In my view the biggest challenge when running a small business is coping with work overload. There is always more to do than time available for doing it and it can quickly become overwhelming to the point where you feel paralysed trying to work out what to do next.
But while it's difficult to reduce the workload at times, you can do a few things to help get you through the blockage.
Go for easy targets
One of the key things I find when I feel overwhelmed by work is that the to do list looks very long indeed but most of the tasks on it will (usually) be small jobs that will take a short but undetermined length of time.
If you can get some of these out of the way then you'll start feeling a little less paralysed by the sheer volume of stuff. Even better is that almost all of these little tasks won't take nearly as long as you think they will.
Cut out distractions
This is an age-old time management technique but it's as true as ever. The key here is to give yourself the maximum possible chance of being able to focus. And that means switching off things such as your phone, your email, any social media, the radio, and anything else that will take your attention away from the tasks at hand.
I'm going to be writing an article dedicated to this since, if you get it right, you'll increase your productivity and cut your stress levels immensely.
One of the most straightforward things is to simply delegate some of your work to others.
If you're the manager of a team or the owner of a business where you have a staff then you should only be doing the tasks that are fit for your role.
A good example of this was when I went to visit a friend who is a successful business owner. His secretary told me he was doing a spot of plumbing and I found him trying to fix a toilet.
The first thing out my mouth was something like "What the heck do you think you're doing?" I went on to remind him that his time was worth hundreds of pounds an hour and that he should stop what he's doing and get his secretary to phone a plumber to come and sort it out.
This situation had arisen because he was so used to getting involved in his business that he didn't even think that fixing toilets was a complete waste of his time and expertise. The job needed to be done, but he really wasn't the one that needed to be doing it. In fact, this situation is very common among business owners who've run their business from its inception.
If you're a solo-entrepreneur (i.e. self-employed) things are slightly different. You may not have staff but you can still quite easily delegate to subcontractors.
A simple example is admin and telephone answering. How many hours would it save you if someone else answered the phone for you and handled things like book-keeping?
In my website design business I started this process by contracting out graphic design work. I can do design but I realised that I'm not very efficient at it.
Paying someone else to do it for me freed up a huge number of hours to focus on other stuff like client management, sales and product development.
It it very much worth the money and our levels of customer satisfaction increased considerably.
So, hopefully one or more of those tips will give you something to work on if you're having a hard time coping with work overload.
Let us know in the comments if you've any quick tips for coping with work overload, it would be great to hear from you.
We all have habits. These are the things we do very regularly without even thinking about them, such as getting up and putting the kettle on before you do anything else. You just do them without even knowing that they're habits.
Work habits are just the same, you get to your desk and without even thinking you check your email, after making that all-important cup of coffee.
Does any of that sound familiar? Can you quickly identify some simple habits in your work and life?
Most of our habits will be neutral in terms of whether they are beneficial or not. But I've been going through some self-analysis and began to think about whether the way I work is particularly efficient and/or effective.
And I've concluded that I need to make some work adjustments if I really want to move my business further and faster.
So, I did some research on getting started with new work habits and have embarked on some small but significant changes in how I work.
One of the first things I'm doing (starting with what you're reading right now) is to write a minimum of 150 words a day. This may not sound like a lot but I do enjoy writing and know that content development and blogging are important for success in online marketing. Thus helping my business.
I've also realised that I need to be much more diligent in doing my business marketing each day. I aim to do at least 45 minutes each day but have let that slip in recent weeks.
Last week I made a commitment to exercise a minimum 3 times over a seven day period since that's something else that I've let slide in recent months. Not quite a new work habit but it's important to stay fit and healthy if you want to be focused and productive ("Sharpen the saw" as Dr Covey used to say).
A key tip is to realise that checking and acting upon email at the beginning of the working day is a completely reactive work habit. You're letting someone else set the tone for the day. So, my emails won't get answered until mid morning from now on (well, most of the time anyway).
Now these may seem like really small and simple things but the cumulative effect over time should be quite significant. If I write 150 words a day that amounts to 2 or 3 blog posts a week. Thus accumulating a decent volume. Doing some marketing each day helps to ensure that I'm constantly winning and keeping customers instead of waiting until things get needy.
I've learned over the years that if you want to make changes then start with small and regular things and go from there. You'll be far more successful making regular small changes than aiming at big stuff in one go. Getting started is easy, keeping going is hard. So start small and develop as you go.
But the best thing about aiming at habits is that I habits happen without having to think too much about it. I want my new habits to become integral parts of my life and work so that they will get done because it's a normal part of what I do anyway.
I'll be writing more over time as these new work habits develop but feel free to share your thoughts on getting started with new work habits in the comments below. If you've started a new work habit recently let us know how it's going.
One of the frustrating things about knowing so much about time management is that I become acutely aware of when I'm not being terribly efficient or effective.
Even worse is that when it really strikes me I feel like such a hypocrite. I feel like the mechanic who has a beaten up old car that barely works, or the builder whose house constantly looks like a building site.
But then I have to remind myself that I'm only human and thus subject to all the other stresses and distractions that we all get. I get caught up in details, taken away on a tangent, wander off on something that needs doing and feels like urgent, and today I was listening to The Specials on my MP3 player and ended up singing along instead of writing a blog post.
So, what's the solution, especially for someone who ought to know better?
Really it boils down to constant reiteration and realignment of what you're meant to be doing. When you realise you're going off topic you should stop, make a note of where you were and then get back to what you're supposed to be doing.
If you do this often enough you'll end up with better focus after only a few weeks.
Overall, I'm more productive than I've been in years. I work more effectively than ever. But it's still not an easy ask at times, I'm often inefficient, I still have to check myself and realign what I'm working on.
So, give it a go and let me know (in the comments below) how it goes.
On Tuesday I went to a meeting organised by a friend of mine, Julia Canham, who is a business coach. At that meeting I reaffirmed some of the things I've had in mind to get on with but the most important thing it brought to mind was to put more into focusing what I want from what I'm doing.
In short, I'm going to put more mental and physical energy into what I want.
Now that might sound simple and obvious but it's actually not that easy.
Let me explain:
In our lives we have constant distraction. We're bring bombarded by messages and things that require our attention and it's easy to spend your life running from one problem to the next.
Do you often think that just surviving is enough and you're struggling to feel as though you're making progress on your goals?
There's no great secret to fixing this, you just need to spend more time thinking about and then working on what you want (or where you want to go).
Bus as I mentioned earlier it's not that straightforward, or even very easy. The biggest problem is that we're all in the habit of responding in certain ways to certain occurrences, even though many of those responses aren't helpful.
Let me give you a couple of good examples:
You're sitting at your desk working on an important task. In the corner of your computer screen a little box pops up letting you know that you've received an email.
Do you stop what you're doing to go and check it out or continue with what you were working on? Or better still, do you switch off your email for a while so you can more easily focus?
Most people would check out that email, then most likely respond and then attempt to get back into what they were originally working on. They've been conditioned to believe that email needs an instant response (it rarely does).
You've decided to use your lunch break to go to the gym and get some exercise. While on the way there you see a friend you've not seen in a little while.
Do you stop for a chat and use your lunchbreak to catch up as best you can or do you stop to say hello but explain that you're on your way somewhere important and will text later to arrange a meetup?
Most people would stop for the chat since we've been conditioned to not be rude to people.
The problem is all about conditioned responses. But to get more out of what we want we need to examine those responses, work out if they're helpful or not and then change them as needed.
So, here's a simple (but not altogether easy) solution to this situation:
When you know you're getting distracted stop what you're doing and ask yourself if it's taking you where you want to go. If the answer is no then ask yourself if you can change what you're doing right now.
You'll be surprised at how often you can make small but positive changes like this when you begin to realise what's going on. Doing this as often as possible will begin to eliminate distraction and give you the room to focus on what you want and thus get more of it done.
At the beginning of November I made a decision to write at least one blog post each week. All went well for the first five weeks and then things seemed to get a little hectic and I've missed a few.
The thing about it is that I'd got into the habit of doing it on Wednesday evening and, even though this will sound a little nerdy, I've even put it into my calendar as a recurring event at 8pm. So every Wednesday, at 7pm, I'd get a text and an email reminding me that I'm scheduled to write.
Now this may sound a little excessive but scheduling things that need to be done, even though they could be done at almost any time, gives you a much better chance if getting stuff done.
If it wasn't in my calendar and if I hadn't received the reminders then it's quite likely that I would have forgotten about writing on a weekly basis. Now that I'm in the habit of writing (and I still get the regular reminders) it means that I don't forget and even start to get a little frustrated if I've not written anything for that week.
Even better is that, because I know that I've scheduled the time to write weekly, it makes me start to think more about writing and I have begun to think about different stuff I can write about.
So if you want to get regular stuff done, why not use a calendar or reminder system to give you a better chance of not only remembering but also actually getting it done?