Time management is a challenge for all of us, but we entrepreneurs and small businesses owners face a unique set of issues when it comes to making the most of our time. Not only are we juggling projects, we’re juggling several clients simultaneously while we try to find new work.
Start with self-awareness
We can’t get more hours in the day but we can free up significant time—maybe as much as 20% of our workday—to focus on the responsibilities that really matter. Assess the way you work and learn to eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks, replacing them with value-added ones. A research from the London Business School indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. How can we break the loop?
- Identify low-value tasks.
Look at all your daily activities and decide which ones are (a) not that important to either you or your business and (b) relatively easy to drop, delegate, or outsource.
- Off-load tasks.
Delegation is normally the most challenging part—but ultimately it can be very rewarding. Most participants in the study delegated from 2% to 20% of their work with no decline in their productivity.
- Allocate freed-up time.
The goal, of course, is to be not just efficient but effective. So, the next step is to determine how to best make use of the time you’ve saved. Write down two or three things you should be doing but aren’t, and then keep a log to assess whether you’re using your time more effectively.
- Commit to your plan.
Although this process is entirely self-directed, it’s crucial to share your plan with a colleague or mentor. Explain which activities you are getting out of and why. And agree to discuss what you’ve achieved in a few weeks’ time. Without this step, it’s all too easy to slide back into bad habits.
Keep a To-Do List
Your biggest asset is a to-do list. This will help you keep tasks prioritized, and give you a tangible idea of what needs to get done. Put the most important projects at the top, and work your way down. There are several task management programs available online and in app form that can help keep you organized and focus on the priorities.
Use a decision matrix
One way to figure out what is important vs what is urgent is the Eisenhower decision matrix below.
There are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: ones that you could not have foreseen, and others that you’ve left until the last minute. You can eliminate last-minute activities by planning ahead and avoiding procrastination. However, you can’t always predict or avoid some issues and crises. Here, the best approach is to leave some time in your schedule to handle unexpected issues and unplanned important activities. (If a major crisis arises, then you’ll need to reschedule other tasks.) If you have a lot of urgent and important activities, identify which of these you could have foreseen, and think about how you could schedule similar activities ahead of time, so that they don’t become urgent.
Forget multitasking, try monotasking
Albert Einstein said: Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.
Recent research shows that multitasking is not as productive as you might think. When you work on a task, try turning off everything but what you’re currently working on. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and only do that one thing for the whole time. The same study found that interruptions as brief as just two to three seconds (such as pop-up email alert, for examples) were enough to double the number of errors participants made on an assigned task. Another study concluded that high media multitaskers are more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling. In general, information overload makes us prone to distractions, and therefore less productive. Sometimes when we multitask, we get pulled in many different directions and little gets done. Instead, try to limit your focus to one thing at a time in 10 to 15 minute segments.
Limit information intake
Information comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s frivolous – like browsing social media profiles. Sometimes it can appear important, taking the form of a conference call or meeting. I often tell my clients, especially when there’s something they need as soon as possible, that I can’t work if I’m on the phone talking about what needs to get done. Information isn’t necessarily bad, but going on a diet is a great idea. Instead of checking social media during your lunch and breaks, actually take those breaks. Eat, talk to people, go for a walk—just get away from your desk. You have enough work-related information to deal with. If you check the news, don’t let links and ads drag you off in unproductive directions. Ultimately, when you’re trying to work focus on doing just that.
Use your peak-energy time
Establish a regular schedule, and stick to it. It’s often better to create one based on your body’s natural rhythms, so you aren’t fighting fatigue or mental blocks. When is your best time? For many, it’s first thing in the morning. Others are late-starters and do their best work in the late afternoon or evening. Plan your most demanding tasks for those times, and make sure your team members know in advance that you will be unavailable.
Use time management tools
This may be one of the most effective productivity hacks. The digital age may have been blamed for shortening our attention spans and increasing inefficiency, but it can also be used to do the opposite. There are loads of digital tools available that can make life much easier for freelancers or small business owner, including cloud-based collaborative tools such Harvest or Freshbooks. Whether you’re paid by project or hours worked, it’s important to keep track of your billable hours (so you can measure the financial viability of type of project/your speed and efficiency, as well as any hours you need to charge for), and the most efficient way to do that is digitally. Furthermore, working in time blocks can help you focus on specific tasks. You can block off an hour—or even an entire day—and dedicate that time to one project. The possibilities are endless; just make sure you give every task or project a time frame.
Review your day.
Spend 5-10 minutes reviewing your task list every day before you leave the office. Give yourself a pat on the back if you achieved what you wanted. If you think your day’s effort fell short, decide what you’ll do differently tomorrow in order to accomplish what you need to. Leave the office in high spirits determined to pick up the thread the next day.