Ever feel like there’s more to-do list than day to do it? We get it. Some days are crazy—especially when you’re running a business. But if you constantly function as chief everything officer, over time you’ll become chief exhausted officer. And you can’t run a successful business if you’re running on fumes.
So how do you manage your day more productively so you have time to catch your breath and do the things you want to do most? By making some important priority shifts and habit changes. This isn’t about a scary or impossible overhaul. It’s about challenging the way you use the 24 hours you have in a day to get stuff done.
That challenge begins with how you view productivity. So before we get into our list of productivity tips for small-business owners, let’s take a look at what productivity really is and how to rework your priorities so you’re getting the right stuff done.
What Productivity Is (and Isn’t)
When you think about productivity for small business, or any-sized business, what comes to mind? Maybe you imagine a boss speed-walking through the office barking orders while also talking on the phone and being prepped for the day by a frazzled assistant. Let’s save that image for the movies.
You can also nix any pressure you feel to get your steps in on the treadmill while answering emails and half-listening to a leadership podcast. That’s an exercise in insanity.
Productivity isn’t just getting more things done. And it’s definitely not multitasking or being busy for the sake of being busy. Productivity is doing the right things—with efficiency, yes, but also with excellence and for a purpose that really matters to you and your business.
And how do you decide the right things to do? You get a clear picture of where your time’s really going in the first place—and how everything you’re doing moves you forward or holds you back. Using a time management quadrant (also called the Eisenhower Matrix) will help you group your daily activities into four categories:
- Important and urgent - Do I need to do it now or soon?
- Important but not urgent - Do I need to delay or plan it?
- Not important but urgent - Do I need to delegate it?
- Not important and not urgent - Do I need to drop or delete it?
Once you identify what needs to be done, delayed, delegated and deleted each week (and where you’re spending too much or too little of your time now), you’ll work smarter, not just harder.
Pro tip: Check out 5 Simple Steps for Successful Time Management for Entrepreneurs. It’ll help you get the most out of the productivity tips for small-business owners we’ll talk about below!
One Essential Strategy to Manage Your Day and Your To-Do List
Ever heard that if you treat everything like it’s the top priority, nothing really is? It’s true! We’ve all been guilty of moving from project to project (or problem to problem) like a bat out of hell without bothering to prioritize. And all we end up with is a big mess, a lot of wasted time, and usually a massive freaking headache.
But all it takes to fix the problem is clarity on your daily priority. Notice we said “priority,” not “priorities.” You have plenty of things you want to accomplish in a day, but to boost your productivity, start with the absolute most important task you want to get done. We call this defining your A1, or daily steak sauce.
Define Your Daily Priority (Your “Daily Steak Sauce”)
Here’s how you determine what’s most important each day:
Every business goes through five distinct stages. Find out which stage your business is in with our free assessment.
1. Make a list of all the things on your to-do list in no particular order.
2. Sort your activities into three buckets.
A – What you need to do today
B – What you need to do very soon
C – All the rest (these are ideas you’ll get to in a few weeks, delegate, or file away for later)
Hint: You’ll pull items into bucket A from quadrants 1 and 2 of your Eisenhower Matrix. Most of your items in bucket B will come from quadrant 2. And bucket C will have items from quadrant 3. (Most quadrant 4 items are already on the chopping block.) See how the Eisenhower Matrix and daily steak sauce work together?
3. Look at the A’s and choose the most important thing to get done. That’s your A1—the thing you’ll devote your most prized moments to doing. Continue to rank all your A’s, so you have A1, A2, A3, etc.
4. Rank the B’s and C’s in the same way.
5. Now, create your new prioritized to-do list. There you have it—your plan for the day.
At the start of each day, list what needs to be done that day, focusing on A1, A2 and A3. These are your Daily Top 3. If a team member comes in with a problem, ask yourself: Is it steak sauce? Is it more important (not more urgent) than my A1? If not, have your team member find someone else to help handle it.
When you have your day carefully planned, it gives you a solid measurement to evaluate interruptions—and a place to come back to after the interruption happens. When Dave Ramsey implemented daily steak sauce in his early years as CEO of Ramsey Solutions, it changed the course of the business. He was finally able to manage his activities instead of trying to manage results.
Pro tip: Use the printable to-do list template in our EntreLeadership Ultimate Guide to Time Management to manage your daily list. Physically writing things down helps lock them in your mind so you actually do them. You can always transfer your list to your phone or computer later.
Ready to get time back on your side?
A business leader like you shouldn’t feel pulled apart by a dozen different priorities. Download the Ultimate Guide to Time Management to get your business week back under control.
11 Productivity Tips for Small-Business Owners
With your time accounted for and priorities straight, your wing-and-a-prayer days are over, and you should be feeling nothing short of awesome. Now, you’re ready for some real productivity traction. These tips will help.
Related article: How to Be More Productive: 7 Tips
1. Remove the things you shouldn’t be doing.
Right off the bat, it’s out with the old so you’ve got room for the new, aka what you really want and need to do. So say goodbye to your inner control freak, guilt hound and time waster. Remove anything from your schedule and your to-do list that falls into the delegate or delete categories on your time-management quadrant.
2. Schedule everything (else).
Now, the fun work! Reclaiming your calendar. If you want it to happen, schedule it. Put all the things you want and need to do on your calendar—brainstorm, meet with team members, get coffee with a friend, enjoy your kid’s soccer game. Remember to include both current commitments and brand-new activities you just made room for.
3. Use time blocking.
Time blocking is the intentional decision to dedicate certain calendar time for certain tasks. For example, regular tasks like going to meetings, answering messages, running errands and planning are chunked in set time blocks to help you keep a flow to your day. Time blocking helps you avoid time wasters like making six trips a week to Home Depot when you could’ve planned ahead and made only two. It also protects you from interruptions to your most productive time—like when you have to stop and take a call when you just got in the flow of analyzing a report or editing a presentation.
Related article: Your Guide to Strategic Planning That Boosts Your Business
Pro tip: Parkinson’s Law says work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.1 So as you time block, set reasonable time limits for working on projects—long enough to get in the flow, but not so long you spend more time than you need to finish a task.
4. Turn off notifications.
Nothing breaks flow faster than the ding of a text or email notification. Controls like “do not disturb,” “focus” or “airplane mode” are available on your phone for a reason. Use them. The same applies to your computer. For at least a few hours a day, let your team know you’re silencing notifications and turning off chats to stay focused.
5. Set boundaries in business (and life).
By set boundaries, we mean you decide how people can get your time. This includes choosing your start and stop times for work and family commitments. Leave work (or your computer if you work remotely) by a certain time each day. Before you enter home mode, take a breath, put on your “home” hat, and enjoy being a spouse, parent or friend—distraction-free.
Also be careful when you choose the opportunities you say yes and no to. Whatever’s on your calendar is there because you’ve made it a priority. Don’t let just any shiny new opportunity hijack that time. But do build in margin to add new ones.
Related article: 27 Work-Life Balance Quotes for Motivation and Wisdom
6. Use an assistant.
You might think having an assistant just adds one more thing to do and another person to manage in your already busy day. Think again. A great assistant will free your time and keep you focused on what matters most in your business. The key is treating your assistant like a business partner, not a task taker. Slow down on the front end to help them learn your goals and needs, and you’ll speed up later with how you lead your team and enjoy life outside work.
7. Delegate more.
We know, just like training a new assistant feels scary and counterproductive at first, so does letting go of work you know how to do and trust yourself to get done. But when you shift from doing the work to leading it, you’ll lighten your load, free yourself to work more on the business (instead of in it), and give others on your team a chance to grow. So loosen your grip, look for the right people on your team to delegate to (or hire them), and coach your team members so they can take on new roles that help everyone win.
Related article: How to Delegate to Your Team (With Red-Hot Confidence)
8. Stop multitasking.
Fun fact: The term multitasking originated in the 1960s to talk about what computers can do. By 1998 we started using the term to talk about humans.2 The thing is, we’re not computers. And multitasking as a human is a myth. What’s the best way to get more done? One task at a time. When you try to do multiple things at once, you can’t do either well.
9. Get organized.
Some people spend a lot of time looking for lost things—keys, phones, wallets and the infamous lost shoe. Hopefully you won’t lose your shoe at work. But if you’re not organized, there’s a good chance you’ll lose other essential things, like computer files, meeting notes and other important information. Keeping your ducks in a row and your desk (and desktop) clutter-free helps guard you from lost time. That’s true of your phone screen and your inbox too. So minimize your stuff, throw away things you don’t need, and keep what you have organized.
By this we mean two things: Stand when you’re ready to end a meeting, and stand when your energy is dragging and you need a reset. Standing signals to people it’s time to move. And it signals to your body it’s time to activate new muscles and get that blood pumping!
Pro tip: Done with a meeting before the time is up? Great. Don’t burn daylight. Stand, end the meeting, and use the extra time for other things.
11. Get in sync.
What do we mean? Synchronize your digital calendar across devices and sharing it with others. Then your spouse and assistant can access it to help you set and keep plans. Sync your digital files, too, so they’re easy to access from anywhere.
What’s Next: Become the Chief Effective Officer
Your goal as a business leader is to move from chief everything officer to chief effective officer—and leave exhaustion in the rearview mirror. The principles above will help you reclaim true productivity. And that means more time for the things you want to do most!
Need some extra help getting your time under control? Check out the free EntreLeadership Ultimate Guide to Time Management. You’ll walk through the action steps that helped Dave Ramsey grow his small business from the Treadmill Operator stage—where too much of the business relied on him—into a national brand. It’ll give you hope and practical help to grow your business too.