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It’s Normal and it’s a Choice - 4 essential tools every SME owner should adopt in order to get stuff done in their business.

The #1 feedback that I get from SME business owners is that they do not have enough time in the day. The irony is, they are so busy with the demands of their day that they have no spare time to think about how they can ultimately free up time.

Interestingly, this dilemma plagues both successful and struggling businesses, but there is a small exception. I have met some super successful businesses and corporate executives who seem to have all the time in the world. They operate guilt-free of having time available to be both flexible in their schedule and calm enough to have the luxury of being able to Zoom in or Zoom out of any situation.

Contrast this with the majority of business owners, and you will notice these characteristics:

>90% of business owners (let’s call him Bob):

  • Tend to be the ‘fix it’, or ‘Oracle’ in the business. If we have a problem, speak to Bob.
  • The business is going OK, but the profits or cash flow are just not quite enough to employ an additional person so that Bob can be freed up.
  • This is Bob: he enjoys being busy, even though his family, health and business culture are taking a knock due to the stress of this demanding lifestyle.
  • Bob ‘knows’ what needs to be done to free his time, and will get there as soon as he gets over this ‘hump’ of challenges (ps- there is always another hump in the waiting.)
  • Bob has tried some of these time-saving tactics but they did not suit him or were impractical. It’s easier for him to live with the status quo.
  • Bob has really given up hope that the situation will work. That’s OK, he says. I am retiring in a  few years; going to sell the business in a few years; or, I have got used to this new normal.

If you or someone you know is a typical Bob, then rest assured, Bob’s family is ginormous. In fact, I would estimate that over 90% of SME owners and Executives are Bobs. 

On the flip-side, even though you probably know this already, a small minority of SME owners or corporate executives who manage their time well, tend to display the following (let’s call her Jane):

  • Jane spends a surprisingly large amount of her time thinking and plotting the future. There is a definite and noticeable focus on being proactive as opposed to the largely reactive Bobs.
  • When a crisis of some sort does happen, Jane generally has the capacity in her schedule to re-prioritize her day without causing significant knock-on effects.
  • She has a reputation for being both consistent and reliable.
  • She tends to have a better work-life balance.
  • Her business tends to outperform Bob’s, financially and culturally.
  • If Jane had to sell her business, then she is likely to sell for a higher multiple than Bob’s (even though Bob is working so hard).
  • Overall Jane is more relaxed and Bob is a little envious. If only he could have a little of what Jane has.

 

What exactly are we trying to solve?

 

There is a famous quote from Socrates: ‘Beware the barrenness of a busy life.’ This is what we are trying to solve. 

I have spoken to many business owners who have explained to me why and how they got into business. This includes: a life-long desire to be their own boss, an opportunity that they could not resist, by accident, the exact reason does not really matter. What does matter is, are they living the life they imagined as a business owner or are they a slave to the business?

Only you can really answer the above, but just in case you have rose-tinted glasses I would encourage you to first look at your finances. Are you drawing a market-related salary as well as getting a reasonable return (dividend) for your investment in the business? If you have loved ones, do you have the time and mental capacity to provide for them as you do your business?

Over the years of being an overly busy SME owner, I have tried many hacks and fads to solve my time constraints. The majority of them failed. At some point, I realized that the hacks weren’t the source of the failure- my attitude was. I tried to find an easy solution where magically I would have more time to focus on what I should really be doing.

The realization eventually dawned on me: even though I complained about not having enough time and too many things to do, the way I operated day to day was a choice. Why was I willing to tolerate the situation? What would be my breaking point when I would decide to genuinely change? Would I need to have a heart attack, lose my loved ones, burn out? 

There is no secret to gaining more time. There are hacks, habits and tools that could work for you, but until you consciously decide to no longer accept the status quo and to recommit to a new set of habits, then your ‘resistance will be futile.’  

 

The following are 4 ‘hacks’ that I now live by and together they have had an enormous impact on my productivity. But until you, as I did, eventually and consciously acknowledge that you have to change your beliefs and habits towards your time management, then these hacks will not offer you any significant advantage.

[1] Activity Scheduling

There is a lot of research available that clearly indicates that many of our behaviours and habits are dictated by our unconscious thoughts, even though we believe the opposite, i.e our conscious thoughts dictate our actions. 

It is also true that all of what we see, understand and experience is really just an interpretation that our brains configure and is influenced by past experience, our genetics, our current mood etc. We are all different and we all experience and interpret the world differently. 

What are the thoughts and interpretations that you have that serve you well in your business? What can you do to facilitate this process to better ensure that both your conscious and unconscious thoughts work for you in making you more productive in business and life in general?

Well, there are many things that would facilitate this process, ranging from becoming more spiritual, meditating, being more generous, eating healthy and exercising etc. There is also another that I call Activity Scheduling. It is kid-like and simple and will have a positive effect on you if you stick to it for at least a month.

If after a month of sticking to Activity Scheduling you drop it, then clearly it was never for you :). Success breeds success: I encourage you to trial and experiment, but when you experiment, commit to this for at least a month. 

 

Why Activity Scheduling Works

There are two primary reasons. 

Firstly, it builds a habit (aka a discipline) around you zooming out to focus on the bigger picture. The ultimate question to ask yourself here is: “what is the most important thing I need to work on tomorrow?” Drill down to the answer by further asking if this activity will move the business forward or lead to a long-term gain or improvement?

Secondly, you are consciously sending a signal to your unconscious thoughts on what it should be working on. 

Interestingly I have found that by starting the process of writing down your main activity to do the following day, right before going to bed, I invariably have a better night's sleep. This seems a little counter-intuitive but is backed by research. Rather than your subconscious working overtime while you sleep, this process appears to give it some direction. I have been amazed at how often I wake in the morning with an answer to some dilemma that had been troubling me the day before.

I have summarised the 7-step process in this handout. Print this out and keep it in easy access until you have embedded the routine. 

Activity Scheduling is the first habit that I encourage everyone to adopt in their search for gaining back time. Everything else follows on from this activity.

 

[2] 90-day Planning

I have written a few articles on 90-day planning and it is something that I implement with all my clients. It is non-negotiable. For the uninitiated, let's cover off some of the myths of 90-day planning.

Q: My business does not fit into 90-day cycles, so 90-day planning would never work for me.

A: This is true. Business is perpetual and does not fit into 90-day cycles, especially when you consider the day-to-day ongoing demands. But 90-day planning is not designed for your daily ongoing activities. Rather it is there to commit you to stepping back (zooming out), to work on the important less urgent (refer to Eisenhower Matrix) aspects of your business. 

The reason why we focus on 90-days is again based on some broad research which indicates that any longer duration will have a negative impact on the outcome. If the period is too short it merely becomes another task: if it is too long then the complexity increases and urgency is lowered. 90-days is the sweet spot.

Q: I have tried it and it did not work for me.

A: From personal experience, you need to successfully complete a few 90-day cycles before they really start working for you. Creating impactful 90-day plans is simple in principle but challenging in reality. Most people tend to over-commit and create a glamourised to-do list. A habit only forms through repetition and even more importantly, through experiencing success at the habit.

Besides not knowing how to 90-day plan, the above two points are the primary mental stumbling blocks that business owners have in implementing effective quarterly planning in their business. And if the business owner is not planning, then there is zero chance of the staff planning either. 

Especially if you employ staff, 90-day planning plays an ever-increasing importance and role in a business. With investing in staff and culture development, 90-day plans should be the domain of every employee: they should all be structured around what team members individually need to achieve as well as what the business needs to achieve in that quarter. Hence the reason why each plan has a common theme for the quarter.

90-day planning is the second time-saving hack that I recommend you adopt. The mechanism naturally builds accountability into your routine and by focusing on the important, less urgent activities in your business you will have the ability to start implementing structure in your business that will free you from the business. 

Sukuma has a freely available 90-day planning toolkit built-in, so take advantage of this.

 

[3] Time-Blocking

This is another well-known productivity tool that I find surprisingly few use. The only logical reason I can think of as to why this is, comes down to self-discipline.

When our lives are busy and we have so much of our mental capacity taken up with a backlog of urgent matters, it is understandable that we need to work in our off time. This is also the time when we should disengage and allow ourselves to recover. 

These ‘breaks’ are not solely defined by those longer holidays or weekends, rather they are defined by mini-breaks that we try and slot in through every day (if we are lucky enough to get the opportunity). So by the end of every day, if we reflect we will see our day was interspaced with mostly urgent, ‘doing’ activities and numerous, almost brain-dead, recovery patches. What is lacking is the proactive slots.

If you are to successfully adopt these four time-saving productivity habits, there is only one way to do so. You will need to reallocate some of your normal time to working on these non-urgent behaviours, and you will need to do so until they become a habit. In order to achieve this, time-blocking will become your new best friend.

Just like you would allocate time to other key activities, such as fixing a problem, or talking to a customer, so too do you need to create an appointment with yourself to focus on these new behaviours. 

Time blocking is not difficult, it just takes consistent effort to actually time block until such time that the habit becomes normal. Here are some helpful tips to effectively time block.

If time-blocking is new to you, or you have tried in the past and not been successful, then the following strategy could be the missing link: do not start out by time blocking your entire day!

The key to starting any new activity is that you need easy wins, and this is achieved by taking baby steps at first. Start off by time-blocking the following in your calendar.

  1. Your Activity Scheduling - enter in your daily calendar 5-minutes before going to bed and 5-minutes when you are ready to start the working day. Set reminders in place.
  2. Set a date with yourself to create your first 90-day plan. Give yourself up to an hour and when you are at your sharpest.
  3. Set a weekly date with yourself to reflect on, and update your 90-day plan. This should not take much more than 5-minutes. Remember a plan is a plan, so if the world changes around you then your plan probably also needs to change.
  4. Set a daily activity for yourself where you are unavailable to anyone else. It is the classical ‘do not disturb’ notice. During this slot (20 to 60-minutes) you get away from the coal face of the business. You change the mental focus to having a walk, having lunch (not behind your computer), going to the gym, playing some darts etc. Anything that allows your brain to switch off from the business demands. What I am suggesting here is heavily backed by neuro-based research. 

Time-blocking is the third habit that I would encourage you to adopt after you have embraced Activity Scheduling and 90-day planning. The last behaviour is a little different to the first three and will turbocharge your productivity.

 

[4] Pomodoros

When I was at school all I wanted to be was a farmer :): I had little interest in subjects that would not directly lead me to getting my own farm, so things like reading, poetry and languages made little sense. My mother was quite concerned about this and enrolled me on a speed-reading course. I hated it and did not stick with the discipline, but I have to admit that my reading speed and retention increased significantly- at least for a couple of months.

The reason why I am sharing this story is that it relates to Pomodoros. The speed reading technique worked because it had a ruler that moved down the page at a set speed. You were essentially forced to focus more and read the words. Over time the ruler moved faster and your brain had to adapt by scanning the words and lines at a faster rate. 

Pomodoros work on a similar principle, but without that ruler. I created a Pomodoro cheat sheet, explaining the technique. In brief form, a Pomodoro is a block of time, usually between 15 and 45-minutes where you power-focus on just one subject at a time.

The multitasking myth has long been broken. Even for those who believe they are effective at multitasking, research has proved the opposite. For many business owners, multi-tasking is their day! It is no wonder that business life is often so busy and at times hectic. How often do you get to the end of an exhausting day but have little to show for your efforts?

Research findings are quite varied on exactly how long any individual can truly focus for. Factors such as the task at hand, your experience, and how naturally fast or slow-paced you are, are all mitigating factors. 

To effectively implement Pomodoros into your work life you do not need to become some reclusive weirdo. Just like all the other productivity behaviours, choose just a few activities every week that you Pomodoro. Examples include  your 90-day plan, reading and sorting your emails within your time-blocked periods. In fact, most things that you time-block could also be Pomodoros.

This is the final of the four productivity behaviours that I encourage you to develop. Adopt them in the order I have laid out as the one leads to the next. It is almost pointless starting with Pomodoros, as you first need to develop the habit of working on the right thing in your business. 

 

Summary

No matter if you are a SME owner or working as a corporate executive, life is too short not to be enjoying every day you have at work. While in the short term we can live with the dissatisfaction of not completing everything that we would like to complete, over the long term the consequences are dire. 

Long-term dissatisfaction leads to poor mental and physical health. As a leader your behaviours radiate and affect everyone else in the business. And lastly, the business itself also suffers. 

If the management, and therefore the workers as well, are managing the business largely reactively, because they simply don't have enough hours in the day, then bottom-line performance and long term company value will be significantly harmed.

There are countless productivity hacks out there. Some work, some don’t- probably more because of a personal preference than the hack itself. From my personal experience and from what I have encountered with so many SME owners, these are the top 4, must-implement habits.

The emphasis here is that these are behavioural habits. Trying one or more of these is highly unlikely to deliver the results you expect. You need to fully embrace and consistently repeat them until they become a true habit.

 

Next Steps

Now it is up to you, but should you feel a little uncertain on any aspect I have covered here, or you have some constructive feedback then I would welcome your input. Please email me directly: sean@seanfoster.co.nz

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