Lessons learned about time management for small business

I saw a great comment on LinkedIn the other day. To paraphrase it said, " the days you oversleep, the days you don't follow up with customers, the days you slack off and don't give your 100%, you allow a competitor who is working 100% to get the advantage. Your time and how you choose to use it can have a real impact on your business success.  A self-employed business owner is in a constant race struggling to save time and increase personal productivity. Time management for small business professionals can be a constant battle. That being said, today I'm off to a good start, got a quick workout in to wake up my body. I sit here at 5:20 am with a strong cup of coffee writing about the interruptions and time wasters that impact us all and what we can do to better control the situation.

Track your productivity.

Track everything you do and how much time it actually takes you. This concept of a time study can be real enlightening. The results can identify opportunities you need to invest in or drop all together.  Use alarms to provide structure when you are working on a task so there is a well-defined beginning and end. Schedule enough time to complete the task effectively. Doing your month-end reconciliation will take you more than an hour so plan accordingly. As you evaluate your schedule make sure you plan for unexpected events too (add some buffer time). If an unanticipated curve ball gets thrown your way, you don't want your schedule to get off permanently off course.

As you keep track of your work through activity logs and time schedules, also spend time each week to monitor the overall business outcome that resulted from your effort. Activity for the sake of activity is just being busy. Whereas if you complete an activity that produces your intended result, that effort is worthwhile.

Avoid Unnecessary Interruptions.

Microsoft conducted field observations of their workers as they looked to develop better project management tools. They focused specifically on task switching and interruptions. They found that workers tend to use only 60% of their time during the week because of interruptions. They found that once a person is interrupted it takes more time than anticipated to resume that task. As a self-employed professional, your time and how you choose to spend it equates to either money earned or money wasted. Unnecessary interruptions are time traps that can really derail your productivity. Start by turning instant message off when you are working on a project. Unless your project requires a group collaboration, these types of messages can distract you from the task at hand. Once you see that alert it is hard not to justify taking a "few seconds" to reply, but then a conversation ensues and it turns into a few minutes or hours. I'd suggest to only check emails twice a day at the times most beneficial to your business. Plan dedicated time to check email and avoid the temptation to check repeatedly throughout the day. Many time management coaches recommend not checking email first thing in the morning. Instead work on a project at the start of your day. Most people are very productive after 7-9 hours of good sleep. Brains are refreshed and you have many ideas flowing. If you take this approach, then check emails midday and again in the late afternoon or early evening. If you feel guilty about not responding right away, set up auto responders on your email that inform senders of your response time. For example, "Thank you for your email. I will respond within 24 hours. For urgent matters please call my mobile phone". Now you've laid the ground work for your contacts and you can be more protective of your time and ultimately more productive with it.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking may be one of the biggest productivity myths out there. We all lead very distracted lives and are often pulled in multiple directions at once. We are quick to blame external sources for our lack of productivity, but at times it is our lack of concentrated focus that keeps us from doing our best. It is the person interrupting themselves with other projects and priorities, constantly shifting and never completing the deliverable.  It is easy for a task to remain on your to-do list for weeks on end when you don't give anything your undivided attention. Research conducted by Devora Zack, a proponent for single tasking, believes that if you focus on one thing at a time you can actually double your productivity. Focusing on one business objective and seeing it through to completion in an appropriate timeframe should be your goal.

Organize your disorganized work space

Do you work in a cluttered environment? Is your desk a mess? It is time to organize not only your time but your space as well. There are consequences for having a disorganized work environment. Working in chaos sets the tone for your productivity, and it doesn't have to be this way. Enlist a friend or a professional organizer and take a day to really inventory your work space.

The National Association of Professional Organizers has deemed January as national "Get Organized Month." Eliminate, recycle, donate things that aren't necessary and create a system for things that are. Having a clean and well-organized workplace makes it easy to find items when you need to prepare for a meeting or a client call. You won't be scrambling to make it happen. You can still have an office space that conveys your personality, but you don't want that personality to be interpreted as chaos. Nobody is ever going to find the perfect time to get more organized, so schedule time to de-clutter at least monthly and focus on it uninterrupted like you would any other task.

Want to read more on the subject of business organization? Q&A with Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading expert on work - http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/23146/too-many-interruptions-work.aspx