Time. We’d all like more of it. But given the laws of physics we have to settle for trying to make the most of what we’ve got.
At work it’s easy to lose focus even on the most simple of tasks. There’s always a Facebook feed that needs reading, an email that needs responding to, a query that needs to be Googled. Before you know it you’re tumbling down a rabbit hole of procrastination that greedily sucks away your time.
This is doubly problematic if you’re running your own business. Employees that while away hours online or spend ages bogged down in pointless emails can always make up for lost time later. But an entrepreneur needs every minute they can get their hands on.
No wonder we’ve seen the rise of a culture of personal productivity improvement. Scour the web and you’ll find reams of info about the best apps and methods for making the most of your precious seconds (If by some miracle you’ve got the time to spare then it’s worth reading Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian long read on the origins of this obsession and the problems it has thrown up).
Some people swear by methods like the Pomodoro technique, where you focus on working solidly on a particular task for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break and repeat. There are dozens of other techniques with irritating names like Don’t Break The Chain, Get Things Done and The Eisenhower Matrix. For some these are an effective way to structure the day, for others they are yet more distractions that sap as many minutes as they save; just a more righteous form of procrastination. In the interest of brevity, here are seven simple tips for freeing up some time.
1. Break free from your emails
As Burkeman writes, legions of productivity fanatics swear by ‘Inbox Zero’, a method of email management popularised by the writer Merlin Mann. The idea is to make sure that every time you access your emails you respond to, delete or archive every message. That way you won’t have a big trove of emails looming over your head and you won’t have to spend ages trawling through your inbox to find that important message.
Such a drastic step requires fervent devotion, but there are smaller steps you can take to avoid becoming subservient to Outlook. ‘I find it’s always useful to turn off your emails from time to time so you can get on with your urgent actions without getting distracted,’ says Tom Grayson, CEO and founder of Ebookadrabra, an app for children’s books. ‘You might think it prevents you from getting things done, but when those big jobs keep getting pushed to the list sometimes it helps to switch them off and be more productive.’
‘I don’t check my emails during the day – I’ll check in once in the morning, and again in the evening,’ adds Aidan Rushby, founder of home lettings website Movebubble. ‘After all, if someone urgently needs to get hold of me, they’ll call me.’
2. Get up earlier
There are many tales of business titans and world leaders surviving on a few hours’ sleep and rising well before the sun touches the horizon. It’s a habit lots of entrepreneurs try to emulate. ‘I normally start work from home at 4am, which gives me space to work on things without distraction’ says David Nicholson, founder of ancestry testing company Living DNA (presumably before stifling a yawn).
While it’s important to get enough kip, there’s a lot to be said for setting your alarm for 30 minutes or an hour earlier (and steering clear of the snooze button). ‘I miss the rush hour every day by catching the bus at 7am,’ says Pamela Evans, who runs Maisie-Jane.com, an ecommerce business selling women’s accessories. ‘The commute then takes 20 minutes rather than one hour.’ Less time on the bus means more time to spend at the grindstone. As John D. Rockefeller is purported to have said, ‘Get up early, work late - and strike oil.’
3. Delegate (or outsource)
There’s no point in wasting time on work you’re not good at. Whether it’s agonising over the details of your accounts or fumbling around with photoshop to knock up a half decent graphic for your website, try to delegate or outsource tasks that take up a disproportionate amount of time.
You might be reluctant to do this in the early stages when you’ve got a hawkish eye on the bottom line. But if your time would be better spent hammering the phones to pitch to potential clients or figuring out your strategy for the year ahead then you might be better off getting your wallet out to avoid the hassle.
4. Keep meetings focused
Do you really need to schedule a whole hour to discuss that recent sales report? Do you really need a meeting at all? It’s easy to lose vast amounts of time to unnecessary or over-long meetings that go off topic and drag on, achieving little. Avoid calling them at all when a couple of emails will do, set a strict time limit for every meeting and be clear beforehand on exactly what you need to discuss and what you expect to achieve.
5. Stop dithering
‘Doing nothing and being indecisive can paralyse a business,’ says Rob Halliday-Stein, founder of Bullion By Post. ‘If you are always worried about making the wrong decision, you won’t make any progress.’ Sometimes it’s tempting to spend a long while doing research and testing your assumptions, but there’s no substitute for just getting on with things.
‘However, by the same token, there needs to be a willingness to accept when a wrong decision has been made and change course,’ says Halliday-Stein. ‘In a small business things are changing all the time and you have to have the courage to adjust things as and when the time is right.’
6. Enlist an app or two
There’s an entire section of the Apple app store dedicated to productivity, including smart to-do lists and ‘motivational’ apps that urge you to complete goals. Martin Campbell, MD of fintech Ormsby Street, is a fan of OmniFocus, a personal task manager. ‘It lets you capture thoughts and ideas and turn them into to-do lists, helping me make the best use of my time.’
If you’ve supped the Pomodoro Kool Aid then there are several apps that can you use to time yourself. Pomodrone is customizable with different colours and keeps track of how hard you are working. Just make sure you don’t spend too much time fiddling with your phone instead of doing something productive.
7. Stop reading so many articles about productivity
Get back to work.