Q: Steve, I work for myself and can pretty much make up my own schedule, which too often means I have no schedule. This year, one thing I really want is to use my time more effectively. How do other small business owners handle this issue? — Lara
A: Back in one of my first jobs, I had a pal who had it all figured out. Well, maybe not “all,” but he sure did have the work stuff down pat. Employers loved him, co-workers liked him, and he never seemed overwhelmed like the rest of us.
What was his secret? Did he work hard? Yes, you bet, but more than that, he worked smart. He used his time extremely well, made it a point to be technologically advanced (people would actually come to him for help), he was positive, personable and smart, he read books on efficiency, and he especially didn’t waste time on things that didn’t matter.
I have often thought of his attitude in the years since, especially recently as the time demands on all of us seem to continuously grow, but damn if the length of a day never does.
So I think that, especially today, working hard is not enough. And really, how much harder can we work, anyway? No, these days, working smart is the new currency.
Here are 7 great ways to do just that:
1. Make a “To-NOT-do” list: Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great, observed that highly effective people and companies worry as much about their “to-not-do” list as their “to-do” list. What are those things that you do that you would be better off not wasting time on?
In his amazing book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferris says that he almost completely outsourced email. Impressive, yes, and maybe impossible for us mere mortals, but the idea is a sound one: Re-think how you spend your time and stop doing those things that don’t move the needle.
2. Make a MIT list: Speaking of lists, one you might want to start is a list of your Most Important Tasks (MITs). The way it works is this: Every night, make a list of the top two or three things you need to get done the next day. Write it down. And then stick to the MIT.
3. Stop multitasking: Try this instead: Block off a chunk of time – either mentally or using the stopwatch on your phone or computer – and work on one task, and only one task. Don’t answer email. Don’t surf the Web. Don’t call your spouse. Don’t do anything else but that one thing.
4. Turn off the Wi-Fi: While everyone seems to hate flying these days, personally I quite enjoy it. Among other reasons, I get hours with no Internet interference. Turn off the wireless and see how productive you become.
5. Learn your software: The people who make the apps and software that you use to run your business have spent an inordinate amount of time, money, and resources to make them really, really useful. The problem is that most of us only use a small percentage of what these tools can actually do because, usually, we know what we know and we don’t want to be bothered learning more (guilty as charged!) But if you take a few hours to really learn what that app has to offer, you will save a ton of time down the road.
6. Get help: You should be using your time to grow your business, not mailing packages or whatever, and if you are doing the latter then it’s time to hire some help, get an intern, outsource, or do whatever else it is you need to do to get the help you need.
7. Use the Decision Box. President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision box made making decisions much simpler and faster. As he said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Do, decide, delegate, or delete.
Today’s tip: Here are two bonus ideas from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
First, author Stephen Covey says that the key to doing a project right is to begin by knowing what the end should look like. This will force you to use your time on the things that matter instead of those that don’t.
Second, sharpen your saw. The idea here is to keep your skills sharp. It is much easier to saw down a tree with a sharp blade than a dull one.