CEO, manager, HR, receptionist… having your own business often means taking on lots of roles at once. When there aren’t enough hours in the day, try these tips.
Planning your week is a time-management must-do – whether you’re a one-person business, working from your home office, or a growing start-up. Creating a schedule for your week allows you to plan ahead and structure your time so that you can prioritize and re-prioritize tasks.
Deadlines and urgent jobs should define how you organize tasks across your week. For example, if you’ve got a big deliverable on Thursday, make the days leading up to it production days, and leave non-urgent but important tasks like admin and record-keeping for Friday. Be ready to reorganize your schedule if priorities suddenly change, too. Think of it as a ‘Plan A’ or a work in progress rather than something set in stone.
It can also be helpful to arrange similar or related tasks together on a single day, so that you’re not hopping from one thing to another and can be more productive during that time.
For example, you might dedicate a whole day to working on marketing tasks like social media and writing your newsletter, as the tasks will relate to each other and you can apply your creative flow state to several things at once.
This approach works for practical, methodical jobs too. You might spend an afternoon doing invoices, which will be quicker in a batch because the same steps are repeated and you’ll get faster as you go along.
A proper structure is the backbone of a planned week, and there are lots of ready-made templates available online which you can download and fill in to itemize your days. These can work for individuals or whole teams. A good template should give equal weight to each day, and have enough space to write a few words about each task or target – not too much though, or it just becomes cluttered.
If you’re a one-person business and you’re not a big fan of software, you could use a Notebook to keep track of your week and make sure your schedule is always at hand.
It’s not realistic to plan productivity for every hour of every day, so don’t set yourself up to fail. Instead, expect to be distracted, disrupted and confronted by unexpected challenges and opportunities. When you’re planning for the week ahead, add ‘interruption time’ – a proportion of the day when you don’t necessarily expect to get work done.
So although your office hours might be 9 til 5 with an hour for lunch, you can realistically deduct an hour from the total. Don’t think of that as wasted time, however – what feels like a frustrating delay might be the moment when inspiration strikes.
The idea of deep work is that you’re consciously focusing on your task and training your attention away from distractions. To achieve that, you need to be able to carve out time when you’ll be free of competing commitments and able to commit fully to one task, such as updating your bookkeeping spreadsheet or writing a proposal for a client.
Put time for deep work into your weekly schedule, and support your intentions by blocking this time off from distractions and interruptions. A ‘do not disturb’ sign and an email auto-reply can come in handy here.
What does a typical work day look like for small business owners? A common answer is that there is no typical day – variety and excitement is one of the hallmarks of life as an entrepreneur.
That doesn’t mean you can’t organize your time, however. A daily plan is valuable even if it changes, as it can help you keep track of priorities, deadlines and your progress on longer-term projects. As with your weekly approach, the trick is to have a fluid schedule that can flex and adapt to new things, rather than a rigid timetable.
A time-management classic, the to-do is a list of the things you want or need to get done within your day, organized according to priority. The most urgent and important things should be at the top, and less important or postponable things towards the bottom. Don’t make the to-do list too long – it will just feel overwhelming. Some experts recommend keeping a daily to-do list down to 6 items, and others advise as few as 3.
To keep track of your progress during the day, use a checklist and tick off what you’ve completed as you go along.
Time blocking is a technique that many small business owners find useful. It’s the practice of chunking out your work into dedicated sections of time – the opposite of multitasking, where attention is spread in-efficiently across multiple jobs at once. The idea is that by focusing on one thing at a time, you can dedicate attention and energy to each task and get it done more quickly and to a higher standard.
To time-block your day, you need to schedule the hours you have available and assign them to items in your to-do list. You won’t necessarily do the most important thing on the list first thing in the morning. Instead, you should assign your top task to the part of the day when you know you’ll be most productive. If you’re a morning person, that could be first thing. If you’re a night-owl, late afternoon might be when you really hit your stride.
If you tend to feel sleepy after lunch – most of us do – make that the time you do necessary but low-effort things like paperwork or timesheets.
It’s important to know the difference between a daily and weekly schedule, as each one is valuable to your business in its own way. Your daily schedule will include ‘business as usual’ things like answering emails and phone calls, attending daily team stand-ups and other routine tasks. They take up time during your day and need to be accounted for, but you don’t need to put them on a weekly planner.
Your weekly schedule gives you a wider view of your workload and allows you to re-prioritize tasks across the week. What happens in your daily schedule can impact the weekly one – for example if you need to roll a task over from one day to another because it took longer than planned.
We’ve all had those days where we look up at 4pm and say ‘where did the time go? I’ve hardly started my list!’ To keep those moments to a minimum, here are some ways to increase your chances of being productive at work.
We’re all prone to getting side-tracked, and in the modern world of digital communication and multiple devices competing for our attention, staying focused is more challenging than ever.
Notice the things that claim your attention most often. It could be having too many interesting browser tabs open on your screen, so that you drift off-task and start reading a blog or news story. Or it may be that your phone is taking your mind off work by flashing or vibrating each time you get a message in a group chat.
Once you’ve spotted the things that are repeatedly stealing your attention, you can take steps to eliminate them until your task is done. Throw your phone in a drawer, close every tab except the one you need for your work task, or put on headphones if you’re tempted to join in with office-mates chatting. Over time, good habits like these will become automatic.
If the things cutting your productivity down are less to do with distraction and more to do with interruption, you might be spreading yourself too thin. It’s common for people heading up growing businesses to have a lot of competing demands on their time. Being busy is good, but it’s important to be aware that you could reach a point where you’re tiring yourself out but not achieving the results to justify it.
Remind yourself to notice the difference between being stressed and busy and being highly productive. Look at what you’ve achieved as well as how hard you’ve worked, and make sure you’re getting the positive outcomes you deserve for your effort. Resolving to work smarter rather than harder can also make you feel more in control and help you stay motivated.
On a similar note, it’s true that productivity requires rest as well as hard work. If your schedule involves a few hours work and several periods of rest, you’re in company with some of the greatest achievers in history. Charles Darwin, for example, required an afternoon nap and took leisurely walks outdoors during a work day.
If you work in front of a screen, you should be taking a screen break of five or ten minutes every hour, according to the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive. Little and often is the best way to take breaks, as this will help you feel more refreshed.
Some periods of deliberate rest during your work schedule will give you the time and space to reflect on your work, develop ideas and allow your brain to make new connections between things you’ve learned or observed. Don’t be afraid to take your foot off the gas – you could end up making huge leaps of progress on a day when you thought you were chilling out doing nothing.
Isn’t efficiency the same thing as productivity? In fact, they’re very different, and can even work against each other at times. To put it simply:
Productivity is about the volume of work you produce, and efficiency is about the quality of that work.
So if your company makes cookies, your productivity is the number of items you can bake in a day. Your efficiency is how delicious they are when your customer bites into them, how much energy it took to bake them, or how much you had to spend on ingredients to get great results.
It probably goes without saying that productivity and efficiency are both essential for any business, and they can have a strong impact on one another.
The idea of productive efficiency is used in some businesses, meaning that the two things are measured at once. In these scenarios the managers are measuring the total number of products completed in a given time, and deducting inefficient products from that total. So if some products fall below a certain quality threshold, they’re not counted.
This is easiest to understand in a manufacturing situation, where a business has physical products that can pass or fail. But it can apply on a small scale too, including companies that provide services rather than products. The key to measuring efficiency this way is to define a quality standard that you want to stick to, whether it’s customer satisfaction, timely delivery or reviews and ratings. If your units of work (be it projects, products or something else) don’t meet the standard, they’re ignored.
Improving efficiency is a strategic job that often means slowing down and taking a step back from your work. If you’re interested in making efficiency your superpower, you’ll be looking at the way you’re doing things and seeing where you can make improvements to your methods, habits and behaviours to get better results.
One example that applies to entrepreneurs in all walks of life is sleep. Getting a solid 8 or 9 hours sleep every night can improve your concentration, motivation, mood and ability to learn. If you’re a one-person business, prioritizing sleep is a way of optimizing your most valuable resource – yourself. You can make your brain more efficient by giving it enough sleep, so that the quality of the work you do is high, it takes fewer hours, and you have more time for your passion projects.
From a time-management perspective, your goal will be to achieve the best quality work you can using the time you have available – and with any luck, upping your productivity at the same time.
Here are some ways you can boost efficiency in a small business.
It might feel necessary, but resist the urge to hop from one task to another during the working day as much as possible. It takes up time to refocus on a task when you switch to and from it, so try to chunk work into organized blocks as much as you can. Time-blocking wins again!
Make sure your workspace is geared for efficiency by minimizing distractions, noise and interruption. Have your workstation – or workstations – set up for comfortable, sustainable posture and freedom of movement. Organize people, tools and materials physically in your workspace so that it’s easy to get tasks done without rearranging everything and everyone. It’s all about saving time and effort.
If you have a team at your disposal, use them wisely. Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses as well as theirs, so you can assign tasks that take up too much of your time to someone who can do them faster. This applies to specialism and experience too. If you have a statistics whiz on your team, they’re the person who should be tackling your website analytics, not the business owner whose time is better spent on leadership strategy or creative development. Assigning the right people to the right jobs is key to employee productivity.
Automating routine tasks is one of the great achievements of the 21st century. OK, maybe that’s overstating it a bit, but there’s no denying that being able to use chatbots to answer customer service queries, or allow bookings and sales to be handled by software, is a great time-saver for busy humans.