Stay Focused on What's Important
For a small business owner focus is priceless. Yet we don’t realize we’re giving it away for free
We call it “serving the customer”, “putting out fires.” Or any other excuse we use to justify allowing someone to hijack our day.
It is a one-way street to burnout my friend.
Years ago I would say, “One of the things I like about my business is that everyday is different. I never know what the day will bring.”
Such a naive young grasshopper!
I was spending my most productive hours working on everyone else’s priorities - and ignoring my own:
“It will only take a minute.
“I just have a quick question.”
“I was in town, and thought I would just swing by.”
“I’m at the bank, and have to have a copy of my return right now.”
And on and on and on.
Most of the time it was true - it only took a minute. But, multiply that minute by all the interruptions in a day, and. . .
time has slipped through your fingers.
Before you know it, its 4:00 PM and you still haven’t touched the things on your to-do list.
The clients loved it. But. . .
I felt picked clean to the bone, and exhausted from switching gears all day. Worse. . .
The IRS will only change their deadlines for national disasters. Sadly, I haven’t been able to convince them my poor time management skills qualify, so. . .
Hello to another late night. Goodby to my weekend off.
For years, I just accepted this as part of being in business, and “serving the customer.”
But I was making a serious mistake. . .
I was teaching my clients to be disrespectful.
No, I don’t mean ok to be rude, and call me names.
The message I was sending was - my time is what’s for sale.
You can never sell time.
Even if I’m charging by the hour, time is not what the client is buying.
Everyone gets 24 hours each day. That’s all. You can’t ask for more (as much as we’d like to have Hermione’s Time-Turner.)
The laws of physics prevent me from transferring one of my 24 to someone else. I cannot say, “here, take this hour so you can have 25 today.”
The client is buying my ability to apply knowledge, and experience to their problem to solve it.
I don’t care what your business is.
Clients need to understand this.
Clients need to appreciate the focus, and concentration it takes to provide a quality service.
At the same time, you have to be available to help when they need you. Even when their “emergency” is actually their failure to plan ahead.
You gotta’ set some boundaries.
Without them you will never be the one running the show. Without them your priorities, and goals will stay on your to-do list.
So, at the edge of total burnout. . .
My spontaneous, play-it-by-ear grasshopper self cried uncle. I accepted it was time to get serious about using a planner (calendar, schedule, or whatever you want to call it.)
This move will change your world if. . .
. . .you follow a few guidelines.
There are countless planners available. Ranging from soft leather-bound executive ones to spiral-bound rose gold glitter ones. Or, the humble Google Calendar.
Go with the one you’ll actually use.
There are countless systems, and ways to use a planner. I fell in love with one system, but it's a full-blown productivity system that. . .
. . .ironically, would take way too much time. (more on that later)
I needed a quick way to add some structure to my work day. I wasn’t in a position to change-up my entire work life. . .yet.
I took note of a few techniques I knew would be helpful, and easy to carry out.
So, here they are. . .
The four steps I used to add boundaries without wrecking my client relationships:
Before you pack it in, and head home:
Choose at least 1, but no more than 3, priority tasks for the next day.
Don’t stress over this, it shouldn’t take much time.
You’re looking for the big items that need focus and concentration - not busy work. Only chose work that will move your business forward.
Most of the time you know what order your work needs to get started, finished, or moved forward.
Sometimes, my panicked-squirrel brain takes and makes it hard to choose. Everything feels important. Everything feels like it needs doing as soon as possible.
My heart feels like a drum beating in my chest. I’m frozen in place unable to decide where to start - especially when a deadline is looming.
My mind tells me to stop panicking over the number of things I need to do, and get to work. Which, only adds more stress.
First, I take a deep breath (or four or five.)
Then, I make a master list of all the tasks that are causing the stress.
Finally, I pick one single task.
Sometimes, glancing over the list causes a single task to jump out as the obvious choice.
Sometimes, I close my eyes, and randomly point.
Either way, I have my choice. No second guessing. I put the list away. I don’t look at it again until I’m ready for the next task.
Check for anything already scheduled the next day.
This review gives you an idea of the available time slots you have.li
Many times this review reminds me of small obligations I’ve forgotten about. Simple things like a phone calI I said I would make, or a follow-up email I promised to send.
See my blog, “Never Forget an Important Detail,” for more tips around managing these types of tasks. The link is at the bottom of this blog.
Block out time you cannot be disturbed.
When you’re getting started, how long you can be in do-not-disturb mode will likely be different each day. It will also have to be flexible around commitments you’ve already made.
Yet, the longer you use this system, you can be more consistent with your boundaries.
If you decide you want 10:00 till 11:30, and 1:00 till 2:30 for undisturbed work, you can guard those time slots going forward.
You may not be able to dedicate as much time as you like at first. Don’t get discouraged. Start with as long a block of time as possible even if it’s only a few minutes a day.
As you take control of your schedule, over time, you will be able to block out more time (more on that in a bit.)
The time you set for undisturbed work is a REAL commitment.
Never forget this. Don’t tell yourself you can reschedule it.
Remember, this time is for important work - the kind that need to get done to keep your business running smoothly. It isn’t easy to reschedule.
Block out time to be available.
This step is the secret to having do-not-disturb time without wrecking client relationships. After all, we want our clients to know we are there for them.
Decide on the time you will return calls, emails, and be available for questions. Think of it as the opposite of your do-not-disturb time.
Again, this time is a REAL commitment.
Two tips that add extra benefits:
Setting this time right after a do-not-disturb time block.
This gives you a change of pace from the focused work you just finished. And, takes care of some small tasks before you get involved in your next focused task.
Setting this for the same time every day.
Your clients will adapt.
If you’re available at the same time everyday that’s when they will contact you.
The reverse is also true. As clients learn when you're not available, they will be less likely to contact you then.
Same as most people won’t call when they know your at lunch.
Going forward, it will be easier to set aside more do-not-disturb time.
Now you’re teaching clients respect is a two-way street. . .
respect for your need for uninterrupted work, and. . .
your respect that clients need your attention.
Win-win my friend!
“Deep Work,” by Cal Newport completely cemented my commitment.
I recommend this book to anyone who needs to make a living. It’s an eye opener.
Technology and fast communication is revolutionizing what it takes wow our customers.
The skills needed to provide services our customers expect are getting more complex. Sometimes overnight.
Whoever can learn, adapt, and take action will be the winner.
What made you stand out two years ago is already out of style.
It happened to me with a round-house kick to the face called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
We’re talking massive change to tax law. The biggest in my career.
The guide book explaining the changes is 992 pages!
Knowledge and wisdom, skills I’ve spent years sharpening, obsolete at the stroke of a pen.
My clients needed to make adjustments ASAP to avoid expensive mistakes.
Without time to zone-in, and focus on my work I'm out of the game. I wouldn't stand a chance of learning, and applying those changes quick enough to serve them.
The age is average is over.
If you’re committed to having a business that funds the lifestyle you want, then you’ve got to stand out in you field.
It’s “deep work,” work that demands our focus and concentration, that allows us to up-level our skills. It takes these top-level skills o set us apart from our competitors.
As business owners, we absolutely have to find a way to maximize the 24 hours available. If you’re trading time for money by providing average services, then. . .
There will be an unbreakable ceiling to the amount of money you can earn. Worse - you will need to work at an unrealistic pace to get and stay there.
Scheduling some do-not-disturb time into your day is critical
Tips to turbo charge your do-not-disturb time
I took Mr. Newport’s advice, and ritualized my time to get me “in the zone” faster. (Like Serena Williams bouncing the ball five times before her first serve.) He has four tips:
Decide how long you will work
We’ve already covered that one.
Decide where you’ll work
If possible, have a specific space for only do-not-disturb work. If not, do something to “prep’ your work space for do-not-disturb work.
For example: put a sign on the door, clear off desk/work area, roll up your sleeves. . .
Decide the rules of how you will work
Take steps to get rid of distractions.
For example: no access to internet, no cell phone, listing very specific tasks to work on. . .
Decide what you need to support your work
Have what you need before you get started.
For example: refill your drink, have a snack before you start, have the right supplies/tools handy. . .
WOW that was a lot of information.
Don’t let it overwhelm you into thinking it’s too much to get going.
I can’t say it enough - keep it simple! Start where it’s easiest for you then add and expand as you are ready.
I don’t use words like, “this will change your world” to be click-baity . I wouldn’t use them unless I know they're true.
As small business owners we must show up, and do work our competitors can’t duplicate. We have to develop, and polish our skills.
We have to use our time wisely.
This will never happen if you're working between non-stop interruptions.
Technology is changing how industries function at mind-blowing speed. We have to have a way to stay on top of change.
You never want a customer so unimpressed they think. . .
“I could’ve done that myself,” or
“ I could’ve paid half as much, and got something just as good.”
Or worse, post those thoughts on social media.
I want to leave you with a quote by Winifred Galllaher that Mr. Newport uses in his book. . .
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
Focus is priceless - don’t ever give it away for free again.
There’s even more tips to help you focus on what’s important in, “5 Steps to Take Back Control of Your Business and Life.” Download your copy here: