As a small business owner, uncertainty can consume your mind: Am I doing the right thing? Is my team being productive enough? What should I be doing next? These questions, coupled with a backlog of to-dos, can make any business owner feel like they are barely keeping their head above water.
So how does a small business owner know if they’re working on the right thing? Grab a cup of coffee, relax, and read through this blog as I run through some of the key concepts behind becoming an efficient, well-oiled machine – and some inside tips we, as a small business, use to stay focused and work towards being more productive every week.
Nothing Happens Overnight
This is important to remember! Trial and error is the name of the game when it comes to figuring out what works best for you and your company. At first, everything is hard, inefficient, and seems like total chaos. Keep in mind that this is normal. The goal is to learn how to accomplish more in less time with ideally less effort as your business grows and evolves. Here are a few ideas for kickstarting that learning journey as you work to ultimately become more efficient, effective, and targeted in the use of your and your team’s time.
Where To Begin
Ask: What Could You Be Doing?
There are so many things that you could be doing. Ideally, you want to be able to look at all of the things on your list, see a task, and say, “This is exactly what I should be doing right now.” But how do you get to that point, you’re wondering? Glad you asked!
Let It All Out, But Keep It Organized
Start by setting a timer and having a brainstorming session where you list all the things you think you should or could be doing.
(NOTE: A timer is important here because, let’s be honest, we could spend all day thinking of more and more things we could/should to be doing.)
Try to keep it to no more than an hour to capture your thoughts, and an hour to organize them. When organizing, group your potential tasks into themes (marketing, product development, operations, etc.). Organizing your tasks and projects now can help save you time later.
Ask: What Do You NOT Need To Do?
Focus is key when it comes to organizing your priorities. As a start-up or small business, you can’t do everything, no matter how badly you want to. Say you have 50 things you are working to accomplish – you’ll barely make any progress on any particular one. But if you get your to-do list down to three things, you can knock ‘em out and move on to the next.
Focus Your Energy Where It Makes Sense
When there are a lot of activities that could contribute to the growth of your business, identify the options that will provide you the most value for your effort. For example, social media is, for the most part, an easy thing to set up. And scheduling posts is an even easier way to make sure you remain active on social media without having to manually update it every day.
But sometimes it isn’t clear which option is the winning choice. In those circumstances, try working backward. Which options are NOT the best choice for you at this time? Determining your course of action through a process of elimination alleviates the pressure of making the “right” choice. Instead, you can rule out choices you know aren’t the strongest to come to your decision.
There is power in setting boundaries and making realistic lists of things you CAN accomplish. Take the list that you compiled earlier in your brainstorming session and begin labeling the urgent/important things that should be a top priority. Then go down the rest of your list prioritizing the remaining items that need to be done. Be careful not to plan more than two weeks in advance with smaller tasks. That is how to-do lists get out of hand.
(Pro Tip: Complete small/easy tasks at the start of your day to get you going and make you feel accomplished!)
One Thing At A Time
Multitasking – a skill that we put on our resumes to make us seem like master jugglers. But in reality, it is better to AVOID multitasking whenever possible. Instead, simply start at the top of your list and work your way through it one by one. Often multitasking can make you feel more productive, but you really aren’t. Multitasking is a myth.
We find using Kanban boards very helpful in helping us figure out what needs to be done, what is being worked on right now, and what is completed. A cool feature of Kanban boards is the Work In Progress (WIP) limits. This restricts the max amount of work items in different stages, or board columns, of the workflow. The use of WIP helps you and your team complete single working items faster by helping your team focus only on current, active tasks.
Get to Know How You Are Spending Your Time
Can you remember what you worked on between 10 am and 11 am last Tuesday? Probably not. To get a better picture of how you spend your time, you may try to schedule tasks, saying you are going to work on something from 10:00 am to 11:00 am. But then actually switching to another task can get tricky. What if after that hour, you are at a crucial place where you can’t stop working?
Instead of setting rigid time frames, try and think of how long a specific task usually takes you, and then prioritize your time accordingly. For example, you might observe checking and responding to emails usually takes 3 hours, making phone calls usually takes 2 hours – that is about 5 hours of work which I can get done before lunch. Two huge tasks done in the morning!
(Pro Tip: Try out a time tracker like Toggl to help you document your time spent on each task and generate weekly time use reports)
Review Workflow & Look For Opportunities To Create Efficiencies
As you observe and track how you are spending your time, assess what you find. Did a task that you thought would take 2 hours actually take 5 hours? Why was that? Did you do something different? Were there distractions? Did the task need more planning before getting to work on it?
In your assessment, you will also probably identify repeating tasks. For these, think of tools that you can use to standardize and streamline their workflow. Templates, outlines, and checklists are all great tools that we use to maximize these time-saving opportunities.
Take Time To Make Time
It can be every week or every other week, but set aside a specific amount of time that is dedicated to planning out your work. Make all your decisions during this time to provide yourself a structure to follow during the next week or two. We borrow from Agile ways of working where this is called Sprint Planning. In these meetings, you and your coworkers can look at items in your backlog that need to get done this week, or sprint, and assign them.
As you start sprint planning, and every so often on an ongoing basis, you will need to review how things went the week prior (what is called a Sprint Review) and adjust your approach accordingly to make the next sprint even more productive (what is called a Sprint Retrospective).
Remember! Things won’t always go exactly as planned. That is okay! Be flexible and know that as long as your making progress, that is what matters.
To Sum It Up
Finding the right tools for you and your company may take some trial and error. Starting up and maintaining a small business takes time, effort, and patience. Testing out different processes and tools and assessing how each has worked for and against you can help narrow down what is best for you. The perfect “Goldilocks” tools will help you stay focused, organized, and help measure your progress in an easy to follow way.
If you need help finding some project management tools, take a look at one of our other blogs: Top Project Management Tools For Small Businesses. We outline 6 project management tools that are cost-efficient and help you on your way to success!