Independent Thinking: It Doesn’t Take a Superhero

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But It Does Take Priority-Setting and Organization to Do It All


This column is about time: How we claim it as business owners, and how we can manage it to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed or letting critical tasks and projects slip through the cracks. And it can be a challenge for even the most organized. I wish I had a time turner, like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, but I live in a world where the wizardry is really just a product of hard work.

People often ask me, “How do you find the time to…?” So here’s the bottom line: I don’t find the time, I make the time. It’s all about prioritizing—and not just work-life issues. In the business context, there are five big buckets: business development, billable work, networking/community building, professional development and administrative.

Because there is no unified system of time management, I thought I’d give you nine tips from my own experience. Hopefully some of these may give you ideas and insights that will help you manage time in your business.

1. There are five buckets. It’s important to keep top of mind that there are multiple core functions involved in running a business, and that you can’t neglect any of them. That means that you can’t substitute networking for business development, and you can’t forgo invoicing because you’re hammered with client work. Of course, this is easy to say. Like many independents, I often let business development slide when I’m really busy. But I always regret it afterward, when I’m trying to rebuild my pipeline.

2. Know your work rhythm. It took me a long time to figure out the obvious: Don’t waste your most productive hours on the low-hanging fruit. As a morning person, I typically spend the first half of the day on client work and/or writing projects. Later in the day, I read items in my Google Reader, leave comments on blog posts, check LinkedIn and engage in more “social” tasks.

3. Prioritize the big stuff. While work rhythm is about planning your day, prioritization is about identifying which tasks have to be done now, this week or this month. It can be easy to fritter away time reorganizing your filing system—but what happens if that two-hour client task you put off ends up taking four hours instead?

4. Roll with the punches. Another reason why prioritization is key is that owning a business is fraught with uncertainty. Sure, you can plan your day, but can you predict it? I often find myself facing unanticipated deadlines as existing and new clients pop up with requests—on top of the tasks that were already on my to-do list for the day. To succeed in the consulting world, you have to be able to juggle and reprioritize on the fly.

5. Understand your cash-flow cycle. There are two reasons that timely bookkeeping is critical: your cash flow and your client’s cash flow. Companies have invoicing cycles, and it’s important to identify whether there’s a drop-dead date if you want to be paid next month. It’s also helpful to consider invoicing in terms of your own cash flow; when do you need payment in order to ensure that you can cover your mortgage or your rent, pay any business partners and subcontractors, and otherwise keep up with your financial obligations?

6. Use your lulls productively. When business is slow, I claim my found time in three ways: 1. tackling projects on my to-do list; 2. learning something new; 3. community building. For example, I started my blog during a slow period in my business. I also try to take advantage of the extra time to read case studies and sit through extra webinars. Plus, it’s a great time to reach out within your social networks.

7. Be discriminating. I know some people who attend four to five networking events per week; I’m not one of them. If I were out gripping and grinning and giving my elevator speech every night, I’d burn out. So I try to select the events that are most likely to expand my network in meaningful ways. Some questions to ask: Is this a good forum to meet my ideal client? Am I likely to meet like-minded professionals who might become part of my referral network? Will colleagues with whom I should connect (or reconnect) be here? If the answer to all of these is no, then why waste your time?

8. Use your tools wisely. There are a lot of productivity tools that can make your life easier, but you have to find the right ones for you. Online calendars don’t work for me, but I know others who rely on their Google calendars for everything. I do use other tools, including Evernote for jotting down blog post ideas on the go and TweetDeck for keeping track of not only my Twitter feed but also my LinkedIn and Facebook communities.

9. Ask for help. Superman had Lois Lane; Batman had Alfred and Robin. The point is that even superheroes need help getting through the day. Recognize that you can’t do it all yourself and be prepared to pull in others to support you

I can’t tell you how to organize the 24 hours in your day, but I can tell you there’s no magic formula. It’s all about setting priorities, and then being flexible enough to know how to shift them as your work schedule and needs shift over time.

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