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Breaking Down the Friction Between “Thinking Work” and “Doing Work”

Jun 6, 2022 | 0 comments

Breaking Down the Friction Between “Thinking Work” and “Doing Work”

June 6, 2022
One of the most pervasive tensions I see with all of these business owners is that they are often engaged in a push-and-pull dance between their “thinking” work and their “doing” work. They are never quite sure which they should be focusing on, which is more valuable, which comes first and which comes second, and how they reconcile their desires to do both (or neither).

In the past 6 years since I opened my coaching business, I have worked with a wide variety of creative entrepreneurs.  Copywriters, graphic designers, stylists, clothing designers, photographers – the gamut!

But I’ve also worked with consultants, professors, thought leaders, authors, publishers, therapists – still creative, but in a different way.

One of the most pervasive tensions I see with all of these business owners is that they are often engaged in a push-and-pull dance between their “thinking” work and their “doing” work.

They are never quite sure which they should be focusing on, which is more valuable, which comes first and which comes second, and how they reconcile their desires to do both (or neither). 

There is also a perception that there is a ceiling on how much you can charge for “doing work” or that you can only charge the big bucks when you become “thinky”.

(Plus a whole pile of other variations on this theme)

What’s right? What’s wrong?

How do we balance all of this out?

Alright, let’s get into it.

First, let me define what I mean by “thinking” vs “doing” work. 

Doing” work entails anything we create that produces a tangible result that someone can use in its resultant form. It’s the process of creation, of building and developing. It’s usually considered tactical and the is execution of decisions, strategies, directions, and desires.

Thinking” work entails anything that we “do” that does not produce a tangible result but has value and is necessary in order to guide, direct, advise or innovate.

In some respect, one depends on the other, but you may or may not be doing both for your clients.

For some, their paid work leans heavily towards “doing”, while for others, they spend most of their paid work “thinking”.  (Or so we think… more on that in a moment)

For all of us, we do both inside our businesses, whether we realize it or not. As entrepreneurs, we are responsible for both and require both in order to build and operate a business.

After interviewing a number of clients and colleagues around this topic, it became clear to me that there are two big challenges we have when we think about both types of work, and this causes us to be in a never ending cycle of flip-flopping back and forth in our assessment of the work we’re doing, and in constant debate over whether or worth has work.

The first challenge is how we handle work inside our business, and that ends up creating lopsided results and contributes significantly to our “feast and famine” cycles. 

The second challenge is in how we value the work we do for our clients, which ends up with us underpricing and over delivering, always feeling either resentful or exhausted and like we will never “get ahead”. 

I’m going to dive into each of these challenges individually, so we can see where we need to shift both our thinking and our actions to smooth out the friction with our work. 

Challenge #1: Working in Our Comfort Zone

Inside our businesses, we are required to do both types of work. We wear many hats and are responsible for both designing the strategy and for the execution of that strategy (of course, you might outsource either or both, but you are still responsible for ensuring both are complete). 

Some people feel really energized by the challenge of learning how to do it all, but the vast majority of business owners are overwhelmed and frustrated by those requirements. 

It feels like owning a business means we have to be an expert in everything and instead we end up doing a lot of things only partially well. For those Upholders and Obligers in the room, that can be a really, really uncomfortable place to be. 

To build new skills, we have to be learners, but to be a learner, you need to be able to make time and space to learn, and to absorb and process new information and to practice and build expertise. 

The truth is that, more often than not, we are under pressure and don’t have that time and space to learn and practice. And when we get anxious or stressed, we will often gravitate towards the work that feels most comfortable so we can feel like we’re doing something to contribute to moving the business forward. 

So, over time, you start seeing that a lot of one shows up in the business, and not a lot of another, and you either end up with lots of good ideas that never get executed, or lots of “stuff” that doesn’t stitch together into a cohesive whole.

9 times out of 10, my clients arrive on my doorstep with one of those two scenarios.

Spend too much time like that and you end up with a lopsided business where money isn’t coming because either you have nothing to sell them (even though you have so many ideas and all the strategies mapped out) or no one is buying anything because they are too confused as to what your business actually offers.

I had one client whose answer to every “low” point in sales was to re-design all of the internal processes or content of her program, because she wasn’t comfortable doing the more “thinky” marketing strategy work, which is where the sales problem was. 

She ended up confusing her existing clients with all the internal changes, and getting further and further away from generating new leads into the business and convincing them to buy. 

On the flip side, I had another client that would always want to go back to the drawing board when things got tough, and was constantly redesigning her business model, without ever making any of the changes actually happen. She would talk endlessly about what she would love to see but would shrivel at the thought of following through. 

Neither of these clients was “bad at business” but just had become too heavily weighted in one side of their work and couldn’t push the business past that point.

Finding balance is critical, and that entails finding ways to get comfortable with work that doesn’t come naturally, either through giving yourself non-judgmental space and time to practice and gain skills in your less developed area, or by outsourcing that work to someone else who already has those skills. 

What you cannot do is try and create a business that doesn’t require execution, or strategy. The former has no momentum and the latter leads you in circles.

Three tips to ensure you balance both types of work inside your business:

  • Manage Your Energy. If you are taking on the less comfortable work yourself, give yourself time and space to learn and practice these skills. When we do work we don’t feel that comfortable with, it can be exhausting and lead to burnout. Schedule it in small bursts, and allow yourself time to be a beginner.
  • Outsource the Pain. If you know that taking on the other side of the work is just never going to serve you, consider finding someone to do it for you who is already an expert and loves the work. If you’re more comfortable as a doer, get a coach or strategist to help you define your overall direction. If you’re more of a thinker, find an OBM, VA or project manager who can help you get your work in motion. 
  • Schedule It In. When I work with my clients, we purposely build structures inside the business to ensure all of these pieces of their business model are covered, either by them or by their team. These get built into their work schedules and they know when and how they will do the work. This way, they can’t/won’t push the work off, and they are prepared for it to be their priority for that time on their schedule. 

Challenge #2: Valuing Both Types of Work Correctly

Here are some of the thoughts I received from my clients when I asked them about thinking vs doing work:

“I’m much more comfortable in the doing work, but it’s the thinking work where the big bucks are, and that’s where the real fulfillment comes in.”

“The doing work pays the bills, so it usually gets top priority, but I can also see how the thinking work means less doing work down the road.”

“You need a balance of both. It’s like going to the gym – leg day vs arms day -you’re gonna start looking wonky if you only do one.”

“Thinking work is really hard and usually people don’t properly charge for it because it seems like there aren’t deliverables. But if you don’t do the thinking work, the doing work can’t happen.”

Most of us started out working in a corporate job, where we learned how to define the value of our work. 

Usually, that meant we were lead to believe that what we produce is the only way to measure value. 

Then we dip our toe in entrepreneurship and we start our businesses by being producers. Creating lots of deliverables that clearly demonstrate value. 

Client deadlines. Timelines. Deliverables. Managing projects and budgets. Trying to be creative inside a box.

Create more, you get paid more, right?

So why do you always feel like you do way more work than you actually get paid for?

What happens when you start to burn out, and tire all the time of the constant juggling act? What happens when you can’t summon your creativity and your best work when the deadlines call for it?

What happens when you start feeling unfulfilled from always creating for other people and never for yourself?

You start wondering if there’s something more. If maybe you could just do a bit of that thinky stuff where it didn’t feel so much like a pair of concrete shoes. 

What if you could get paid to just have ideas? Heaven, right?

Well, ask your favourite friend who gets paid to do “thinky” work… advisory services, coaching, analysis, thought leadership and commentary.

The pervasive thoughts from those on the “thinking” side of the world are that they would love to feel like they were actually building something. Or constantly questioning whether they are actually delivering the right answers. Or how difficult it is to communicate the value of the work they do.

So the grass isn’t always greener. It’s just a different field (and let’s face it – change can be refreshing). 

But we end up wondering – what if? What if I did the other thing? Would I sell my services differently? To different clients? Would I price them differently?

I think the answer is – it depends. (I know, super helpful)

Depending on the perspective you come from, you may value “doing” or “thinking” work differently. So might your clients, depending on what they need and are looking for in the moment. 

They don’t inherently go out thinking “I’m going to pay more for this and less for that”. Moreso, they are thinking “I desperately need someone to help me with x” and if X isn’t what you do right now, they will be unlikely to optimize their spending on that. 

Additionally, if they perceive the returns they will get (in time, money, confidence or comfort) as high, they will be willing to invest more.

There is a general impression that we evolve from doing to thinking work as we gain more expertise, and therefore the natural progression is to go from freelancer to teacher, or coach or mentor, where you can charge more for the work that you do.

But actually, that’s not necessarily true.

Many “doers” continue to charge increasingly more for their work as they gain skills and experience, until they become the de facto expert in the provision of those services and they can charge a premium and work with fewer clients. 

Conversely, many coaches or advisors will hit a ceiling on what they can charge because they haven’t spent enough time building out their skills in order to be able to carry their clients through the growth of their business with appropriate guidance and mentorship. 

It all depends on you. 

No one scenario is true for everyone, despite what you hear from others out there in your space. 

The absolute most important thing is that you are doing work that is aligned with you, and how you most like to work, who you most like to work with, and that is serving your business in the best possible way.

The details of how you do that can always be adjusted to suit your particular needs, but if you are doing work that is out of alignment, you are bound to be burned out, stressed out and undercharging. 

The truth is that most of us try and distinguish between the two types of work, but actually you are always doing both. 

Most of the creative professionals I know say that they can’t do the “doing” work without the “thinking” work. But they often don’t charge for both. 

Or that there is a temptation to stay in the thinking work rather than get to the doing work because it feels like less stress or pressure. 

One designer even said to me that the longer she spends in the thinking work, the faster the doing work goes BUT that it’s also easy to get trapped in the thinking work because you can talk yourself out of doing.

So, clearly we all struggle. 

I’ll offer you this…

What if we shifted away from the dichotomy between thinking and doing, and just called our work, work?

What if our work was defined by the end goal or the transformation we create, rather than by what we deliver? 

Can’t we have a hybrid model?

Of course we can.

I decided this year that, in addition to strategy development, I would also help my VIP clients build and manage the execution of those strategies.

Because what they wanted was a transformation, not just an idea.

They were caught in the execution step, and I knew I could do that well. 

So I get to be thinky, and do-y, and guess what? It means I can create even more value than either one on its own. 

What if the work you do is just defined as giving your clients an elevated brand? And maybe that entails some brand strategy and a new website design, and maybe a new way of thinking about themselves?

What if the work you do is helping people feel better about themselves? And maybe that entails you giving them some mindset work and designing them a new wardrobe?

It can be whatever you choose. You don’t have to struggle to fit into either camp. 

Three tips to ensure you are properly valuing the work you do:

  • Build Thinking Into the Budget. If you are in the “doing” camp, acknowledge that “thinking” work is a necessary part of your work, and build time and money into your budget for your work so that you feel adequately compensated for your actual time, and that you can elevate the understanding of how comprehensive your work is.
  • Adjust Your Business Model or Service Design. Maybe what you really need is to allow yourself to design your own brand of thinking and doing, where you can have just the right amount of each, to suit your own personal preferences, desires and skills. 
  • Get Clear on What You Really Do. Your work is not just “making stuff”. Your work is multifaceted, complex and transformational. You never just write, or design, or advise, or coach. Eliminate the conflict between thinking and doing and focus instead on the outcome you create. Your pricing will follow.

So, what do you think? Still committed to being a thinker or a doer? Or can you see your way to a new reality where you can elevate your focus to the outcome or the goal? 

Remember that you are allowed to reframe, refocus, adjust and massage your perspective until it feels just right for you.

If you truly have challenges moving back and forth between these two modes of working, you have options! But don’t let your business or your work become lopsided, or you’ll see your results start to sway.

How will you shift your work to close the gap?

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