All small business owners are desperately busy people who have to cram plenty of activities into every single day. Some seem to thrive on the pressure this puts on them and these people will maintain their motivation and productivity day after day. Others will struggle with the weight of expectation and fail to hit the required levels of productivity. These are the people who regularly get to the end of a day and wonder where all their time has gone.
Productivity is hard to maintain unless you actively control the demands on your time. Surprisingly, some of these demands and distractions are self-inflicted. You will, no doubt, have been guilty of continually checking emails and phone messages and wasting valuable time doing so. The most efficient use of your time is to check emails at set times during each day.
Many demands on your time will come from other people – phone calls, drop-in visitors, impromptu meetings etc. Again, your productivity will drop if you don’t manage these demands carefully.
Dealing with a steady stream of interruptions and distractions can destroy your productivity. Every time you handle an interruption you must mentally “park” what you are doing and switch your attention to the reason for the interruption. This might mean having to remind yourself about the context of the interruption and refresh your brain on the current status of your activities on this topic.
Once the interruption has been handled, the reverse process must be undertaken. The current activity must be “parked” and the previously parked activity must be reactivated and your brain needs to review its current status. There is always a delay before you get your productivity back to the pre-interruption state.
If you get 4 or 5 interruptions per hour, or you decide to check emails every 10-15 minutes, then this stopping and restarting of activities will take up a significant portion of the hour. Your productivity simply drops through the floor, although you appear to be busy.
A simple but effective way to maintain your productivity is to introduce timeboxing. Each day is broken down into a number of timeboxes and within each timebox period, you will focus on a single task. The timeboxes that make up your day need not all be of the same duration, as illustrated below.
All interruptions (both internally generated and from external sources) are ignored when they arise and are, effectively, pushed into a later timebox.
Let’s look at a simple example. You decide that you will timebox your primary activities into 45 minute chunks of time. Each 45-minute timebox is followed by a 15-minute mini-timebox in which you deal with emails, return telephone calls and perform general administration tasks. When the time allocated to a timebox runs out, you simply stop work on that activity and move onto the next timebox activity.
This approach is commonly used by authors to keep their focus on their writing productivity. Authors don’t refer to it as timeboxing but as the Pomodoro Technique. This dates back to the 1980s and the technique calls for authors to write solidly for a 25 minute chunk of time and then take a 5 minute break.
Of course, you can select your own timebox duration. Choose one which suits your own business situation and your own concentration levels. The secret to making timeboxing work is to focus solely on the activity in question for the whole period. Only at the end do you allow your concentration to be broken.
This technique won’t help you to complete activities with less effort but it does help you to stop switching between different activities too often. It is this activity switching that takes time and which causes your productivity to drop.
- Try timeboxing for yourself. Start by allocating two 1-hour periods each day in which you allow nothing to distract you from the primary task in hand.
- Review your performance during these two timed boxed periods and evaluate whether or not to tweak the duration. A timebox of 45 minutes might work better for you than a 1 hour timebox. Experiment and record the outcomes.
- Introduce more timeboxes into your schedule as you get more confident and use them to control any ad-hoc interruptions.