Entrepreneur-Tested, Tried-and-True Productivity Tips, Tricks, and Hacks
If you're like most business owners, this Rolling Stones classic isn't even a remote possibility for you:
(And neither is Mick Jagger's outfit.)
A recent survey of 323 small business owners by The Alternative Board, a global peer-to-peer advisory franchise, revealed that 63 percent of small business owners work more than 50 hours a week even though, on average, they only want to work 41.7 hours. (We see you the one respondent that said 80-plus hours should be expected...)
The survey finds that, overwhelmingly (73 percent), small business owners want to work on the business rather than in the business (a phrase Michael Gerber famously coined in his book “The E-Myth”) but only 32 percent feel they adequately do so.
So why the discrepancies? Surely a business owner can call it a day when she wants to, right? After all, you're the boss aren't you? Well, the usual suspects continue to get in the way:
- Answering emails
- Administrative tasks like billing and accounting
- "The tyranny of the urgent", working on urgent but not the most important tasks to build the business
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Time after time, the successful business owners I've talked with all share one thing in common, they don't accept the default future of continually working too many hours on the wrong things and have found a way to "do more with less time, money, and stress," as my friends at Conversant say.
Yet, I've also met many small business owners (and have been one myself!) who continually struggle to escape the trap of working in the business rather than on it.
I spoke with a number of small- to medium-sized small business owners to get an idea of how they've cracked the code to spend the majority of their time working on their business and getting more done with less time.
The following are the tried-and-true, entrepreneur-tested tips, tricks, and hacks they shared with me on how to get more of the right things done in less time.
(By the way, reading this counts as working on your business, so you're already making progress!)
Ruthlessly eliminate multitasking
There's plenty of evidence to show that multitasking isn't really a thing. Unless you’re this guy…
You're not really getting more done (in fact, less), and you're actually just a dopamine addict. This might explain why while email is universally acknowledged as a time suck, most business owners can't escape its grasp. Each email gives you a hit of dopamine.
Worse yet, multitasking can actually increase the production of cortisol, the stress-inducing hormone. Nellie Aklap, CEO and co-founder of CorpNet.com, an online legal document filing service, learned this the hard way. After founding the company with her husband in 2009, Aklap put in a regular 60 to 80 hours per week, balancing being a wife, a mom, CEO, marketing maven, salesperson, receptionist, and more. "You name it—I did it," says Aklap.
It all came to a head when she suffered a sever anxiety attack. After some time off to reflect, Aklap realized she needed to approach work differently, focusing on the quality of her work over the quantity. "I had to really change my mindset to realizing that doing a few things at once and giving those tasks my heart and soul will lead to much greater results than trying to do a hundred things at one time and just wasting time."
Today, Aklap works only 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is reachable by email/phone for a couple hours after that. Around 5 or 6 p.m., she is "officially on 'mom' and 'wife' duty, which [she] loves just as equally as being a business owner."
The result? Her business has gone from a struggling start-up making less than $100,000 in 2009 to employing 12 people full-time and enjoying over $2 million in revenue in 2015.
Still, she admits that the temptation to multitask is always present. "The digital age, combined with ego for me, creates a trumped-up sense of urgency. I am still learning that not every email requires my immediate response. The world won't stop turning if I don't check in on Twitter."
Organize and batch your work
In order to effectively eliminate multitasking, a number of business owners mention the importance of taking the time to organize by priority and batch your work.
Casey Halloran, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Costa Rican Vacations, which employs over 100 people and grosses around $20 million annually, is "ruthless about prioritization" and employs a simple process to achieve it.
"I use a Google sheet and organize my top five items every Monday a.m. and Friday p.m.," says Halloran. "If it's a top five item, I set an appointment with myself on the calendar so that I have dedicated time on which to perform the task. Anything that isn't top five, I do my best to ignore for the week."
Any to-do items he needs to get out of his head while on the go, he adds to Google Task. Other business owners mention well-known to-do apps such as Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Trello, and Omnifocus. I personally enjoy Todoist.
But getting the work organized is only half the effort needed for success. Many owners also stressed the importance of "batching" similar tasks.
"I batch tasks," says Ludovic Vuillier, general manager of Lazaroff Sales, which helps hire, train, and manage sales teams. "Phone calls are made together, then any work that needs to be connected to the Internet."
Susan Harrow of Harrow Communications does the same. "For example," says Harrow, "I write all my follow-up funnel autoresponders for special reports, products, and courses at once. Next I have my assistant test and load them in. So we are both batching and can see a project through quickly. We kind of do a mind-meld so the power of two or three of us working on the same thing increases its speed and efficacy."
Learn to say, "No!"
"If I'm working on more than two hard ideas at a time, the chances of me completing anything will plummet," says Halloran.
The key to successfully eliminating multitasking and dramatically increasing productivity according to him? Learn to say, "No."
"The hardest thing is to say, 'No,'" says Halloran. "You have to think of your time as money and invest it shrewdly. There are great ideas that will simply have to wait. Focus only comes with the willingness to say, 'No." Or at least, 'Not now.'"
Delegate strategically and build a culture of accountability
Of course, eliminating multitasking, prioritizing tasks, and saying, “No,” to other tasks creates a conundrum. How do all the other things that need to get done, well, get done?
The short answer is delegation. But as you know, that's easier said than done. Good delegation is an art form that takes practice. To do it properly, you need to strike the fine balance between micromanaging and completely letting go. And you need to make sure that you're giving projects to your employees most well equipped to get the work done.
"When it comes to delegating," says Aklap, "I give out the task, and If I don't hear back in a day or so, I follow up to make sure its completed. That way I'm still involved, but I don't pull myself too deep in where I would have to take care of it. Another important factor is delegating it to the right individual who has the passion, understanding, and knowledge to do it better than you could have ever imagined doing it."
Amie Marse, founder and managing partner of Content Equals Money, stresses the importance of knowing your team members' strengths in order to delegate like a pro.
"I spend a lot more time in the interview and training for team members," says Marse. "People take a Gallup Strengths test so I know how to communicate and motivate them. Taking the time to learn what is best for each individual is incredibly helpful."
Double down on your investment in your people
Interestingly, when it comes to working on the business instead of in it, the small business owners surveyed by The Alternative Board, when asked, "What do you consider to be a greater distraction for you, personally?" overwhelmingly listed "people" (62 percent).
This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the greatest responsibility of a business owner and blind spot when it comes to the greatest opportunity to free up time.
"The best investment of your time for any small business owner has to be people," says Ben Gately, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of The Eleven, a startup studio based out of the UK. "Hire people that are better than you...[and] spend as much time as you can developing those you get to work with."
Sebastien Dupéré, president of Dupray, which sells steam cleaners and steam irons to people in six countries, agrees. He's built his company to over 30 employees and over $7 million in revenue by doubling down on his investment in his people.
"Employing people you can trust [and] having capable, loyal, responsible employees is a surefire way to freeing up your time. As long as these employees are well compensated, treated respectfully, and consistently challenged, you can have the peace of mind knowing that you can focus your attention where it needs to be while not being afraid of the consequences of ignoring the other areas."
Dupéré learned the importance of expending huge amounts of time and energy developing his team the hard way. "Very early on we lost a key employee for us. He was generally satisfied with his work, but we weren't compensating him enough. Unfortunately, he took a job somewhere else. The repercussions were unbelievable. We really didn't realize the amount of work he was doing until he left. I knew immediately that we would have to pivot to building our team with great employees and outstanding people."
Dupéré now spends 25–30 percent of his time leading his team. It's that important to him.
When an employee gets off track, it's not time to jump in and do the work yourself, says Dupéré. Rather you need to take the time and energy you would put into doing the work and instead spend it on leading your employee. "The bottom line," he says, "Is that you need to be able to give 100 percent of yourself when somebody requires assistance...As leaders, we need to redirect them, while praising the work that they have done."
This focus on leading people rather than working in the business has allowed both Gately and Dupéré to significantly free up their time to work on the business.
Outsource like a boss
The reality for many small business owners is that they won't always have the people on staff that are capable of completing all the work or the type of work that needs to be done. The temptation can be to do that work yourself, and that's a dangerous trap.
You're the boss, and you need to not only delegate but also outsource like a boss (which is really just another form of delegation).
But finding good freelancers can be a challenge. Thankfully, there are a number of services that have cropped up to help you take the guesswork out of finding the best talent out there.
Chris Huntley, owner and founder of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services, utilizes Upwork, a leading platform for businesses to hire and work with the world’s most talented freelancers to supplement his team of agents.
"There is no reason for me to waste my time on web design, writing articles, managing the office, executing marketing initiatives, or handling PR and accounting," says Huntley. "Yes, of course, there are times when matters need a personal touch, but it's great to have people to rely on that are savvy in their particular fields."
In addition to Upwork, Huntley mentions Growth Geeks, an exclusive network of digital marketing experts, as a reliable resources to manage his social accounts like Instagram. Other freelance networks to check out include Toptal, Scripted, and yunojuno.
Once you've freed your time up with the tactics listed above, the only thing standing in your way to quality, productive planning and strategy time is, well, you.
"Another challenge is being able to detach yourself from the business and to break routine," says Dupéré. "Most business owners have a routine—come in, make a coffee, read all the emails, check reports, check in on specific dossiers, have a meeting—you need to break your regular routine."
Gately agrees and suggests creating an alternate routine to break up your workday routine. "Create a ritual for your thinking time," he says. "For me that is a certain cafe with a certain coffee. That's the place I go to do big picture stuff. When I am back in the office, I am focused on the people in the business."
Automate like a boss, too
In addition to outsourcing tasks, many small business owners miss out on the benefits of automating many of the daily functions that keep the business running.
Overwhelmingly, small business owners surveyed by The Alternative Board listed email and administrative tasks as a huge time suck. Utilizing an automation platform, like Infusionsoft, allows you to automate like a boss, streamlining many of the mundane emails and tasks you do day-in and day-out, as well as complex marketing and nurture campaigns. The result is huge gains in time and ultimately sales.
For more on how automation can help your business, see our free guide "25 Things Every Small Business Should Automate."
Organize your data
Small business owners rely on good data to make strategic decisions for the future of the business. Hunting down and compiling this data, however, can become a monumental task and the source of many lost hours.
J. Colin Petersen, president and CEO of J - I.T. Outsource, recommends small business owners invest in heads up displays and dashboards to compile their data and get a high-level view of their business.
"When you're working on your business and not in your business," says Petersen, "you must have a high-level view where you can see everything that's going on, without getting bogged down in daily details...I use HUDs to gauge our overall success with things like patching and security update status across all machines and devices, my help desk team's daily productivity, tasks overdue and coming due, technician utilization and productivity, open sales opportunities and approaches towards quota, project plans, and remaining tasks. All at a glance. Then, if there's an issue or something I want more detail on, I can dive deeper into the data or reach out to the team for more information."
Some great options for HUDs and dashboards for small business owners include Grow and Kipfolio. Utilizing these tools, you can plug your disparate systems into the software and get the high-level view you need to do the right things at the right time.
Be balanced and know thyself
While technology is key in increasing your productivity, it's important to also realize that you're human, and thus need both intense periods of work, as well as time to wind down.
For Gately, this means getting enough rest to be able to operate at peak performance. "Go to bed early and get up early," he says. "I sleep 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. An hours sleep before midnight is more valuable than an hours sleep after."
Science backs Gately's advice on sleep. As Inc. reports, "According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep."
In addition to getting regular sleep, it's essential that small business owners know the rhythms of their day, when they're most productive—and when they're not.
"Know when you are good and when you're not," says Gately. "I do team meetings between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. because I know that is when I am at my best. I do phone interviews between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. because I know that's the best in my day to do that kind of task."
Susan Harrow agrees. "I set my schedule according to my energy, rhythms, and state of aliveness," she says. "Since I'm not a morning person, I drink my bulletproof coffee as I do email first, as that doesn't take any brain power. I set client appointments Monday through Wednesday, typically from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., as that's when I have the most brain power for intensive work."
In addition to tapping into the most productive times of the day to do the most important tasks, Harrow also takes time to recharge through activities she enjoys such as Aikido and meditation. She uses Simply Being, an app for guided meditation. She can set it for five minutes or more to unwind when she feels stressed. She also gets out of the office to spend time in nature. "We have a gorgeous garden, so I jet out to dig in the dirt, snip or sniff flowers to de-clutter my mind and get some fresh air."
Bonus: For the app geeks
We all are suckers for productivity apps, and for good reason. Combining these apps with the tips, tricks, and hacks above can take you to the next level. Each and every business owner I talked to had their favorite apps for increasing productivity. The following are some apps for you to explore.
Infusionsoft is an all-in-one sales and marketing CRM and automation platform built solely for small business owners. You can organize and segment your contacts, score your leads to know which ones to focus your energy on, automate your email and marketing campaigns, and house your e-commerce and payments systems.
You've undoubtedly heard of Slack. It's all the rage right now, and for good reason. More than just a messaging app, Slack let's you share files, build multiple team chat rooms, and significantly cut down on your email load.
Everyone should use a to-do list, and the to-do app options are seemingly endless. The best ones are cloud-based and can be utilized across all of your devices. Personally, I love Todist, but any of the apps listed above are worth exploring.
Moz offers a suite of analytics tools to help you maximize your marketing efforts from search engine optimization to local search to tools designed to help you "discover what content engages your target audience and get data-rich insights to feed your content strategy."
Calendly helps you "Say goodbye to email tag for scheduling appointments, interviews, calls, demos, and much more" by automating the often cumbersome process of scheduling appointments between multiple parties.
Docusign helps streamline the process of getting key documents signed digitally. You can approve and execute documents on any device.
Focus Booster is an app based on the Pomodoro technique of getting work done. Basically it helps you create periods of intensely focused work with breaks built in to recharge your mind. It helps you eliminate multi-tasking.
If you have light design work that needs to be done, Canva is a great option over more complex programs like Adobe Creative Suite—and it's much more affordable. With a number of pre-built templates, you can easily and quickly do a variety of design tasks.
Shoeboxed is an online service that scans and organizes your receipts and business cards, creates expense reports, tracks mileage, and more. Caroline Szymeczek, owner of Integrated Learning Innovations, Inc., swears by it. "My secret weapon for outsourcing unproductive work is Shoeboxed," she says. "Which helps me deal with unsightly clutter, not to mention the distressing emotional clutter of my pile of receipts, invoices, and miscellaneous items that need to be scanned and archived in a searchable way!"
Buffer is a social media scheduling platform that makes it easy to quickly schedule posts. With their browser plug-ins, you can easily place an article you're reading into your buffer for sharing later. Plus, the platform has robust analytics, so you can tell what's working for you and what's not.
Grow and Klipfolio help you take the data from your various systems and create dashboards to get a high-level view of your data. Plug a number of industry-standard apps into these systems, such as Quickbooks, Infusionsoft, social media platforms, Google Analytics, and more.
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