Productivity is, in my opinion, a pretty loaded word.
Sure, it sounds good, but the way a lot of the small business and entrepreneur culture out there uses it, productivity means “putting your entire personal life, physical health, and emotional well-being on hold in order to cram as much work into as few hours as possible while working towards 100 of your most important goals at once.”
It may (not) surprise you that I’m not a big fan of that mindset.
Is productivity important for small business owners?
Absolutely. With as much as we have to get done, we can’t really afford to spend out work days checking Instagram for hours while ignoring deadlines and important emails.
Except, of course, for those days when it’s actually important to take time off and check Instagram (or read a good book, or take a nap, or get some exercise) for hours while ignoring deadlines and important emails.
Productivity, to me, means balancing your time so things are done when you need them to be without compromising your ability to continue getting things done.
Productivity is the opposite of overwork and burnout.
The most productive small business owners I know all have six habits in common
(And, you may be glad to know, none of them involve surviving on 3 hours of sleep and coffee fumes.)
1. They Plan, But Not Too Far In Advance.
Small business owners, as a general rule, know not to wing it.
Sure, you keep yourself open to new opportunities. You embrace flexible days when you have them. You respond to changes in your industry as quickly as possible. But you probably also have a plan to help you work towards concrete goals and benchmarks.
But the most productive small business owners have more than one plan. They have four:
- What needs to get done today
- What needs to happen this week
- What you will achieve by the end of the month
- Where you want to be by the end of the quarter
The plan you don’t need to be your most productive self? That’s the plan for where you will be by the end of the year.
So much can change over the course of the year, both in your business and your personal life, that trying to put a plan in place for the entire next 12 months can be more limiting — and discouraging — than helpful.
So start with a plan for the quarter. Where do you want to be three months from now?
Then decide what you need to accomplish this month to work toward that goal. Then this week. Then today.
Rather than working towards some far-off, end of the year goal, motivate yourself by working towards one that’s only three months in the future. Then, at the end of the that quarter, sit down and reevaluate.
- Where is your business now compared to where it was three months ago?
- What goals did you achieve?
- What do you need to accomplish going forward?
Knowing how one quarter went will inform your plan for the next quarter, the same way that knowing what you accomplished today will inform what you plan to accomplish tomorrow.
You’ll be more productive if you give your business room to grow and change while also giving yourself a concrete plan. That means thinking a day, week, month, and quarter at a time.
2. They Don’T Have Too Many Goals.
This year, you want to…
- Grow your email list to 50,000 subscribers.
- And also blog 3 times per week.
- And also run two webinars a month.
- And also add ten new clients by the end of the quarter.
- And you also had a really great idea for a second business that you could definitely launch in addition to your main work.
- And maybe this will be the year that you finally write that book you’ve been thinking about.
- And should you also think about starting a podcast?
There’s nothing wrong with any of these individual goals. Or even, perhaps, three of them. But trying to achieve all of them at once is going to mean one thing: none of them happen.
Productive small business owners know that the best way to be accomplish what you want is to focus on a few goals at a time, break them down into concrete tasks, and pursue them until they have been achieved.
If you ricochet between too many goals at once, you’ll never give each one the time and attention it needs to be done and done well. You’ll also wear yourself out, end up discouraged, and wonder why you never get anything done.
If you have a large enough team, yes, you can divide up many goals among many people and all work on your individual tasks. But fragmenting your attention — and your business’ resources — won’t actually move you forward.
The day only has so many hours. Your business only has so much money. You only have so much energy.
And remember: what your business needs will change over time.
If you try to work towards too many goals at once, you may miss those changes and end up spending all your time and energy on something that’s no longer as relevant as it was six months ago.
You’ll be more productive, and effective, if you pick your three goals and work towards them with determination and care.
Once you’ve achieved them, you’ll feel motivated and excited to pursue whatever comes next. And from your new vantage point, you’ll have a stronger sense of what that next goal needs to be.
3. They Educate Themselves.
Small business owners have to wear a lot of hats: sales, marketing, customer service, accountant, writer, publicist, sales rep… Even if you have people working for you, you still have to do a little of everything.
Some of these jobs you might be able to figure out intuitively. If you’re a people person with a knack for persuasion, you’re probably great at selling your products. If you have a great phone manner and nothing makes you lose your cool, I bet you can handle any customer service challenge that comes your way.
But other jobs that you need to manage are not going to come intuitively. It’s hard, for example, to be a marketing expert or understand good SEO writing with no training.
When that happens, you can choose to:
- Play around, getting things mostly wrong but sometimes right, until you eventually figure something out; or
- Educate yourself.
A productive small business owner knows not to waste time getting things wrong when there are resources available to help you get them right.
In some cases, you’ll be able to find free online tools that can help you learn enough to get by. In others, you may need to purchase a course, attend a webinar, or buy a book to help you figure it out. The correct route will depend on what you need to learn, the time you have available, and your budget.
Either way, educating yourself saves time and money, and what you learn will help your business run smoothly and productively.
4. They Hire Help When They Need It.
It’s perfectly reasonable to save money by trying to do things yourself. Website updates, blog posts, marketing emails, publicity, social media… all of those are things that a savvy small business owner can tackle on her own instead of hiring a professional.
But here’s what productive small business owners know: if you’re spending too much time for not enough result, you aren’t actually saving money.
That’s because your time is just as valuable as what is in your bank account.
Sure, when you first start out, the best use of your time may just be handling everything yourself. But eventually, that sort of set-up will prevent your business from growing.
There are hundreds of small tasks that keep a business running, tasks that require a thoughtful brain and capable hands. But not necessarily your thoughtful brain and capable hands.
The tasks that help your business grow, by contrast — pitching new clients, negotiating contracts, meeting with collaborators, running events — these probably require you specifically.
To help your business grow and keep your days productive, you need to spend your time as wisely as you spend your money. In many cases, that will mean hiring help.
5. They Know How To Set Boundaries.
I’ll be honest, this is one where I trip up a lot. A few examples:
- My husband usually handles daycare drop off, and I take pickup. But if the morning is running late, I’ll immediately offer to do both, because my workday is more flexible than his.
- If a friend asks me to be available in the middle of the day, I’ll usually feel guilted into it, even without advance notice.
- If a chore or household task didn’t get done over the weekend, I’ll try to squeeze it into my workday.
Now, part of my trouble setting boundaries comes from how much I prize my flexibility. That’s part of why I do the work I do!
But there’s a difference between embracing flexibility and failing to prioritize your own working time (as my husband constantly reminds me when he insists that daycare drop off is his job).
Maybe you have trouble setting boundaries around your work hours. Maybe you can’t set boundaries with yourself and check your email too many times a day. Maybe you are far too willing to work for free when friends and family ask “as a favor.”
Treating your own work as less important because you are your own boss can come from a lot of places. Other people may not take your business as seriously as you do. Your friends may have more demanding schedules. You may be dealing with uneven gender dynamics or have family members with high needs.
But without clear boundaries, your run the risk of always pushing your business to second place. The most productive small business owners out there know to squelch these things. They know to tell themselves…
- My small business is important.
- I am accountable to a boss: me (and maybe my bank account).
- My work is a priority.
- Just because my schedule is flexible doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.
- I deserve to be paid for my time and skill.
In order to be productive, you need other people to respect your boundaries. And in order for other people to respect your boundaries, you have to respect them first.
6. They Make Time For Themselves.
Let’s be honest: every small business owner knows the temptation of a schedule with no downtime.
There is ALWAYS more to do when you run a business. More that needs to be done. More than can be done. More ideas. More goals. More tiny niggling tasks that have been hanging around on your to-do list for way too long.
But no one can work without a break.
We need time with friends and family. We need time for ourselves. We need time to do something fun and time to do absolutely nothing.
We need hobbies that have nothing to do with work and time to move our bodies and plenty of sleep.
The most productive small business owners make time for these things by making time for themselves, because they know that their physical and mental well-being are essential to the success of their small business.
You and your business will both be your best if you make time for yourself. Because without you, there is no business.