photo credit: lbpost.com
By Mark Hawks
It’s that time of year where many of us reflect on what we’ve accomplished and start planning for the New Year.
Between talking with other small business owners, learning from my mistakes and my own desire to constantly improve, I’ve found several life hacks that have really helped me both personally and professionally. My hope is that the following insight that worked well for me in 2013 will help fellow business owners as they plan for 2014.
Focus on the Big Picture
New Year’s is a great time to look at the big picture and reconnect with goals in order to spot new opportunity and stay on track for the year ahead.
Identify short and long term business goals as well as career aspirations. For long-term goals use last year’s financial data and business metrics to evaluate how well you met these goals and aspirations last year, and how much further you may need to go to meet them this year. Collect important data to measure performance, document success and areas of improvement. Ask yourself, “is there important data metrics that can be measured each month or quarter to stay focused”. Remember SMARTER for goal setting:
- Agreed upon
Big picture perspective and the SMARTER goal-setting process work wonders for both short-term and long-term goals.
Increase Productivity & Efficiency
Next, it’s crucial to be as productive and efficient as possible. As small business owners, we are continually bombarded by interruptions, and if you don’t manage them, you can easily lose sight of your goals. These life hacks can help you stay productive and focused.
Schedule Tasks in Time Blocks
Set aside blocks of time in your schedule to work on specific tasks. I’ve found that 30- to 45-minute increments work really well. Use a timer and don’t let anything interrupt that time. If you are interrupted, inform the interrupter you will be available at the end of your blocked time.
During the time block, work on the designated task and nothing else. Spend the next 15 minutes taking care of any interruptions that may have come up, or anything that tends to eat up your time, such as email, instant messages, social media, phone calls or employee questions. You can also use these 15 minutes to stretch, walk around and take a mental break. Then start over with a new 30-45 minute block.
By focusing exclusively on the task at hand and combining all distractions to be dealt with later, you’ll increase your productivity and efficiency by a large margin. It’s easier to concentrate for only half an hour and the short breaks revitalize your mind and help you manage your distractions. Time-blocking also works great for your least favorite tasks and huge projects, especially if you tell yourself “I’ll just spend 30 minutes on this task”. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in these short bursts of intense focus.
Avoid Getting Stuck in a Technology Loop
Most small business owners are in front of a computer for the better part of the day. In addition smartphones and tablets allow us to stay constantly connected. I find it easy to spend an average of 12 hours per day in front of an Internet-connected screen. When you use technology that much, it’s easy to get distracted by incoming emails, IMs, phone calls, text messages, social media updates and industry news.
While it’s important to keep up with the daily barrage of communication, it’s also important to recognize technology as a tool to make things easier. Technology should help us get things done, not be a distraction.
I’ve found 2 things very useful for keeping technology in its proper place:
Schedule your day first, then check email. Opening your inbox first thing keeps you stuck and often makes you forget to schedule your day as efficiently as possible.
Don’t leave email and social media in an open browser. If you leave them open, they beg for attention and you can’t help but check them constantly. Spend 15 minutes per hour getting caught up and then close the browser.
Plan Weekly and Daily
If you are anything like me, you probably have daunting project and task lists. There is never a shortage of things that need to get done. Effective daily and weekly planning will help you stay caught up, get things done and reach your goals.
I use a simple spreadsheet with 3 tabs, which I keep in Google Drive so I can access and edit it from any device at any time. Dropbox is another shared drive service that you could use to access from any device.
The 3 tabs on my planning spreadsheet are:
- Master Projects List — Put all of your ideas, projects, goals, plans, and aspirations in the master projects tab. When you have a creative idea, this is where you document it. You can organize or prioritize these any way you like.
- Weekly Planner — Start each week with weekly radar planning. Look over your master projects list and move things you want to get done to your weekly planner. If any master projects are too large to be completed in a week, break them into smaller segments and move 1 or 2 segments to your weekly planner. I prefer to do this on Sunday or early Monday morning while it’s quiet.
- Daily Tasks List — Start each day with a short planning session. Move tasks and projects from the weekly planner to the daily task list. Prioritize as necessary and note the estimated time it will take to complete each task. To avoid being overwhelmed and paralyzed, NEVER fill your daily task list with more than 50-60 percent of your available time.
Only planning 60 percent of your day helps you focus on what’s important and gives you extra time if something comes up. That flexibility actually boosts productivity and efficiency because you don’t overbook yourself or fall behind. It also helps you complete everything on your daily task list so you’ll feel satisfied with your work at the end of the day.
Some tasks eat up more of your time than you can afford. It’s time to get out of your own way and delegate if:
- you don’t enjoy doing the task
- you keep putting it off
- you’re not very good at it
- it takes you too long to do
Pass on the responsibility to someone else by training employees, hiring someone new or outsourcing. Delegation is especially helpful for recurring tasks, giving you more time each week or month to focus on what’s really important and to play to your strengths.
Enjoy Life Outside of Work
Finally, what you do outside of work can help you be a better business owner.
For me it’s unplugging from technology each day. Finding the time to relax away from work helps my concentration and productivity by giving my mind a release. Plus, it makes life more fun. If you are satisfied and happy outside of work, you’re more likely to find satisfaction in your work, too. Spend time with family, enjoy the great outdoors, get a massage, pick up hobbies that aren’t related to work, and learn to relax.
Daily exercise is critical, especially if you’re like me and sit in front of a computer all day. Not only is it good for you in general, but getting away from the desk and moving your body:
- gives your mind a break from work, allowing ideas to form in your subconscious
- lets your eyes rest, preventing strain, headaches and fatigue
- invigorates you, giving you energy and motivation to work
Get in a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise every day. Go for a morning walk or stretch for 15 minutes twice a day. Try a yoga or Pilates video workout. The Scientific 7 Minute Workout is fun and it works.
Choose activities that are fun and you enjoy doing every day. Turn it into a routine. Whatever you do, don’t let your health diminish, because it can become a company risk. Key employees’ and partners’ health are potential risks as well, so make exercise a priority.
Education & Mentoring
Never stop learning. If your mind stagnates, your business will, too. Continuing to learn keeps your mind active and young, and gives you new ideas and perspective to improve yourself and your business.
Audiobooks are an awesome way to continue learning. Listen to them during non-productive times throughout the day, like during your commute, during your daily exercise routine, while waiting in line at Starbucks, or while traveling. Put some new business books for 2014 on your reading list!
Other continuing education options include:
- Online classes from Udemy, community colleges or universities
- Local SCORE chapters for business mentoring, workshops, counseling and tools
- Small Business Development Centers (part of the U.S. Small Business Administration) hosted by universities and community colleges around the country
- Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program
The 10,000 Small Businesses program from Goldman Sachs is a small business growth initiative that provides entrepreneurs with a practical business education, access to capital and business support services to help them grow their businesses. It’s a fantastic resource for building your business acumen and collaborating with other successful entrepreneurs. In the program, I created an extremely detailed 5-year business growth plan supported by performance metrics for every aspect of my business. The curriculum, faculty, mentoring and support are absolutely amazing! I highly recommend other small business owners to consider it. Completing the program has been one of the best decisions I have made for my business.