As a small business owner, you juggle what may seem like a million tasks. But mastering the art of productivity can help you run a thriving enterprise while still carving out time and space for your personal life.
Mastering the art of productivity can help you avoid productivity traps that can fritter away minutes and hours, and often lead to frustration and burnout.
So, as soon as you’ve covered the basics of running your business, like getting small business insurance and setting up your accounting process, make productivity a priority. Start by putting the right systems and routines in place to manage your tasks, so you can work smarter — not harder — than your competition.
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Pick the Right Productivity System for You
A productivity system is a set of guidelines, habits, and steps that help you manage the various types of tasks in your work and life. With the right system, you can make the best use of your time, achieve your goals more quickly, and transform your business.
It’s important to pick a system that works with your business, goals, lifestyle, and personality. It can take some trial and error to find the right system for you, and you may want to combine systems or craft your own.
Here’s an overview of some of the most used productivity systems:
1. Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done, known as GTD, might be the most popular productivity system ever created. But it’s not for everyone. GTD is based on this idea from the system’s founder, David Allen: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” GTD is one of the more complicated productivity systems available, but it starts with five steps that, according to Allen, “apply order to chaos.” These are the GTD steps:
- Capture — Use a basket, voice recorder, or notepad to capture all the snippets of information that are jumbled in your mind, without making distinctions between your business and personal life.
- Clarify — Go through all items and divide them into actionable and not actionable. For the non-actionable items, file, set aside, or throw away. Then do the actionable items that will take less than two minutes and either delegate the other items or put them on a to-do list. (Read on for tips on mastering your to-do list.)
- Organize — Divide your action items into categories. Examples of action item categories include: phone calls, emails, and errands. Grouping like items saves you time and helps make you more efficient.
- Reflect — Review and update your lists regularly to keep up your momentum, and add and remove items as needed. Do a weekly review.
- Engage — Continue to take action, which is key to getting things done.
GTD works well for detail-oriented types who enjoy structure and are willing to consistently use the productivity system. Allen recommends the system for entrepreneurs because it allows them to stop “micromanaging [their] mind” and focus on the big picture. “One of the greatest traps in growing a business is also a pitfall for self-management: If you don’t trust your system, you can’t let go of operational details and you’ll limit your ability to create at a bigger level,” Allen writes on the GTD blog.
2. Master Your Now
The Master Your Now (MYN) system is similar to GTD but slightly less complicated. MYN lets you prioritize tasks into categories from urgent to “horizon” or someday items, and it provides a system for visualizing and planning goals. Based on the book Master Your Workday Now! by Michael Linenberger, MYN has three main components:
- Tasks — In MYN, you divide tasks by urgency: “critical now” tasks you’d stay at work late today to finish, “target now” tasks you’d like to do today but wouldn’t work late to complete, “opportunity now” tasks you’d like to do this week, and “over the horizon” tasks you can take up next week or later. Do “critical now” tasks first each day, then start on the “target now” tasks. Review “critical now” tasks hourly and “opportunity now” tasks daily, and review “over the horizon” tasks weekly. Each week, also create a “significant outcomes” list with no more than three bigger picture outcomes you want to accomplish during the workweek. Check this list daily to make sure your tasks are moving you toward these outcomes.
- Goals and actions — Create big goals for your business, and then write a goal statement that describes each one succinctly. Brainstorm the actions you’ll need to take to achieve your goals.
- Biggest picture planning — Create a “Life’s Work Vision Goal,” which you update yearly and keep in mind as you create goals and tasks in your business.
MYN works well for people who are drawn to GTD but want a more streamlined system. It can benefit SBOs who need a way to manage urgent daily tasks in a manner that allows them to keep sight of their goals and long-range vision for their business and life.
3. Zen to Done
Created by Leo Babauta, of the blog Zen Habits, Zen to Done (ZTD) attempts to address problems some people experience with GTD, according to Babauta. For that reason, ZTD focuses on changing one habit at a time, taking action with minimal stress, simplifying your efforts, and keeping big picture goals in mind.
ZTD breaks productivity down into 10 core habits:
- Collect — Use a notebook, a notes app on your phone, or any tool that works to capture ideas, goals, and bits of information.
- Process — Go through your notebook, emails, and any other incoming information at least once a day and make quick decisions to file, trash, or add the item to your to-do list.
- Plan — Pick three big goals each week, then pick three daily tasks that support your goals.
- Other core habits — ZTD advocates that you: focus on one task at a time, use simple lists, organize your space by designating a place for everything, review goals weekly, simplify your list of tasks, implement daily routines, and find your passion.
This system works well for small business owners who prefer making small, incremental habit changes that eventually lead to transformation, rather than attempting wholesale change all at once. It also may be a good fit if you consider yourself a minimalist or just strive to simplify your business and your life.
4. The Agile Way
The Agile Way is a simple, logical system that focuses on outcomes rather than tasks.
The Agile Way, based on the book Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier, recommends that you take three actions:
- Apply the “Rule of 3” — Choose three outcomes you want to accomplish this year, three outcomes for this month, three for this week, and three for today. To overcome mental resistance, Meier recommends creating stories. For example, instead of calling a customer, you are going to “win a raving fan,” he writes.
- Use three techniques to plan and review — On Monday, choose your three outcomes for the week. To help you decide, look at your calendar, inbox, “hotspots” — for example, piles of paper on your desk — and think about last week. Each day, choose and review your daily outcomes. On Friday, reflect by looking at what is going well and what you want to improve the next week.
- Set boundaries — Set goals or limits in areas of your life such as business, body, mind, relationships, and fun. For example, each week, you might plan to devote at least five hours to physical exercise and not more than 50 hours to your business.
The Agile Way allows you to keep an eye on the big picture while seamlessly juggling multiple areas of your life. The system works best for people who value the ability to continually assess, tweak, and change direction if necessary. It also works well for SBOs who want to seamlessly balance business with other areas of life.
5. The Bullet Journal
The Bullet Journal, known as the BuJo for short, is dubbed “the analog system for the digital age.” It requires only a notebook and a pen, and it can be adapted to suit individual needs.
Developed by digital product designer Ryder Carroll, the BuJo makes use of “rapid logging” — using pages, topics, numbers, and symbols to help you quickly enter items. Here are some BuJo basics:
- Give each page a topic, which could be as simple as the day’s date. Or it could be something like “new product ideas.”
- To create a task, draw a bullet and write out the to-do item. When completed, draw an X through the bullet. Draw a greater than sign to denote a task moved forward, and a less than sign to signify a task has been scheduled. Use a circle to signify an event and a dash to denote a note, which could be an idea, observation, or a snippet of information, such as a phone number. Star your priority items.
- Organize your BuJo by creating an index in the front. Also make a future log organized by months to remind you of important future items and events, as well as a monthly log broken down into days and a daily log for each day’s tasks, events, and other items.
The bullet journal productivity system may work well for creative types who want maximum flexibility and creativity in their planning — for example, the ability to doodle a new product idea right on their to-do list. It’s also a good system for visual SBOs who crave an analog method that doesn’t result in piles of papers everywhere.
Master the Art of the To-Do List
No matter what productivity system you use, or if you’ve decided not to use a formal system at all, you need a to-do list. Here’s how to do it right:
1. To-Do List Do’s and Don’ts
A to-do list done wrong can lead to confusion, overwhelm, procrastination, and dropping the ball. To master your to-do list, follow these list-making Do’s and Don’ts:
- Do keep the number of items on your list manageable. You don’t necessarily need a number limit, but be realistic about what you can accomplish. Productivity systems vary in the number of items they recommend, from as few as three to as many as 20, so choose a maximum number that feels right to you.
- Do prioritize the items on your list. Take a cue from the MYN system and give a top priority designation to items that must be accomplished today. Consider both importance and urgency when prioritizing. Every day, focus first on completing the one item that would make your day a success.
- Do take a cue from GTD and put like items together for a streamlined, easy-to-use list. For example, list phone calls in a group, list online research tasks together, and so on.
- Don’t let items sit on your list and get carried over for days and weeks. If an item has been moved forward more than twice for no good reason, decide to either: do the task, file it away for the future, or delete it for good.
- Don’t list a project as a task, but instead break projects down into doable chunks, creating truly actionable items. For example, “plan conference” is not a to-do list item. “Email Sally to get caterer recommendations” is an actionable item.
2. Keep Your To-Do List Flowing
To avoid a to-do list stall, it’s important to take several actions. First, make sure you’re taking action each day to check off the priority items on your list.
Second, review your list at the beginning and at the end of each day. Look at items that aren’t getting done or that make you feel stress and reevaluate those items. For example, maybe you need to delegate the task to an employee or V.A. (See delegation section below for tips.)
Third, do weekly or monthly big picture reviews of the items you’ve accomplished to make sure they’re moving you toward your big goals and dreams. If necessary, write these big goals down in a visible location, like a white board in your office, so you see them when you make your daily to-do list.
Productivity Hacks to Help You Work Smarter
Productivity processes and concepts are ways of getting your work done strategically so you get the biggest payoff for your time. These tactics sometimes are known as “working smarter rather than harder.” Here’s an overview of some of the most important productivity concepts and how to put them to work in your business:
To use batching, take a group of like activities and do them all in one sitting. Batching can help you become more productive, because instead of having to mentally transition into an activity multiple times, you do so only once. Batching also allows you to work ahead and knock out tasks early.
For example, if you publish one blog post per week, batching can allow you to get a month’s worth done in one shot. Use batching for tasks like checking and responding to emails, making or returning phone calls, and writing blog posts or memos. Batching works well with the Pomodoro technique, a time management approach that involves devoting a preset amount of time to a task, usually 25 minutes, and then taking a short break of five minutes before getting back to work. (See the apps and tools section below for more information.)
Overwhelm can lead to procrastination, which is a top enemy of productivity. To avoid getting bogged down, use chunking, which involves breaking a big project into tiny tasks and then taking action on just one of those items. For example, instead of writing a speech to give at a conference, you might write one sentence.
With chunking, it’s helpful to set a timer for, say, five or 10 minutes to accomplish the task. If you finish before the time is up, you may find that you automatically move onto the next small task and get much further than you thought — for example, writing a paragraph instead of just a sentence.
With scaling, you allocate time to the activities that give back to your business and will save you time in the future. Think of scaling as investing time in your business.
For example, mentoring new employees scales, according to productivity blogger Chris Bailey. Another activity that scales is nurturing relationships with your ideal clients or customers. And so does getting and setting up a customer relationship management (CRM) system, which helps you track, nurture, and sell to customers more easily.
Automation not only helps ensure that certain tasks get done on time, but also it saves you the time and mental energy of remembering and doing them. You can use automation in your business and in your life to keep personal tasks from intruding on your workday.
Apps and tools (which you’ll learn more about in the next section) can help you automate — for example, use Hootsuite to automate social media posts and use a CRM system to keep in touch with customers automatically.
The Best Productivity Apps and Tools
While you want to be careful not to overwhelm yourself by downloading every new app and tool that strikes your fancy, the strategic use of productivity apps and tools can help you streamline your day. It’s important to read reviews and make sure an app is right for you and your business before you commit. Here’s a list of top productivity apps and tools SBOs should consider:
1. Apps and Tools That Help You Wrangle Information
Evernoteis a cloud-based app that allows you to gather and organize a slew of information, from to-do lists to meeting notes, to articles you find online or clips from a trade magazine. With the ability to sync across devices and support a range of operating systems, Evernote can help SBOs stay organized and productive.
An alternative is Microsoft OneNote, a simpler system with less tagging capability. Another alternative, Google Keep, allows you to add — and search — handwritten notes.
2. Apps and Tools That Help You Focus While You Work
There are a variety of apps that make it easy to use the Pomodoro 25-minute timer technique. Marinara Timer has a simple web-based interface that allows you to start a Pomodoro session with one click. Focus Keeper is a simple app that times and tracks your Pomodoro work sessions. The FocusList app helps you break your day into tasks using the Pomodoro method.
The PomoDone app syncs with a variety of other tools, including Evernote and Trello (see next section). To keep your mind on the task at hand, Focus at Will allows you to play music scientifically proven to help your brain focus. You can choose from a variety of music styles, including acoustic, ambient, cinematic, and up-tempo.
3. Apps and Tools That Help You Manage Projects and People
Whether you’re a solo entrepreneur or you have a team, managing projects efficiently is a must for maximum productivity. Asana lets you track projects with tasks, milestones, and current status. Slack helps you coordinate with your team and provides a searchable archive of conversations and work.
Another option, Basecamp, allows you to organize your work by project and virtually meet with clients and employees. Trello lets you manage projects of any size with checklists, comments, and the ability to upload files.
4. To-Do List Apps
If you prefer a digital to-do list over pen and paper, these apps can help you make and use your list. Todoist allows you to create lists and sublists, assign priority to items, and share and discuss with your team. With Wunderlist, you can create multiple to-do lists, assign tasks to others, and get reminders.
5. Other Helpful Apps to Boost Productivity
If you run into productivity problems and wonder where your time is going, you can fire up RescueTime, which monitors you while you work and then gives you a summary of where you spend your time. You may discover that checking Facebook for five minutes always turns into 50, or get insights into other ways you’re frittering away time. If you do find you get distracted by the internet, you can use an app like Freedom to turn off your internet, or just social media sites, for a set period of time.
Whatever Tools You Choose, Improved Focus Is the Goal
Your ability to focus can make the difference between an amazingly productive day and a day where you simply spin your wheels. Take these steps to increase your chances of getting into the zone:
1. Streamline Your Work Space
Research shows that office decor and organization can affect productivity. In fact, designing your workspace according to your tastes can make you 30% more productive. A bare or extremely minimalist office can actually decrease productivity, so consider adding some art, plants, and cherished items to your workspace.
There is evidence that odors can affect mood, physiology, and behavior, so you may want to think about adding an aromatherapy diffuser with your favorite essential oils, such as basil, rosemary, peppermint, or a blend designed to increase focus.
2. Minimize Interruptions
A study at the University of California Irvine found that it can take 23 minutes to get back into a task after an interruption. If interruptions from employees are a problem, consider closing your door and setting specific “office hours” during which your employees may come to you with issues.
Also, turn off notifications on your devices while you’re doing blocks of focused work so the “ding” of an incoming email, text, or reminder doesn’t distract your brain. If you use the Pomodoro method, you can check for emails or texts during your breaks.
3. Incorporate Background Noise Into Your Workspace
Science shows that background noise helps you concentrate. To add background noise to your office, use an app like Focus at Will, mentioned in the apps section, which allows you to choose from an array of music designed to aid focus. Or buy a white noise machine so you can work to the sound of crickets, rain, or ocean waves.
The Fastest Way to Get Items Off Your Plate
The most productive SBOs use time wisely for tasks they need to do and find a way to get someone else to do other tasks. They also remove unnecessary tasks, or those with a low ROI, from their schedule.
Here are three ways to get work off your plate so you can focus on the big picture of your business:
1. Delegate to Employees
Some small business owners fall into the trap of doing too much themselves because they don’t like to delegate.
First, choose the tasks you want to delegate — tasks that take up too much of your time, that you don’t enjoy, that aren’t a good match for your skills, or that take you away from the big picture tasks of running your business. Examples may include: accounting, invoicing, handling social media accounts, and writing content for your business blog.
To delegate more easily and more efficiently, stop assigning one-off tasks and instead set up processes for employees to follow. To do this, first document each step of the process in detail, in writing. Create screenshots or short videos explaining and showing how to complete each task.
Make a checklist for each process to ensure that the employee never misses a step. By doing this, you’re scaling — putting in time up front to save yourself time down the road. After the initial effort, instead of personally training each employee on the process, you’ll simply provide them with the materials you’ve created.
Then, all you have to do going forward is to meet regularly with employees to make sure they’re completing the assigned tasks to your standards.
2. Work With a V.A.
If you don’t have employees, you can still delegate tasks — to a virtual assistant, or V.A. First, put in the time up front to hire the right V.A. There is a trend toward V.A. specialization, so consider hiring a V.A. with specific skills in the area with which you need help. For example, you might hire one V.A. to manage your social media accounts and another to do invoicing and other administrative tasks.
To avoid spending too much time managing your V.A., document your processes, just as you would for your employees. Provide the V.A. with detailed instructions and meet to answer any questions he or she has after reviewing the materials. Then, meet regularly to check progress and address questions or concerns.
If you hire a V.A. for a set number of hours each week, make sure you have a batch of tasks your V.A. can work on if they finish their assigned work early. And consider communicating through one of the teamwork apps, such as Asana, Basecamp, or Trello, to help stay on the same page.
Perhaps there are some tasks you’re doing that could be eliminated altogether. Go through your to-do list and schedule, keeping an eye out for time-suck tasks that offer little payoff.
For example, maybe your business is on five social media platforms, but 90% of your customers hang out on just one platform. Consider nixing the rest of the accounts and beefing up your efforts on the platform that offers the best ROI.
Maintain Work-Life Balance to Boost Productivity
Maintaining work-life balance will help keep you healthy, happy, refreshed, and focused as you grow your business. Here are key ways to balance work and life:
1. Practice Healthy Habits
Integrating a few simple habits into your life can set the tone for your day and fuel your productivity, which studies show is affected by your health choices. Start your day with a healthy breakfast and eat healthfully throughout the day. Next, a regular exercise routine is a cornerstone of self-care for any SBO. Not only do workouts offer an array of physical health benefits, including increased energy, but also science shows exercise improves concentration and memory.
2. Stay Motivated
To keep your productivity level high, it’s important to stay motivated by giving yourself small rewards after productive work sessions. Your prize could be as simple as a walk around the block, a few yoga poses, or a break to grab your favorite coffee drink.
Try not to use checking in on social media as a reward, unless you know you can adhere to s strict time limit. That’s because wasting time online is a major productivity trap that can derail your day.
Consider giving some of the time you save back to yourself in the form of a company retreat for one at a cabin, out-of-town hotel, or other location where you can step away and think about the big picture of your business. Not only is a retreat something to look forward to, but also it will help you plan, recharge, and be more productive when you return.
It’s also key to set boundaries and strictly enforce your downtime each day so you can return to work focused, clear minded, and productive. Consider putting away devices and completely disconnecting from your business for certain set hours each evening, so you can completely focus on your alone time or activities with family and friends. If necessary, you can hire a V.A. to check messages or respond to customers during this time. (See section above on delegation.)
3. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleeping well is key to staying productive, so use tips gleaned from sleep science to help you get your Zs. For example, get into a routine so you go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every day, even on weekends. Either put away your devices a few hours before bedtime, or use the nighttime mode on your device to block out the blue light that suppresses melatonin and turns you into a night owl.
Use blackout curtains to keep your bedroom pitch dark, and do a few simple relaxation exercises — such as slow deep breathing for five minutes — after you get into bed. These practices should help you sleep well and wake up rested and ready for a productive day.
Many small business owners try to do too much, which can lead to overwhelm, lack of productivity, and burnout. Fortunately, it’s easy to recalibrate and get back on track by using productivity best practices.
The simple secrets of highly productive SBOs include: picking or designing the right productivity system, harnessing the power of productivity apps and tools, delegating tasks to free up time for big picture work, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
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