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Work Like the Client Is You in Two Years

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When I had a job, it was easy to know how much work to do in a day: somewhere between as much as I could, and as little as I could without someone calling me out on it.

Now I’m my own employer, and that clear standard for “a respectable day’s work” is gone. I’m constantly negotiating with myself over how hard to work, when to tackle the trickiest tasks, and when to take time off.

I realize that many people, both employees and self-employees, don’t have this problem. They work as hard as they reasonably can every day. These people get a lot done, and face problems of burnout and obsession, rather than lack of productivity.

This article is not for them. It’s for those of you who perpetually struggle to get the important things done, especially when there’s flexibility in what and how much you do on a given day: entrepreneurs, novelists, inventors, or really anybody aspiring towards something that may or may not happen.

If you were a purely logical being—think of Data, the android from Star Trek—you’d always do the most sensible (and valuable) next logical step: write the next chapter, finalize the current build, call the next lead.

But you’re not Data from Star Trek. You’re a fearful ape living in an absurd future. The Next Logical Step often entails a big decision, a point of no return, exposure to criticism, or some other emotionally daunting prospect.

So you balk on doing the Next Logical Step today.

Instead, you do something that feels productive in some general sense but does not move your goals forward: processing email, clearing your desk, or doing “web research.”

Generally speaking, bosses help people work more like Data, by steering you back towards the NLS before you develop a complex around it. They carrot-and-stick you through the more daunting steps, for better or worse.

But it’s hard to serve simultaneously as the shrewd manager and the thankless grunt, given their diverging impulses. The one that prevails tends to depend on mood, which for many of us tends to darken at the thought of tackling a crucial, looming NLS. Thankless grunt wins out, cleans his desk and calls it a day.

One surprisingly effective way to navigate this problem is to pretend you’re working for someone else. I’ve had some of my most focused, rewarding workdays by pledging my efforts to an imaginary client. (I call her Sally.)

I treat all my work as though Sally has hired me to do it. My daily to-do list is essentially a work order. I write down how many hours I logged on each thing. I charge a lot, I like to imagine, so I’m determined to make those hours valuable.

This solves several self-management problems immediately. Firstly, I always have to know what I’m trying to do with a given hour, because a client is on the clock. When I’m working for Sally, it makes no sense to “work on” an article for the afternoon. All my efforts must be connected to a real-world deliverable—a draft, a published piece, a module for my online course. There must always be a clear finish line, and I have to stay aware of how much time it’s taking to get there.

Treating my hours as billable keeps perfectionism from bogging things down. I know Sally would rather I take an hour to complete a task to “good enough” standard, than spend five hours courting perfection without even finishing the damn thing.

Sally isn’t necessarily watching me work, but I need to work as if she were, because she’s getting a freaking huge bill and will be very much aware of what I’ve provided for her investment. My old self-defeating tricks—interrupting myself with websites or email, keeping a dozen browser tabs open, cycling through my three favorite smartphone apps—become absurd.

There’s an intrinsic pleasure in working a tight, killer hour for Sally, and delivering something pleasing and profitable for both of us. It makes me want to get better and better at what I do, becoming capable of more every hour (and commanding a higher rate).

Not every hour I work is a “client” hour. If I’m just playing around with article ideas, or learning a new application, Sally’s off the clock. I don’t charge for everyday email and other administrative stuff, which makes me want to minimize those low-value activities (rather than indulge in them) so that I can get back to doing the stuff that deserves compensation.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this way of working. I now get more done in a couple of hours than I used to in entire days.

The approach has one significant flaw, however: Sally doesn’t really exist.

That doesn’t usually matter, but when my mood approaches the low end, it can be hard to sustain the fantasy. The cranky, scared-ape part of me knows there isn’t really anyone to please, or disappoint. There’s nobody paying my expensive hourly rate, and nobody to fire me if I spend the morning watching fast food reviews on YouTube instead of finishing vital tasks.

However, I recently made a subtle but significant adjustment to this strategy, and now it no longer depends on fantasy.

Instead of working for Sally, I now work for Me in Two Years.

I’m 38 years old, and my star client is 40 Year Old David.

I can picture him even better than I can Sally. I’m even more loyal to him, more determined to reward his trust in me.

And unlike Sally, he is absolutely real, or will be very shortly.

Working for him confers all the same benefits as working for Sally. I still need to stay aware of what my time is actually creating in the world. I still need a very good reason to work on anything other than the Next Logical Step. It still feels absurd to get lost in online diversions, aimless nitpicking, and low-value administrative crap.

Just like with Sally, his interests are closely aligned with mine, but he’s not me. He’s a little older than me, a little more serious, and a lot less tolerant of shoddy work and wasted time.

I want him to regard me as a professional, so I’d rather tough something out today and get it done, than embarrass us both by trying to give him the runaround. He’s not stupid, so I can’t be either.

Most compelling of all, in two years I will be him, and will either be enjoying or suffering the karmic fruits of my efforts today.

If you’re struggling to get yourself to do the vital, difference-making tasks on your list, work like the client is You in Two Years.

Why two years?

Two years is enough time for a few big, valuable projects to completely change your life, if you work on them like a high-value professional.

It’s also a short enough period that you could completely squander it without really noticing.

You can easily picture the two corresponding versions of You in Two Years.

There’s the one who was lucky enough to have a killer contractor who was worth every penny and more, who really understood what was at stake, who really put themselves in their client’s shoes.

And there’s the one who’s pretty much where you are now, just older.

Work like the real client is you in two years. Because it’s true.

***

Photo by Simon Abrams

{ 48 Comments }

Christoph Dusenbery April 24, 2019 at 11:31 pm

I’m also self-employed and I often struggle with prioritizing tasks. There’re so many projects and possible projects I could work on that I sometimes find myself focusing on daily administrative tasks, instead. Do you find that imagining working for your future self brings some clarity about what work should be the priority?

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:27 am

Absolutely it does. However, when you work for your 2-years-from-now self, you’re not just imagining that you’re working for that guy. You are, whether you envision him or not. But envisioning him (and the advantages or troubles he inherits from you) has a way of clarifying the best way to spend today.

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brand118 April 25, 2019 at 1:52 am

Thank you

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Yoko April 25, 2019 at 3:08 am

Many thanks for sharing your thought and experience. Two years is a great time span, as it’s not too long nor too short. I’ve started to a new project recently, and will put this idea into practice immediately.

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:28 am

I wish you much focus and clarity Yoko

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Joy April 25, 2019 at 3:42 am

Brilliant, thank you.

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Jack April 25, 2019 at 3:48 am

So David, in two years you are going to be called Sally?

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J. Money April 25, 2019 at 5:45 am

I second this!

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:29 am

I guess that’s up to others

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Sarah Flores April 25, 2019 at 6:40 am

I love this, David. It makes a lot of sense, and I think it’s why I inherently have the work ethic I do: I hold myself accountable for every single action I do (or don’t) take with my business. Not only do I not want to let my clients down, but I don’t want to let myself down after all of the hard work I’ve put in over the years. I’ve enjoyed your blog for years. Please never stop writing.

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:31 am

Thanks Sarah. Having come from a history of jobs and school experiences that I didn’t find intrinsically rewarding, I came into this with a habit of dodging what could seemingly be dodged on a given day. So this is all new to me, and I love it :)

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nono April 25, 2019 at 6:56 am

I do something similar, but instead of a boss “Grown up me” is more of a social worker or secretary. She is really good at all the scary stuff, that other grown ups apparently can do. So when I get overwhelmed by work, deadlines and bureaucracy, she steps out to take care of the situation. She will tell me to sit back and calm down. Then she figures out which of my problems actually matter and she will deal with them one by one.

She can do all this confidently, in part because she isn’t the one who created the mess in the first place. The scared, unreasonable monkey did that. She just came in to help everyone out. Helping the monkey to navigate “grown-up world” is her job. She is very compassionate and never blames the monkey for anything. After all the monkey isn’t producing problems on purpose and feeling bad about things that happened in the past won’t help anyone.

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:33 am

I think that’s the mechanism behind it for me. Slightly-more-grown up David is wiser. There’s a kind of mentorship behind our business partnership. He inspires me to calm down and do the next sensible thing.

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Aria April 25, 2019 at 8:03 am

I have been following you since 2014 and I am at a loss for words as to how you dish out quality content on a regular basis. Thank you for helping me be a better human, David. I won’t let you down.

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David Cain April 25, 2019 at 9:33 am

Aw thanks

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Pandu Aji April 25, 2019 at 9:39 am

thank you for sharing :). make me think a lot

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Kevin April 25, 2019 at 9:43 am

As a fellow entrepreneur who struggles with staying on task and getting things done, I love this strategy. Just wish I had thought of this when I started my business over three years ago! However, there is no time like the present to make a change, and that I shall.

Thanks for the great content and keep it up!

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:35 am

Absolutely. Don’t say the same thing in three more years!

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Margaret Rode April 25, 2019 at 9:52 am

David, of all the astonishing things you’ve written over the years, this is the one I needed to hear right now. Like, right this very minute, as my pen hovers over my to-do list for the day, with tight shoulders and a cloudy mind. Thank you so very, very much for this.

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:36 am

Just write “Client wants this today” at the top :)

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Jason Reel-Haas May 14, 2019 at 12:33 pm

*astonished jaw drop*
That’s brilliant! I’m constantly talking with my counseling clients about writing letters to their future selves or doing something similar for a third-person view of their concerns, but I’ve struggled to provide a concrete way they can connect this to their everyday work!
Found your article through the Intelligent Change newsletter (5 minute journal) and I’m so glad I clicked through! Thank you for this valuable insight!

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Benjamin April 25, 2019 at 10:46 am

Me in two years is so glad I read this today. Thank you.

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:36 am

Best of luck to you and you in two years

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Kerri April 25, 2019 at 12:28 pm

I’m usually annoyed that you don’t publish more often. Mostly because one of my preferred ways to distract myself from my future self, Sally, or anything remotely important is to check in with my favorite writers. However, my annoyance disappears when I read something new — you consistently produce quality writing, and it’s worth the wait. Thank you!

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:37 am

Thanks Kerri. I no longer try to post every week so that when I do it can be good. Also, it’s hard to implement ideas when there are too many of them :)

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Sally April 25, 2019 at 12:40 pm

My name is actually Sally. I’m in the early-ish stages of an art business and I think I’ll try working for an imaginary “David”. Thanks for this. I enjoyed your article. :)

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:38 am

I’ll expect that spreadsheet done by Monday!

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Cathy April 25, 2019 at 1:19 pm

I am compelled express my exuberant appreciation for this article and you, Mr. Cain, its author. I’m a self employed widow working in the high tech defense contracting business I started w my husband 28 years ago. I am totally burned out and grieving and just started prioritizing that problem so that I can work towards a company exit as soon as possible, that is, just this week I really started working on that. And then poof, your article almost got deleted in my inbox, but was so timely, which is of course, no coincidence. So along with slowing down, being more mindful and doing meditative (mindless) activities, I am also now working for my future self who has sold the business, retired and lives in comfort and joy near the beach! I could not be more thankful for providing the exact clarity I needed.

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:39 am

That’s great … in my experience it’s crucial to be able to visualize or at least sense the personality of the person you’re working for. If you can clearly see her as retired, near the beach, and grateful for your hard work, it’s easier to do what you need to do today.

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Majella Laws April 25, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Excellent article – Thankyou

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Daniel McDougall April 25, 2019 at 5:46 pm

Hi David

This was a enjoyable read and a strategy I had not considered before. I look forward to implementing these strategies when I return to working next month.

Thank you for meeting me for coffee in Winnipeg. We spent Easter at a cabin in Pequot Lakes and are now in Iowa.

Sincerely,
Dan

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:40 am

Hi Dan! Good to meet you too. Best of luck to you in your new position.

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David Dunbar April 25, 2019 at 9:05 pm

This is brilliant and just what I needed to hear today. Many thanks!

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Barry April 25, 2019 at 10:38 pm

When you use reductionistic speak, reducing humans to Apes….you kind of disempower the human species. We are made in the image of God mate, not Apes…..even if it was through evolution……we are not Apes……or at least I am not, you can choose to be one if you like ;)

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David Cain April 26, 2019 at 11:44 am

Whatever your religious beliefs are, we are primates. Period. If you have a distaste for our similarity to other species that’s something for you to work out with yourself.

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Raisin mountaineer April 26, 2019 at 12:23 pm

I am a month away from retirement and this is a great image— I want to be active and productive AND I wonder what having no boss will be like— but I can clearly imagine what I want my life to be like in two years… now to break that down into useful pieces…

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Stubblejumpers Cafe April 26, 2019 at 12:29 pm

There are some really good ideas there and by gum I’m a-gonna keep them in mind! Thank ye kindly. -Kate, putting off doing the dishes

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Loren Bergeson April 26, 2019 at 2:06 pm

Wow, great idea. Fortunately, I have very concrete goals for where I want to be in 2 years. I think I’ll start writing weekly progress reports, and file them away to be looked at 2 years later. I’m sure it’ll be interesting in 2 years to see what my “contractor” is doing for me. And current me knows for sure those reports will be read *very* closely — and I can’t get away with fibbing either.

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Loren Bergeson April 26, 2019 at 3:21 pm

I just thought of another thing. A benefit of working for me + 2 years (instead of Sally) is that I no longer have to imagine I charge a lot. All the money I’m spending now is money my future self doesn’t get to have.

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Red kite April 28, 2019 at 5:10 am

This was so helpful, I’m glad I’m not the only one constantly struggling with incomprehensible emotional blocks to to doing the Next Logical Step.
Do you have any thoughts on how to apply this to non work goals? I find I have a similar problem progressing any kind of commitment – even when it’s something I want to do and nothing to do with earning money. Who is the client then? Still me in two years time I guess….

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Pebbles April 28, 2019 at 9:12 am

I really like this approach. I reach state pension age in Oct 2021 so I made this my goal last year. I am planning for my joy in retirement. It works very well and has taken the pressure off me but increased my overall rate of completion. I’m less stressed and much more productive.

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Mahmoud April 28, 2019 at 11:42 am

Nice strategy, David. Glad to hear it’s effective. There’s actually been some research done on this:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1948550619843931?journalCode=sppa

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Alireza April 29, 2019 at 3:49 am

The beauty of the image

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Valeria Pittaluga May 1, 2019 at 10:45 am

I’m always surprised at how pertinent your thoughts ALWAYS are to what goes on for me at the moment. I like it, I love it, Valeria in a couple of years is going to profusely thank you for this post. I can do it today however! Live long and prosperously, and keep giving me these pearls of wisdom as I go along… now let me stop the dillydallying, Valeria’s waiting for me to get some quality work done here …
Lots of love!

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Kenya May 3, 2019 at 2:44 am

Hi
Thanks for this David, I always think of my older self when I want to eat that third piece of chocolate cake. I don’t do it so I don’t add this extra weight to my future self. I will apply it to my to do list from now on. Thanks again

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Gustavo May 4, 2019 at 2:10 pm

Hi David,

Just a short note to say thanks for the inspiration. So you’ll be 40? I really tougth you were older!

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Sherwin Fernandes May 11, 2019 at 1:13 pm

David,

Thanks for being more human and sharing your wise thoughts on being productive. tbh when i hit rockbottom in a relation i used this theory of an imaginary friend whose going through what i am going (sounds absurd) but yes i just felt i stumbled on that again after reading your post.Times changed for good and happy this could be used in a way i didn’t think of

Cheers Maite

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Joel May 13, 2019 at 9:47 am

Love this David – I used to employ a similar tactic of imagining I embodied the traits of someone I really respected, but discovered it was all too easy to let the illusion slip, especially on the dark days of self-employment. Bringing it closer to home and being kind to our future selves seems like a powerful alternative.

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