Beating the Time Bandits

In business, time is a resource that needs to be considered in the same manner as finance, people or equipment. Unfortunately time is unique in that we can never increase the quantity of time we have. Each day we get only 24 hours to work with and at least 8 of those should be spent resting!

For most small business people time is a scarce commodity. Australian small business owner-managers work an average of 55 hours per week with at least one in ten working over 60 hours. Better time management can be a major enhancement of business productivity.

Research shows that small business people spend their time in five key areas:
  1. Time spent with external parties - this includes the customers and prospective customers as well as suppliers and various network support groups.
  1. Time spent with staff and other internal parties - this involves the management, problem solving and team building work that is so critical.
  1. Time spent doing administrative paperwork - this includes the 'compliance' paperwork such as invoicing, taxation and other necessary nasties.
  1. Time spent planning - this is where you clear your desk and your mind and think about the future and how to cope with it.
  1. Time spent with family, friends and you - this is critical time that is often robbed from us by the pressures of work.
Most small business people would like to have more time to spend in each of these areas. Few spend sufficient time on number four and most feel that they spend too much time on number three. Getting control of time requires “beating the time bandits”. There is a five step process that can be followed to assist you in this:
  1. Keep a daily time log - this is a record of how you spend your day in each of the five key areas. This can be monitored using 15 to 30 minute time blocks. After tracking your time for say two weeks you can get a clear picture of how you spend it.
  1. Consider how you should spend your time - are you keeping things in balance? Prepare your monthly, weekly and daily goals. Setting goals is a process of visualising what you wish to achieve and then working backwards. It is fairly true to say that what you can visualise you can most likely achieve. However, achieving anything worthwhile will take effort. Remember that you “eat the Elephant one slice at a time”. This means setting weekly or daily objectives that lead towards your long-term goals. Identify what your three daily fixed activities should be to eventually reach your goals. Write them down on paper and ask yourself at the end of the day - "did I complete them?" If the answer is no you should look at disciplining yourself.
  1. How effectively do you use time? - wasting time is as critical as the wasting of money or any other resource. Key time bandits are the telephone, visitors, paperwork and procrastination. Some tips for beating these time bandits are:
  • Telephone - set aside telephone time. Try to complete calls within 3 minutes and note down key points as you go. Sales calls are frequently best done in a closed room with no distractions and a clear block of time - usually in the morning - set aside to do them.
  • Visitors - the best way to stop interruptions is to close the door to your office. When closed you are 'no available' but when open you are 'open for communication'. Set clear time limits on visitors and stick to them. Use body language to signal your time is being wasted. This can involve simply standing up to meet the visitor and remaining standing while the visitor talks to you. If you invite them to sit down they will be remaining there for some time.
  • Paperwork - try to deal with paperwork via a 'one touch' system. Set aside time to read your mail or make an appointment with yourself to get paperwork completed. Have three in-trays: 1) Action, 2) Information and 3) Reading. Remember that the best 'in-tray' you have is your wastepaper basket.
  1. Procrastination - the enemy here is you. Set yourself the clear objectives mentioned above. Daily fixed activities will help avoid procrastination. If you find it hard getting motivated to do these things apply the 5-minute rule. Start the work and allow five minutes to do it. Set the watch going and do nothing else for five minutes but that necessary task. You will find that you do it for much longer and it helps you get started.
  1. Increase your control of time - this is the hard part but can be achieved by use of planners, time saving systems and the careful protection of your precious time in areas that you feel are most important.
A useful tool to help you think about time use is to look at your hand. The middle finger represents your planning time it is both the largest and holds the centre of the hand suggesting that planning is of central importance and should be where you spend a lot of your time. Learn to work “on” not “in” your business. The index finger represents the time spent with external contacts - it points the way to new business. The ring finger represents the time spent with internal people - it is the relationship finger. It is the same size as the index finger suggesting its equal importance to this. The little finger represents the compliance paperwork time. It is necessary but is the smallest of the fingers. Finally, the thumb represents the time spent with family, friends and on you. It is not a finger, so it sits outside the business. However, the thumb provides the hand with its strength and if you don't have a thumb your 'business hand' is useless.
So next time you are worried about how you spend your time look at your hand. Consider if you are keeping faith with all your fingers and whether your 'business time fingers' are in proportion. A well-balanced hand can be a well-balanced business.
©Tim Mazzarol (2010)