I dunno about you, but I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately. Take the daily grind of juggling running a business with family commitments, add all the expectations to show up everywhere, be on every platform, say yes to everything… top it with the stress that builds up during a couple of years of global pandemic, and add in a war, political polarisation, looming climate changes. It’s a lot. With everything going on in the world right now, do we really need to add to the stress by placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves as business owners? Is there a way to find balance in a business world that seems to be stuck in the hustle or nothing mentality? Can we be productive without hustling, or is that sheer utopia?
That’s what I’ll be talking about with my guest; productivity mentor Jenna Hellberg, in this episode.
Jenna’s a recovering busy person living in the San Francisco Bay area. She’s run a documentary family photography business since 2014, which is how she got suuuper familiar with overwhelm and overworking.
A couple of years ago she leaned into her experience as a business owner, her training as a psychologist, and her background as a Finn to figure out practical ways to be more productive without the hustle. It made her excited to start supporting small business owners to do the same. Her approach is holistic and collaborative, and the types of business owners she works with tend to care deeply about the people they serve.
When she’s not working, she’ll take any excuse to head out for a hike with her partner Marcus and their australian shepherd Nova.
Ready to hear what wisdom Jenna has to share with us? Let’s go!
Disclaimer: The following transcript has been auto-generated and then cleaned up – and while the general flow of the conversation is there, it’s probably not 100% accurate.
P: Jenna! A huge big warm welcome to you.
I am so excited that we’re finally getting to have this conversation. We have been messaging back and forth about this for what seems like ages, so it’s about time that we actually do it, don’t you think?
J: Yes, it’s funny, because I’ve probably listened to like over 30 of your episodes by now, so it feels a little surreal to be in here. Wow, I’m so excited. You’ve been with me on a lot of dog walks.
P: I’m honoured! And also, I think that what we are going to be talking about today is something that’s going to resonate with many small business owners and entrepreneurs. It’s something I think we don’t talk enough about at all. And that’s how to find balance in a business world that seems to be stuck in the hustle or nothing mentality. So, can we be productive without hustling – and and how? And I know that you have a thing or 10 to say about this, but before we dive in, I would love to invite you to, in your own words, set the tone for the episode by telling us briefly what our listeners can expect to learn from tuning in today.
J: So I very much want to share these three key things that everyone can do to strengthen, to be able to be more productive and experience more balance as business owners. But before we get into that, I think it’s also really important to talk about what are the reasons why we end up taking on too much and get stuck in that hustle mode, which is, quite honestly, not the same as being productive.
P: Ah, thanks for clearing that up, but it seems to me like there is a little bit of a shift happening these days. I don’t know. Maybe it was the pandemic and the lockdowns that sped up the process. But there seems to be more and more business owners realising that working ourselves into a frazzle isn’t going to be sustainable in the long run, and more and more business owners are wanting to jump off the hamster wheel. So I want to start us off by asking, Why do you think we take on too much in the first place?
J: Well, I think one of the biggest things that happens for us business owners is taking influences from the outside. So when we first start out, we look to others for ideas, for how to do this business thing, how to get clients. And it is. It is kind of natural in the beginning when we feel like we’re not sure about what to do or we have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to actually marketing and selling the thing that we’re good at. So it can be helpful at that point to look at what others are doing and maybe model after them a little bit. But then as time goes on, we might pick up more and more things into our businesses because there’s so much information out there, what we could do.
There’s so many people that we could try to model ourselves after, and there’s not enough information on how to simplify and be selective of the things that we do. And maybe we even start to discount the way that we got our first clients or customers because that wasn’t part of one of those expert approved five steps systems. Surely we’ve got to get clients in some more legit way for it to count.
P: Yeah, you know, I see this with branding too, you know, people will see these successful brands. They’ll try to copy them because they are having doubts about their own brand and so they try to replicate someone else’s recipe for success, and then they wonder why it’s not working for them. And I think the problem with that, it’s a one size fits all approach. And it just doesn’t work because there isn’t a one size fits all solution for brand creation, and what’s worked for one brand doesn’t necessarily work for your brand. And the reason why the copycat approach doesn’t work in most cases, I think it’s because, yeah, we’ve not taken the time to step back and think about who we are and how we want to do things and how we want to be seen.
But it’s true what you say. It’s hard not to be influenced because we are bombarded with information like literally, anywhere we turn.
J: Yes, well, on that note, another thing that makes us take on too much is that our brains are psychologically and biologically and culturally wired to do more when we try to solve a problem or when we try to just make something work and then pressure and urgency amplify this tendency. Trying all the things in a stressful situation was a helpful behaviour, you know, a long time ago when we only had these in the moment problems like being chased by a bear.
But in this modern world, it’s a problem because we’re just never out of potential things that feel stressful or potential things that we could pour time and energy into to try the soul of those stressful things. And one of those obvious sources of that pressure is influences from others and trying to mimic everybody else. But then there are other other sources, like being stressed about making an income to survive in this world…
P: I keep raising my hand here by the way, this one resonates.
J: Yeah, and then there can be those kind of less tangible sources for that stress too. Like maybe we’re not living up to the expectation we had from the business. Yet when the business isn’t the success that we had imagined. Or that pressure can also come from your family. Like maybe a partner doesn’t like that you’re spending so much time on the business. Or maybe there’s a parent or a sibling who just kind of doesn’t get what it is that you’re really doing. So you want to make money as soon as possible to prove that you’re actually doing something valuable.
P: You’re having me nodding along all the way. Uh, I definitely can recognise the expectations of myself. I am forever going “I’m almost six years in, I should be further along by now, right?” And then, although I have a really supportive partner, I’m so, so lucky. I know not everyone has that support at home, but he’s like he’s always supported me, even like when I’m not making enough money in my business, and he has to actually support us financially. Sometimes he’s like, No, but this is like a joint project. We’re in this together, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m never, ever letting you go.” But even though he’s supportive, I still don’t like it. I don’t like having to rely on other people, you know, it’s stressful.
J: Yeah, for sure. I have that same situation at home, and it’s tricky, like it’s tricky to sort of convince your nervous system that we’re okay. We have a supportive partner, we’re fine financially for now because there’s all that other pressure that’s coming on.
And the thing is that the more stress we feel about business the more we spin our wheels and hustle until we have nothing left to give. And we maybe even become like a couch potato for a few days because we’ve just like we’re done for a little.
P: Sometimes that’s probably what we need.
J: Well, yeah, but there’s also a difference in taking that break intentionally versus, like your body saying “This is what we’re doing now. You have no choice anymore.”
P: That’s true.
J: Then we maybe don’t spend that break in a way that’s actually restorative.
P: Yeah, that’s true. And I think there’s a lot of guilt around the sort of rest, and rest being, uh, something that you have to earn somehow. But it’s not. Rest is a fundamental, basic human need. You don’t have to earn rest, but I think I think that could probably be linked with how highly productivity is valued in our society as a whole. You know, it seems to be like the norm, like productivity, produce, produce, produce, hustle, hustle, hustle, output, output output, which I think it just sends us into this spiral of toxic productivity in a way.
J: Yeah, for sure. And it’s funny when we talk about toxic productivity, also it’s often about looking productive versus actually being productive. There’s this Finnish performance artist who does these little experiments to point out sort of problematic norms in our society. She’s called Pilvi Takala. She went to work at an accounting firm where she’d often seemingly be doing nothing except sit at her desk while staring into space. And if people came up to her and asked her, “What’s up? What are you doing?” She’d tell them that she was doing thought work, which you know is pretty important, especially in creative industries.
Sometimes she’d go up and down in the elevator and people would kind of come up to her and be like you doing thought work again and she would tell them that it helps her see things from a different perspective. And so because it seemed like she wasn’t doing anything productive, it was causing this major restlessness amongst everyone else. They were like sending emails back and forth. They were, like urgent, urgent memos sent between people of like, What do we do about this new recruit? But there’s really nothing new about people spending time on unproductive things at work, like scrolling social media.
But because she was visibly not doing anything on her computer, it was somehow less okay. So it’s funny how someone just looking unproductive can cause so much discomfort for other people.
P: I know, right? I mean, that’s actually that’s really thought provoking. Um, and it’s true. I’ve actually I’ve often felt that guilt, you know, not being at my desk when I was quote unquote supposed to when really a walk and maybe some fresh air or even a nap would probably make me even more productive, you know, So it’s like, but that guilt that’s hard to shift.
J: Yes, 100% It’s funny, but I keep learning over and over again that the more I feel like I need to push something, the more I need to solve a problem, an idea or something in my business, the more I actually just need a break and and I don’t know, like I’ve solved so many things in our business by just taking my dog out for a walk in the middle of the day because, like just trying to push and force does not work for me.
P: Same same. My best ideas are when I’m out hiking. But still I still, like, feel that pang of guilt that when my client asks me “So how come this phase of the project takes 3 to 4 weeks? And how come you don’t show me anything in that time?” Like, I feel that they want to see something in this messy creative phase where really I don’t have anything to show them, but what is going on inside my own head butt? And that’s me after 20 years doing this. So if I still haven’t been able to shift it, it’s no wonder people who are fresher in business can’t shift the same thought patterns.
J: Oh, that’s true. Oh, well, speaking of thought patterns, kind of. The third thing that I see is a big reason why we sort of stay busy. But don’t feel productive. We kind of feel productive. But we actually don’t feel like we accomplished stuff because our brains are not actually wired to prioritise, to steer us towards tasks that are important but not urgent.
Our brain just wants us to do things that are quick and easy, that we get quick and easy rewards for or towards tasks that feel urgent, because there’s kind of a sense of some kind of immediate negative consequence from not doing that thing, even if it’s just a piece of FOMO. FOMO can feel like a really bad negative consequence to your brain.
P: Yeah, so this is probably why my brain likes it when I make a to-do list and I actually put on there a few things that I’ve already done so I can tick them off?
J: I do the same.
P: I feel like it’s very motivating. Sometimes
J: It is, it is.
P: Some people don’t get it. But the people who do get it, they get it.
J: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly it. And well, I like using that trick sometimes, like some sort of creative thinking or problem solving, like a task with a checkbox to trick my brain, that this is something we should do. So being in that reactive mode, only doing things that feel urgent, or, like instant wins that eat up the time that we could use to focus on impactful tasks like planning or seeking out collaborations, getting on somebody’s podcast, things that would actually help us feel like we have spent our time productively, like we had accomplished something – because often these most impactful things that we can do aren’t these tasks and activities that the brain considers urgent or or easy.
P: Wow. OK, people let that sink in for a bit because that was so good, so good. All right, You know, I like to be actionable about things and to help people with some solutions. So how do we go about fixing this? A little bird told me that you might have a way for us to approach this. So would you like to tell us a little bit about your method?
J: Yes, I would love to. It’s funny because actually this idea came to me over the summer last year, and I’ve recently gotten to, like, evolve it. So I’m really excited to get to talk to somebody when it’s like, sort of in real time happening. So thanks to my Finnish upbringing and my experience as a business owner, but also my training as a psychologist, I’ve developed this this three part ecosystem that supports your productivity and helps you keep showing up long term for your business without having to resort to hustle and all of that stuff that we’ve talked about.
P: I love the sound of this.
J: So the first piece in the productivity ecosystem is wholeness. So, like you already mentioned before, Constant hustle is not sustainable because We’re human business owners with human needs, So we need to balance our work with living a life outside of it and taking care of ourselves outside of our business. So when you feel physically and mentally and emotionally, well, you do better with just everything you put your energy into. And it’s not just something that I’ve seen, you know anecdotally in my life or in other people’s lives.
We know from research that when people feel well, when people feel happy, they are more productive, they are more effective at work and businesses that have happier, more balanced employees. They see faster progress and higher profits than other businesses. So I think that we need to really start believing that how we’re doing matters and appreciating our well being, over work on a bigger scale and also, when we feel well, our brains aren’t super hungry for those instant winds that we talked about earlier, and that means that we have a bit more patients, a bit more brain space to tackle those more important tasks that we know would help us move the needle.
That would help us get further in business. But when we don’t feel well, they can just feel too overwhelming to take on.
P: Also: taking the anti hustle stance could actually differentiate your brand in a world that is literally full of gurus telling you that you need to constantly be on. So I really appreciate the shift that I’m seeing these days, where more and more people are jumping off the hustle train. And if you can be part of that movement from the beginning, I mean that can bring benefits to your brand.
So if we think about how some of the most well known players in the online business sphere, for example, are where they are now simply because they jumped on that train early, before the rest of the world kind of caught up to doing business on the Internet. So I think that’s a perspective that we can also bring into this.
J: Yeah, that reminds me it’s been really interesting just to pay attention and notice that many of these big names that have been on that hustle train for a long time, where their platform has been like the hustle thing. Suddenly they’ve been, like, silent for a few months, or even maybe a year. And then suddenly they re-emerge on podcasts and write books about their burnout experience and how you need balance to make your business a thing long term. And that makes me go like, “Oh, yeah, it didn’t actually work out well, did it?”
P: It’s actually kind of funny, but also sad.
J: It’s kind of a funny story, for sure, and I wasn’t immune to that either. Like that’s why I do this: I learned from my experience
P: …and now you’re here talking to us about it so that we can learn from your mistakes and not have to go through them ourselves. It’s very generous of you to do that.
J: So we’ve covered the first piece, which is wholeness, and then the 2nd piece to the ecosystem is design. So overall, just making sure that solutions are practical and sustainable and simple and innovative is very much at the heart of Finnish design, whether that’s for physical objects or for systems for how to do things, so particularly in business, I feel like This is about putting in place systems and practises and having offers and services that support you and that make you or help you use your time in an effective way.
And just making sure that your workload is sustainable is a very important piece of this. So this means you’ve got to know which tasks actually make an impact in your business and reduce the rest as much as possible, because when when you have less on your plate, it’s so much easier to kind of set boundaries around your work, too, Like when you stop working for the day and having your weekends off and things like that.
P: I love how you spoke about design as not being just like making things look pretty, because a lot of people when people hear design, they just think, Oh, it’s something that looks good. We need to make it look good. But in reality, design is much more about making something work. It’s problem solving. And yeah, so obviously, yes, you can design your systems, you can design your services, but also if we move it back to the visuals again. Streamlining can also include things like your visual brand identity systems. So when you have a system for all of the visual assets for your brand, that kind of takes all the guesswork out of things for you, so you can produce your graphics, say, for your instagram account. Or you can put out reports and you can make sure that everything you put out is cohesive and recognisable and staying consistent. Um, so that you can get that brand recognition. And when you have that system in place, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you put something out and you know not only will it probably – not probably, definitely – make your life easier just because you don’t have to use your brain capacity to think about what things would look like. But also it can make your brand stronger because people will recognise you for every time they see you. So I think that’s kind of a win-win situation.
J: Yes, for sure, I love that. I love that.
P: Yeah, so that was piece number two, design. The third piece… I’m really curious about it because you’re going to bring in a Finnish term, and I love it when people bring their background and their culture into what we’re going to be talking about. So please tell us what is the third step.
J: So the third piece is sisu. There is no direct translation for this Finnish word to English. But it’s this national trait that we are very proud of. That’s all about showing up with spirit and grit and determination for the things that we want to accomplish. It’s an attitude towards challenges. Basically, it’s the way we approach things that matter to us, even when they’re challenging, even when things are hard. And what I see happen amongst many small business owners is that when they’re not seeing…
Actually, I need to say this first: everyone I talk to already has a bunch of sisu in them. You don’t need to be Finnish to have sisu, so you already have sisu – that’s how you’ve gotten this far. But what I see happen amongst many small business owners is that when they’re not seeing the results that they like fast enough, these results are often tied to, like the size of their audience or the amount of sales that they’re making. But when you’re not seeing that happen, you start feeling depleted. It chips away at the system, so I think that ultimately this is because most people are motivated by so many other things than money.
But because the focus in business is for very understandable reasons on money, we forget to make sure that we also use other types of indicators as validation for doing something right, that we’re on the right track. So you need to know what drives you. You need to know why you’re doing this thing in the first place.
P: You know why I love that? Because, your why is also something I work with my clients on when we do brand strategy together. It’s actually one of the elements that make up the core of your brand.
So it’s the stuff that you really can’t skip. It’s what everything else is based around, so it totally makes sense to me that we should also allow that to seep into every other part of our business.
J: Yes, and then another thing to think about when it comes to sisu, is that it’s not just about business. We need to actually have other ways of feeling fulfilled and happy than our businesses, so that we can strengthen our system with other things than the revenue results that we create in our business. We need to have other things that make us feel like there’s a purpose for us being on this planet other than seeing business metrics go up.
P: That’s food for thought and this is a bit of a side note and I know that we haven’t planned about talking about this. But when you say it that way and the way that you have to sort of balance out your your business with other things that make you fulfilled, I think now that so many of us have been working from home offices, that sort of boundary between work and other type of enjoyment, it’s not so clear anymore, necessarily. And especially because we’ve not been able to go out and do all the things that we used to enjoy, and and so it’s easy to just sort of “Oh, but you know I can’t go to a concert tonight like what I would have done on a Friday night because there’s a pandemic, I may as well just bring out my laptop to work, you know, because I’m just sitting here anyways…” and so I kind of have this theory that it’s making it harder for us to balance because some of the things that we used to balance business out with have been taken away from us. Hopefully that will change a little bit now that the world is opening up again.
J: Yeah, well, that’s a really good point to bring up. I think when there are things that we could or that we wouldn’t normally do. But for whatever circumstance we can’t… like, it doesn’t just have to be a pandemic, but it can be… something just happens in our personal lives where an option we used to do goes away for a while or permanently. So I think it’s really easy to get stuck on “I can’t do that exact thing, so I can’t do anything”. During the pandemic, there were a lot of people that were like, “Well, I can’t go to the gym. Therefore, I cannot be healthy.” But a good chunk of people started going out for runs or doing something else than going to the gym. So I think it will help them to think about things like, “Okay, what do I actually usually get out of doing that thing like going to a concert? What is it that I’m missing and then try to get a feel for what else could I do where I can get that same feeling or at least something similar?”
P: That’s a really, really good idea. Actually, that was a bit of a side note. So those were all of the three parts of your ecosystem, right? So tell us a little bit about how they work together.
J: Yeah, that’s where I kind of feel like the true magic happens because you need all of them to sort of feed into each other. So when you mix wholeness with design, you increase your creativity because when you feel well, you’re more likely to think clearly and have more creative out of the box ideas. And then when you mix sisu with wholeness, you increase your capacity because when you have both the energy that you get from taking care of yourself and you have that grit and determination, it just makes you stronger and less likely to give up on the things that you’re working towards like your little solo business.
And then when you mix design and sisu, you get this really great base for iteration, you’re more likely to have that energy to tweak and refine until you find what works for your business and to refine things again and again when they don’t work for you anymore, instead of, you know, just getting kind of stuck in that feeling of like, well, things aren’t working out And I’ve done something wrong and you just see the solutions more than the problems. I think I love this. It’s like they all balance each other out.
P: Yes, which is kind of the point of this whole episode really – looking at how you can find that balance so that you can be in business for the long run and not end up burnt out and quitting. So I know from experience that building a solid brand takes a long time. And I know that we need to run our businesses in a way that we avoid burnout if we want to keep doing what we love and outlast everyone else, and I like to compare it really to it being a marathon rather than a sprint. If you’re a marathon runner, you know how to pace yourself. You know how to portion out your energy and I’m kind of guessing that could come into play here as well, when you kind of know all the moving bits and pieces and you know how to make them work and how to pace yourself…
J: For sure. And I’m going to borrow a metaphor that just really my business mentor coach person talks about. So when you run a marathon, you know where you’re going, you can plan for it, you train for it, you pace yourself so you don’t feel that sense of immediate urgency, and you can make great decisions.
And I like to think of it as like, even if you’re running a marathon and suddenly there’s construction in the way or something, because you know where you’re going, you can still sort of map out in your head like how you can take a little detour. But when you’re running because you’re running away from a threat to your running away from a bear, let’s say you’re just taking steps in every which way. That seems helpful and you don’t really have a clear destination to move towards. You just want to get out of there.
So that kind of sounds like hustling to me like you’re just going, going, going and trying to get out of whatever it is you’re trying to hustle your way out of instead of like, feeling calmer and more collected and going towards like a clear thing.
P: Indeed! This has been amazing. Thank you so much for this conversation! Before we round off, I would like to ask you a final question, and that is, if you could give our listeners one simple tip, something that they could take away and implement today without too much fuss. What would that be?
J: Well, if you have trouble following through with tasks that are those important ones, or if you’re having trouble with boundaries, you’re working late or if you often feel like you aren’t that motivated to tackle the big picture stuff that you know would boost your business forward. It might be a sign that something’s off balance in your productivity ecosystem. So I would love to encourage you to think about these three areas wholeness, design and sisu and try to get a feel for for which one is in like that that needs some support right now the most, and then maybe just brainstorm like 10 things you could do to strengthen that part of the ecosystem.
And don’t edit yourself as you’re coming up with these ideas. Just jot them down with no judgement, and then pick one idea that feels most interesting, most fun or most easy to do, and then make a plan for when and how you’ll do it, and then just see how it affects how you feel throughout your work weeks. Does it change something? Do you get more energy? Do you get more excited? That’s really like a one simple thing that I would do.
P: I love it, and for anyone who’s listening, we are going to be linking to your methods so that they can have a visual of it, look at it – and that way, it’s probably going to be easier to visualise in different parts and how they move in relation to each other.
Well, we could stay here and talk forever and ever, but we’re going to have to round off in just a few minutes. But before we do that, if my listeners now want to connect with you, learn more from you, maybe even reach out to you and work with you. How can they connect with you? Where do they find you?
J: Well, I also have a podcast which we just recorded an episode for together before we jumped onto this one. So that’s a really good place. The podcast is called Building Balance, and over there I share more thoughts and ideas around how to be more productive while also having work life balance.
And then one of the things that many business owners ask me is how they can actually get themselves to do the impactful tasks that they plan to do. So that’s one of the things that I help people with, and you can find all that information on how to work with me on my website, and I’m @thejennahellberg on Instagram I hang out there a good amount and would love to have conversations in the DMs about all of the stuff that we’ve just talked about.
And I’m happy to answer any questions about my services there, too. I’ve collected links to all of the above in one spot at jennahellberg.com/hello. So that’s like the easiest place to go.
P: That’s clever. One easy place to go. Thank you so much once again for being a guest on the Brand it! podcast. It’s been an absolute joy to share this conversation with you.
J: Thank you so much for having me on. This was really fun.
PS! I have decided I want to connect with more awesome people in 2022. If you’d like to grab a virtual cuppa with me, find a time here.
Until next time,
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