For a small-business owner, being successfully productive doesn’t mean getting more done; it means completing what needs to get done in less time so you can quit living and breathing your business 24/7. It may sound counterintuitive, but successful business owners find that stepping back from the office or shop fosters creativity and builds energy.
Our productivity tips can help you create much-needed space for yourself—quality over quantity. We’ve targeted five of the biggest time sinks for small-business owners and identified key ways to wrangle those activities into productive chunks of time.
Sure, you can do every job at your business, but should you? “Most business owners start out doing it all, working 16 hours a day,” says Laura Stack, productivity expert and author of Execution IS the Strategy: How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. “But five years later, if you are still working a 16-hour day, then you are either a paranoid control freak or you haven’t hired the right staff.”
Small-business owners frequently find themselves handling mundane tasks that others could execute. “That doesn’t leverage your time or put money in your pocket,” Stack says. Having an MBA doesn’t mean you should be processing receipts and bills, for example.
Start breaking away from busywork with these tactics:
- Price yourself. Establish your target revenue, then divide that by number of work weeks and hours per week. Once you know your hourly rate, it’s easier to determine if you should take on a task or pay someone else to do it.
- Track your time. “So many small-business owners are running crazy and haven’t stepped back to look at where that time is going,” Stack says. Identify what you spend your day actually doing, she advises. “If you aren’t doing the things that give you joy, then you need to re-examine where you are spending your time.”
- Prioritize. What are the tasks that you, and only you, can do? Choosing inventory, hiring or giving media interviews, perhaps. Offering product samples, cutting checks or researching health insurance options, not so much. If someone else can do the work, then by definition it isn’t something that belongs to the business owner.
- Delegate. Find the right people on your team to fit the jobs that need to be done. And once they are in place, trust them to execute. Sure, you may do it better, but you will probably never grow your business or carve out down time by trying to do it all.
- Outsource. Find outside expertise to handle the occasional task that you shouldn’t be doing. For example, Stack hires a driver to take her to the airport so she can use that hour to focus on strategic thinking or returning critical phone calls.
Traveling business owners may mentally check out with a hotel room movie rental, a drink in the airport bar or a nap on the plane. But know that it’s a tradeoff.
“I really crank stuff out when I’m on the road because I want the down time when I get home,” says Jill McBride, owner of Forza Marketing in Cincinnati. “I’d rather push myself harder when I’m gone and not taking time from anyone else, so that when I’m home I can be more present.” McBride estimates she makes 15 to 20 business trips a year, both in the United States and Canada.
Try these road-warrior traveling tips for your next trip:
- Book multiple meetings. Try to fit in as many visits as possible so each trip has multiple objectives. For example, your ideal trip might include meetings with a supplier, an investor, a client and local media. Or perhaps you plan a networking breakfast with a local LinkedIn connection in your industry. Once you’ve booked your flight, start adding meetings to maximize your potential return for the trip.
- Take duplicates of everything and keep them packed in your bag, ready to go. This includes a spare laptop power cord, phone chargers and external battery chargers. Traveling uses more power than working from home base, so go prepared.
- Leverage the cab ride. “I can’t look at my phone in the car or I get horribly car sick,” McBride says. Instead, she returns phone calls. While you may not have as unpleasant of a reason as McBride, you could still use your downtime in the cab to get work done.
- Work without Wi-Fi. No signal? Then catch up on reading, or answer emails to batch send when you do get a signal. McBride uses Wi-Fi-free plane time to clean out computer files and her email inbox. “I never seem to make time to do that in the office,” she says.
Dedicated and enthusiastic small-business owners don’t usually have a problem with motivation when they work at home. Instead, the challenges tend to come from external sources—family members, delivery people, pets and friends eager to interrupt.
You may be perfectly comfortable just saying “no,” but the fact is that even brief interruptions can throw you off track. Sometimes that can be helpful, says Jennifer Nelson, owner of kids’ design firm Pumpkin Pie in Arlington, Massachusetts. “When the FedEx man comes, I sign for packages,” she says. “Otherwise I would just sit here and keep working.” These tricks can help ensure that you control your day at home, rather than it controlling you:
- Separate your office space. Make sure it has a door and is far from the kitchen and other social areas. If you work with other people in the house, use a sign on the door (Nelson uses a Post-it note) to warn them when you can’t be interrupted.
- Scrap your “to-do” list. Instead, move those tasks to your calendar by scheduling short blocks of time to focus on them. This creates a more realistic view of your available time and will also help track how you are actually spending your days.
- Get a dog. “If I haven’t gotten up from my desk for six or seven hours, I’m going to hit a wall,” Nelson says. “You need to take breaks, and having a dog is a huge help. He needs to go, and space away from the computer helps me work better because I can think better.”
- Gamify your workday. Nelson sets goals for her least favorite jobs and gives herself rewards when she completes them. “I make Tuesday and Thursday afternoons my client cold-call time,” she says, “and then I go take the dog for a walk.”
Chitchat, sidebar conversations, people arriving late, all talk and no action—nonproductive distractions can slip into our meetings. But it’s probably impossible to run a business without an occasional coming together of the staff, which is why frustrated business owners are always trying some new approach to maximize meeting effectiveness.
Beware of meeting gimmicks like walking meetings or the 24-minute meeting. Artificial constraints can make people uncomfortable and therefore even less likely to be productive. Mary Beth McIntire, CEO of nonprofit Comfort Zone Camp in Richmond, Virginia, focuses instead on the meeting goals and the best way to reach them. “I don’t mind having a standing time on my calendar for a team meeting,” McIntire says. “But I’m going to ask what we are trying to accomplish. If they can’t answer, then we are going to cancel the meeting. I’m a little harsh about it.” These guidelines will keep your meetings on track:
- Create an agenda. You already know this, but do you do it? Many meeting organizers often rely on the meeting topic to dictate an understood agenda. Having a simple agenda sets clear expectations for how much time will be spent on each topic and keeps people focused.
- Determine why the meeting is taking place. Before the meeting even starts, check with the organizer (or yourself) to answer this question. If it’s just a weekly team “check-in” meeting with no goals or agenda, it’s likely to quickly dissolve into wasted time.
- Ask, "What is the goal?" “I ask this about everything,” says McIntire. “It is so simple, but it will stop me dead in my tracks sometimes—'OK, I do not need to be doing this now.'” Stating the goal at the beginning of the meeting communicates to attendees what you expect from them.
Email and Social Media
Social media and email are key tools for small-business management, until you find yourself immersed in cat-in-a-box video clips. It’s easy to justify time spent on social media as “marketing,” but how do you keep yourself on track in a world full of click bait? These tips can help keep you and your team focused in the digital world.
- Set limits. Jennifer Nelson of Pumpkin Pie only checks her email three times each day. Mary Beth McIntire tries to quit checking email after 8 p.m. “It’s usually more like 9,” she admits. “I’m not always 100 percent, but it’s better than if I didn’t try.”
- Train the staff. Establish team discipline by setting company-wide expectations for digital use. Jill McBride of Forza Marketing requires all new hires to read The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You. The key is to create a common structure and, more importantly, to stick to it.
- Have a plan. McIntire relies on overall business goals to guide her social media browsing. Although McIntire scans a lot of material about nonprofit management, she only keeps reading or takes action if it is within one of the organization’s focus areas.
Business owners bring a high level of passion to their work, but that passion often means that everything else comes second. “They tend to work far too many hours at the expense of personal time and family time,” says productivity expert Laura Stack. “But time for health, for volunteering, community work, whatever gives you joy will recharge your batteries and give you the energy to devote to work.”
And that is when the magic happens—when business owners map out strategic visions, find creative insights and dream up new product or service ideas.
Read more articles on productivity.
This article was originally published on August 12, 2014.