Today’s Dear Coach is about time management. This is naturally a time when business owners are reflecting on their year and what they’d like to improve going into the new year. This month, the common requests for help have been a need to find a way to squeeze more time out of the day but without losing our mind.

Start to think of time management as if you’re on an airplane. When flight attendants are debriefing passengers on what to do in the event of an emergency, they always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping another person. View time in a similar way—you can’t really be of help to others if you are over committed, tired, and testy because you don’t manage your time. You need oxygen! For me, oxygen means having a schedule.

One of the positive things about putting a schedule together is that you become more aware of your choices—and whether we realize it or not, we have a lot of choice in how we move through our day. Some people associate a schedule with rigidity and narrowing their choices. But really, if you are in control of your day, you experience far greater freedoms and satisfaction than constantly operating in reaction mode.

So here’s how to get started. You can use one of those big paper desk calendars, Google Calendar, a table in Word—whatever floats your boat. Just take a stab at outlining your activities and obligations throughout the month so it flows productively. It doesn’t have to be perfect, especially since it’ll change over time depending on where you’re at in life. It just has to be realistic. This also is a great way to see whether you are over committed because now you have a global view of your month.

Start with your “non-negotiables.” For example, maybe you have standing appointments during the month, like a networking breakfast. You also have to build in time to return emails and phone calls. If you aren’t building in at least 30 minutes a day for lunch, it’s going to be tough to maintain your stamina and focus later in the day. I’ve learned to be realistic about these things and schedule work with my non-negotiables in mind, rather than shoe-horning in everything. Start asking yourself questions: Do you have kids? Do you have daily work orders? Do you have walk-in traffic? What kind of projects come in during the month? Think of the things that are inherent to your life and business and anticipate them.

There are six time management principles that you can easily put into place.

  1. Stop thinking that multi-tasking works. Don’t confuse doing 10 things at once with being productive. People who think they’re good multi-taskers are usually kidding themselves. There’s tons of studies about how many decisions and activities the human brain can effectively handle at one time. Unless there’s a S on your chest and a cape on your back, try a mortal approach. Only schedule in one day what you can effectively do in one day. Otherwise, you end the day feeling frustrated and start the following day under the weight of whatever isn’t accomplished. It just winds up being an energy suck.
  2. Be aware of IF. Beginning your sentences with “if” is usually an indicator that you’re about to kid yourself. “If traffic isn’t bad, I can make it in 10 minutes.” “If I don’t linger over coffee, I can probably finish breakfast with a friend in 30 minutes and still make that meeting.” Just accept that traffic will be terrible, you’ll love chatting, and plan for the extra time—it will do wonders for your blood pressure.
  3. Build in wiggle room. Wiggle room is essential, and I recommend setting aside a minimum of 30 minutes a day. I like to end my day with unscheduled time, so if appointments or projects run long, I have time to wrap things up without having to spend the evening at work. If every moment of every day is crammed with commitments, you’re going to find yourself on a nonstop hamster wheel of exhaustion. If you reach that point, start looking for things that obligate your time but don’t require your brain, and then practice delegating.
  4. Check your energy. Think about your energy level over the course of the week, and schedule heavier and lighter days accordingly. Do you start the week strong, and then drag as the week progresses? Do you start slowly and build up speed? Pair your appointments and tasks with the appropriate energy level. It makes a big difference.
  5. Evaluate the needs. Client work pays the bills, but the business wheels don’t move forward if you neglect marketing and operations. Make sure you have a reasonable balance between billable and nonbillable work—both are critical to the health of your business, particularly if you’re a sole proprietor.
  6. Honor the need to recharge. You’re going to make better, more effective choices when you’re rested. A little time and a little distance does a lot for our perspective. If you’re worried about how to make that vacation happen, try these hacks:
    • Look for that “fifth” week in a month. There are many months throughout the year when you can capitalize on a four or five day weekend, without compromising your typical revenue-producing time. Try to put yourself in time out a few times a year if you can. I personally do this quarterly.
    • Do not overbook the week before you leave or the week following your return. You will leave rushed and tired, and you will come back rushed and tired. It sounds so obvious, yet it’s one of the hardest things to hold yourself to because you’ll always face the choice of squeezing in one more thing before you feel like you can close shop.
    • Send an email to your clients and colleagues 3 to 4 weeks in advance of leaving for an extended period of time. When I know I’ll be gone one week or longer, I send out an email to all clients so it gives everyone a chance to schedule extra time with me if they need it, and then I leave with a clear conscience.
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