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An Entrepreneur's Guide to Time Management

3 experts share tips for staying focused and getting things done

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When you're in the throes of launching a business, time feels more precious than ever. Each detail requires your attention, things take longer than you expect, and inevitably, you have responsibilities outside of work that take time.

Time management is always an invaluable skill, but right now, it's a necessity. To avoid getting overwhelmed before your business even launches, it's important to set up a time management plan that works for you.

We talked with 3 busy marketers whose work requires organization, focus, and discipline. Here's how they manage to get things done without sacrificing their sanity.

Start by setting goals

Rather than jump straight into work each day, Emily Ryan, co-founder of digital marketing agency Westfield Creative, gives herself time to think about what needs to be accomplished.

"What's driven me since the very beginning of my business is having a concrete goal in front of me every day," says Emily.

When you set goals, make them SMART by answering these questions:

  • Specific: What exactly do you hope to accomplish?
  • Measurable: What metrics will you use to track your progress?
  • Achievable: Is this goal realistic?
  • Relevant: Why does this goal matter?
  • Time-bound: When do you hope to accomplish this goal?

For Janine Hummel, a senior CRM manager of online marketing group Finc3, setting attainable goals not only helps you get more done, it also prevents mistakes.

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Find a technique to accomplish those goals

There are a lot of different ways to manage your time—our experts recommend testing out different strategies to find the best one for you.

Clara Løfgren, who runs the email marketing agency Paper Bird, takes a 4-step timeboxing approach to managing her time:

  1. Dedicate 1-2 hours each week to set goals.
  2. Break those goals into manageable tasks.
  3. Schedule each task in a calendar.
  4. Add buffer time to the calendar, just in case.

The key to Clara's approach is to break projects and priorities apart so that they feel doable instead of daunting.

The Eisenhower Matrix is based on U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's personal method for getting things done. By laying to-do items on a matrix that separates items from urgent to important, he chose what to do first, what to schedule and delegate, or what not to do at all. The method can even work for people who prefer high or low-tech time management tools. Try the app, notepad, or simply drawing the quadrant yourself.

Another method is the Pomodoro Technique, which provides a way to tackle tasks of any size. It's simple:

  1. Pick your task.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Keep working until the timer rings.
  4. Write a checkmark on a piece of paper to show you're done.
  5. Take a short break.
  6. Repeat, and take a longer break after you complete 4 sessions.

Of course, you can use the Pomodoro Technique with a clock or timer of any kind, but there are also several app versions.

Running a businesses involves a lot of repetitive tasks. It's worth figuring out which of these can be automated. The setup might take time, but you'll make up for it in time saved once it's working.

Emily automates client onboarding in Dubsado. Using this program, clients who contact her receive an email to schedule a call with her (and a later reminder about the call), as well as an estimate, a contract, and a welcome email. She also automates a new client questionnaire that she sends via Mailchimp and sends invoices through Wave.

Protect your time from disruptions and distractions

A time management plan is only effective if you stick to it. This is, perhaps, 1 of the most important lessons for entrepreneurs: Stay focused.

For Janine, this is reflected in the Finc3 company values. They abide by the following rules, which can be easily applied, even for businesses with a single person:

  • Keep an eye on the time—meetings shouldn't exceed their allotted timeframe.
  • Every meeting has an agenda. If not, it is lunch or dinner.
  • We respect our colleagues time and stick to deadlines.
  • Clients and colleagues can rely on us to always deliver great work within the agreed timing.

The rules also help staff members prevent their time from being wasted. "Is a topic not part of a meeting agenda? We postpone a discussion to a later date. A meeting agenda shows that you can’t contribute to a topic? You simply decline the invitation. A deadline is close? You focus on that and postpone new work to a later date," Janine says.

Providing clarity around what your coworkers, clients, or customers can expect in terms of your availability makes a big difference. This can be hard if your business happens virtually. To combat this, Emily includes her working hours and the way she'd like to be reached in the contracts her clients sign.

Emily also limits the way technology disrupts her work. "It's important to put your phone away while working (or turn off the volume), disable all notifications on your laptop and close out your Gmail and just focus in on the work that needs to be done."

Learn to say "no"

Inevitably, people will still ask for more time from you, even if you don't have it to share. How does Clara deal with this? "By saying 'no' in the most polite and helpful way possible, and trying to be really clear about what my client can expect," she says. Saying "no" can be a tough skill, but it's worth learning.

Emily suggests remembering that an investment in yourself is an investment in your business. "If you're working all the time and don't set boundaries, this eventually leads to burn out," she says. "So it's important to have lines in the sand."

Continued reading: Need more inspiration to focus? What about a few more strategies to overcome distractions? Deep Work by Cal Newport is worth a read.

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