by • August 21, 2018 • Career Entrepreneurship, Funding & investmentComments (1)1712

Calendar time vs clock time (AKA why “should I quit my job?” is a bad question)

You’re talented, driven, and trying to decide whether or not to quit your job to start a business. This seems like a good and important question with which to wrestle. But it’s not, because it’s phrased in a way which contains a massive and misleading assumption.

Going full-time on your startup does two things:

  1. It gives you 8ish productive hours per day to invest in your new business
  2. It begins burning through your savings and runway

Now, spending your savings is fine. After all, that’s why you saved it. But you want to ensure you’re spending it productively. And the “should I quit?” mentality prevents you from doing so.

Starting a company involves two different types of work, which each require a different type of time.

The first type of work is stuff like programming, writing documents, and designing products. In these cases, investing one extra hour yields one extra unit of progress[1]. When this is what’s holding you back, then you need as many hours as you can get and going full-time will make you faster, and thus more likely to succeed. This is called “clock time” because progress is directly related to the number of hours you can put in.

The second type of work involves long, multi-day stretches of waiting. Imagine, for example, that you’ve been introduced to a potential customer and are waiting for them to respond (and then waiting for the scheduled meeting to arrive). You might also find yourself waiting on yourself while you make an important decision. Or waiting for enough data to come in from your latest website or marketing experiment. This is called “calendar time” because progress requires sitting back and waiting for the days to pass. For these tasks, sitting at your computer for an extra hour adds absolutely zero additional value.

Quitting your job and going full-time is useful for “clock time” tasks, but not for “calendar time” tasks. And in the earliest stages of the business, the stuff you should be working on is more “calendar” than “clock”.

The first steps in a new business generally shouldn’t involve sinking countless hours into writing code, writing documents, and designing logos. Instead, your very first steps are usually to understand your customers’ lives/goals/problems, to talk to industry experts, and to decide whether the business fits your goals. Or in other words, the early tasks in a new startup are more “calendar time” and less “clock time”. Which means that going full-time is a bit fruitless, since you don’t actually have a productive way to invest the extra hours.

If you’ve got a job and want to start having a startup, then “should I quit” is the wrong question. Instead, ask yourself how you can make the most progress during your mornings and lunch break. You won’t be able to design and code a whole product, but you don’t need to just yet, since you probably wouldn’t be building the right thing anyway. And a lunch break is plenty of time to set up some conversations with potential customers to learn more about their problems and current behaviour.

After talking to a few people, you may find that you need some product mockups (or whatever) to confirm that you’re heading in the right direction. That task might take a couple days (clock time), and it might be tough to find enough good hours alongside a full-time job. But instead of quitting, why not take some vacation days and use them to do enough of the work to reach the next stage in your conversations[2]? You’ll eventually reach a point in your conversations where, for example, a bunch of people are desperate to use (or even pay for) your product, but the product doesn’t yet exist. That’s a gap which can only be filled with more hours, and it’s a great reason to quit your job and take the leap.

Can you now see the faulty assumption hidden within the innocent-seeming question of, “Should I quit my job to start a startup?”

The assumption is that you need to be full-time in order to start doing anything at all on your startup. But you don’t. Many of the most important early-stage tasks won’t go any faster with 40 hours a week than they will with 4. Having the full 40 will simply cause you to sit at your desk and waste 36 on low-value activities which feel like work but which don’t actually move the needle. I’ve talked to aspiring (but doomed) founders who have spent 2 years at their job to save up 6 months of runway, and then wasted half of it doing stuff that they could have done on their lunch break. They soon notice that half their savings is gone and progress hasn’t been as significant as they would have hoped. The stress sets in, and from there it’s a vicious cycle until they decide that they’re “financially forced” to go back and get another job.

So don’t ask yourself whether you should quit to start. Ask yourself how you can start right now, in spite of and alongside your other commitments. You can make more progress than you think with just a couple hours per week. And once you find yourself blocked by large “clock time” tasks, then take the leap with confidence, knowing that you’ve maximised your savings and made the most of your runway.



[1] This assumes you aren’t burned out and that you are using the day’s good hours. You get massively diminishing returns on the hours invested beyond the point of exhaustion.

[2] Careful of your employer’s IP policy here. If they own everything you do, then you obviously need to limit your on-the-side tasks to talking, learning, and thinking.

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One Response to Calendar time vs clock time (AKA why “should I quit my job?” is a bad question)

  1. Great insights and it’s important to remember that it’s not only your lunch breaks you can use for “starting up”. If you set aside everything else you can easily get 20 hours of work done during a weekend. One hour of work before/after your day job adds 5 more hours per week.

    So you can easily work 20-25 hours per week on your startup without quitting your job.

    Another important thing is outsourcing/delegation. If you realise you need to put a lot of “clock time”, it doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself! Hire someone else to do it for you and then you only have to spend time coordinating the work.

    In that way you can transfer clock time into calendar time again, since all you do is “sit around waiting” for the other person to complete the clock time-bound tasks.

    If you deal with physical products you will also have to endure a lot of calendar time while the products are produced and then shipped to you or your customers. All that can easily add up to 3-12 months of “just waiting”.