Imagine this scenario: You come into work early on Monday morning, just to get a jump on the week. Just as you are about to dive into your first task...the phone rings. On the other end is a client with a needed-it-done-yesterday type of problem. Ugh. By the time you get back to your original task, it’s 2 p.m.…and the phone is ringing again.
For many a small business owner, this is a never-ending cycle, resulting in long hours and severe frustration. “So often, I see the business running the owner, instead of the owner running the business,” says Denise Winston, founder of Money Start Here, a financial education company in Bakersfield, California.
Here are a few ways to regain control of your time:
Turn time tangible
Julie Morgenstern is passionate about productivity. As an organizing and productivity expert and the author of Time Management from the Inside Out, she says most small business owners tend to be overly optimistic about what they think they can finish and how long each project will take. Instead, it is helpful to manage time by making it tangible.
“Think about organizing time the same way you would organize a space,” she says. “A disorganized closet and a disorganized day are the same. They are both finite spaces. With a closet, you might be shoving everything you can into that space and the same is true of a schedule. You might be shoveling tasks into any particular time in no particular order.”
How do you break this cycle? Put tasks into blocks of time, Morgenstern says. For example, work on operations from 8 a.m. to noon. Focus on sales efforts from noon to 3 p.m. Work on marketing between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. “When you create this template or time map, you know where to put your tasks,” she says. “Without it, you are always responding to the thing that is screaming the loudest and don’t know what you are trading your time for.”
This sounds nice, but what if you have to put out a fire? Morgenstern admits that when you build the right time map, it will work about 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent will force business owners to rearrange things to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.
“At least you will know what you are rearranging,” she notes. “Then you can think about when you will make up that time. Once you have those time blocks in the right balance, it will force you to do everything more efficiently and be more selective about what you put into your time.”
Make a night list
I’m not the best at this. Usually, by the end of the day I’m so exhausted that I turn off my computer and don’t come back to it until early the next morning. Then, the first 15-30 minutes of my morning are spent compiling a to-do list. According to Winston, this time can be shaved off by writing up a task list the night before.
“Make a list of the five biggest things you absolutely must accomplish the following day,” she suggests. “Then, when you walk into your office in the morning, you will have them right in front of you and be less likely to stall or get distracted by e-mail. This list can really start you off on the right foot.”
Live by the four Ds
Streamlining tasks is key to constructive time management. Morgenstern does this by living by what she calls, “the four Ds.”
“When you realize you have more tasks than time, there are four things you can do,” she says. “Number One: delete things; Number 2: delay things. Schedule something for a more appropriate time; No. 3: diminish things. Consider a quicker way to get something done—maybe call someone instead of e-mailing them when you need a fast answer; And No. 4: delegate things. If you only have three hours, think about who can do the task better, faster or good enough.”
Hire your weakness
Even the smallest of businesses need help from time to time and in most cases, a lack of delegation leads to unnecessary stress. Winston recommends hiring out what you don’t like to do or aren’t good at doing.
“Hire what you don’t know and don’t beat yourself up over it,” she says. “Sometimes business owners can be pretty controlling. If you don’t delegate, you are not allowing your staff to develop and not developing a succession plan either.”
How much time do you spend writing checks? If your answer is zero, you are on the right path. For everyone else, Winston suggests automating systems as a way to save valuable time.
“Make sure you automate your bill pay and anything you think is mundane,” she says. “Try to automate other systems in your business as well. You might think that you don’t have time to learn a new system, but training yourself will come back to you in time saved later on.”