An Entrepreneur's Guide to Dealing With Downtime
In college, I took a stagecraft class. As part of the requirements for a BFA in musical theater, my major at the time, I had to learn about the process for designing and building a set for the stage.
Toward the end of the course, I was required to participate in technical rehearsals for one of my college’s main stage productions and work backstage during the run of the show. This meant assisting with loading the set and installing it onstage. My teacher gave me fair warning, saying, “The name of the game is hurry up and wait.”
I had no clue what he meant but certainly found out. That first rehearsal day I experienced periods of nonstop activity. Loading and moving heavy set pieces meant having to constantly be alert and vigilantly aware of the activity going on around me -- whether to help others or merely to watch out for my own safety. I was forced to hurry to just keep up with everything happening around me.
But then I had long periods of inactivity. After set pieces were unloaded from trucks or prepped for installation, all I could do was, well, wait.
As someone who values productivity, time efficiency and fast-paced situations, I found these waiting periods extremely frustrating. The downtime felt like an eternity. I became impatient and couldn’t help but feel as if my time were being wasted. I quickly learned that I was no good at waiting.
A few years later, now as I shape my plans as a new entrepreneur, I find myself playing the “hurry up and wait” game quite often. While I devise my yet-to-be-launched startup, I am frequently inundated with what seems to be an unending stream of projects and I hurry to tackle each one and stay on top of the workload.
I spent long and rewarding days of emailing, decision making, problem solving and order placing. I find these days extremely satisfying because I feel like I’m making progress. I see my business start to take shape and it’s exciting.
But after I’ve hurried up and done all my tasks, I’m forced to wait -- for email responses, order shipments, mock-up designs. I have no choice but to wait because businesses aren’t built in bubbles and I’m at the mercy of other peoples’ schedules.
The waiting part of the "hurry up and wait" game is difficult and frustrating because any progress made during a waiting period is difficult to detect and thus feels nonexistent.
Waiting makes me feel stagnant and stagnancy leads to discouragement. It’s a slippery slope.
Entrepreneurs need to figure out how to deal with the waiting periods, to learn to sit comfortably in the quiet moments and prepare for the inevitable rush of the “hurry up.” The “hurry up and wait” process is cyclical, and it's important to be mentally prepared for each part of the cycle. Here are three ways to be a patient, productive waiter:
1. Make lists.
I know this doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but it’s surprising how empowering it is to use this simple organization strategy.
Making lists allows lets you clearly see all that you’ve accomplished. This helps battle the “I’m making no progress” thoughts that can creep in during waiting periods.
And the list serves as proof and reassurance that you're making strides.
Creating a list also helps with identifying outstanding tasks. Then you can see whether it's possible to accomplish smaller tasks while waiting. Maybe you can follow up on some emails or order business cards. Organize your thoughts and tasks to identify what’s been done and what still lies ahead.
2. Create a timeline.
Keep things in perspective by setting realistic checkpoints. When do you anticipate that the manufacturer will finish your sample? What's the date for pushing your website live? What is the target launch date for your business?
Laying out checkpoints on a timeline will let you see the bigger picture. When creating a timeline, be sure generous in setting dates so the goals are attainable. Otherwise you’ll frustrate yourself as the target dates will seem to fly right by you. A timeline gives purpose even to waiting times because then you know they’re there for a reason.
3. Do research and learn.
Spend your downtime researching your competition and educating yourself about your target market. Create strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats -- or SWOT -- charts. What is the competition doing that you find impressive? Where is it lacking? What are the recent market trends? Where does your company fall in the market? What do you need to improve on?
Read industry articles. Comb news stories. Follow the news. Keep up on current events. All these things will affect your business. Complacency is dangerous. Thinking that you’re at the top of your game is the quickest way to fall behind.
Staying ahead of the curve means understanding where the curve is and anticipating where it’s going. And the only way to do that is through research and analysis. You may find adjustments that need to be made or strategies that you'll want to tweak in your business plan. Continuing your education is always a productive use of time.