I love to-do lists. I don’t scratch them out on sticky notes and throw them away at the end of the day. Instead I keep a spiral notebook and write down every detail, checking things off when they are complete. It’s a nice way to keep a record of where you’ve been. And you can also go back and refer to notes if you have questions in the weeks and months ahead.
And while I’m a firm believer in creating written to-do lists, I also have started keeping a not-to-do list.
I heard about this concept a while back, and have really come to appreciate what it does for your productivity. The idea is to eliminate the activities that are costing you a ton of time during your workday, yet really aren’t providing you with any reward. Yep, they’re basically the time wasters.
The easiest way to find your time wasters is to sit down with your monthly to-do lists, your monthly calendars, and any other tools you use to track your time during work hours. Where did the biggest chunks of time go? Were they productive?
While every business owner is going to have their own areas of concern, there are several areas that seem to affect small businesses in general. Take a look at this list and see if you can see yourself in any of them. I’ve set them up to be in not-to-do list form.
1. Do not answer unexpected phone calls.
The world runs by caller id. When the phone rings, if it doesn’t ring with its own unique ringtone, you glance down to see who it is. Then its decision time.
If it’s during normal work hours and it may be a potential customer, answer it. But if you’re in the middle of a project, talking with a client/friend/co-worker, or its after hours, let it go to voice mail. Have a great message that will provide the caller with the appropriate information. And consider getting a better phone system that can allow you to do different things with the message, such as send you a copy to your email so you can read it at your convenience.
2. Do not leave your email program open and check it all day long.
One of the biggest distractions outside of the phone is your email. That little “ding” when an incoming message appears can throw you completely off track and quickly scrambles your priorities. Every email has the potential to delay what you are currently working on by minutes, hours or even sometimes days. Instead, set up two or three times per day to check in and see what needs your attention. I usually spend my first hour or so working on my own project and check email when I’ve accomplished my first set of to-do’s. Then I check in when I’m back from lunch, and again before I shut down for the day. If I’m expecting something important I may check in more frequently. Otherwise three times per day is more than enough. Just because you have access to it with your phone, iPad or other portable device doesn’t mean you have to do it.
3. Do not set up meetings without clear goals and purposes.
Have you ever known a meeting person? They love to meet and can spend hours rambling on and on without accomplishing anything? That may be fine in the corporate world, but as a small business owner you just don’t have the time. For every meeting you plan with a prospect, client or potential referral source, find a list of three goals for the meeting before you agree to it. If you can’t come up with a clearly defined plan, put the meeting off until you can.
4. Do not do things without an ending time.
I don’t have a lot of meetings on my calendar by design. And when I make them, I always set up predefined times for them to begin and to end. Its too easy to get caught up in the “how are you” small talk and wind up spending several hours. When you know your goals, you can pre-judge how long the meeting should last. Learn to close your meetings with “are there any other questions?” or some other phrase that brings things to a close.
I also use this same practice with projects. If I’m writing a chapter, a blog post or even creating a proposal, I know how long it should take. I give myself the appropriate amount of time to complete the project and block out all other “noise” so I can finish it. Keep yourself on track by watching the time. Or use a timer or find a great app that will allow you to set up your days on time intervals. Once you are used to this method, you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done.
5. Do not work 24/7/365.
I bet you know the person that carries a cellphone all the time, answers the phone even if you’re having a conversation at dinner, and probably gets mad at the people they can’t get a hold of. (Yep, you may even be one of them.) Why? What if someone couldn’t get a hold of you at 9pm and had to wait until the following morning to ask a question? Would it matter?
We should all have balance in our lives – that means personal time and work time. Nobody should be expected to work 24 hours a day. And what are the consequences if it doesn’t happen 24/7? If you’re on call (i.e. a doctor) it’s a necessity. But I’ve never seen a bride “die” from not getting her question answered at 9pm at night if her wedding doesn’t take place for several months.
In many cases its all about programming the people around you on what to expect from you. If you list office hours as 9 to 5 and you won’t get back to them outside of those hours, they expect it. They won’t question you because that’s the norm with you. Set it up, stick by it, and make it happen.
6. Do not make high maintenance customers your top priority.
Have you ever had a high maintenance customer who demands a lot of your time, yet provides you with very small profit margins? You quickly learn to dread their emails/phone calls/visits.
While they are your clients and you have to see them to the end, you don’t have to dwell on them. Use this list to control them. When you see their phone numbers on caller id, let it go through to voice mail. Accumulate voice mails and emails and answer them at select times of the day. By doing this several times, they will quickly get the message on how you work. You can even help them by explaining its easier to put all of their thoughts into one email and connect with you once per day. With a little bit of coaching, they will get it.
7. Do not let work become your life.
Being a business owner takes on a life of its own. You begin thinking about it all the time. You have great ideas in the middle of the night. And dinner conversations can often become planning sessions when a great idea pops up. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have outside interests as well. Don’t finish a project on a weekend because you have nothing else to do. Find something else to do. Join a group or start up an activity. The best way to keep your mind active for your business is to do other things that can influence you. Your mind and your body will thank you.