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Starting your own business – Part 7: Managing time

By 123 Reg - February 26, 2015

In his latest post Barry Adams, founder of Polemic Digital, talks time management.

As I’m typing this I should actually be working on a digital strategy. It’s not that I don’t want to write the strategy – on the contrary, the client in question is absolutely lovely and has a great brand with much potential – but sometimes I just need to tick off the easy things on my to-do list before I can move on to the big tasks. And for me, writing a blog post is relatively easy, especially when I’ve a great topic to write about.

Time management is the topic of this blog post, and it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while now.

Starting my own business has been a great success for me so far, with new work coming in almost every week. While I’m very happy with this, it also presents a significant challenge: getting everything done on time for all my clients is not quite as easy as I’d hoped.

When I start a new project for a client, such as a search engine optimisation (SEO) audit, I try to give a realistic timeframe for delivery. When I say that an audit should take me three to four weeks to complete, I feel confident that I can do all the necessary research and analysis in that time frame, as well as write up the report.

But while four weeks may sound like a long time, it really isn’t. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but days seem to get shorter and weeks pass by in the blink of an eye. One day I think I’ve plenty of time to deliver a project, then the next day the deadline is looming large right in front of me.

More often than not I have to postpone delivery of the project, because I never want to compromise on quality. Better to be late than to be inferior.

Ideally, I’d never be late with any deliverable. But that means I need to get better at time management. So here I’ll write down some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years to help get better at managing my workload and maximise my productive time.

All I need to do now is to actually follow my own advice.


Staying in the zone

Being ‘in the zone’ is a great feeling. Your mind is in perfect harmony with your work and your productivity is at peak level. You’re working your way through your tasks in quick succession.

Then the phone rings. Or you get an email alert. Or a social media notification pops up. Or someone approaches your desk with a question.

And the ‘zone’ is broken, your productivity falters, and you lose that harmonious state of mind. That sucks.

There are ways you can prevent that from happening. The first thing you should do is turn off your email programme’s notifications. Those popups are annoying and serve no purpose at all. Turn them off and commit to looking at your emails three times a day: once in the morning, once after lunch and, if you’re a workaholic, once before leaving the office.

Stick to those moments, and forget about emails in between. Email is a distraction and you really don’t need to reply to emails as quickly as the sender wants you to.

Also, mute all the social media notifications on your phone. You definitely don’t need to know when someone retweets you or tags you in a photo or comments on that five-month old rant you posted on Facebook when you were a little tipsy. Save it for your lunch hour or after work.

Lastly, if you work in an office environment, consider implementing the headphones rule.


Printable poster by The Tomorrow Lab explaining the ‘headphones rule’

Bite-sized chunks

The tasks on your to-do list can seem incredibly daunting. One item on my own list was called “Digital Strategy for [Lovely Client]”. It’s a fairly big project. And that scares the bejeezus out of me, because I want to do a great job for this client as they’re awesome and I want them to become even more awesome with my help.

But developing a digital strategy is a huge undertaking, and whenever I see it on my to-do list I get scared and overwhelmed.

I’ve found a way to solve this though: instead of just having one huge to-do item, I divide it up in to lots of smaller tasks. So instead of ‘Digital Strategy’, my to-do list has a list of lots of smaller jobs that, all combined, amount to a full digital strategy for the client.

I have items on my to-do list like ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Competitive Analysis’, ‘Audience Personas’, ‘Digital Channel Research’, etc. Individually they’re fairly straightforward tasks – a few hours work for each of them – and when I combine them at the end I get the whole digital strategy.

So think about those big jobs and how you can divide them in to smaller tasks. Put these tasks on your to-do list and commit to completing one task every few days, if not quicker. Before you know it, you’ll have completed the entire big job.

Mix it up

Maybe it’s just me, but my brain has a limit to how much thinking I can do in a single day. When I’m neck-deep in large data sets for an SEO audit, my cognitive energy is entirely used up in just a few short hours, and I’ve no brain power left for anything substantial.

Which is why it’s important to mix up your workload on any given day. Don’t spend an entire day wrapped up in a demanding task, because it’s a sure way to lose focus and let mistakes creep in to your work.

Instead, make sure your daily list of to-do items is varied and uses different aspects of your cognitive abilities. For example, you could spend the morning analysing data, then do some writing in the afternoon and maybe storyboard that viral video idea at the end of the day.

Each of these jobs will use different parts of your brain, so your total cognitive energy won’t be drained entirely. You might even find yourself with enough brain power left to watch an episode of Silent Witness or True Detective instead of zonking out in front of X-Factor or EastEnders. Or, who knows, maybe you’ll have enough mental energy in store to read a book!

I suspect that time management will continue to be a problem for me, but hopefully less so as I start following my own advice and manage my clients’ expectations properly.

Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll ever get to Tim Ferriss’s fabled four-hour work week. To be honest, it sounds a bit dull to me anyway; I love my job too much to only spend four hours on it. I just don’t intend to spend 60 hours on it every week either.

Now, back to that digital strategy…