Posted: Tue 6th Jun 2023
There's never enough time in the day when you run a business. Building a productive routine is essential to making sure you get everything done.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to business productivity. This blog shares the techniques you can use to build an effective routine, so you can figure out which improvement opportunities will work for you.
Building a routine and sticking to it starts with prioritisation
The process of building productive business processes starts with effective prioritisation. Have you ever found yourself choosing what to do based on the emails you receive, or putting off difficult tasks? You need to focus on the activities that will make the biggest difference.
Don't try to do too much
Having an unrealistic to-do list can create feelings of anxiety and frustration. It's better to tackle a small number of tasks that you know are the most important – imagine how differently you would feel if you completed your to-do list every day.
Be realistic about what you can achieve. Having three items on your to-do list is a good place to start. These could be individual tasks, such as checking a contract, or blocks of time working on projects like researching a new market.
Business coach Simon Alexander Ong said business leaders should remember that while anything is possible, not everything is possible. He says:
"Begin by reflecting on how you will know you have had a productive day by the time you're back in bed. Write these down and start with your most important thing first!"
Do the most important – or hardest – thing first
Often the most important thing you need to do is the most daunting. Perhaps you need to chase an invoice, deal with a customer complaint or make a cold call. It's easy to get distracted by things that are more enjoyable or simply less taxing.
Getting the most difficult task out of the way first means you free up mental capacity - you won't spend the day worrying about it.
Don't spend time on low-impact tasks
Your time is your most valuable asset, so don't waste it completing tasks that won't make an impact. What can you remove from your to-do list right now to help solve your productivity issues?
One tool that might help is the Eisenhower Matrix. It encourages entrepreneurs to write tasks on a grid with 'urgent' and 'less urgent' at the top and 'important' and 'less important' at the side. You shouldn't do tasks that are less important and less urgent.
It's worth thinking about how you balance tasks that are important and urgent or non-urgent. Non-urgent tasks like looking for partnerships or applying for grants will create long-term value – try to make time for them and don't get caught up in the day-to-day of running a business.
Check in on your goals regularly
If you're stuck on what to prioritise, or wondering how to fill that productivity gap you've identified, examine your goals. Have you agreed to support projects that don't properly align with your targets? Are there marketing activities you could scrap?
Why are you running a business? Setting goals and reviewing them on a regular basis means you're more likely to stay on track. Impact facilitator Justine Markeviciene advises:
"It's important to have a specific idea of what you want to achieve. If the goal is vague, you won't know if you're getting closer. You should be able to know once you get there, so it's great if it's something you can measure."
Focusing on the "why" behind your business is an incredibly powerful tool to keep you on track.
Building goals into your daily routine
Find ways to make sure you're thinking about your goals regularly. You could have your "why" framed and put it on your desk, have your top goals as your desktop background or include them at the top of your to-do list.
Reward yourself when you reach your goals
Celebrating success helps reinvigorate your enthusiasm. Make sure you take time to enjoy reaching the end of a quarter or a particular milestone.
Keeping track of your to-do list
It's important to create a system to manage the tasks you need to do. Have you ever felt like there's too much to remember? Trying to keep track of a long to-do list takes up a lot of your mental capacity and can cause anxiety.
When you've established a method for prioritising tasks, you need to build an approach to tracking them.
Apps that can help you manage your to-do list
There are a number of project management tools that can help you co-ordinate your to-do list and plan your tasks and projects. Here are a few examples aimed at small business owners.
Using a notepad to track your to-do list
There's a seemingly endless number of apps and online productivity tools to help you keep track of your to-do list, but the old-fashioned notepad might work best for you.
Abena Poku-Awuah founded sustainable events agency Legacy. She relies on a number of programs to manage the business, including HubSpot, Google Workspace and Asana, but still writes her to-do list in a notepad every day.
"I still write lots of stuff down. I have a nice notebook, so I don't scribble in it. I list out tasks and take notes in meetings."
The power of your calendar
Adding blocks of time to your calendar means you're committing to completing tasks within a certain timeframe. You can do this at the start of the day or week based on your to-do list.
Marketing consultant Luan Wise has a strict routine for keeping her calendar up to date. She uses Google Calendars to track different types of activity, such as meetings and admin tasks, and everything's colour-coded.
It's also helped her to schedule recurring events for routine tasks like invoicing and backing up her business computer. She explains:
"If you have a meeting, make sure you schedule the time you need for travel either side of the appointment. Schedule prep time ahead of the meeting and time afterwards for any actions too."
Working in blocks of time
The modern workplace is filled with distractions. Email, mobile phone notifications and the endless opportunities to procrastinate online prevent us from focusing. It's worse when you're a business owner who's managing staff and dealing with a range of questions and enquiries.
To work effectively, particularly if you're trying to be creative, you need to be able to concentrate. One method to deal with this is to work in blocks of time when you commit to focusing on a single task.
Software like Freedom can turn off your internet or elements of it if you find yourself compelled to check social media or your email.
Working in a different environment can help, whether it's moving to a new spot in the office or going to a new location like a coffee shop.
It takes time to get used to working in blocks and be able to ignore the itch of distractions, but it's worth the effort. Abena Poku-Awuah says turning off phone notifications and answering emails in a batch was invaluable.
Luan Wise works in blocks of time too. She books time for activities like content creation and schedules if for first thing in the morning, the time of day that she knows she'll be most creative.
"I batch my time to do similar activities in a single block. For example, if I have a series of events to promote, I'll create short videos to talk about each one. I'll prep, get in the zone and do all the recordings in one session, with a couple of outfit changes to mix it up!"
Completing one or two blocks of distraction-free time per day can have a massive impact on how productive you are. Switching between tasks means your brain has to rethink what you're doing and has a significant impact on the quality of your work. Multitasking may feel more productive, but it isn't.
Get the blocks of time in your diary and leave yourself wiggle room because there's always something that overruns or needs attending to at the last minute.
Start by making small changes and build on it
The best way to build a productive routine is to develop elements in turn, rather than try to change everything at once.
When you've finished reading this blog, pick something that really resonates and start there. Once you've embedded one thing, you can return to the list and add something else. Whatever you do, choose something simple and start today.
What to do when your routine breaks down
Productive routines can easily break down when you're sick, there's a family emergency, your excitement about working on the business falters or for lots of other reasons. The important thing is not to be too hard on yourself.
When productive routines start to break down, it's important to:
be aware there's a reason you're not able to perform at the level you want to
think about reducing the hours you work
make short-term changes to your routine to reduce stress levels
make a conscious decision about when you're going to get back to your routine
Make time for learning and staying healthy
It's crucial your routine provides enough time to pay attention to your mental health. Fail to get enough sleep, exercise and time with friends and family and it's easy to become stressed or burn out. If you're not well rested, you're not going to do your best work.
That means making sure you take enough breaks during your workday. Stare at the screen too long and your productivity will start to fall.
Make sure you get away from your desk at lunchtime.
Maintaining your physical health is crucial. When you're planning your day, fit in exercise. That could mean taking a walk at lunchtime or on the way to your business.
Try to avoid working too many hours in the day. Your productivity will fall off a cliff at a certain point and being poorly rested means you won't be able to work effectively the next day.
The nature of running a small business means you're ambitious and have limited resources – a combination that leads to moments of frustration as much as elation. It's important to remember that in spite of your efforts to build a productive routine, you may feel overwhelmed on occasion.
Abena Poku-Awuah says:
"I don't always feel in control of my workload. I don't know why. We're quite efficient. I always have quite a clear inbox.
"But life is constant. I think I'm on top of things but something comes in for events and blows everything out."
The key is to find a system that means you get the most out of the time you have. There's no universal approach, but people in the most productive firms tend to employ techniques such as blocking out time, being ruthless with prioritisation, and maintaining living standards outside of work by staying healthy.
Apps and tools that can help
There are a number of practical tools that can help you concentrate when you're working in blocks of time and meditate on your breaks.
Calm: The low-cost meditation app has lots of guided meditation, including 10-minute sessions that are easy to fit into your routine.
Headspace: Helps people learn the essentials of meditation and mindfulness, with a free 10-part course.
Noisli: Plays background sounds such as ocean waves or a roaring fire to help block out distractions