July 2020: Correlation, Causation, and Accidental Discoveries


I usually pen these recaps fairly soon after the month in question has ended. This has the advantage of keeping my memory fresh; the human mind has an astounding ability to reshape and misremember events even mere weeks after the fact. The downside of such hot takes, so to speak, is simple: none of the decisions have had time to truly play out. There’s a tendency to judge things based on what transpired in the moment. But progress isn’t linear; most of the consequences from your actions, especially in the writing business, are only evident months or years down the line.

Thus, writing this in September affords me a unique perspective that the other recaps lack, giving me the opportunity to better analyze the halo effect of July’s actions on the ensuing weeks. The short answer is: negatively, but with valuable lessons that outweigh any short-term issues.

The slightly longer version is below. Let’s dive in.

What Happened?

The question, then, you might ask, is this: if July impacted the weeks thereafter negatively…just what the hell did I do in July? That’s easy: relatively little during the first three weeks or so. Now, this assessment should be taken as relative; very little when I was 22 meant pretty close to what one would expect from that literal definition. But as time moves on, the bar is raised; and in the context of my current workload, that probably means something akin to forty hours a week. Which I suppose is a normal workweek (whatever that is), but in the context of my business structure and project load, represented a dip from the months immediately prior. Now, there are ways to work that much (or less) and achieve a lot more than my current levels of output. And I’m actively striving to make my processes more efficient so that I can work significantly less in the future. But the simple fact is that, as currently constructed, my business demands more temporal input from me than forty hours to keep pushing ahead.

Thus, as the month wore on, non-urgent tasks stacked up. Not to a precarious degree. Client work was delivered. Course updates happened. But, as has been a recurring theme, my own work fell by the wayside. Growth tasks were neglected. And ultimately, that meant, come the end of the month, and August, the hours spiked. A lot.

Correlation is Not Causation

You’ve surely heard the phrase correlation doesn’t equal causation. That just means that an outcome (in this instance, I recorded my highest monthly profit number to date in July) isn’t necessarily the product of actions (e.g., doing little to actively grow the business) that occurred around the same time. In fact, we can see the true impact in August, wherein profit numbers dropped to about half of July’s and my workload spiked to 60 – 70 hours per week. To be fair, that too is an instance of correlation not being causation: a lot of the work was booked in July (i.e., I got paid), but then delivered in August. Nonetheless, it’s an important lesson: it is very easy to examine numbers and draw the wrong conclusions.

The second lesson, of course, is simple: getting only urgent things done is like treading water. It doesn’t move you forward. And eventually, if you don’t start swimming toward shore, you burn out and drown.

Accidental Discoveries

There’s nothing wrong with taking time off. I’d been grinding pretty hard the first part of the year, which I say not in that annoying, weird Internet-flex “this is what you should do” type of way, but just as a factual statement. Unfortunately, when you’re grinding, you often don’t have time to address things like processes and systems. To be fair, everything has grown pretty fast in 2020, so much of that is just the entropy associated with fast growth. Learning on the fly, as one must do as their business expands, is hardly the clean process portrayed in business books. But without the requisite systems in place, letting even slightly off the gas for an enterprise built on grinding is ill-advised (from a revenue point, at least). Nonetheless, it did highlight three accidental discoveries that will pay off in the future, making July a long-term win.

#1: Money Inefficiency

Inefficiency in time resulted in extreme efficiency with money. Because my attention was often directed elsewhere, I spent very little on anything, including my business. Now, many business expenses are investments, rather than expenses; this is a key distinction that’s oft-overlooked. However, they are only investments if they are actually used. A cover purchased for a book that goes unwritten is not an investment, but an expense. And many things that masquerade as investments (an author logo, perhaps) actually have zero impact on profitability.

That record profit number was generated with the lowest expense number of the year; a little over $2k. Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But it did suggest that some dollars flowing out the door in previous months had gone to waste. Thus, this gave me a nudge to look at my P & L and identify certain business expenses that were not driving growth (and costing me time as well).

#2: Build Processes

Grinding, at certain points, can be necessary. You have three sources of capital for your business: money, time, and social (i.e., friends or people who can help you). If you have little in the way of money to start out, you must make up for this in one of the other two areas. Often, friends and people you know are at a premium at the beginning, too, so the only real option is to invest a bunch of hours to get the ball rolling. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s a perfectly valid strategy.

But it is an extremely poor way to design your business long-term. Most people never graduate from the grind, since it’s the defacto way to start and it’s lauded in American culture as honorable. It can absolutely make you a lot of money, but if you have to work 60 – 70 hours to keep things afloat, in a very real way you have built yourself a jail. An extremely nice jail, perhaps, but a jail nonetheless, in that if you stop, the whole thing collapses and your income with it. A certain level of work absolutely needs to get done regardless, but grinding is often a byproduct of extreme inefficiency, poor management (either of oneself or others, if you have a time), and lack of systematization (i.e., repeatable processes).

Here’s the bigger problem. Maybe you enjoy working that much; that’s fine. But if your business demands that level of input from you to function correctly, that puts you in an extremely precarious position. Get sick for a month or two? Your earnings plummet. Have a family emergency that demands a huge amount of cognitive resources for a half year? Same thing.

These are not crazy, far-fetched scenarios; they are common. If your business quickly starts to wither without massive direct input from you, then you have a serious problem if anything goes awry. And something, eventually, will. Even if you don’t want to dial down your workload, you need to have the option of doing so, if only because life’s a bitch and will force you into corners. If you don’t bake systems and processes into the DNA of your business, it becomes harder and harder to add them as things progress.

This is for two reasons: identity and structure. The simple fact is that working is a big part of people’s identity. It has never been a personal goal of mine to work long hours, but I must admit, as those numbers have risen, there is an addictive, seductive quality to the grind that starts to imprint itself upon your identity. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but I believe it’s likely that many people work hard not because they especially like doing so, but because they are avoiding a different problem. The second reason has to do with structure; the more your business processes become reliant on manual input from you, the harder it is to automate and systematize them as the business grows. Your weird way of doing things becomes the norm, and it becomes impossible and impractical to retrofit, because you can’t afford taking 50 hours out of a month to untangle the mess, even if it will save you 400 hours annually.

As a simple example of what I mean by processes: you can build a spreadsheet that automatically takes the reports from KDP, Facebook, etc. and crunches the numbers in 2 minutes. Or you can do this by hand and have it take 2 hours. The former is an example of an automated process; the latter is an example of grinding. July was a very clear indicator that I needed to invest significant time and resources into areas such as the spreadsheets. But this demands releasing a little part of your identity: my initial inclination is to do this myself. Learning all the Excel commands required, however, is a 100+ hour project. It is impractical; I am much better served working those hours, getting paid, and spending 1/10 of that amount to outsource.

#3: Rest, Not Stress

There are different approaches to rest. As with most things in life, they’re not all equal in value. Avoiding projects is not an actual form of rest; this provides zero relief from long-term stress and doesn’t allow your mind to disconnect from work. You just end up either feeling guilty or thinking about the projects as you’re ostensibly “resting.” This is terrible, in that your work gets delayed and the rest is worthless. Which is the definition of a complete waste of time.

Unfortunately, this is the limbo in which most self-employed people find themselves: with no clear demarcation between work and play, the lines get blurred. And even when we’re trying to unplug, we often get none of the rejuvenation associated with rest because we can’t release ourselves from all the things we could and “should” be doing.

Temporary intense stress is good; it forces you to grow beyond your current abilities. Acute chronic stress is bad. But we tend to avoid the former in the modern world and heap heavy doses of the latter on ourselves. This is a recipe for long-term burnout and chronic illness.

When you’re resting, rest. Whether that’s for an hour or a month. But make that decision and actually take a break. Otherwise, you might as well just do the work.


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