I have a confession to make: Time management has never been one of my strong suits. Since launching my own business eight years ago, however, I've worked hard to get better at it, and I'm constantly devouring tips and hacks for making my days more productive.
An Internet search for "productivity hacks" or "time management hacks" can return hundreds of thousands of results, and there are days when I feel like I've read all of them. While the idea of "hacks" may appeal to us all, promising an instant fix, the time management tips that truly work the best may require making long-term changes in your approach to business—but the results can be worth it.
Here are the physical, mental and operational productivity tips that have worked best for me and my business partners.
Physical Productivity Hacks
- Get up early. If you're a parent, your kids may be making demands on you in the morning; once you get to the office, your employees are likely doing the same. It may be tough, but getting up before everyone else can help you get more accomplished without interruptions. Even if you use the time to meditate or exercise rather than work, you may benefit from the increased energy and focus you gain.
- Exercise. One of my business partners relies on running to clear her head and gain both mental and physical energy. The other says she gets her best ideas during her daily morning walks. It's taken me a long time to appreciate the value of exercise, but after recently beginning a regular routine, I can already see the results.
- Fuel up wisely. Keep your energy high by eating the right foods that fuel your body instead of dragging it down. Avoid sugar, simple carbohydrates like pasta and bread, and junk food—they can give you a temporary energy high, but then you may crash. Use caffeine strategically: It can take about 20 minutes for a cup of coffee to kick in, so drink it 20 minutes before you need to power up, and you may be good to go. Above all, try to stay hydrated. Often, when you feel tired or hungry, all you really need may be a big glass of water to get back in the game.
- Get enough sleep. The amount of sleep you need to feel rested may vary from person to person, but you know if you're not getting enough. Yes, there may be times when you need to work late into the night, but try not to make a habit of it. Instead of staying up late, consider getting up early and working when you're fresh.
Mental Productivity Hacks
- Have a plan. Try not to start your day without knowing what you need to get done. Some experts recommend creating a schedule rather than a to-do list—the point being that to-do lists can quickly become endless, while a daily schedule is constrained by the number of hours in a day. The key is to be realistic: Review your calendar and focus on the three "must-do" tasks of that day. Once they're done, everything else is gravy.
- Be flexible. As business owners, our schedules may never be set in stone, so be ready for the unexpected by leaving some unfilled time on your schedule. That way, if there's a customer emergency or you get stuck in traffic, it won't blow your whole day. At the same time, don't let every little thing throw you off track.
- Take breaks. Powering through an entire morning without slowing down can feel productive, but often it can lead to diminishing returns. Whether your day involves writing business proposals or a series of meetings, try to build in short breaks to rejuvenate yourself. That could mean walking around the office for five minutes between meetings or getting off the computer to do some quick yoga stretches. Consider doing something that's the opposite of what you've been doing; for instance, if you've been on the computer for 45 minutes, do something physical as a break. If you've been in a stressful meeting where emotions were running high, that might be the time to zone out on Facebook for a few minutes.
- Know thyself. We all have different internal rhythms—some people get their best work done after dark, while others are raring to go at 5 a.m. Figure out when your "prime time" is and try to tackle the most important stuff then. As an entrepreneur, you're lucky that you have more say than most in creating your own schedule, so as much as possible, tailor it to fit your own needs.
Operational Productivity Hacks
- Control interruptions. There are interruptions you can't control, like problems with a big order that need resolving right away. But technology can present its own interruptions, which may be hard for even the most strong-willed of us to resist. If you get sucked into social media while updating your business accounts, tap into technology to give you the self-control you don't have. One of my business partners just started using Freedom, an app that lets you block certain websites (or the entire Internet) for set amounts of time.
- Limit meetings. Whenever I hear about the amount of meetings that corporate employees have to go through on a daily basis, I'm even more grateful to be an entrepreneur. You're in charge, so if you think meetings are a waste of time, don't hold them! If you must hold meetings, keep them short (meeting standing up can be a good way to ensure this), send out a short agenda ahead of time so everyone can be prepared, and hold meetings only as needed, rather than the dreaded "weekly meeting" that's often just a formality.
- Delegate. This is an option many employees don't have—and unfortunately, it's one that too few entrepreneurs use. Delegating less important tasks, or tasks you're not particularly good at, can be a good way to free up your time for more important things. You don't need employees to do this, either; even during the fledgling stage of your business, outsourcing to independent contractors, freelancers or virtual assistants can help you get more done.
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