Productivity can be an elusive goal for all professionals, but for small business owners, there never seem to be enough minutes in the day. Whether it’s running reports, answering customer emails, pitching for new business, or dealing with admin, many entrepreneurs are left frustrated that they’re not making enough meaningful progress despite tackling tasks all-day-long. We asked four experts for their top tips on how “Soho” (small office/home office) business owners can boost productivity.
Have a routine
Business coach and growth specialist Kevin Riley finds that building structure into the working day helps keep entrepreneurs on track. “Humans are creatures of habit and the better our routine, the more productive we are,” he says. “I commute to work, even when I’m working from home, taking a 30-minute walk before my day starts and after logging off in the evening.”
Riley also advocates setting 30 minutes aside at the end of the day to tie off loose ends and plan for tomorrow. “That means when I walk into the office at 8 or 9am, I’m ready to go. I’m not thinking, where do I start?”
Outsource where you can
Even solo entrepreneurs shouldn’t try to do everything themselves, says John McLachlan, organisational psychologist and co-author of Time Mastery: Banish Time Management Forever. “One of the things I spend a lot of time doing with entrepreneurs is encouraging them to do less and think more. Focus on what you’re good at, the skills that have made you successful and spend more time doing that.”
Other tasks can be delegated to employees or outsourced to specialists such as accountants, virtual PAs, designers and digital marketing experts, he adds.
Build focus like a muscle
Experts believe the past two years of pandemic-related uncertainty and stress have had an impact on our attention spans, memory and ability to problem-solve or be creative. The good news is, it’s reversible. Riley aims to build the entrepreneurs he works with up to a 50-minute block of focused work, without any distractions such as emails or social media.
Time-management techniques such as the Pomodoro method – which breaks work time into 25-minute intervals, separated by short breaks – or apps that lock social media for 30 minutes at one go can help entrepreneurs break bad habits.
Riley also recommends tracking the working week to see where time can be spared, such as scheduling meetings back to back, rather than with short breaks in between (when it’s difficult to get anything meaningful done). “If you work a 40-hour week and can free up 10 minutes a day, that equates to one working week a year,” he adds.
Prioritise ‘deep work’
A concept first explored by the US author Cal Newport, “deep work” is the ability to focus without distraction, to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Alicia Navarro was so inspired by Newport’s theory, she founded the virtual co-working platform Flown to help professionals tap into more focused working. She’s found multitasking business owners particularly receptive to the idea.
“Entrepreneurs often live in a very reactive state because there are all these emails to answer and meetings in our diaries, and we try to do deep work in the pockets of time between everything else. That doesn’t work because it takes 25 minutes to get back into a deep work state after you’ve been interrupted,” says Navarro. Instead, schedule two-hour chunks of focused time throughout the week and let “shallow work’’ such as answering emails, chasing invoices or other administrative tasks fit around that.
One of the challenges for solo entrepreneurs, Navarro says, is the lack of accountability when you work alone. “One of the ingredients for deep work practice is the ritual of accountability,” she says. “At Flown, we set goals for that day’s session in small groups, then work together for two hours silently, before going back to our small group to share how much we’ve achieved.”
This idea can also be replicated with a supportive group of other business owners, says neurophysiologist and sleep and energy expert Nerina Ramlakhan: “Surround yourself with people who can inspire you in those moments when you lack confidence. And ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this? Why is this important to me?’ We’re more likely to be productive if we’re able to connect the task with our value system.”
Take a break
It might sound counter-intuitive, but resting during the work day is one of the most effective things business owners can do when it comes to optimising productivity. “The ultradian rhythm occurs several times a day, roughly every 90 to 120 minutes and determines the limits of our ability to concentrate,” explains Ramlakhan.
Many entrepreneurs are perfectionists and find it hard to switch off, but taking a five-minute break to “eat, move, breathe, or reconnect with nature” each cycle will help to prevent burnout. Even a change of scenery can help boost intuitive thinking – you might work from a cafe for the afternoon, for example, instead of at home.
Boost your bandwidth
Get your technology right and you can get more done. Speedy broadband, ample data allowance, and reliable infrastructure are key components for a productive office, no matter how small.
“One of the biggest frustrations in any workplace is technology,” says Riley. “Making sure connectivity is right is crucial. It’s also a good idea to have someone you can call on (such as a freelance IT support service) if you have any technology issues. People waste so much time Googling how to fix something. Every time you do that, you’re losing money.”
Plan for the future
Many people wear busyness like a badge of honour, but productivity has to be for a purpose, rather than for its own sake. “If you’re too busy doing tactical day-to-day tasks, you’ll miss the strategic vision,” says McLachlan.
“That’s hard in a culture of busyness, because people are frightened to have time to sit and think, because they’ll feel guilty.” Smooth out the peaks and troughs of busy work by building a consistent pipeline of business in advance, he adds. “Otherwise you’re under such high pressure that your performance drops.”
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