You aren’t a tax expert, are you?
If you are, chances are good that you aren’t also a marketing guru, supply chain management master, market research aficionado, or expert in any number of the other skills it takes to run a small business.
As a small business owner, you need to wear a lot of different hats. You have your area of expertise, which is why you got into business. But there’s a wide variety of other tasks to handle—and in some cases, you’re the only one to handle them.
Effective time management strategies are crucial for the small business owner—because your time is your most valuable resource. Improving your small business productivity can free up your schedule and grow your business.
Here are 11 of our favorite small business productivity tips to help you manage your time more effectively.
1. Avoid “half-work” and “pseudo-work” at all costs
There’s working, and then there’s “working.”
When you can consistently work at 100 percent of your capabilities, you can get an astonishing amount done very quickly.
But for a lot of small business owners, deep work is intermingled with what habits writer James Clear calls “half-work” and productivity writer Cal Newport calls “pseudo-work.”
When your work is constantly interrupted, or you flick between working and checking Twitter, the intensity of work goes down—and so does your overall small business productivity.
Several of the other tips on this list can help you address half-work and increase your focus, but it’s also helpful to keep the overarching principle in mind.
At the end of a work session, or immediately after an interruption, ask yourself: “was that work, or pseudo-work?”
Keeping the answer in mind can help you improve your productivity.
2. Say “no” to increase small business productivity
This is one of our most important small business productivity tips
Especially as your business gathers steam, you’ll find yourself presented with more ideas and opportunities than you could possibly say yes too.
Whether it’s a new marketing promotion, a business relationship, applying for awards/grants, or a local event, there are going to be a lot of tempting offers that come across your desk. All of that can make you less productive.
At first, it’s tempting to try and do it all—but you’ll quickly realize that saying yes drains too much of your time and energy. And is less effective than focusing on the main drivers of your business.
3. Follow the 80/20 rule to increase small business efficiency
How do you decide what to say yes to? That’s the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule—also called the Pareto principle, the law of the vital few, or even the principle of factor sparsity—states that in any project 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort.
This principle was discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto when studying the distribution of land in his country, but has since been successfully applied to a wide variety of different areas.
Applying the Pareto principle to your small business takes a little bit of introspection. It means taking a serious look at where you’re spending your efforts and asking: is this working? Is this improving productivity for my business?
Is there a marketing channel that’s taking up a ton of your time but isn’t giving much return? Consider cutting it from your funnel.
Is there a client that seems to need more of your attention than anyone else? Consider dropping them so that you can spend more time on your best clients—and finding more of them.
4. Eat that frog: Start your day with something hard
In any given day, you have a to-do list full of tasks—some of them easy, some of them less easy.
It’s common to fall into the trap of doing only your easy tasks. No one likes to do hard things.
Unfortunately, as venture capitalist Ben Horowitz covered in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, sometimes hard things are what it takes to build a business.
To get through the hard things necessary to your small business, do them in the morning. Instead of starting your day by checking email, a task that’s both easy and reactive by definition, be proactive and knock out the hardest thing on your to-do list.
Sometimes the most powerful small business productivity tips are no fun. It might be unpleasant, but hard things are much easier to do early than later in the day when you start to get tired.
This idea has been most famously covered by Brian Tracy, using the catchy phrase “Eat That Frog.” The idea? If you start your day by eating a frog, everything else will seem easier afterwards.
Similarly, if you start your day by tackling your hardest task, your day is already successful. Do the most difficult task first.
Other productivity writers, including Tim Ferriss, Cal Newport, and Leo Babauta, cover the same idea. If you start your day by focusing on your Most Important Things (MITs) you can make rapid progress on your business.
Even if you get nothing else done all day, you know you finished something important.
5. Commit to 10 minutes of important, non-urgent work each day
In his landmark book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey divides work into four quadrants: important, not important, urgent, and not urgent.
With this understanding of work, it becomes a lot easier to plan out your day. If you categorize your tasks, it quickly becomes clear that anything not important and not urgent should simply be struck from your to-do list.
What these quadrants also reveal, however, is that a lot of your days are taken up by tasks that are urgent, but not important. When something has a tight deadline, it commands your attention—whether it should or not.
Of course, if a task is important and urgent it should skyrocket to the top of your to-do list. But the trickiest and most valuable work, according to Covey, is usually important but not urgent.
This work is the cornerstone of small business productivity.
This work has no particular deadline, or a deadline far in the future—but completing it can have a massive effect on your business.
For a small business owner, important but non-urgent tasks can include things like looking for new vendors, conducting market research, or revamping your marketing funnel.
These kinds of tasks should probably happen—eventually. But because there’s so much to focus on day-to-day, they often don’t.
To tackle this, set aside just 10 minutes each day to focus on important, non-urgent tasks.
At first you’ll find yourself spending those 10 minutes on tasks that are easy. But as the list of unfinished tasks shrinks, you’ll be forced to turn your attention to those nagging, lingering to-dos that you said you’d get around to “eventually.”
10 minutes a day is all it takes at first. Just 10 minutes spent on hard, important, non-urgent things can have a huge impact on your business.
6. Automate what you can
A lot of small business owners wind up doing a little bit of everything. But because you’re doing a lot of things that fall outside of your direct expertise, there may be opportunities to increase efficiency that you can’t see.
Are there repetitive tasks that you find yourself spending a lot of time on? It will take a little bit of time up front to set up, but look for ways to automate these tasks and improve small business productivity.
Appointment scheduling, reminder emails, and nitty-gritty managing of your marketing are often good candidates for automation.
A wide variety of marketing tasks can be automated as well. Automated follow-up, autoresponders, lead scoring, updating your CRM, and targeting specific customers for particular promotions can all be put on autopilot with marketing automation.
7. Outsource what you can’t automate
If there are tasks that truly can’t be automated, consider outsourcing them. Virtual assistants are often inexpensive, and can complete a variety of tasks that you assign them. Before you balk at price remember—their costs could be offset by other increases in small business productivity.
Hiring a virtual assistant to take care of everyday tasks can be a hugely important way to free up your most valuable resource: time.
Whether you need information researched, need to schedule personal appointments, need an analytics report for your business—or even need someone else to set up the automations that keep your business running—a virtual assistant can help.
Tim Ferriss’ breakout book The Four Hour Work Week contains an entire chapter on outsourcing to improve productivity. You can read an excerpt on his website.
8. Use batching to handle small tasks
Some things really just need to be done by you. If you really can’t automate or outsource repetitive tasks, you can limit their effect on your small business productivity with batching.
There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a session of deep work and getting your attention pulled all over the map by little nagging tasks that keep popping up.
Instead of spreading small tasks—like replying to emails, updating social media, or following up with a vendor—throughout your day, batch them.
If you could get rid of all your small tasks in a 30-minute block, imagine how much time that would free up for the rest of your day.
Batching tasks eliminates a lot of multitasking and task switching—both huge killers of efficiency.
Although it’s true that multitasking is a skill that can be improved, and is at times necessary in a small business, research shows that your brain can’t really focus on two things at once. Instead, it rapidly switches back and forth between two tasks—which affects your performance at both.
Batch tasks to eliminate distractions, reduce task-switching, and increase your productivity.
9. Sleep better to focus more at work
There’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep.
It’s often tempting to sacrifice sleep for the sake of short-term business goals—after all, sleeping takes 6-9 hours a night, and that time could be used for something.
And in the short-term, your small business productivity will increase. After all, you’re spending more hours working.
In the long-term, though, lack of sleep will kill your productivity, increase your stress, and negatively affect your health—and the health of your business. As you get drained over time, productivity will drop.
The effects of good sleep are massive, and so important that they prompted Arianna Huffington to write an entire book, The Sleep Revolution, on the sleep crisis—and how to recapture a good night’s sleep.
10. Eliminate distractions to increase efficiency
Distractions—whether they are noisy coworkers, loud children, or a TV in the background—damage your small business productivity through attention switching.
Remember: brains can’t multitask. Every distraction makes you quickly switch the focus of your attention, and it takes some time to regain the productivity you had before an interruption.
You probably aren’t about to eliminate a noisy coworker, but moving to a quieter space or investing in some noise canceling headphones can go a long way toward keeping your focus.
11. Use the Pomodoro Technique to do more deep work
Another Italian, Francesco Cirillo, invented the Pomodoro Technique in the 1980s. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro is Italian for tomato), the Pomodoro Technique helps you cultivate intense focus to get a lot done in a short period of time.
To use the Pomodoro Technique, follow a short set of steps:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes (does not need to be tomato-shaped)
- Take a 5-minute break when the timer goes off, and add a check mark to a piece of paper
- When you have four check marks, take a longer break of 15-20 minutes
The Pomodoro Technique is powerful because it keeps you focused on a single task, while taking into account the limits of human attention span.
Research on human attention span hasn’t reached a single number, and the amount of time you can stay focused on a task likely varies from person to person. In fact, you can change the exact timing based on your attention span.
But what research does agree on is that you can’t stay focused on one thing hours at a time.
That’s the problem the Pomodoro Technique solves. By building in periodic breaks, it ensures that you can work at a higher intensity for more of your day—and ultimately get more done.