When Monday rolls around again, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be full of optimism about the week stretching ahead of you. Time to get the planner out and schedule in all the brilliant things to be achieved in the next seven days.
After all, fail to plan and plan to fail, as the saying goes. While the ongoing Brexit saga leaves countless British businesses unable to prepare for their new relationship with the EU after 1 January, the importance of advance planning becomes ever clearer.
However, it is possible to go a bit overboard when envisioning the week or month ahead. Productivity is important for small businesses, especially when you’re just getting started and have a mountain of admin tasks to climb. But setting unrealistic goals – that you inevitably fail to deliver – can be more damaging to your progress than not setting any goals in the first place, as any crash dieter will tell you.
So, how can you optimise your use of the time, resources and energy available to you?
As a self-employed freelancer, these are some of the tips that help me to be as productive as possible without burning out.
1. Choose a planning method. This could be an app on your smartphone or desktop. It could be a spreadsheet listing all the week’s tasks in colour-coded order of priority. It could be an Outlook calendar that syncs with all your other programmes. Or it could be a good old-fashioned to do list scribbled on a bit of kitchen roll. The important thing is to a) choose something – even the smallest businesses need to be organised, and b) choose something that works for you.
After trying a lot of different systems over the years, I now use a grid-based method, in which the week is divided into two sections: Home and Work. Then each section is divided again, into Energy Draining and Energy Giving. By listing out all the week’s tasks in small boxes in their relevant section, then colouring them in when completed, I get a truly visual overview of how I’ve spent my time. I can also check whether I’ve achieved a balance of jobs that are boring but necessary, and those that feed the soul a little more. Anything not achieved can be moved onto next week’s chart.
2. Root out the time sponges. When you’re running a small business, time is probably the most precious – and scarce – resource. If you feel like your days are running away from you, try working out where your time is going and whether you can free up more time somehow.
The best way to do this is to meticulously record how you spend your time for a few days, or a full week. Include everything, from making a cup of tea to checking your emails. (This is particularly useful if you’re working from home and tend to incorporate a lot of non-work jobs into the average working day.) Then sit back and really look at where your time is going.
What jobs can you condense, delegate to someone else or lose altogether? How can you take care of certain necessary jobs in a more efficient way? Are some things worth the investment of a little money if it buys you more priceless time, such as switching to online grocery deliveries or hiring a babysitter, cleaner or virtual assistant for a couple of hours?
3. Add more hours to your day. Once you’ve knocked out unnecessary tasks and found more efficient ways to take care of the essential jobs, it’s time to look at whether you can extend your day further.
Sleep is an incredibly important commodity and people who are not well-rested are more likely to struggle with work, as well as risking other health impacts. But if you’re in the habit of staying up late and rising at 7am or 8am, how could going to bed an hour or two earlier and getting up at 5am or 6am transform your day? Just think what you could do with that extra time – whether getting on with work tasks or bringing forward non-work activities, such as exercise or household chores.
This could even be less about adding more hours to your day, than adding more quality hours. If you function best in the mornings but get sluggish in the afternoons, starting earlier and finishing earlier could see you getting more done and to a better standard overall, without making your working day any longer. Swapping a non-productive hour in the late evening, when you may only be watching TV, for more active time in the morning could make a huge difference to your productivity.
4. Don’t beat yourself up. Having a to do list is about having goals to work towards, not a weekly manifesto to beat yourself over the head with. If you’re running a small business, you’ve already done something amazing just by having the ambition and vision to start it.
Accept that the likelihood of getting everything done in any given timeframe is probably impossible, believe that progress towards a goal is a worthy use of your time and tell that inner critical voice to get knotted. It's important to make sure you balance productivity with getting enough rest, relaxation and leisure time. As long as no fires are raging anywhere, you’re doing just fine.
But do have a plan. Maybe this is just me, but I find that crossing a completed task off a to do list is almost as satisfying as achieving the goal itself!
What are your favourite tips for productivity in small businesses? Let me know!