9 Fool-proof Time Management Strategies for Small Business Owners

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

Time is money, saving timeOne of the first things I work on with my Tenfold coaching clients is time management. It isn’t something which always comes naturally to entrepreneurial types and, unfortunately, being the boss won’t magically imbue you with ‘boss’ organisational skills. Luckily, there are many tried and true methods for making the move from ‘busy’ to ‘productive’.

1. If time is money, then you need a budget!

Do you know your hourly rate? If so, you know to the minute what your time is worth. You also surely realise that you have a finite number of working hours per day (and no, it isn’t 24!), so it makes sense to budget your time and invest your hours according to what will give you the best return.

You’ve likely heard of the Pareto principle: 80% of your results comes from 20% of your efforts. You can be sure that you will get more out of your day by figuring out which tasks make up that golden 20%. Time tracking is a great place to start and, fortunately, there are some useful apps available to help you do this. Try attaching a dollar value to the outcomes of each of your daily tasks and you will quickly get an idea of the return on investment (ROI) of each activity.

Related article: Maximise the app-ortunities: The best 14 apps for Australian Small Business Owners

2. Make the plan. Execute the plan.
There is no ‘right way’ to do this but you should avoid showing up to your business not knowing what you plan to do that day. If you don’t drive how you spend your time, someone else will spend it for you. Some techniques that my business coaching clients have found useful include:

  • Group like with like

Multi-tasking is overrated when it comes to managing your time. Paperwork, sales meetings, team issues… these kinds of work are often best done in a block of time, while you are in the right mindset. Think of the way factories are set up. Most often each person on the assembly line is assigned a single task, which they perform over and over. That is because this is often the more efficient way to work.

Consider timetabling your week eg Monday is filling orders, Tuesday is making calls, Wednesday is meeting with clients, Thursday… you get the idea. If that model doesn’t suit your business, think of other ways you can apply this principle to your daily schedule. Mornings can be used for jobs that require higher energy levels, while tasks that require less concentration can be saved for late afternoon as you begin to tire.

  • The good old ‘To Do’ list
    Whether you like to use an app or a tooth-marked pencil and the back of an envelope, I can’t overstate the value of the to-do list. Trying to keep track of your thought-load in your head will only make your eyes cross. Getting it all down in black and white helps you to give shape to your day; what needs doing, what is important and what is urgent (not always the same thing!). Prioritise your list according to the value each item will add and be prepared to renegotiate it as much as you need to throughout the day/week.Whatever you do, make sure that attending to your to-do list is how you start and end your work day. Most people start by checking their emails. Don’t. By consulting your to-do list or daily schedule first, you frame the way you view and prioritise your inbox. Ending your day by preparing your plan for the next accomplishes two things:
  1. It helps you to feel prepared for and on top of tomorrow’s agenda, and
  2. It draws a line under the day, helping you to change gears from ‘work’ to ‘off duty’ mode.
  • Eat your greens… or pick low hanging fruit?
    The strategy you choose here depends on your personality. Confession time: I like to include something at the top of my to-do list that I have already done. I get a boost from ticking things off the list. Doing the easy stuff first sets me in motion. Then, you can’t stop me – I am a ‘doing machine’. People who are more likely to procrastinate may find that getting the most difficult or least appealing task out of the way is more motivating. Try testing both styles out to see which gets you going.

3. Quick, quick, slow…
Interval training is not just good for your fitness, it’s a great approach to work as well. Periods of intense and focused work followed by a slower, more relaxed pace can see your average output increase. This is commonly known as the Pomodoro technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, it is named for the tomato-shaped timer he used. It goes like this:

  • write out your tasks for the day
  • set the timer for 25 minutes
  • when the timer goes off, mark your list with an ‘X’ and take a 3-5 minute break
  • After your 4th ‘X’ take a longer break (15-30 mins)
  • If intrusive thoughts, ideas, distractions come up during a 25-minute sprint, don’t stop working. Instead, take note of them and keep going. You can deal with these during your short break periods.

The above represents one full cycle (100 minutes) of the Pomodoro technique, which can be repeated as necessary and appropriate.

4. Email management
Like expanding foam, your emails would happily take up all the space they can find. Just because you can be contactable at any hour, it doesn’t mean that you must be. I’ll let you process that… I’m serious! I promise you, ‘getting through them’ is nothing short of a pipe-dream. Instead, practice good email management strategies:

  • Don’t work around your emails – fit them in
    Identify two or three typically quieter periods in your day and dedicate these exclusively to email management. Once the timer goes off, get back on the tools! I won’t pretend that this strategy will feel easy or natural at first, but it is a truly effective way to increase productivity. Mark yourself as ‘busy’ in your calendar or let team members know about your new schedule. Don’t make yourself available to attend to other matters during those times – most things can wait 30 minutes or so.
  • Set up an auto-response
    If you are concerned that clients or suppliers will be unimpressed with radio-silence on your end, then make sure they get a response in the form of an auto reply. You should use this opportunity to thank them and let them know you have received their email, then try:
  1. Letting people know that you respond to emails at those times you have identified as effective for your business or
  2. Nominating a timeframe that you can realistically commit to (“I typically respond to emails within x hours”) and direct people to call you if their matter is time-sensitive or urgent. This will hopefully sort some of the wheat from the chaff!
  • Take out the trash, then take action
    Delete any spam and move any FYI emails into a designated folder. With less clutter, you will be better able to evaluate those emails that need immediate attention and action them right away – even if it is just to respond to the sender and let them know you’ll be in touch. Make a rule to never leave any important emails sitting unaddressed in your inbox any longer than 48hours.

5. Delegate (the art of reformed perfectionism)
“If you want something done right, do it yourself” is the catchcry of all Type A control-freaks everywhere. That approach may work when you first start up, but as your business grows you’ll find that it is just not scalable. If you have hired the right team (link to recruitment blog series?) then you should have people on board who you can trust to do the job well enough. Experts advise that if someone else can do the job 80% as well as you can, then delegate with confidence. This subtle art of ‘handing over’ lies somewhere between telling people exactly what to do (then redoing it because you can’t stop yourself) and covering your eyes because you can’t bear to look. Practice makes perfect.

6. Keep your distance
Interruptions can account for up to two hours of your day. When you think of what you can accomplish in two hours, it’s a maddening prospect. While many people in leadership positions favour an open-door policy, being too available to your employees can make them too dependent on your advice and direction. You could consider scheduling in ‘office hours’ – maybe two periods in your day when you make yourself available to address employee concerns etc. The rest of the time encourage staff to take initiative and try to solve issues themselves before they come to you with their proposed solutions at the appointed times. It’s a great way to develop your staff’s skills and confidence while reclaiming some of your own time.

7. Don’t ‘double handle’
Do it once, do it right. If you pick up a piece of paper and put it down again without actioning its contents, you’re often tripling the time you’ll take to deal with it. The same goes for emails. Pick up the document (or open the email) and make the decision: send it to the shredder (or delete it), file it away as ‘information’ or add the issue to your to-do list with a deadline attached to it. Then follow through.

8. Take your lunch break
Few things will make you less productive than not taking scheduled breaks in your work day. Working through lunch will make you more tired and decrease your concentration levels. Far from getting more done, you will likely end up making mistakes which only costs you more time to fix. Step away from your workspace. Eat mindfully. Sit in the sunshine or take a quick walk. It doesn’t have to be a long break, but it should be a ‘clean’ break. You will return to your work refreshed and ready to tackle the next challenge.

9. Manage Expectations
It is tempting sometimes to over-promise to ‘get the gig’. Don’t devalue your time – you can only ‘spend’ each day once. If you always ‘drop everything’ for clients and colleagues, they will come to expect it and it is no way to work long-term. Burnout is regrettably common for business owners and can be disastrous both personally and professionally.

Time’s up…
Maximising your productivity is a foundation for success. Thomas Edison once said, “Time is really the only capital that any human being has, and the only thing he can’t afford to lose.” Nowhere is this more (literally) true than in business. Good time management can be the difference between working a stressful 70-hour week and living the dream.