Busy Isn’t Always Productive: 5 Steps to Better Time Use

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As a small business owner, you’re undoubtedly busy. But just how productive are you? The two aren’t the same thing, and many small business owners need smart strategies and strong time management skills to keep their days from being eaten up by emergencies, and other people’s priorities.

Here are five essential steps that will help turn your busy-ness into real and lasting productivity.

Step 1: Realize that you must manage your time.

For the busy business owner, learning to manage your time isn’t optional — it’s essential. To run an organized, efficient, and effective business, you need to first learn how to be organized, efficient, and effective yourself.

Since you juggle many responsibilities and job roles, you must be able to quickly see what deserves your attention and what doesn’t. Otherwise, your time is guaranteed to be wasted, for at least part of the day. You’ll be consumed by non-essential tasks, and the important work will never get done.

Don’t feel bad about taking time out of the day-to-day to learn how to manage time. “Time is the scarcest resource,” said renowned management expert Peter Drucker, “and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.”

Step 2: Realize that you’re the only one who can say “No.”

Even the most capable and well-meaning employees, assistants, and friends cannot do the one thing you can do: say No for you.

Other people will not leave you alone when they see how busy you are. Other people will not understand or respect your priorities. Other people will not protect your hours for you.

Once you take full responsibility for your time, you can start setting limits and making decisions that protect it. You can learn and apply strategies that will help you to resist distractions. You can train yourself to focus on essentials.

Don’t get trapped by your expectations for other people; instead, take charge of your own days. Say No to everything that pulls you away from the key actions that propel your business forward.

Step 3: Deal with interruptions on your own terms.

Over the next few days, start to notice how much pops up during your day that isn’t on your priority list. These interruptions often come via phone calls, emails, and unplanned conversations.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be accessible; you need to answer questions, equip employees, and handle important communication. But you don’t have to handle every request as it comes in throughout your day.

Corral the interruptions by setting certain times to return phone calls, answer email, answer employee questions, respond to memos, and other tasks. Designate and then publicize a time for those needs; deal with a batch, all at once, and save yourself the stress of continual interruptions all day long. By designating an hour every morning to return phone calls, you can quickly get through them all, then focus on other higher-level tasks.

Step 4: Plan out every hour of your day.

This one may sound labor intensive, but it’s critical. The fact is, planning lets you become proactive rather than panicked.

“Productivity begins with having a plan,” says David Scarola, Vice President of executive peer advisory network The Alternative Board. “Rather than addressing tasks as they come up (emails, meetings, etc), it’s important to schedule and prioritize your day.”

Spend a little time every night or every morning making a plan for the upcoming day. When you get derailed by a crisis, manage it, then go right back to your plan.

Step 5: Identify and tackle your productivity weaknesses

You might be great at writing all your tasks down in a list and sticking to it, but you might be bad at saying no to items that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Or maybe you excel at identifying your priorities, but tend to get lost in details and never finish a project.

If you can be honest enough to see where your skills are lacking, you can overcome your weaknesses. No one is perfect, including at productivity. Work to actively develop the skills you don’t have that hold you back. Get people who are strong in those areas to hold you accountable. Take a course. Read a book. Get a coach. Improving your basic time management skills is an investment that benefits your entire business.

These five steps won’t eliminate all the interruptions and distractions that are part of owning a business. But they will help you to handle them more efficiently, and learn to be powerful with your own time.