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Growing a business

How to be more productive as a small business owner: 5 strategies to save time, do more, and focus on what matters

Running your own business—and especially getting a new business started—can often feel like a game of tug of war. Except you’re the rope.

Your customer needs a question answered. One of your suppliers needs you to sign a purchase order. An employee needs help with an issue at the cash drawer.

Sure, you’re keeping your head above water, but you know that this is hardly an efficient way to work. You spend the bulk of your time tackling emergencies, which means the big-picture stuff that you want to be handling remains untouched.

Here’s the bad news: we can’t step in and dominate your to-do list for you (seriously, we would if we could).

But, here’s the good news: we can offer some simple, expert-backed strategies to take back your time and show your business who’s boss.

1. Hack your to-do list

If you’re somebody who creates a to-do list each day, what’s that process typically like for you? Is it a stream of consciousness writing activity, where you jot down everything in your brain and then tackle them sequentially or by picking items at random?

There’s a better way. “It’s important to look at your to-do list and use different ways to connect to those items,” says Mike Vardy, a productivity and time management strategist.

Vardy explains that there are two different ways you can do that: separating items by time increments or by energy levels. And, the process for doing so is straightforward. Write out your list like you normally would. Then, use a simple notation system to categorize those items.

For example, place an up arrow next to tasks that require more energy and focus, and a down arrow by the tasks that are more mindless. If you’re using time estimates, note how long you anticipate each item to take you.

It’s a simple system that brings some much-needed structure to your to-do list. If you know you’re way sharper in the morning, that’s when you’ll want to focus on those tasks that have the up arrow next to them. Or, if you only have 15 minutes between your customer calls, you can quickly pinpoint what items are doable in that time.

You might still have the same amount to do, but you’ll be much more effective at managing your time or your energy to get it done.

2. Document your policies and procedures

Business owners are notorious for maintaining control. It makes sense—your reputation is directly tied to your business, and it’s tough to loosen the reins. One survey by Gallup found that 75% of entrepreneurs have low to limited talents as delegators. Their plates are overflowing with things they don’t necessarily need to be doing themselves.

While documenting policies and procedures for common tasks will require a bit of an upfront time investment, it makes it far easier to pass tasks to others.

“Oftentimes, business owners are the only ones who know how to do something, and so work stops unless they’re present,” explains Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a workplace productivity coach and speaker.

Whether it’s responding to customer inquiries, sending project proposals, posting to your social media pages, or something else, create a detailed, step-by-step account of how you get that task accomplished. You’ll feel far more confident in passing that task to someone else when you know they have that resource to lean on.

Additionally, writing out the steps for something you’re doing frequently can be a revealing activity. You’ll more easily spot unnecessary steps or processes that can be streamlined. “Documenting a process reveals inefficiencies that we may just pass over because we’ve done the process so many times,” Dr. Gratias adds.

3. Turn off your notifications (yes, seriously)

It’s challenging to get some uninterrupted, focused work time each day. You want to point the finger at other people for your lack of focus. Your clients, employees, and other contacts keep pinging you—how are you supposed to get anything done?

Well, you need to start by recognizing your role in that situation. You don’t have control over who’s reaching out to you, but you do have control over how and when you see it.

In a survey of small business owners conducted by The Alternative Board, 16% of respondents said that technology distractions are keeping them from their peak productivity levels. Those sporadic buzzes, dings, and alerts might seem inconsequential, but they can quickly throw your day off track. Estimates vary, but a study from the University of California Irvine found that it takes a little over 23 minutes to refocus after every distraction.

So, why are you still letting those distractions sidetrack your workday? Give yourself some focused time for heads-down work by turning off your notifications (even if it’s just for an hour or two).

We know—the thought alone has sweat tickling your forehead. You feel overwhelming pressure to be readily accessible for the people your business employs serves. “We tend to live in this call and response era and we assume people are waiting on us immediately,” explains Vardy. “But not everybody is.”

Don’t believe it? Think of the last time you sent an email to a business contact. Immediately after you clicked “send,” were you compulsively refreshing your inbox with the expectation of an instant response? Probably not. You checked that outreach off your list and moved on to the next thing. In most cases, you probably didn’t even give that email another thought until you got a reply.

Other people are doing that exact same thing. So, while it’s important to serve your customers and be a prompt communicator, all of that pressure to respond immediately is usually self-imposed. The world will keep turning if you get back to people within eight hours, rather than within eight minutes.

4. Assign themes to your time

Strategic isn’t a word you’d use to describe your average workday. You’re constantly hopping from task to task. You tap out half of an email before helping that customer who walked into your shop. You complete an online order for more shipping supplies while you’re on the phone with your accountant.

You like to think this makes you a master multitasker. But here’s the thing: nobody is a master multitasker. Nope, not even you.

That’s because the human brain is actually incapable of doing multiple things at once (with the exception of automatic tasks like breathing). It might feel like you’re getting a bunch of things done at once, but you’re really just forcing your brain to rapidly switch between tasks. And, that can take a toll. Estimates say that multitasking can decrease your productivity by 40%.

So, how can you force yourself to stop with the shiny object syndrome and focus on the things that matter most? Vardy suggests assigning a theme to your time. This can be done for days, weeks, or even blocks of time.

For example, maybe you’ll say Friday is your administrative day and Monday is your marketing day. While you’ll still need to put out the occasional fire (it’s just the nature of the beast as a business owner), this theme will guide the rest of your time.

Rather than turning to your inbox to control your time and tell you what to do next, you’ll fit in the tasks that fit with your theme—like logging your expenses or scheduling social media posts.

Start small with this approach to see how it works for you. Perhaps you’ll just start with an hour a day by making the hour after lunch a time when you catch up on all of the filing and data entry that piles up. If you like that approach, you can start assigning more themes.

“You might not get more done every day, but you’ll get the right things done every day,” Vardy says.

5. Use a prioritization matrix to figure out where to start

Having a lot to do as a business owner is a blessing (hey, it means things are going well!). But, it can also be paralyzing. “When there are so many things to do, how do I decide what to focus on?” sympathizes Vardy.

Get out of the habit of picking a task at random, and instead use a more strategic approach to prioritize your tasks. One of the easiest ways to do so is by using a prioritization matrix (also called an Eisenhower Matrix).

Grab a piece of paper, draw a square, and then split that square into four even quadrants. Along the top, write “Urgent” and “Less Urgent” and along the side write “Important” and “Less Important.”

Now, look at your to-do list and begin placing those items in their appropriate categories. Maybe processing that return is urgent and important, and mapping out your marketing strategy for next year is not urgent but still important. Place them in their corresponding squares.

When you’ve made it through your entire to-do list, you can use those squares as your guide for what to do with those items. Here’s the basic approach:

  • Urgent and important: Do these things first. They’re your priorities today.
  • Urgent and less important: These are great tasks to delegate, if you can! Otherwise, tackle them next.
  • Less urgent and important: Pencil in time to work on these in the coming days or weeks. Physically block out time on your calendar to hold yourself accountable.
  • Less urgent and less important: Carefully evaluate whether these even need to be on your to-do list right now. You might be able to just remove them entirely.

See? It’s a lot better (not to mention more efficient) than throwing a dart at a board and starting there. Even if your to-do list is unfinished at the end of the day, you’ll know you focused on the most pressing and important things.

Stop the tug of war on your time and get the right stuff done

Tug of war can be fun—but it’s definitely not how you’d like to spend your average workday.

As a business owner, there are a lot of demands on your time and energy. You want to be more efficient and effective, but you definitely don’t have spare moments to master new work approaches or platforms that promise to save you time.

That’s why this guide is here. These simple strategies will help you prioritize and focus on the right tasks, without requiring a huge investment in time.

Give them a try, and you’ll move on from tug of war to your victory lap.

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