Small business owners have a lot to get done; my tasks so far this week have included replacing my office chair, invoicing, initiating a new targeted-market marketing campaign, filling the bird feeders outside my office windows, client meetings, and, well…you get the picture. Some tasks are urgent, others not urgent but important, and some – not urgent and not important. Facebook and filling the bird feeders fall into that last category. Stephen Covey, in his landmark book First Things First, popularized an idea presented by President Eisenhower; we have tasks which are urgent, and rarely important and tasks which are important, but rarely urgent. In small business terms, it looks like this:
- Urgent and important tasks: Correcting errors, fighting fires, deadline-driven projects, employee crises. In Covey terms, these are Quadrant I tasks. A clear business vision and effective business systems will eliminate time spent on these tasks.
- Not urgent but important tasks: Ahhh, The Lovely Quadrant II, my favorite place to spend time. Strategic work, tasks in line with a business vision, chosen to move a business forward. I once created a “Q2” group when I was in corporate, an employee group who focused on long-term strategy and systems. These are the tasks that are often postponed because they are not urgent and there is sometimes some fear around accomplishing them.
- Urgent but not important tasks: These tasks often help someone else, or we have taken them on to be “nice”, or if we’re not clear about our own business vision. Incoming phone calls and emails can be seen as urgent, but very few are important to our business. Other examples might include networking that’s not in line with our business model.
- Not urgent and not important tasks: Most of our time on social networks falls into this category, fantasy football, Candy Crush,as does filling my bird feeders. If you’re not sure, ask yourself what the consequence would be if you did not spend time on the task.
If you want to know how you’re spending your time, use the template here.
The “One More Thing” Time Vampire
I admit it: every time I cross another to-do off my list I get a little thrill. I feel a sense of accomplishment and the more I rack up the better. Part of my brain thinks that I’m saving myself time for later, and “later” is when I’ll get more meaningful work done. But that sense of accomplishment is not always earned. You see, I’m confusing accomplishing a task with accomplishing meaningful work. Big difference.
The “One More Thing” Vampire encourages us to squeeze just one more thing in before we start on that project we SHOULD be focused on, before we need to leave for an appointment, and sometimes before taking a break. It makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something, when often times the task doesn’t move our business forward at all. That’s the question I encourage all of my clients to focus on:
“What will most move my business forward today?”
We’re told to do those tasks that must get done first, but those tasks are often thrust upon us by someone else, created due to an error or someone else’s delay, or have become urgent because we’ve postponed them. If a task is truly urgent, though, we WILL get them done, no matter what. We’ll work late, take work home, we’ll do whatever we have to do to get those urgent tasks done and leave the less urgent tasks, the more meaningful tasks, for “later”. Focus our best time on meaningful tasks and our business will grow, become easier, more joyful. If I told you that all of that would happen if you just tackled the meaningful work first, why wouldn’t you do it? Why don’t I always do it?
The first reason is because we all love to feel accomplishment, no matter how big or small. Looking at a to-do list with everything crossed off let’s my ego say “Look at me! Aren’t I something!” Meaningful work is often multi-stepped with the result far into the future; we define success as the end result, when success actually comes with every step we take forward. To combat this, define the steps you need to take to meet your longer-term goal, and celebrate every completed step along the way.
The second reason we succumb to the One More Thing Vampire is fear; it’s easier to tackle the easy tasks, the expected results more secure. I’m confident that invoices will be produced when I choose that task to work on. I’m less confident that when I choose to spend time on my plan to secure new clients in a targeted niche that I’ll be successful. And there’s the fear that I’ll spend that time on those tasks and be unsuccessful, and then what? As long as I still have some possible tasks to do that might help me reach my goal, I can keep that dream alive.
The One More Thing Vampire wants us to squeeze one more task in, and it feels good to do them. But there’s a big difference between meaningful work, work that will move your business forward, and work that has to get done, and will get done, but doesn’t really do much for us. One feeds my ego, the other feeds my business.
The Super Hero Vampire, and Why You Can NOT Do it All
I love my work. So much so, that I have a bad habit of taking on more than I should. I know that I only have about 10 work hours to accomplish what I need to do every day. It never fails, though, that I take on just one more client, volunteer to write another article, or decide to lead a team project.
You don’t have to be a super hero to to be productive!
And then I get angry.
Why? Because although my calendar reflects my varied gifts and obligations (ha!), the reality is that I when I take on too much, I’m not nearly as focused, and mistakes are made. Deadlines are missed, and team or family members may be disappointed. Sure enough, those extra tasks and projects that I swore I couldn’t forego indeed are left by the wayside. So why did I start this mess in the first place?
Wait, is that Helen?! No, it’s just the Super-Hero Vampire.
The Super-Hero Vampire is the belief that you have to take on more than necessary to be productive. It’s the nagging little voice that tells you to do just one more thing, to take on more than you can possibly handle, to stay ahead of the game. Alarms are constantly going off in your head about upcoming deadlines, and suddenly the Super Hero Vampire shakes up your priorities. Suddenly, EVERYTHING is a priority, and has to be done NOW, and only by YOU.
First, remember that to be consistently productive and efficient, you have to prioritize and use your time accordingly. When this is not done, your work doesn’t have a clear purpose or end goal. Instead of focusing on key projects and tasks, you try to do it all, all at once.
Secondly, tackling every project as if it’s an emergency that can only be solved by you robs your team members, assistants, and family members of the experience of handling tasks either with you or on their own. You may be great at what you do, but sometimes building and maintaining a strong team is more important than your individual skills. You can be great and still be a team player. Your team can’t become stronger if they never handle projects or emergencies.
Finally, approaching your work this way is terribly exhausting! There is no end in sight, and living life as a super-hero can be like living on an endless carousel that doesn’t end. You may find yourself jumping from project to project, sometimes without completing them. Or worse, you may complete them, but the projects may not be done to your satisfaction.
If you’ve been bitten by the Super Hero Vampire, there’s still hope for you. Remind yourself that you are one person, and that you can’t take on the world alone. Even Superman has the Justice League! Remember to prioritize what truly is important – not just in general, but daily, so you know where to spend your time, and what to pass on altogether. Being constantly aware of what is important to you, and what is not, is a key way to stay focused. Finally, track your time. You may not feel that you’ve been bitten by the Super Hero Vampire, but if you’re constantly jumping in to extra projects to save the day, you may have been sabotaged. Knowing how you spend your time, and why, will help you identify the cause.
Don’t get me wrong: I love it when entrepreneurs feel confident enough to call themselves “super heroes”. I want every business owner to feel confident and strong in their abilities. Thinking of yourself as a super hero is great for the ego, but it can be dangerous for your work.
Part I: Where DOES your time go?
A Time Vampire is simply a mindset that keeps you from using your time wisely. They may seem harmless enough, and often mask themselves in terms that make you believe you are really doing yourself a favor, like “hyper-productive”, “super-busy”, and “unstoppable”. And while I love the confidence that these self descriptions may inspire, (because don’t we all need to be productive?), the reality is that we 1) can’t be everywhere at once, and 2) we can’t do everything at once. Taking on too many projects, for example, can lead to burnout and fatigue. Time, like our energy and health, is finite.
And that’s why we’re so frustrated. It often feels like “everyone else” is getting so much more done, while we’re spinning our wheels. Intellectually, we know that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but yet we also know that each of us has the same number of hours each day as anyone else.
Repeat after me: I am NOT a hamster, and my life is not a whirl-o-wheel!
Time Vampires, then, cause us to be ineffective and unproductive. It’s not that we don’t have enough time, it’s that we’re not using the time we do have, we ALL have, in a way that is most productive for each of us.
Which brings me to the next point: we all work differently. Have you ever thought about how you really spend your day? Not the timestamps of when you wake up, eat breakfast, and arrive at work, but how you really get work done? Do you work best alone, or with a group? Are you a morning, afternoon, or night person? The answers to these questions are key because you’re trying to define what works best for you.
For example, I know that I work best before 3 PM every day, but I also have a creative brain burst in the evening. What that means for me: I have to get up and get moving in the morning, jump into my projects (especially the ones that are time sensitive), and slow down midday. However, the best time to write, for me, is in the evenings. Not only do I feel like I think clearer, but my family obligations have slowed to a stand-still: my family is fed, dishes are done, and my kids are at their sports’ practices or doing homework. This may not work for everyone, but it’s what works best for me, and that’s OK.
So before we move on, I encourage you to look at your day, know your rhythms, and really think about works best, and how you want to be. Only then can we move on to finding and destroying those time vampires!
Small business owners are full of initiative, motivation and drive (if you’re not, check in on that – you may need a re-boot, which is a different story). So why do I hear so often “I’m stuck” or “I’m not making any headway”? There are a couple of reasons I hear over and over; let me share those and give you some solutions.
- It won’t be good enough, or I don’t know how to do it well. Business owners love knowledge, so many
turn to self-help books or “expert” websites to find the answer. The catch here is that these experts don’t know your situation, what you want to accomplish, and can’t answer your specific questions – what’s really standing in your way. I have two solutions:
Don’t get tied up in knots – learn how to be effective and take the next step!
- Decide just how “good” you need to do the task. Is a “B” good enough? If so, define how much time you will spend to accomplish the task and stick to it. For short term tasks, set a timer.
- Hire the task out. There are people out there that are better at almost every business task that needs to be completed. Not only will they get it done more quickly, but they will also do it better than you can. Think: newsletters, bookkeeping, website creation and upkeep, order fulfillment. Zero in on your unique abilities and spend your time using those abilities; the rest – find someone else to do it.
If budget concerns prevent you from hiring out, determine what amount you can afford and start with that. Any step forward is better than standing still.
2. “I just can’t get myself to sit down and do it.”Small business owners are creative; ideas often run rampant through their minds. When it comes time to mundane tasks, well… there’s always tomorrow, right? Call it ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or just plain ants in your pants, repetitive, routine tasks are often downright painful for many small business owners. Chances are your need for flexibility and a varied schedule are part of why you chose to own your own business. You know they need to get done but you struggle to get them done. I’ve seen clients repeatedly postpone billing every month until it becomes a cash crisis. Here are some quick tips:
- Break these mundane tasks into small pieces.
- Identify your best “mundane task” time of day and week. Stick to that schedule; if it is ADD, you will thrive with routine (although you will go there kicking and dragging your feet, you will love it once you get there).
- You’re great at the big-picture, right? Hand off the detailed stuff to someone who loves the details. As hard as it is for you to believe, there are people out there who love it.
Look at the tasks that stay on your desk, the “To-Do’s” that you repeatedly postpone. It honestly breaks my heart to see small business owners struggle and stagnate; if you’re on the struggle bus, make a decision today to get off for good.