Time management

Q. How can I better manage my time?

Research done by the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program reveals that entrepreneurs believe time management is one of the most critical problems they face. The study compared what entrepreneurs thought was their most serious problem when they started their companies and what it was after several years in business.

A stopwatch in handIn both cases, the top response was “Controlling my own time.” And it got worse as time passed. 37 percent of entrepreneurs cited it as the top problem early in their business history; 43 percent cited it as the top problem after their doors had been open for at least two years.

While there are lots of educational opportunities for learning more about time management, business owners may not have, well, time to attend.

Here are some tips that may offer more immediate assistance.

Prioritize

Invest your time in high payoff activities. Put income-generating tasks first. Post the list in a prominent place where you will see it repeatedly. Realize that high payoff activities may not include working the sales floor but could involve building relationships, community activities, additional training and education.

Get help

Take advantage of temporary help to do important but time-consuming and routine tasks. For instance, if your mailing list is woefully out of date or your files are a mess, hire a temporary worker to update the list and files. Some schools have summer intern programs. If you can latch on to a student to help out in your firm, do so, and delegate errands, lunch orders and routine tasks accordingly.

Categorize

Organize your work into categories:

  • Do
  • Read
  • Awaiting action
  • Refer
  • Ideas

Sort items as they reach your desk. Keep your desk clean. Time management experts tell us that we can spend up to seven hours each week just looking for things or being distracted by clutter on your desk.

Don’t overschedule

Schedule only about 70 percent of your day. Leave the rest of the day for interruptions and unexpected events. Set aside some time each day for planning, dreaming, scheming, reading and thinking about ideas that could improve your business.

Close the door

Get rid of the open door policy. Empower employees to respond to requests, solve problems and implement policies. Use your time (much of which could be spent working at home or in another office) to develop the vision and direction for your company.

Get a grip on email

Tame the email beast. Although it’s tempting to have your email open throughout the day, try to schedule certain times to catch up.

Set up baskets in your email to organize it as it arrives. If you are still overwhelmed, set up your account so an assistant can scan email and reserve only the most critical ones for your response.

Although email is perceived as a time saver, sending off hurried responses the moment you get a message means you might not think it through completely, which could cost you more time later. Use your set-aside time to send a thoughtful, complete response.

Conquer voice mail and phone calls

Tame the voice mail beast, too! Work on leaving complete yet succinct messages on voice mail. Let people know when you’re calling and when is the best time for them to call back and on which number. Leave as complete a message as possible and list the name and number of an alternate contact person for urgent business. Although we’d all like to think that we could talk to a real person each time we place a call, voice mail is a reality in the workplace. Learn to use it to your advantage.

Prioritize callers. If key contacts call, instruct your staff to put them through. For everyone else, ask them to take a message, and respond to all of them at a specified time.

Focus

Don’t try to multitask. New research says multitasking doesn’t really exist, that we think we’re doing many things at once when we’re really just giving multiple subjects snippets of our attention. Concentrate completely on one task at a time. The work will go faster and be of higher quality.

Don’t skip lunch!

Take a lunch break. Even after a few hours of doing something we love, we can burn out. Our energy and productivity can be enhanced by taking a break and thinking or talking about something else for a while. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that we’ll be more productive by working through lunch, but the reverse may actually be true.

Lasso idle time

Carry notecards and stamps with you at all times. When waiting for an appointment or sitting in an airport, write notes to good clients, contacts and suppliers. In a frenzied electronic age, people appreciate a personal, handwritten note.

Family time

If you’re an entrepreneur with young children, and you feel guilty leaving them for the day, try spending a few extra hours with them in the morning before you leave, arriving at work a bit later. That way, you are ready to face the business guilt-free, knowing you have spent quality time with the family. Then, if you need to work a bit later in the evening, you can. Assign an experienced employee to be in charge in the earlier, quieter hours of the day.

Beat the holiday rush

Order holiday cards and gifts in September. Make a list of recipients, and ask an intern or temporary staffer to address or package gifts during slower months. You’ll save the last minute December rush, take advantage of early-bird shopping discounts and be the first gift or card in your recipient’s mailbox.

Staff evaluations

Schedule employee reviews at some time other than the end of the year. The final months of each year are hectic enough with the holidays, wrapping up finances and inventory. Plan employee evaluations during a quieter time, and spend a few hours in the morning typing up comments and preparing thoroughly for each discussion.

Take control!

Incorporating a few of these strategies is a start. Business owners need to spend their time working on the business — not necessarily in the midst of it all the time. Keep your eye on the long-term goal and let others sweat the small stuff. After all, you got into business to achieve more control over your life.

For personalized help exploring business ideas, marketing, finance, management, technology, international trade, growth or other business issues, contact a business specialist at a center near you. Or visit the full list of training courses to find an upcoming training seminar.