Note: This is the third in a series on entrepreneurship. I recently started my own consulting business and I’m writing about my own discoveries and experiences. Read my last post on the importance of building a network
When you’re running your own business, time management is critical. As someone else’s employee, you can focus on your piece of the enterprise. But when sales, accounting, technology, marketing, project management, and a whole host of other tasks are all up to you, the amount of time you spend on each has to be carefully calculated.
And it’s not just about the amount of time you spend on each activity. The order and proportion matter, too. So time management isn’t necessarily about balance, but focusing on the right actions in the right amounts at different phases of business growth.
I used to focus on things that were the most urgent, and use that criteria as a priority scale. But that’s tactical thinking, and deals with a sliver of present realities. It doesn’t help you address strategic activities that are critical for long-term growth.
So how do you manage your time well? As with all things worth doing, start by asking yourself what you really want.
What Does Success Look Like?
A lot of people don’t manage their time well because they don’t have a time management strategy. And they don’t have a time management strategy because they haven’t thought about ideal outcomes in the form of objectives and goals.
Objectives are basically ideal end states. Goals are measurable achievements toward those end states. Spend some time thinking about the ideal end state for this week—maybe the ability to enjoy the weekend without thinking about work. Then think about the goals needed to get there. Maybe it’s a handful of tasks that need to be completed.
Set up goals to complete those tasks at specific points during the week. Spread them out and give yourself plenty of margin to complete them. But stick you your schedule. At the end of the week, you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—and less stress.
But What About Priorities?
I borrow shamelessly from Covey’s Seven Habits book and whole host of other sources to help me prioritize. Other than his tip to “begin with an end in mind” (similar to defining objectives and goals), I also borrow his prioritization matrix to spread tasks across a schedule.
Pretty much all activities fall into one of four categories, with my own one-word descriptors:
- Urgent and important (fires)
- Urgent but not important (favors)
- Not urgent but important (strategy)
- Not urgent and not important (play)
Urgent and important things are emergencies or problems. Ideally, these shouldn’t happen all the time. In my world, an example might be a website going down. It’s urgent because it demands attention immediately, and it’s important because it’s a high-visibility issue. I call these fires because, well, they need to be dealt with immediately or they cause a lot of damage.
Urgent but unimportant events are things like phone calls from telemarketers. They demand immediate attention, but probably shouldn’t pull you away from your work. I call these favors because they usually have to do with someone else’s needs.
Non-urgent but important events are strategic matters. You should plan to spend a considerable amount of time here, because these are the hours that produce measurable progress for your business. I use the strategy label because these activities are all about long-term vision.
And, of course, the non-urgent and unimportant activities—things that are usually the domain of the “self gratification monkey” in Tim Urban’s talk on procrastination. I use the label play here because it’s all about fun and games—or things that produce no value for your business.
It’s important to note, though, that there’s a time and place for all of these types of activities. Fires are not planned and have to be dealt with, of course. And it’s good to help others when they ask you. And play is important to stay flexible, happy, and creative.
But the other stuff—the strategic stuff—you really have to be proactive to make it happen.
Create Your Strategy
So what kinds of strategic activities should you focus on? It depends on where you’re at in your business growth.
If you’re just starting out, you should spend as much time focusing on building your network—CRM, account management, prospecting, sales, and meeting other people who can point you in the right direction. It’s critical to build a pipeline of opportunities early on to create a sustained stream of work.
You should also spend a lot of time on working on your business (thanks, Scott Beebe), meaning, defining your own business objectives, goals, strategy, marketing, systems, and processes. You’ll never have enough time to do this later on when you’re up to your eyeballs in client projects.
I’m dealing with this now. I have a lot of work to do for others, but I still don’t have my own website finished yet. Oops. Looks like I need to carve out some time to work on my own marketing.
Once your business is up and running, and you’ve got a steady stream of client projects, you should decrease the amount of prospecting and sales in favor of CRM and production. Stay in touch with clients on a rotating basis, but reach out to fewer prospects. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you’re not satisfying your existing customers because you’re chasing new ones! In my experience, your existing clients are your best source of new business, so you should put them first.
Put it in Motion
What does this look like in practical terms? Well, I use a lot of tools to help keep my day organized and aligned with my strategy. Each day, I look at all my inputs, prioritize my activities, and block out my calendar.
By “inputs” I mean all the sources of information you maintain: to-do lists, meeting minutes, email, text messages, phone calls, sticky notes, etc. I try to keep my input sources as focused and few in number as possible. I also try to be consistent in saving notes, actions, and other information in these collection points. A lot of what I do comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.
Then I prioritize my actions based on those inputs. I use the prioritization matrix (see above) to determine what I must get done, in order of importance. I combine actions from all the input sources. I try to pick three or four things (at most) that I must get done. Any more and the day becomes unmanageable.
Finally, I block out my calendar in one-hour chunks for each of the priorities, and then I follow that schedule. Sounds simple, right? It is straightforward, but beware of the distractions that will steal your time.
I could write about all the distractions that could derail your day, but the obvious one is email. Email can be important, but it’s usually more of a time suck than anything else. It’s easy to get stuck processing email over working on important things, so I’ll just say this: block out time for email, too.
Set aside a few times per day to review and send email. Otherwise, keep your email client closed. You’ll get a lot more done, I promise.
Give Yourself Some Slack
Finally, don’t get bent out of shape if you don’t follow your time management schedule perfectly. I don’t. But I try.
Some days I stick to it and get a lot done. Some days I stick to it, and I don’t feel like I get a lot done. Some days, I learn that I didn’t devote enough time to one activity, and I have to shift my schedule midstream. It’s not a perfect science, but practicing this discipline will help you be more productive overall.
Practice good boundaries and schedule breaks throughout the day. A short break every hour will result in better performance overall. And when you’re off, stay off. Down time is so much more enjoyable when you give yourself permission to not worry about work.
Jonathan King is Principal and Creative Director of J5MEDIA, a digital marketing consulting firm.