What often characterises startups is the paradoxical combination of resource scarcity with incredible productivity, innovation and growth. The most measured resource is money, but time is equally precious and should not be overlooked. Stephen R. Covey, author of the best-seller ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, wrote that ‘the key is not spending time, but investing it’. Time is limited, and it pays to keep an eye on how efficiently you use it. This article presents several time management strategies for you to get the most out of your day.
1. Increase Your Work Efficiency
A typical 9-to-5 office worker does not actually work 8 hours a day. A study by Vouchercloud.com found that employees spent just under three hours a day being productive, while some sources claim that workers can complete a full day’s work in 90 minutes at peak concentration. You can maintain a high level of efficiency by taking breaks every 60-90 minutes, as rest results in heightened focus during work. You should not skip lunch breaks as they serve as an important time for your brain to consolidate information and provide mental rest for better concentration in the afternoon.
A surprising principle is that increasing your efficiency of work, or the ‘amount of work done per hour’, also enhances the quality of the work. This is because the worker is more focused, single-minded and able to employ short-term memory more productively, resulting in better and faster decisions.
There is an adage which says, ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. It even has a name: Parkinson’s Law. For example, when someone has a week to complete a task that ought to take three hours, they might take the whole week to do it. The extra time invested is inadvertently used to embellish, polish and add additional complexity to the task along the way. There is a simple solution: give a deadline, cut it in half. A report due in two days? Draft it in an afternoon. An investor update scheduled in a month? You can likely source the data and write it up in two weeks. Not only will this stop you from considering unnecessary detail, but it also forces prioritisation and concentration on the bare essentials of the task, cutting out much potential time wastage and doubling your efficiency of work. There is simply no time to waste!
Indeed, reducing scheduled work hours not only improves work efficiency but can also result in getting more work done, as it demands concentration, cuts out distractions and sets a time goal to meet. The key is to treat work hours preciously by refusing to work outside them or taking work home. This kills the will to procrastinate because of the pressure to finish everything before the end of the work day.
2. Prioritise ‘Important’ over ‘Urgent’
Most people instinctively prioritise an urgent task over a less pressing but important task. However, this is counterproductive in the long term. Urgent tasks are those that have immediate consequences if they are not done, like phone calls, emails and looming deadlines. Important tasks contribute to your longer-term goals, such as pitching to an investor or implementing a marketing campaign. If you always do urgent tasks first, the day will be filled with trivial matters, and actions for long-term success will always be waiting.
As a quick exercise, make a list of the tasks you have and classify them into one of the following categories:
- Important and urgent;
- Important and not urgent;
- Unimportant and urgent;
- Unimportant and not urgent.
It is clear that you should always prioritise tasks in the first category, while tasks in the last category can wait. However, many tasks fall into the middle categories. Several strategies will help you prioritise important work. First, assess whether urgent tasks can be rescheduled, delegated or even declined. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ so you can focus your time and energy on a smaller number of projects and do them well. Second, make important tasks urgent by setting early deadlines so that they take priority well before they need to get done.
3. Triage – or ‘Use the Trash Can Liberally’
In wartime, when medical personnel and supplies are limited, doctors practice a prioritisation technique called ‘triage’. This involves patients getting assigned an order for treatment. Those who could survive for 24 hours without treatment and those who were likely to die even with treatment were given the lowest priority and treated last.
This technique is highly applicable for entrepreneurs with a scarcity of time but an abundance of work. While it seems brutal not to treat dying patients who need the greatest care, the ultimate goal of triage is to save as many lives as possible given the scarcity of supplies. In the same way, if a task is unlikely to produce value for the business going forward, it should be ruthlessly rejected.
Triage at work is about ‘using the trash can liberally.’ Consider whether some tasks are truly necessary, such as replying to emails immediately or perfecting the aesthetics of a report draft. Discerning when not to execute a trivial task sharpens your awareness of priorities.
A tip for emails: rather than having your inbox open all day, try scheduling a time in the morning and a time in the afternoon to process them as a batch. This saves time by removing email as a constant distraction from your day, reducing mental fatigue and helping you stay focused. It also makes your employees less dependent on you via email as they first consider what is truly urgent and not urgent for you to deal with.
4. Calculate ‘Time ROI’ for Your Projects
Like money, a return-on-investment (ROI) of time can be measured and is particularly useful for assessing potential improvements to business processes. For example, you may wish to streamline a particular process. Consider how much time the current process takes (the opportunity cost), how much time it will take to implement the streamlining (the investment), and how much time it will save you in the long run (the return). Also, consider how these factors will change as the company scales.
Assess whether the time return justifies the investment, to inform your decision of the value of the improvement to your business. For example, if your firm does not have a centralised marketing database and it would take two weeks to build a customised one, it is most likely worth the time saved to implement this. However, if there is a task that needs to be done once a month and it takes ten minutes to do it manually but would take twenty hours to automate, the task should continue to be done manually.
5. Automate and Delegate
Repetitive tasks incur ongoing time ‘costs’ and should be automated as much as possible since the investment is a one-time expense while the return is perpetual. Thus automation is preferred unless the upfront cost is too high or the work is more suitable for a human to do. For relatively simple technological processes, an in-house development team can build a solution. Otherwise, there is readily-available software for many common needs. Two examples are Zapier (app management), and Buffer (social media management). Collaborative software such as Google Drive (storage), Dropbox (storage), Basecamp (project management) and Flowdock (communication) also help to maintain consistency across the company and saves time in managing a central database. Automation also comes with the benefit of scaling time savings as your business grows.
Delegation is another huge time saver. Startup founders begin as jacks-of-all-trades, but as the firm grows, tasks such as accounting and overhead operations should be outsourced to others. This may involve hiring new employees, casuals, contractors or interns, or allocating broad areas of business operations for key employees to be in charge of and specialise in. The cost involved in delegation is any training required for the task; this can range from none with simple tasks or highly-skilled contractors, to ongoing training and support with interns.
There is an enormous potential for people to save more time and increase their productivity. By prioritising your tasks, removing distractions, checking email only twice a day and automating and delegating as much as possible, you will save much time to re-invest into other value-adding projects. Time is a key resource for any entrepreneur breaking new ground, and having good time management habits will leverage your ability to work efficiently and achieve rapid growth.
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