Personal productivity tips for small business owners

personal productivity tips
You can't control time - but you can control how you use it
Time is money when you’re running a business – so wasting time means you’re wasting money. And none of us knowingly want to do that.

A question that you’ve probably reflected upon as a business owner is how can you achieve more in the time that you have available. The success of your business relies very much on how effectively you use your time.
Have you experienced days where you’ve been running around frantically in your business - so busy and overwhelmed that it seemed like you could hardly pause to take a breath? And yet when you looked back at the end of the day you wondered how much you had actually accomplished,  and how much of real significance was achieved? …..  Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean that you’re productive.

Personal productivity is about ensuring that you are focusing your time and energy on the things that will add the greatest value to your business. It means ensuring that that you are using all of your resources wisely - including your staff, materials, tools, data and equipment - and that you are completing the right tasks efficiently. There is a limit to the number of projects you can optimally work on in any given week – so you need to be selective.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Steuart Snookes, who runs a consulting business called Solutions4Success in Melbourne, Australia. He is a specialist in the field of personal productivity and effective time management in the workplace. He agreed to share some of his experience – and offered some priceless tips …..

1.   You’ve been running your own consulting business for many years – what have you found to be some of the major challenges and frustrations associated with being self-employed. And what are the compensating rewards?
One of the major challenges running a consulting business is that old chestnut of achieving a continuity of bookings. Almost all self-employed consultants struggle to even out the ups and downs of revenue and keeping a steady stream of income that can be totally relied upon.

Juggling the many hats that have to be worn to cover all bases is another major challenge as a sole operator .... Prospecting for clients; marketing activities; sales meetings; preparation, delivery and then follow up of workshops, presentations, coaching sessions, webinars; ongoing research, development and updating of content; catching up with peers; and all the administrative tasks such as invoicing, banking, database maintenance etc. Of course, some of this can be outsourced but how much of it depends of solving major issue number one!

And a third major challenge is that it can be very hard to ever really feel ‘off duty’ and to switch-off. I just had my first real holiday in a long time (three and a half weeks) but even then, work-related activity was constantly at the back of the mind.
The positives of running your own business include the huge benefits you gain with the flexibility and freedom of how you choose to allocate your time, which allows me to enjoy a number of personal interests I could never pursue if not self-employed. Along with that is the pleasure of travel (which I mostly find enjoyable) and meeting lots of people, many of whom are truly inspiring. And the highlight is probably the feedback received that the work I am doing is having an impact – it is very satisfying to know that I am making a positive difference.

2.   Steuart, you’ve worked in the field of personal productivity improvement for more than a decade. You’ve consulted with small business owners and coached senior executives  ...... What are some of the common mistakes that people in business tend to make in the way they go about managing their time on a daily basis? 
It may seem surprising but the common issues and difficulties are remarkably similar amongst most of those with whom I work. They are largely a result of our human nature. Most of the effective time management techniques and strategies are the opposite of human nature. So it takes lots of self-discipline, effort and energy to establish and then maintain good habits. Chief amongst these is the need, in most roles, for reasonably large chunks of uninterrupted time (on a regular basis) to focus on a high priority task.

"Single-tasking" allows the task to be done quicker and to a higher standard than if it is attempted when interrupted. But time, attention and focus is becoming increasingly fragmented in the modern workplace due to our ever-changing technology. Each of us is now so much more accessible to others and to sources of information than ever before. We have a wide range of devices distract our attention, causing us to work in a constant state of multitasking.
Some of these interruptions will sometimes have a high value. But when they interrupt an activity we are already engaged in, it compromises the attention we can give to either one. An example that highlights this comes from a controlled pilot program in San Francisco where a nurse who is preparing medications wears distinctive clothing or stands inside a clearly defined space whose meaning is “I’m doing critical work and you may NOT approach, speak to or interrupt me”. Results showed not only reduced interruptions, but also a significant reduction in medication errors.

Other common issues include inadequate planning; attempting too much; ineffective delegation; procrastination; ineffective meetings; and unrealistic and/or uncontrolled expectations, especially around timeframes (which reminds me of the saying “there are no unrealistic goals, just unrealistic timeframes”).

3.   Email overload has become a problem and source of stress for many business owners and managers – what are some simple strategies that can be used to gain some control with this?
Mastering email overload revolves around getting control of the three ‘W’s – WHEN to address your email, WHAT you do when you are addressing it and WHERE you place it once dealt with.

With email arriving in a constant stream these days, it is a major source of interruption, so it’s critical to control WHEN you allow it to get your attention. In a special report I’ve written on this subject, I’ve listed the 7 critical impacts of email and information overload – interruptions; loss of focus; multi-tasking; poorer decision-making; lack of ‘think’ time; degradation of crucial business activities such as meetings, manager-subordinate interactions, workload planning and communication effectiveness; mental health; and ultimately, quality of life (worklife balance).

So much of the negative impact from email results not from WHAT it is, but WHEN it arrives. And it really is so easy to control, by scheduling specific times to address email and turning off all alerts so that it doesn’t interrupt time doing other important tasks (many of which arrived by email themselves).
Even those people working in roles where they need to look at email on a frequent basis will be more effective by addressing email in a focused block of 5-10 minutes every half hour (16 times per day) or 15-20 minutes once per hour (8 times per day). Other roles allow checking email less frequently. Once the WHEN is under control, it becomes much easier to apply the WHAT and the WHERE more effectively.

4.   Forward planning and forward thinking is often said to be one of the keys to running a productive business. But there can be so many different types of changed conditions that can prove disruptive to one’s plans – staff who become ill, customers who turn to a competitor, unexpected cash-flow problems, equipment or technology crashing – is it better to avoid planning too far ahead?
Yes. It’s a good idea to have plans for the long, medium and short term and then adjust your focus according to the current situation. For example, year-end is a logical time for longer term planning but when you’re in the middle of a busy season you might refer only to short term plan. It’s good to regularly refer to medium and long tern plans to help keep perspective – it’s very easy to get caught up with the immediate and short term activities.

We tend to overestimate how much we can do in a day but underestimate how much we can do in a year. A longer term plan sets the compass bearing for the direction you’d like to be travelling in and that’s why it’s good to check it on a reasonably regular basis. It’s so easy to get off track when your focus is only on the immediate and short term.
As Stephen Covey said, we can often be very busy focusing on each rung as we climb a ladder only to get to the top and find it’s standing against the wrong wall! It’s also important to have 30 and 90 day plans and refer to these on a very regular basis (say weekly). These time frames give enough of a sense of urgency to keep moving.

5.   What can the business owner who employs staff do to ensure a productive workplace – how can they ensure their employees are working in the most efficient and optimum way?
I think you hit the nail of the head when you say ‘ensure a productive workplace’. So much can be done by controlling the environment rather than trying to control the people.

Most of us want the satisfaction of working hard, achieving results, making a contribution and feeling we’re part of a team but the space we work in so often mitigates against this. Most roles these days are multi-faceted and require different types and levels of thinking and conversation, but we attempt to do all of these various types of tasks and activities in the same workspace (usually a desk or cubicle).
Yet there is a real case for ‘different space for different activities’, especially if the usual workspace is highly interrupted. With most of us having access to mobile computers, smart pads and smartphones, we can now much more easily relocate to a space that suits the type of work we are doing. Move to a shared workspace for collaborative work; move to a closed space for individual work; move outdoors to free up creative thinking and so on. Most of the highest value work that can be done as a small business owner is what happens between our ears, often when we are in a reflective, thinking or ‘musing’ mode. It’s at these times, when we involve both the sub-conscious as well as the conscious mind, that we gain powerful insights, break-throughs, solve problems and have those special ‘aha’ moments.

Yet this is exactly the sort of ‘thinking’ time that has been squeezed out of the modern workplace due to overload, interruptions, attempting too much etc etc. There is great value in having more control (and flexibility) on where and when we tackle our key tasks and activities.

      6.   Any final personal productivity tips for small business owners?

Ongoing learning & improvement
To use the Japanese term – "Kaizen". Given the pace of change in the modern world, we need to be continuously learning & improving in each area of our business and also in our own personal development. It’s not a once a year activity - but an ongoing process.

Given that so much of good time management and productive practices and behaviours are nearly the opposite of human nature, we need to be working on them constantly. Workshop participants often say to me after a time management training session that not much of the material was new to them but that is was great to ‘refresh’.  Most of us know what’s required but don’t implement it on a regular basis. One of the essential disciplines is to consistently plan, prioritise and schedule specific time for your high priority items.
By putting the ‘big rocks’ in place first, much of your other activities will then fall into place....... Hope these thoughts have been helpful.

Thank you to Steuart, for sharing some of his experience with us. And here's a short video clip that reinforces the point about learning to focus on the top priorities in your business ...

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Time management tipsStress management tipsSelf-motivation tips

About the author
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a corporate training business in Melbourne, Australia.  He is a qualified psychologist and experienced management coach with a passion for helping people achieve their goals in life and business. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile

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