Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Difference Between "Money Work" and "Busy Work"

In your business, agency, or solo shop, you’re probably familiar with the idea of creative work vs. non-creative work. You also probably know of the famous Pareto principle, which states that 20 percent of inputs are responsible for 80 percent of outcomes.To get creative work done, you have to be willing to block off time and focus on deliverables instead of the email of the moment. But how does this apply to the money side of what you do—how do you determine which actions are money-generating vs. busy work?

Regardless of your business model, I always encourage creatives to “show themselves the money”—to dedicate specific blocks of time to focus on money-generating activities and ignore everything else that detracts from that purpose.

Money-generating activities will vary greatly depending on industry, but a few of them include:

  • Developing products and services
  • Creating a product from a service-based business (or a service from a product-based business)
  • Performing paid consulting calls or visits
  • Writing to existing customers or clients with a promotion or reminder
  • Widening the net by reaching out to new prospects and customers
  • Building an affiliate or referral program
  • Otherwise increasing income and sales, the lifeblood of your business

And here’s a quick rundown of busy work:

  • Anything else.

Note that some busy work is inevitable; it’s not all bad. Most of us still have to file paperwork or sit in unproductive meetings at least some of the time. But the point is that busy work does not bring in new sales or new revenue, which is the main goal of a business—no matter what kind of business you own or work in.

When you get up in the  morning and start the day, or when you plan your upcoming week, think about business development and whatever brings you income. Then, be sure to plan at least some of your activities around those things.

The good news is that there are only two ways to increase income: bring in new customers, or sell more to existing customers. All actions, plans, and tactics fit into one of these two categories.

In my business I like to focus on both of them at the same time, identifying one or two actions from each category that I can implement quickly.  A few suggestions for each category are listed below.

Important: Not all of these ideas will work for you—the idea is to focus on one or two that will and put them to good use.

Ways to Bring in New Customers:

  • Post a special offer on Twitter or other social networks
  • Sell your initial offering at a loss; plan to convert customers on a second, higher offer
  • Add a special “email only” promotion at the bottom of your email signature (this is effectively a passive, all-new source of income)
  • Offer to help new customers for free, then include an additional paid offer as part of the deal
  • Ask happy customers (existing ones) to post reviews and endorsements. Studies show that both the quality and quantity of reviews greatly affects purchasing decisions
  • Post a free ad on Craigslist (but don’t spam them)
  • Add your product or service as a one-time auction on eBay (in addition to the one sale, you’ll also reach people you wouldn’t otherwise reach)
  • Produce a contest with a big prize, or offer a giveaway with a smaller prize
  • Look for sites that feature local news—like,, or the equivalent for your city—and pitch them on a short story
  • Go big and pitch a major blog or agency site on a guest post or special feature (it can be hard to break in, but if they select something of yours it can get a huge amount of traffic)

Once you have a good offer with happy customers or clients, the second option (selling more to existing customers) is often easier. It will also help you build a more sustainable business. A few ideas that fit this second category are listed below. Will one or more work for you?

Ways to Make More Sales to Existing Customers

  • Incentivize existing customers to purchase more or refer friends (or both)
  • Offer a customer discount (but be careful not to discount too much, or customers begin to expect it)
  • Make sure you understand your customers’ needs. Is there something else you could do that they would happily pay for?
  • As mentioned earlier, can you make a service to complement your product—or a product to compliment your service? This is usually an easy, natural expansion.
  • If you sell at the low-end, create a high-end product to serve as an anchor for your other products (see: everything that Apple sells)
  • You can also carefully do the opposite—move from the high-end to the low-end, while being careful not to cannibalize sales of your core offering
  • Offer your customers a specific affiliate promotion for a related product or service
  • Create a special offer for customers only (“exclusively available in-house”)
  • Create urgency (not false scarcity) around an existing product or offer
  • Raise prices and tell people in advance, allowing them time to purchase at the lower price

Consider these ideas and think of your own. Make a list, and then get to work making the list come to life. A healthy business or creative practice grows in two ways: first, as you improve your skills and become better at your specific trade. But the second way is through money.Either way, your business will grow if you make it grow. Are you doing that?

More insights on: Clients, Money

Chris Guillebeau

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Chris Guillebeau's new book, The Happiness of Pursuit, details how anyone can bring meaning into their life by undertaking a quest. He also writes for a small army of remarkable people at
load comments (7)
  • Marcus Schaller

    You’re so right about the time-sucks that can drag us down if we let them. I think one of the challenges is that many people don’t feel like they can control the revenue producing stuff, but they feel effective at the busy work. Being busy can make us feel productive, even if we’re really getting nothing of importance completed.

    I’ve been seeing your book everywhere I look and love the concept. Definitely next on my reading list. Thanks for the post Chris :)

  • David Wilson

    Some great tips here. It’s all too easy to get caught procrastinating, or begin doing tasks that while useful are not essential. I think a great way of limiting the amount of busy work is to create a day by day plan split into something like Marketing, New Customers, Existing Customers. Then have a list of tasks to do in these periods of time.  

  • Beatitudect

    Struggling with his at this very moment. You have to get the balance right otherwise as you say the busy work takes over and nothing gets down. Productivity is hard to nail down, especially if you work online.  Thanks for the thoughts

  • Jamie Alexander

    Does browsing through your favorite blogs count as work, lol.

    That’s a good point: blocking off time to carry out money tasks.

  • Chris Fasan

    Great article. Compulsive busy work is a huge problem for many people, especially at  more executive positions. So easy to burn hours on things that dont get you any closer to the big picture accomplishments.

    Got a copy of The $100 Startup at the Behance portfolio review event we hosted last night at here my design studio ( Will definitely give it a read!

  • James

    Great post Chris!

    I always check out 99% for ideas when it comes to LifeSketch –  and ways to improve at my day job. As I was reading all I could think is “I really like what this guy is saying!” So I scrolled back up to check out the author and realized it was you. haha. Still great work once again!

    To Everyone – I’ve been going through Chris’ Empire Building program –…  for the past four months and it’s really been a growing process with great guidance. His new book  was amazing as well. Just figured I’d let you all know they are definitely worth it, and if you have any for me that you suggest, my eyes are open for you!



  • Qube Social

    Really enjoyed this article as it reminded us of some of the steps we currently following as a company. I like the post so much that i decided to buy Chris Book! $100 star tup i been hooked all week currently on page 200.

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