If you're running a small business on your own, it's easy to lose track of your days. Whether managing a small jewelry company, growing a consulting practice, or doing freelance design work, there's a lot to juggle without a partner to check in with at the beginning and end of every day. That means there's a lot that could slip through the cracks if you're not careful. Luckily, a little bit of structure in your daily routine can help you make sure you're keeping all parts of your business running smoothly.
Every business is different, and every entrepreneur has her own best practices for making the most out of every day. But if you're looking for a change of pace or a new structure to boost your productivity, here are a few best practices:
What Needs To Be Done?
A productive day starts with a clear idea of what you need to accomplish. If you're not already doing so, create a designated place for all the to-do list items that you need to take care of for your small business. This should include the good, the bad, and the ugly tasks that are helping you keep your doors open, so don't leave off the administrative tasks like bookkeeping or payroll.
Using your "master list" as a starting point, choose three main priorities to bite off in a single day. If you're not sure how to choose, consider prioritizing based on effort and impact. If a task requires a high degree of effort and will have a large impact on your business, consider this a major project to undertake. If it's a low effort, low impact item, table to the task for a later date when you have some extra time, or delegate this to a freelancer or partner.
When you're planning your day, never choose more than three major projects to tackle. Depending on the size of the project, you may only want to choose one. All other projects or minor tasks, like answering emails, can fit around these major priorities.
Block Your Time
With so much on your list and no one to track your day-to-day actions, it's tempting to switch constantly between the tasks that spring to the forefront of your mind throughout the day. This time-wasting strategy leaves you executing half-formed thoughts without ever offering your best, most focused work. Instead of switching tasks whenever something new pops into your mind, set a dedicated time to tackle your more challenging to-do list items. Need to spend time developing a marketing plan? Put an hour on the calendar and stick to it.
Creating a clear end-time for a task also keeps you from running around in circles on tasks that aren't meant to be. When you're working alone, you'll have days when you're not at your best. Instead of spending four hours cycling through the same thoughts and ideas that aren't cutting it in the first place, spend an hour (or less) putting forth your best effort. If, at the end of the hour, you're still not making progress, move on to the next priority.
Know the Daily Tasks... and Stick To Them
Your business has some inherent daily needs. No matter your business, this probably includes social media posts, checking your email, responding to voicemails, and a few other mundane tasks. As daily tasks, these should require much less thought and planning than other items on your to-do list, and they should be ingrained into your daily work.
To help manage routine work, build habits. Going to get a mid-morning cup of coffee? This should be your time to check on social media. Returning to your desk after lunch? Quickly address your emails before moving on to your next major project. By building these to-dos into your daily actions, you'll minimize stress around them while becoming more efficient.
Even if you're working alone, check-ins are an important part of staying on track. If you're in a co-working space, find a partner-in-crime to check in with at the beginning and end of every day regarding your priorities. If you're sitting in a home-office or a coffee-shop, find a friend that you can check in with online. At the very least, keep a notebook that you can keep a "to-do" and a "done" list in every day. When you're getting ready to step away from your work for a cup of coffee, a meal, or at the end of the day, check in with your progress against the daily plan and overall to-do list.
In doing so, you'll find one of two things: 1) you're on track, or 2) you need to adjust. Making adjustments isn't always about adjusting your work – it could be that your original plan for the day was wrong. If something pops up in the middle of the day, a task takes longer than you anticipated, or you're just not as productive as usual, recalibrate and keep moving.
Develop A Routine
All of these suggestions center around one crucial element of your success: building a routine. Even in the unpredictable world of starting a business, you can build a routine for your days and weeks that helps keep you on track. Here's one example of a daily routine to keep your to-do list on track:
9:00 AM – Check in: review the "master" to do list and create today's plan
9:15 AM – Handle the daily tasks: email, social media, voicemails
9:45 AM – Start major project I
11:15 AM – Move on: address smaller projects
12:00 PM – Lunch
1:00 PM – Handle the daily tasks: emails, social media, and voicemails that have accumulated through the morning
1:30 PM – Start major project II or pick up from this morning's project
3:00 PM – Switch gears
4:30 PM – Wrapping up: address daily tasks that you haven't had time for or revisit social media, emails, voicemail
5:00 PM – Check out: review the day, set priorities for tomorrow
5:30 PM – Leave the office
Looking at a slightly larger picture, you could also consider a weekly routine:
Monday – Business strategy: big picture planning, research, and major updates to your business strategy
Tuesday – Marketing: Review your marketing plan and metrics, implement new strategies, create content
Wednesday – Customer Service: Check for online reviews, make customers a priority, listen to feedback and create plans to implement
Thursday – Finance & Legal: Make sure all your bookkeeping tasks are complete, forms are filed, and your business is in good standing
Friday – Maintenance and catch up: finishing the major tasks and projects that you didn't quite get to during the week and plan for Monday
Saturday – Personal: spend time with friends and family, table all business
Sunday – Rest & recover
With a clear priority associated with every day, you'll be able to easily choose the tasks to tackle every day, while just as easily putting aside anything that doesn't fit into today's focus.
Leave It Behind
Regardless of how much, how hard, or how effectively you work, you'll benefit from leaving it all behind when the business day ends. There's a reason for your routine to end at 5:30 and for your weekend to be work-free. Having some space from your business makes you more productive, creative, and motivated. Regardless of how you organize your day, remember that you're working so that you can enjoy work and life.