Being productive doesn't mean always being busy and getting things done. Likewise, constantly taking action and not allowing for pauses is not the best way to be productive.
Unfortunately, this misconception often has the opposite impact on small business owners. Instead of getting more done, they get less done. Instead of acting with a clear mind, they act from a place of chaos. Instead of working more efficiently, tasks take longer to complete and often need to be re-done.
Why? Because they aren’t doing the pre-work that must come before the action steps happen. Simply put, they aren’t properly planning.
To show you how proper planning can boost your productivity and improve productivity at work, I’m going to highlight three areas in your business where a little planning can go a long way, how to plan your day and stick to it, and save you both time and money (and who can’t use more of those?).
Productive planning #1: projects
Whether I use this idea in my small business, in helping my clients or in my former career managing $35 million projects across multiple continents, proper project planning is essential.
In fact, the more time and effort you put into planning your projects before starting to take action, the more quickly, effectively and successfully you will execute your project. When you have a well thought out plan (I like to call it a productivity plan), you don’t need to spend time questioning each and every decision as you take action. Instead, you can move forward confidently knowing that you thought out the entire big picture before you even began and the actions you take are the right ones.
Let me explain why this works.
We all know that switch-tasking (commonly but incorrectly referred to as multitasking) can cause us to lose up to 40 percent in productivity. What you might not know is that when you are executing on a project and are switching between doing and planning, you’re switch-tasking. This means it will take you longer to get your project done since you are trying to simultaneously plan and take action.
If, instead, you can do all the planning up front and all of the executing afterward, you’ll get more done faster. Perhaps even 40 percent faster!
Productive planning #2: your calendar
The second commonly overlooked area for small business productivity planning is your calendar.
Many small business owners set out on their own so they didn’t have to be confined to a 9-5 and someone else’s schedule. I personally love the freedom and flexibility of being a business owner. At the same time, if you’re not in charge of your calendar and your schedule, your clients and your business will be—and that’s never a productive way to run your business!
Although my clients are skeptical at first, they quickly fall in love with my diligent approach to calendar planning. Here’s how to improve productivity:
First, square away the big picture
You can be much more productive in your day-to-day projects when you have an annual strategic plan in place that you can plug your daily tasks into.
Start by revisiting your business plan. Seriously, when was the last time you looked at it? Maybe it’s time to dust it off and think through your goals. Set objectives for one year out, and establish three-year goals for your business. Now you have a bigger context that your calendar fits into. This way, you can see every day on your calendar fitting into your long-range goals.
Once you’ve got your annual goals set, break up the coming year into quarterly chunks, and set priorities for each quarter to attain. Set measurable goals that will serve as milestones along the route to your annual objectives. With the big picture in place, you can tackle your daily task list with confidence. You’ll always be able to answer the question, How does this task today roll up to fulfill your objectives for the year?
Second, decide on your work hours
Be honest: When do you want to start and when do you want to stop each day of the week? As a business owner, you have to be the enforcer of your own hours, so declare your working hours (and stop-working hours!).
Then, write down any predetermined personal and business commitments.
Need to pick the kids up at three? Mark it down.
Meet up with friends for coffee on Tuesdays for an hour? Add it in.
Attend a networking event each Friday morning? Write it down.
Now you have a rough sketch of your weekly availability.
Third, decide what tasks need to get done in your business each week and when you’re going to do them.
I generally suggest that my clients chunk their tasks. Client appointments should be held in one chunk on set days. Writing and creative tasks should be grouped in another chunk. Administrative tasks in another chunk.
Referring back to the switch-tasking reference above, you’ll recall how to be more efficient at work; it's when you work on one thing at a time. This is why chunking can be so helpful. Otherwise, it’s challenging for your brain to go from client work to creative work to admin back to creative work than it is to do client – client – client or creative – creative – creative.
Mark down the days and times you want to do the tasks that need to get done each week or month in your business.
In reading this, you might find yourself overly resistant to this kind of scheduling. You might even be thinking, “I don’t know if I’ll be feeling creative on Tuesdays at 10 am!” What I can tell you is that when you set a schedule and stick to it, within a few weeks your brain will know that it’s Tuesday and will have prepared for that creative task. This means when you sit down to do that task, you’ll be almost immediately productive. How awesome is that?
Fourth, test it out and leave room for changes
I tell my clients to mark out all the time in their calendar as we’ve mapped it out so far and then to follow it obsessively for one month. From there, after practicing the schedule, they can massage it as needed.
If you’re used to flying loosey-goosey, you’re likely to feel a lot of resistance to a set schedule like what I’ve outlined here. That’s normal! And, if you want to get more done and work more reasonable work hours, I strongly suggest you try it.
Productive planning #3: systems
One of my favorite things to help entrepreneurs do is set up systems. When I say systems, I’m not referring to software. Instead, I’m referring to a process flow. Or as Wikipedia defines it, “a system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.”
Confused? I’ll put it this way: systems are a set of steps that you’re likely to do over and over in your business. This includes everything from the steps you take to brainstorm, write, edit, post, and publish your blog to the specifics of how you manage your financial records to how you process new clients.
Ideally, you would have systems set up for everything in your business that’s repeated over and over. This ensures that all of the steps are done exactly the same every single time; this is a huge time-saver! The other option, which I see far too often, is that business owners reinvent the steps every time they do that task; this is a huge time-waster!
Whether you’re dealing with a new customer, managing your social media or handling customer service, having systems ensures everything taken care of consistently, reliably, effectively, and efficiently. This means you know ahead of time exactly what steps 1, 2, 3, … 27 are. You know what steps you do, what steps your assistant does, and what steps anyone else on your team is responsible for.
You’re not spending time questioning the process; instead, everyone is just following through on their job. This will save you a ton of time and money each month. Even better, it makes dealing with turnover in your company much less stressful because you’ll have documented your systems so they’re more easily learned by a new addition to your team.
However, to have your business run like clockwork with systems, you have to take the time to step them up and document them. Thankfully, it’s easier than you think!
Time to get planning
You now know the three most effective and most overlooked areas of productivity and exactly how to implement them in your business. All that’s up to you now is to plan it!
Start your year, quarter, or month off right and make the time to shift your project planning, your calendar management, and your systems so they support your business and your productivity , not burn you out. It will pay dividends in the long run.
Jenny Shih is a coach and consultant for small business owners. Her clients are idea factories with growing businesses that need help planning, strategizing, streamlining and systematizing. She helps new entrepreneurs launch their business, learn the basics of marketing, and start making money. She helps experienced entrepreneurs streamline and systematize their work so they can get out of the daily grind and spend more time doing what they love.