You’ve probably heard the expression that “time is money.” If you’re a small business owner, you’ve likely learned that it’s the literal truth. Time is your most valuable resource, simply because it’s a prerequisite for everything you do, from writing and executing your five-year expansion plan to paying the utility bill so the lights are on tomorrow.
Yet many business owners spend the most time on the least important business, and the least time on the most important. Time management is as much art as science, and it’s one of the most valuable skills that a small business owner can have. Let’s look at eight tips for regaining control over your valuable time.
Understand What You Need to Do
In general, there are two types of work that need to get done: day-to-day maintenance tasks that keep your business running smoothly, and big-picture, future-oriented tasks that help you meet overarching goals.
Examples of the former type of work would be filing invoices, catching up on emails, and paying vendors. Examples of the second kind of work are big marketing campaigns, hiring new employees, or planning expansion. If you assess how you spend your time, you’ll probably find that everything you do falls into one of these categories. Understanding this is the key to getting your priorities right.
Do a Time Audit
Once you’ve determined what you need to do, spend a week tracking exactly how much time you devote to each item on your to-do list. Break it down by hour, and include the time that you spend not working.
At the end of this audit period, look over your time breakdowns. You’ll probably find that you’re more productive during certain times of the day, and less productive in others. Note the kinds of things you waste time on — for example, social media or coffee breaks. You’ll probably also find that you devote way too much time to some minor tasks that don’t really move the needle, and aren’t spending enough time on some big-picture tasks that carry outsized importance. Don’t feel bad — you’ll use all this data to learn how to better utilize your time.
Draw Up a Schedule
Now that you know how you use (and misuse) your time, make the appropriate adjustments.
Schedule your most important tasks for your most productive periods. Are your most focused hours from 10 a.m. to noon? Spend that time on cognitively demanding “deep work” that’s important to you, like brainstorming for your big summer ad campaign, or strategizing your expansion. Take your less important, less demanding tasks, and slot them in during the hours when you may be more sluggish. They’ll still get done, but you won’t be wasting prime hours on them.
Don’t look at a schedule as restricting your time; look at it as a way to encourage productivity. Just as you’d probably make a checklist when relocating to a different state, making a schedule is a way to make sure an important task doesn’t fall through the cracks.
Just be sure you don’t overschedule yourself, or you’ll risk burnout. Leave yourself some open time in your schedule for flexibility, to recharge, or to pursue spontaneous ideas. If you simply have too much work to allow yourself any unscheduled time, it might be time to either hire additional workers or delegate more.
Eliminate or Minimize Distractions
Go over your time audit and note the ways you waste time. If it’s social media, consider locking your phone away during your high-productivity periods, or using an app that restricts your browsing. If you’re really having trouble staying offline, consider severing your wireless connection when you need to get work done.
If your coworkers are the main source of distractions, adopt a policy of “open door” office hours, during which anyone is free to visit you and chat. Outside of those hours, though, make sure they understand that you need to focus.
This can be a tough one for small business owners, since you probably always feel like you have a dozen things you need to get to. But multitasking is an extremely inefficient way to work since you’re not actually doing multiple tasks simultaneously — you’re just switching between separate tasks, losing and recalibrating your focus each time. And since studies have shown that it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus, once you redirect your attention, multitasking can mean wasting nearly half of each working hour.
Instead, try “deep work” — focusing intently on a single task for as long as possible. The ability to maintain focus is one of the most valuable skills you can have.
Get the Right Tools for the Job
Put together a system that works for your workflow — ideally, one that includes an email client, a calendar, a contacts manager, a notes or text app, and a to-do list app. Choose applications that work together seamlessly, and that you feel good navigating.
To this basic system, you can add more specialized apps, depending on your industry. If you have to contact a large number of customers on the phone, consider a power dialer; if you manage health records, consider a HIPAA-compliant software solution.
Delegate and Trust
Many business owners have an impulse to handle everything themselves, but this is usually the wrong choice. Let’s say you own a house-flipping company. If you’ve trained a few buyers to scout properties and negotiate deals, trust them to do their jobs, while you plan a big-picture move into new markets.
This frees you up to do high-level work, and it cultivates a satisfied workforce. Employees who are given leeway to do their jobs feel more valued, while employees who feel micromanaged or underutilized can quickly start to quietly plan their exit.
Delegation doesn’t always involve passing work onto your employees. It can also mean outsourcing tasks like payroll or customer service. Take a hard look at the value proposition of keeping certain services in-house versus outsourcing them.
Use Downtime to Recharge
If you have 10 or 15 minutes before you have to move on to the next item on your schedule, resist the impulse to start right away. Instead, recharge your mind by relaxing or giving yourself a small reward — say, checking social media. You’ll find that it’s much easier to go back to work after you’ve given yourself a rest.
This rule applies to weekends, too. Although it can be tempting to grind through Saturday and Sunday, you’d be better served using those days to recharge your batteries. A well-rested worker does more in five days than an overstretched worker does in seven.
Conclusion: Take It a Day at a Time
Don’t try to overhaul your entire time management philosophy overnight. This is going to be a process, and you’ll get better results if you implement small, gradual changes over time, than if you try to introduce a dramatically different philosophy overnight. Think of the Japanese corporate principle of “kaizen,” which translates to “continuous improvement.” If you just get a little better every day, you’ll get where you need to go.