Like many small business owners, I keep an ongoing to-do list. Mine is kept in a Microsoft Word document on my laptop, but other business owners I know keep lists in pocket notebooks, composition books, and even on their cell phone.
My to-do list (like almost every other small business owner I know) often gets overstuffed. To put it simply, I have too many things I need to do and not enough time to do them. If I'm not proactive, my to-do list gets longer and longer until it's essentially a useless document.
What's the solution to this reality of small business ownership? How do you manage that to-do list that grows faster than you can manage it?
I use three techniques for keeping my to-do list under control.
First, I never add anything that I could simply do right now in the next minute or two. If I recognize that I need to call someone up and get a piece of information that will take me about thirty seconds, I do it now, not later. If I need to restock the printer, I get up and restock the printer. If I need to have a chat with an employee, I do it now instead of adding it to the to-do list.
I usually just ask myself if I can do this in five minutes and if I have the next five minutes free. If the answer to both of these questions is in the affirmative, I simply take care of the task.
Second, I delegate as often as I possibly can. If a task can be done by someone else, I delegate it as soon as it comes on my plate.
For example, if I have a package that needs to be mailed, I will often ask someone who isn't currently engaged to take care of it. If I have a report that needs written, I usually leave the first draft to whichever person knows the information the best.
When delegating, I make clear what I want done to that person and I ask for a report when the task is done.
Finally, I commit, without fail, to a thorough weekly review and rewrite of my to-do list. My goal during that review is to pare the to-do list down to something that's reasonable to accomplish during the following week.
What does that "paring down" involve? For each item on the list, I ask myself whether or not that item is actually important for my goals for the business. Is this important? Or is it something that's just urgent without any true importance? I make an effort to discard as many as the items on the list as I can.
The real key is that this is a conscious decision for each item instead of a matter of necessity because my to-do list is clogged. I can decide for myself what the relative importance of the items are instead of simply running around putting out fires and letting important and less urgent things fall behind.
Together, these tactics help me keep my focus on the things that are actually important for my business instead of getting distracted by simple but time-consuming tasks that have urgency but no real long-term importance. The result? My time – the most valuable resource I have as a business owner – is spent in areas that are truly important for the long-term growth of my business, ensuring its health over the long haul.