Then somehow, you’re left with the scraps for your own energy. I find it almost impossible. You do creative work too. It’s almost impossible to do creative things once you’re zapped for the day. When’s your best window? When do you feel the most energized?

Zibby: My worst window, for sure — I was like you. I used to stop — I say used to because I’m still kind of clinging onto it by one dangling little thread. I wouldn’t schedule anything after three until again around six when I would do a book event or whatever. I could pick up my kids at school and be with them and just do busywork, nothing I had to interact with somebody else. If the kids wanted to go for ice cream, I could just go for ice cream or whatever. I’ve been doing that for so long that now occasionally, I’m like, oh, gosh, I really do need this meeting, so I’m just going to make time for it this one day. Even when I sit at four and I try, it’s just my worst time. It’s my worst time. Then sometimes I’m like, is this how most people feel all the time? Then they would never get anything done. Maybe that’s why people look at me and they’re like, how are you so productive? I’m like, because I don’t usually feel like this. Usually, I’m going so fast.

Jenny: I also had a friend point out that as a — when you’re self-employed, your time is a premium. You want to have as few or as little meetings on the calendar as possible, in most cases, unless you’re a super extrovert and you just love meeting with people. Then for people who work in companies, they have to be at work all day. Sometimes when those of us on the outside, consultants, are working with companies, they’ll suggest, let’s have a weekly sync leading up to the event. That’s no skin off their back because they have to fill their time anyway. They’re going to be in meetings anyway. They’re more apt to suggest meetings and calls. Whereas those of us where we work for ourselves, the goal is the opposite. The incentive is the opposite, as few meetings as possible. Just noticing that has helped me set more boundaries and parameters for even client work. If I do a speaking engagement, it comes with one pre-event strategy session. If I’m going to do a free event, there’s no call in advance. I’ll come onto the event half an hour early in that same time block.

Zibby: I’m the same way. I’m not doing free calls.

Jenny: Absolutely not.

Zibby: I’m like, what do you need? I can handle it, whatever it is.

Jenny: I think it’s amazing when podcasters require a pre-call. I get why they do that, but I’m thinking, how on earth — that means you’re doing double the amount of work. There is no way.

Zibby: No, no, no. I love, also, your Always Be Listening chapter. “Systematize listening to your community by building listening moments into all that you do. Regularly review the feedback to help determine product improvements and what to build next.” Very smart. That’s with your team and with the consumers of whatever you’re doing. How is this going? What do you think?

Jenny: All of this is about, again, coming back to systems. What can you build once that you don’t even have to think about again but it builds in a listening mechanism? A very straightforward example, both of us probably have newsletters. In the newsletter, once someone new signs up, the second one can say, here’s a quick survey. I’d love to hear what’s on your mind. What’s interesting to you? What’s the biggest challenge that I can be most helpful with? In your case, Zibby, I know you just launched the magazine. What types of books are you most interested in? What types of author events would you be most interested? That survey then continues to work for you every single time a new person joins. They fill it out. Then you have all this data that you can turn to. You could review it regularly, but just when you are in a planning session for the next quarter or the next year, it’s already there. It’s already captured.

Zibby: You’re right. Maybe I should do a survey. We’re going through our strategy for Zibby Mag content for 2023. Then I was like, maybe we should just do a poll. Let’s do a poll.

Jenny: Do a poll as a one-off. Then build it into a welcome series. You can incentivize, but I don’t even think you need to. I think people are generally happy to fill things out. It could even say, every quarter, we give away a book or a signed book or signed copies of something.

Zibby: When I first started my newsletter a couple years ago — this is ten iterations of the newsletter ago. The newsletter’s the bane of my existence.

Jenny: I know. They’re never-ending, right?

Zibby: It’s never-ending, always changing, never doing what I want it to do.

Jenny: I hear you.

Zibby: I used to, in the beginning, say that I would give personalized book recommendations if you signed up for the newsletter, which actually gave me the most amazing feedback ever. I should probably go back to doing this. I really was doing personalized book recommendations for everybody. I asked them all these questions. What are some books you’ve read lately? What are you in the mood for? What do you not like? I learned so much about reading habits from those answers, which I still have somewhere. I should really dig them up. In fact, that’s why I started offering a lot more thrillers. I started covering a lot more thrillers on my podcast. I don’t read thrillers myself, but everybody wanted to read thrillers. I was like, okay, so now I include thrillers.

Jenny: I could even see you having people fill that out, let’s say when they join the newsletter, and then you randomly pick one. You could even do a little podcast spot at the end of a show or as an interstitial, an in-between-isode, where you pick one. People know if they fill it out, they have a chance of getting your books recs, even if it’s not always a one-to-one ratio.

Zibby: I think that is so cool. Maybe I’ll do something with that. I’ll add it to the list. I can’t even find my list, is where I am today.

Jenny: I know. I hear you.

Zibby: What do you do when you get totally stressed? I know you talked about having these “I want to burn my whole company down” moments. What are your non-work-related coping mechanisms? What’s your most embarrassing?

Jenny: Oh, my most embarrassing.

Zibby: I don’t know. What do you do emotionally?

Jenny: I would say these moments — I actually had one. I got a cold yesterday where, I call it being glued to the couch. I can’t move. I can’t even look at my laptop. I can’t do anything. I can barely even communicate to my team that I’m going to be offline today or this week. When those hit, they hit so hard for me. I just need to give myself permission to take the break. What I need is often three times longer than what my minds tell me I should do. My mind will go, okay, but you’re going to get back at it tomorrow, right? Then my body’s maybe still saying, absolutely not. I need more time. I’ve noticed that’s how I am. Some people are really able to work so diligently, so consistently. I know none of us are machines, but they’re almost able to work like a machine. They don’t even need as much sleep. I’ve just never been that way. I really go through ebbs and flows. I also call it the furry rest monster. I picture it as that blue, fluffy monster from Monsters, Inc. I just imagine that the furry rest monster comes out of the couch and glues me to it. I’m telling you, I’m in one of those right now. I just have to let it happen. I’ve tried over time to drop the guilt around it and trust that if I rest enough, I’ll get back at it. Nothing is urgent. Nothing is going to catch fire. It’s just so rare in my business that something so catastrophic is going to happen if I don’t open my laptop or check the email for a day. Even a week, probably nothing would fall apart. This is where having at least a tiny team and some systems is helpful because it’s nice knowing that there is some buffer for days like that. I can delegate things to my team. We try to catch the really important things. I also remind myself nothing is so urgent in my business that anyone’s really going to care. How about you, Zibby? I’m curious what your strategies are.

Zibby: When I get stressed? I just cry. I cry. I eat. I don’t know. The thing is, even when I’m my most annoyed or my most overwhelmed, what I want to do is read. Then I just go right back to what I do. I love what I do. It’s just overwhelming. I don’t mind being overwhelmed, I guess, a lot of the time. Sometimes it just hits that breaking point where it’s too much.

Jenny: It’s not that the reading itself is too much, but there’s all the infrastructure around it and the deadlines and projects and pings from team members. I just can so relate to that.

Zibby: Or if anyone else gets upset for any reason, then I’m like —

Jenny: — The emotional toll or roller coaster. Completely.

Zibby: What’s your advice on finding free time not just for people running businesses, but the average totally stressed busy person? How can everybody listening find a little free time for them to remember who they are? What’s the secret?

Jenny: I love what you appended to the question, to remember who they are. That’s beautiful. There’s an Agile development quote. Each time you repeat a task, take one step toward automating it. I love that. I live by that. Another way to think about it is, what small steps can you take today that will free your time far into the future? For anybody listening or watching, just hold that as an inquiry. What small steps could I take today? If you can just step back on your life a little bit — an example I give often is putting a household product on subscription, like paper towels. If you put it on a subscription at the cadence when you last ordered, okay, now they’re going to arrive every four months. You never have to think of it again. It’s not like we got more efficient at ordering paper towels. It’s that you never have to think about it again unless you’re going to move out of your house for six months. Things like that, just looking for little things you can do, the example I mention. The way to discover these opportunities is by noticing what frustrates you. Where is there friction at home, with your errands? Anywhere that there’s friction and you’re annoyed or frustrated, that’s the perfect place to look. Okay, I just found this frustration area. I’m sick of dealing with this. I’m sick of repeating myself. I’m tired of how annoying this thing is to do. That’s where. We’re all so resourceful and creative. If you just take a couple minutes, think, how can I design a better process here? I guarantee you will find some breakthroughs in areas large and small. The small ones add up, so I say start there.

Zibby: I am taking this so to heart. You have no idea. Thank you. Really, honestly, thank you for your book. Thank you for the help. I really got so much out of it. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

Jenny: I’m so grateful. That means the world. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me. I’m just so grateful that we crossed paths this year, IRL and now for the show.

Zibby: Me too.

Jenny: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye, Jenny.

Jenny: Bye. Thanks, everyone, for listening.

Zibby: Thanks.

Jenny Blake, FREE TIME: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business

FREE TIME: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business by Jenny Blake

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