Increase your productivity—and your potential for profitability—with these strategies.
With late nights, early mornings and multiple hats to wear, most small business owners would love to add more hours to the day. In fact, one in four small business owners believe an extra hour in the workday would be worth more than $500, according to a survey conducted by eVoice, a virtual phone service.
Knowing we don’t have the power to slow down the clock, we talked with four small business owners who have mastered the art of time management. Here, they share how they operate their companies while still enjoying personal time, and offer advice for other small business owners seeking to make themselves and their businesses more efficient.
1. Set a smart schedule.
How many days have flown by when, despite feeling rushed and stressed all day, you can’t say what you’ve accomplished? That sensation comes from a lack of prioritizing, says NFIB member Leslie Hackett, franchise owner of staffing firm Express Employment Professionals in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the west zone developer for 23 other offices throughout Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming on behalf of the franchisor in Oklahoma City. When she opened her franchise in 2004 and saw her business grow to $4 million in sales by the next year, Hackett says she had to make sure the things on her schedule were worth it. “Every organization has to know what its most important job is, and each individual needs to know the most important reason for his or her job,” she says.
When her business was young, Hackett’s first priority was sales calls, which translated directly into new business. Paperwork and other routine tasks were often relegated to the after-5 p.m. or before-8 a.m. timeframes. Hackett started her business with three employees; today, she oversees 13 employees who handle day-to-day operations, affording her the time to be “more strategic and less tactical,” she says.
Similarly, Rebecca Epperson, founder and CEO of PR Etc., a public relations and marketing firm in Rockford, Ill., remembers that when she founded her company as a one-woman show in 2002, the boundaries between workdays, evenings and weekends simply didn’t exist.
She sticks to a time-management technique she learned from Strategic Coach, a workshop program that helps entrepreneurs increase income while becoming more productive and focused, simplifying their lives and enjoying more personal time. Epperson joined the program three years ago on the recommendation of a client. “It’s helped me identify my strategy and needs,” she says. “It allows me to work on my business instead of just in it.”
Based on guidelines from Strategic Coach, Epperson divides her workweek into “focus,” “free” and “buffer” days. Focus days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for Epperson) allow her to concentrate exclusively on business development. Buffer days (Mondays and Fridays) are for strategic planning, paperwork and internal matters. Free days (weekends), which were a rare occasion for Epperson as a new entrepreneur, allow her to unplug—especially important as the mother of a recently adopted little girl from China.
2. Use the right tools.
Managing your time and staying organized is made easier when you select smart online tools that work together seamlessly.
Maura Thomas, speaker and author of Personal Productivity Secrets and founder of RegainYourTime.com, says there are five necessary components to an effective personal information management system: a calendar, a contact manager, a task list, a notes area and email. “One of each is best, and it’s important for them to interact together,” she says. “For example, it should be easy to create a calendar appointment or a task from an email.”
Thomas has an Apple computer and uses the tools that are part of the Mac operating system—including Calendar, Reminders, Contacts and Mail—to stay organized. In addition, she’s been using Evernote as a note-making tool for creating lists, instructions, and project or client details.
Meanwhile, NFIB member MonaLisa R. Como, president and CEO of InterPares Capital LLC, a commercial finance brokerage firm in Irving, Texas, is a diehard Microsoft Outlook user. “I live and die by my Outlook calendar to keep me organized with scheduling,” she says. “I sync all my devices and mailboxes to it.”
Como also uses two other technology tools ideal for small business owners: Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management product, and Mint.com, a free Web-based personal financial management service. Como calls Salesforce “a phenomenal tool to keep your interactions with clients organized as well as run reporting off of it. You can also set reminders on when to follow up with clients.” And she relies on Mint.com to remind her when to pay bills on time. Although the software is geared toward personal finance, Como prefers its user-friendly interface (including the ability to consolidate all accounts to one view) above other business-focused programs.
3. Don’t fear white space.
A jam-packed day with no breaks leaves you little time to deal with unexpected challenges—or opportunities.
“Every single person needs to leave white space on their calendar,” says Hackett, who typically leaves one hour in the morning and one to two hours at the end of the day open on her calendar.
For two days each week, including Monday (which tends to be a busier day after a weekend away from the office), Como avoids scheduling appointments to allow herself time to catch up. “If you’ve overstructured your calendar, you’re always going to be behind,” she says.
On the other three workdays, she usually schedules any meeting to last only half an hour, which allows especially productive conversations to continue without her having to dash to another meeting.
Because Epperson’s firm bills clients based on time, one of her office’s two senior managers tracks employees’ billable hours and makes sure everyone has adequate white space (approximately 20 percent of the workday) for unscheduled tasks such as catching up on emails and reading industry publications. When everyone’s calendars are booked to capacity, Epperson knows it’s time to hire additional full-time employees.
Thomas often sees business owners use the free space on their calendars to block time with themselves for important projects that are tough to tackle in the day-to-day grind. “Use time-blocking very selectively: only for very important things, and only once in a while,” she says. “If you try to do it too often, it will just get in the way and become routine.” Thomas recommends these time blocks last no longer than two hours, which forces you to be productive in a limited timeframe.
4. Trust your people.
When Como founded InterPares Capital in November 2013, she set a self-made timeline of 30 days to get her new business up and running—from office space to phone systems to marketing campaigns. By the second week, “it was like drinking through a fire hose,” says Como. “I took for granted the art of delegating.”
The stressful experience forced Como to set priorities. Because 90 percent of her company’s clients are virtual, developing a strong Web presence took priority over putting the finishing touches on a brick-and-mortar office. Como outsourced her technology and marketing functions, which has been working well. “I had to accept that I’m not an expert in everything,” she says.
Hiring carefully has also helped Epperson stay calm when unexpected challenges arise. Potential hires complete several writing tasks and interview with her, senior managers, staff and clients. “I always tell people to hire people smarter than themselves,” she says. “Ninety percent of the time, I know team members can handle the issue.”
Her nine-person staff includes two senior managers who lead day-to-day operations, including individual weekly meetings with each employee. Since appointing the first senior manager two years ago, “growth has been exponential in new clients, client results, and internal confidence and camaraderie,” she says.
5. Take time to take it easy.
Being a small business owner is a notoriously demanding job, but your work is only one part of your life. “You absolutely need down time,” Epperson says. “If you’re not taking it, you’re doing a disservice to your clients and team members because you’re going to burn out.”
Como agrees. “By not having a balance, you get less out of yourself,” she says. She knows from experience: She spent her 20s and early 30s working up to 18 hours a day on Wall Street. “There’s a law of diminishing returns.”
These days, the mother of five says she’s learned to clock out once she leaves the office. She avoids checking messages at home. But if a pressing matter is weighing on her at night, she occasionally emails a staff member to get it off her mind—with the explanation that the email doesn’t warrant a response until the next day.
“After all,” she says, “on my grave, it isn’t going to say, ‘Here lies MonaLisa, the hardest worker in business.’”