Have you ever found yourself marvelling at how busy you are with day-to-day operations in your business? Or maybe you’re too darn busy to even notice how busy you are! Time management is an issue in every single business I’ve ever worked with. I’m not only referring to business owners; in my work as a business strategy consultant, I’ve observed that entire teams are “too busy”.
Why It’s Important to Get Out of the Weeds
At a recent roundtable meeting for our Growth Accelerator program, the CEOs were talking about challenges they’re having in building their businesses. Across the board, they were so busy working in the business day-to-day that they couldn’t seem to make time for more important work on the business.
When leadership teams are incredibly busy with day-to-day operations, important things such as rocks are probably not getting the attention they need (even when your team deems them critical).
So how do you start to change that? The answer is different depending on what stage of growth your business is in. Yet in other ways, the solution is similar.
Better Time Management is Not Necessarily the Solution
Busyness will expand to fill all your valuable time. This is invariably true for every leader. Trying to multitask all the time is not the answer – leave the juggling to the circus performers!
I would forgive you for thinking that better time management will solve your busyness problems. Many business owners think they can depend on block scheduling to set time aside to do x, y, or z. While effective time management is part of the solution, it is not the whole answer. You need to distinguish between busy work vs. important work. Let’s talk about how to approach your tasks using Stephen Covey’s very helpful matrix.
Eliminate or Delegate Unimportant and Non-Urgent Tasks
Unfortunately, most of us spend more than half of our time in quadrant 4 – on unimportant and non-urgent things. How lame is that?! I enjoy scrolling through Tik Toks and cat memes as much as the next person, but I also know that as business leaders, we need to spend most of our time in quadrants 1 and 2.
Where possible, you should minimize the busy work that falls under quadrant 4. If it’s something you don’t have to do, then don’t do it! If it is the type of annoying busy work that absolutely must be done but doesn’t have to be done by you, delegate it. That might mean handing tasks over to a team member or, better yet, a virtual assistant.
Keep a Tight Lid on Unimportant Yet Urgent Tasks
Quadrant 3 can easily take up obscene amounts of time. Focus on tightly containing the activities in this quadrant to prevent them from expanding. While talking about this to some small business owners, one jokingly said, “This box [quadrant 3] is called my evenings, because that’s when I answer all my emails!”. That is not the correct answer…don’t be that guy!
Effective Time Management Means Focusing on the Important Tasks
The important tasks in quadrants 1 and 2 are where you want to focus your time as a leader. Deadline-driven projects, crises, and solving major issues that help your business move forward need your time.
When people talk about working ON the business, they’re referring to these important quadrants. When people describe working IN the business, they’re usually talking about the day-to-day busyness that fills the unimportant third and fourth quadrants.
You may very well have deliverables for a client that are deadline-driven projects that are both important and urgent. But as a leader, you need to recognize that there is a balance you must strive for. You need to reserve a percentage of your time specifically for quadrant 2 and a smaller percentage for quadrant 1.
Why (Business) Size Matters
I already mentioned that there are different solutions based on the size of your business. This is something you need to pay attention to. As a small business owner, you simply have fewer resources. This means that more tasks in quadrants 3 and 4 fall on your shoulders.
If you want to start levelling up and reduce the busyness so you can focus on growing the business, the trick is to start delegating out more tasks in quadrants 3 and 4. This will allow you to focus on quadrant 2 where possible and quadrant 1 just enough to get your team to do things.
I learned this the hard way by failing miserably at prioritizing my time in my first business, an IT service company. I was young (and dumb) and confident that I could solve every problem in the business myself. I was doing client support (usually quadrant 3), project work (quadrant 1), and solving any issue that arose for everyone else.
I was terrible at delegating, so I stayed the limiting factor in my business. The business reached a certain level of success, but then it couldn’t grow anymore because I spent zero time in quadrant 2. I was so busy in quadrants 1 and 3 that I didn’t devote any time to boosting my team’s capabilities. This meant my business could never scale.
Although small businesses are more likely to fall into this trap, the same thing can happen in a 50-million-dollar business. It’s not always as evident because there’s a team. Yet everyone is just as busy dealing with crises and constant interruptions…so instead of making things better, even with a larger team, it is often more of the same.
Often this is where external resources come in. For a small business, the first two external resources you look for are a part-time bookkeeper and a virtual assistant. These two people can take a LOT of pain (repetitive tasks) off your shoulders so you can focus on other things. Other fractional resources I recommend to fill out your roster include a graphic/web designer, IT support, and gurus on any specialist software you use.
A Secret to Scaling Your Business: Level Up Your Discipline and Time Management
When you consider rock-crushing rates (the percentage of rocks completed in a quarter), I don’t see a major difference between a 5-person business and a 200-person business…until they level up their discipline around focus and doing the important but not urgent work. So, how do you do that?
When I’m talking to business leaders and leadership teams, I advise them to set aside a percentage of time for quadrant 2. This varies from business to business and person to person, but I challenge them to start at a minimum of 10% and move towards 20% over a few months.
Starting with a half day a week is quite feasible for any business leader. This doesn’t have to be in one block (though if you can manage that, more power to you)! You could do two hours twice a week during which you close your door, put your devices on do-not-disturb, and focus on quadrant 2 tasks. This is what Cal Newport describes as Deep Work. This time should be sacred – no one should interrupt you unless the building is burning down!
By focusing on the right things during that time (hint: solving problems so they don’t come back again, boosting capacity so you can do more, etc.), you will be able to get things off your plate and delegate more. As you delegate, you free up more time so that your sacred quadrant 2 time can go from 10% to 15% and eventually up to 20%.
As a leader or leadership team member, the more time you spend in quadrant 2, the faster you accelerate your business. Working in this quadrant elevates your team and capabilities, which is how you create strategic value for your business.
Create Accountability for Working on Your Business
When a business leader tells me that they’re too busy to get their rocks done, the first thing I ask them is what quadrant they spend the most time in, and whether that is creating value they would like for the business.
To succeed, you need strategies to reduce busyness and focus on the right things. You need to create time in your schedule that allows you to work on strategic tasks that drive your business forward. I once worked with a team that, frankly, had the absolute worst rock-crushing rate in the business. They were “busy” all the time yet not doing what matters.
We turned that around within 6 months with a few steps. The whole team read Deep Work by Cal Newport for practical strategies to focus on the most important work. If you get good at deep work, you will have more time. We also had everyone examine their schedules using the quadrants mentioned above. And finally, we added an important daily huddle element to keep everyone accountable for their deep work time. If someone said they’ve got deep work during a certain time block, the next day in the daily huddle she would report back to say whether that time was successful.
If you focus on things that drive the business forward, you will level up your business and your team so you can focus more on the fun things and less on fighting fires. And heck, maybe even take a vacation! Interested in discussing this further? Feel free to contact us.