As solo business owners there are always more things to do than there are hours in the day. It can feel like we’re in a constant state of overwhelm.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, when you’re overwhelmed, you need to cut back on some things. But which things do you choose when everything seems equally important?
The fact is that most of us have a strange relationship with what is important. If asked, we know what is important to us, but the things we do on a daily basis often don’t correspond to it.
There are 168 hours in a week, and that is it.
No matter how many things have to get done, you can’t get any more hours to do them in.
This means that, if you don’t cut something from your to-do list, you will end up cutting back on other things like sleep, cooking dinner, exercising or spending time with your family.
Given the choice, most of us would say that we would never sacrifice family time or our health for a few business to-dos, but when we don’t tame our to-do lists, that is exactly what happens.
It’s not that we actively DECIDE to sleep less in order to get our newsletter done, or that we DECIDE to spend an evening tweeting in the living room, while absentmindedly nodding to everything our partner says to us.
The problem is that we don’t make a decision at all, and so one is made for us.
So how do we make better decisions when we’ve got too much to do?
1. Don’t allow your business tasks to slip into family time or time you have carved out for making healthy dinners or exercising.
Protect this time fiercely. Set alarms that tell you to get off the computer. Close the studio door. Finish when you said you were going to finish. Switch your phone off. Don’t check social media in the evenings.
Protect the time that is for you so that you can start to get more realistic about what can be done in the time that is for work.
2. Stop trying to do everything
You don’t need to be on every social media channel. You don’t need to accept every invitation to join a new online marketplace. You don’t need to create every product someone has asked you for. You don’t need to be all things to all people. You can let some of it go.
When judging a new “opportunity” make sure that you consider not only the potential gain, but also the potential loss ….of time. Is this the best use of your time at this moment? What are you likely to get back from this investment of time?
3. Write it all down and then focus in.
Keeping things in your head takes energy. There’s a little part of your brain constantly nagging you not to forget this. Getting it down on paper immediately makes you feel better. It also makes you confront the fact that you may be trying to do too much.
If your to-do list for today is three pages long, it isn’t getting done no matter who you are.
Take a notebook and write down EVERYTHING you need to get done. You can limit it to the things you need to get done this week or this month, or you can keep it to just everything you need to get done sometime. It’s up to you.
But once you’ve got it all out, start cutting back where you can.
Get rid of things that really aren’t important, or that just don’t interest you. Get rid of things that are working poorly and are a bad use of your time. Get rid of things that are a distraction.
Equally, look for the tasks that are easy wins. Look for the tasks with the most potential benefit, for the least potential time investment. Do those first.
Look for the things that are working well for you and make sure you prioritise them. Batch similar tasks together and save some time that way.
4. Get to know how much you can do in a day, a week, a month
The reason many of us have to-do lists that are out of control is that we just don’t have a good sense of what we can accomplish in any given time period.
We tend to wildly overestimate how much we can do in a day and grossly underestimate how much we can do in a year.
We can make huge things happen in a time period like a year or six months, but only if we work sensibly in the smaller time periods.
For me, I know that if I have three things to get done today – that is probably going to be it for me. These might be things like “write a blog post,” “wrap and ship orders,” “work on an image for a couple of hours.” Something bigger like “Do monthly accounts” is probably going to take me most of the day.
Getting to know how much you can do in a certain period of time and how long certain regular tasks take to complete is really useful information.
Once you have this, you can very clearly see when you’re taking on too much. You can clearly see when your plans are unrealistic.
You can quickly decide that when you can only do three things, tweeting to your 50 followers isn’t a good use of your time.
And you can also see when you have a bottleneck coming up and you might need to sacrifice a bit of personal time to stay on track. The important thing to note about this is that it is a very temporary, short term burst of action for no more than a few days, not endless months of late nights and weekend work.
5. If in doubt, focus on one thing
I find it always helps to have ONE key focus for the week and ONE key focus for the month. It gives me a kind of theme for choosing the things to do today.
I still have the day to day running of my business to do but if my focus this week is to produce new images then I schedule in a certain number of blocks of time during the week to work on that goal and I don’t start on anything new until I’ve done it.
If you have lots of different potential projects to focus on this week and you’re struggling to decide because they all sound good then just pick one.
Seriously, just try one of them and see how it goes.
Time spent working on a project is always more effective than time spent trying to pick the best project to work on.
If you’re facing a never-ending to-do list this week, I hope that you’ll spend a little time putting in place some rules about how you manage your time so that you can protect your health, happiness and your time spent with friends and family.