Productivity snakes and ladders: How to deal with time-sapping sinkholes

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Small business owners face demands on their time every day. Lucie Mitchell examines the main productivity sinkholes at work, and gathers some top tips to help you be more productive so you can focus on growing your business.

This content is part of a series of advice published in partnership with Microsoft Devices.
 
As a small business owner, it’s hard to remain productive and find the time to concentrate on growing your business when you have to wear many different hats, often all at the same time.
 
Yet by putting in place a few simple time management strategies, you can increase your productivity, enabling you to work smarter, rather than harder.
 
Here are five productivity sinkholes that can waste time, as well as five productivity tips that can save you at least 20 minutes a day, amounting to almost a full working day each month.
 
Productivity snake 1: Meetings
 
Meetings can be a huge waste of time if they aren’t planned properly.
 
Stephen Archer, director of business consultancy Spring Partnerships, believes that the kind of meetings that should be scrapped are any that lack objectives, an agenda or clarity on what is expected of each participant, as well as any that don’t have a time limit.
 
"There are ways of keeping meetings short and sweet without appearing rude or abrupt," he remarks. "Setting a strict agenda and staying on topic will keep people focused. Training people in effective chairing is also key. Good chairing leads to good decision making, inclusion of the views of all parties, and good time keeping."
 
Also consider virtual meetings, which enable you to have quick updates with your team, without wasting too much time. Mobile devices such as the Nokia Lumia have Skype and video conferencing tools integrated into it, making communication on the move far simpler and allowing busy team members to contact you wherever they are.
 
Productivity snake 2: Email
 
Email can be a major time waster if they’re not managed effectively.
 
Time management coach Clare Evans recommends checking your inbox just two or three times a day. "You can see what's come in, check if there's anything important, deal with it there and then if needs be, or set aside time later to do so."
 
Heather Baker, CEO of integrated communications agency TopLine Comms, adds: "Email pop-up notifications waste a huge amount of time as people cannot resist being drawn in. To make sure these email pauses are as efficient as possible, make sure you switch off any email alerts and notifications."
 
Productivity snake 3: Social media
 
When running a small business, engaging in social media is obviously very important as it allows you to quickly and easily network and potentially win new business. Yet it can also turn into a time drain.
 
Entrepreneur Nadine Hill, who runs several home-based small businesses, suggests limiting the time you spend on social media by setting yourself an alarm.
 
"If I am going on social media, I might allow myself 15 minutes, in which I will retweet, reply or schedule my own posts, but once that alarm goes off, I force myself to get out of it and get on with the rest of my work."
 
Productivity snake 4: Procrastination
 
We’ve all done it; those tasks that we constantly put off that end up never getting done. Procrastination can waste a lot of time and create quite a bit of stress too.
 
"Think about what it is that you're putting off each time," remarks Evans. "What is the specific task? If it's too big a task, break it down into smaller parts. You may be able to do the first action right away, and it may be quite quick."
 
Productivity snake 5: Perfectionism
 
As a small business owner, you probably spend a lot of time ‘perfecting’ your work, because you are passionate about getting it right. But obsessing over the tiniest details can be a real productivity drain as you may find yourself tweaking a completed task and, before you know it, another hour has gone by.
 
“Sometimes 'good enough' and done is better than perfect and not done,” remarks Hill.
 
Productivity ladder 1: Ring-fence your time
 
Many small business owners spend a lot of time fire-fighting and dealing with the many admin tasks, which leaves less time for working towards their own business goals.
 
Hill recommends dedicating some time for working on your business, rather than in it.
 
"It's important, either daily or weekly, to structure and set aside some time for you, and give it the same importance as you would a meeting; that time is sacred," comments Hill.
 
"That way, you have the time to move your own business forward, and you need to give it the same attention and importance that you give your clients."
 
Productivity ladder 2: Task list management
 
Having a huge to-do list can sometimes seem overwhelming. One way to overcome this is to tackle the more simple tasks at the very start of your day, says Baker.
 
"When you arrive at work in the morning, start by doing the five quickest or easiest things on your task list," she advises. "This has the benefit of allowing you to dramatically reduce your list within an hour of starting work."
 
There are many task management tools at the disposal of small business owners, and by being able to manage tasks on the move using mobile devices you can unlock more time and get more things done. In this instance it is critical to use tools that synchronise from mobile to your desk set up. Software such as OneNote allows effective, synchronised task list management across mobile devices like Lumia and desktop or laptop set ups.
 
Productivity ladder 3: Keep a tidy desk
 
If your desk is cluttered, you will have a constant visual reminder of everything you still have to get done, which can actually stop you from getting on with it. Having a tidy desk can help you be more productive by enabling you to just focus on what you have to do that day.
 
"I would recommend getting a concertina file, with the days of the month on them," says Hill. "Whenever any paperwork crosses my desk, if it doesn't need dealing with immediately, I look in my diary and decide when I will deal with it, and slot it into the relevant date in the file.
 
That way, I have a nice tidy desktop and I won’t be distracted by tomorrow's work."
 
Productivity ladder 4: Delegate
 
Many small businesses become successful because they recruit the right people. Delegating certain tasks or areas of the business to trusted members of your team can boost your own productivity and give you more time to think about other ways to grow your business.
Think about the task at hand. Can you delegate it to someone else?
 
"Offload all tasks that you don't really need to be doing, rather than trying to do it all yourself," suggests Evans.
 
Productivity ladder 5: Manage your distractions and interruptions
 
Do you find yourself being constantly interrupted by people during your working day? Being distracted from an important task can waste valuable time so it’s important to limit this happening too often.
 
"When someone walks over to your desk to update you on something, ask them to email you so they get out of the habit," says Baker.
"Updates are important, but you need to be able to deal with them when you have time, not while you are concentrating on other things. Cutting out just four or five of these conversations will save you 20 minutes a day."
Dan Martin
Former editor
BusinessZone.co.uk
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