Did you start a business because you want freedom and flexibility? I certainly did, and the flexibility to work around my family is still a huge motivator for me. The problem is that a few years down the line you can end up with a business that’s running you, instead of the other way round!
I have a theory that we resist things like planning and structure because the whole point of being your own boss is to do what you want. And if there’s just one of you in your business, you don’t need to have a strict process as such. If a client buys something you deliver it in the way that works best for you both. No standard operating procedure needed. And that may be fine for a while, until one day you notice you’re working hard but not getting the results you should. In other words, lots of busy work but not much progress.
Been there, done that. Here’s what I’ve been doing to fix it, I hope it might help you too?
Set goals the right way (finally)
I resisted this for so long, partly because my working life was so chaotic for a while that setting and failing to hit goals was really demoralising.
It turned out that I wasn’t very good at setting goals, either. My approach was to set a goal that everyone else seemed to be able to achieve and drive myself towards it. If I didn’t hit the goals – and I rarely did – I’d then beat myself up about it.
So for a few years there I didn’t set goals at all and I focused on setting up systems e.g. I’d set up a lead magnet with an email auto-responder and work on getting people on a mailing list. This does work to some extent, but without goals I didn’t have any real direction. So my only goal was to get as many buyers on my list as possible, but what then? Did I want to aim at selling lots of smaller products? A few large products? Something else entirely? This is important because the approach needs to be different for each.
So last Autumn I was ready to put my scepticism to one side for long enough to try the 12 Week Year, which is a programme where you set goals and work towards them for just 12 weeks. It’s worked brilliantly for me. It turned out that before, I was:
- Setting goals that may have been great for other people, but weren’t going to work for my specific situation
- Setting too many goals – one done well is far better than five done badly
- Not breaking them down into steps I could work on every single week – I now do this
- Having no accountability – I’m now part of a group of people working through the 12 Week Year
- Not tracking my progress. Now, if I’m off track I know within a few days at the most and I can change course
- Setting goals for a whole year, which was far too long for me to focus. Now it’s just 12 weeks – long enough to make progress, but not so long I run out of steam.
These days I don’t hit every single goal by any means, but I make a load more progress than I ever did without them. I’ve also abandoned my old attitude to goal setting and I use them as more of a light to guide me rather than a stick to beat myself with. The 12 Week Year seems intense, but I implemented it slowly, only tracking my goals in a light-weight way for the first couple of ‘years’, then gradually built in more structure when I was ready.
I used to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks I need to do in a day. The inside of my brain was chaotic because I was trying to remember to pay bills, fill in forms for my kids’ school activities, pick up prescriptions and then somehow fit in some actual work. Then there was the fear of forgetting something important. So I started time blocking as suggested in the 12 Week Year. I broke my day into hour-long blocks (45 minutes is good, too) for concentrated work followed by a break and then ‘buffer zones’ where I fit in all the little jobs I need to do. And it works like a charm.
True, some days my buffer blocks were longer than my working hours! But that was OK because I could blast through those tasks that used to ‘cost’ me much more time when they interrupted my flow. I had totally underestimated the mental cost of switching my focus from one task to another – if you can get on with a task without distractions (even those coming from inside your own head) you can get a lot more done. As this article says ‘…even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.’
Project management tool: Asana
For years my project management tool had been a to do list in an A4 notebook. Each week I decanted the highest priority items off this master list into a list for that particular week. That was fine years ago, but stopped working because:
- I had a family so my personal ‘to do’ list grew. A lot!
- I started my own business, so I had to handle multiple client projects as well as my own business.
- Moving things from one list to another meant I risked duplication and losing things.
- Some of my projects repeat, for example I host a Drive The Network meeting every month. Each month I was writing the same things on my to do list – it would make a lot more sense to be able to copy and paste those tasks every month. To make things more confusing, there was an overlap. For example I would be doing the final checks for the March meeting at the same time as booking the speaker for the April meeting.
So I needed a project management tool of some kind, but that wasn’t too complicated. Louise Lee, a member of Drive The Network, suggested I use Asana and in just a few months it’s changed the way I work:
- Each of my clients is now a separate project, so I know what needs doing by which date. And if I have to put a project on hold while I wait for someone to get back to me, I can pick up exactly where I left off. No more scratching my head trying to remember where I was up to.
- I log into Asana every morning and see the tasks that have to be done that day. I don’t need to decide my priorities, I just crack on with what needs doing.
- For repeating projects such as Drive meetings, I just create a new copy of the project every month. I no longer need to write out all the tasks every month.
- I still get the satisfaction of ticking tasks off when they are complete!
- When I’m ready to hire team members, I can allocate a project to them and easily see which tasks have been completed.
Here’s a video I made in March to help other Drive leaders plan meetings:
At the time I made the video you can probably hear that I was still finding my feet with it, but now it really has become a part of my life.
For years I’d looked for a project management tool that was right for me, but somehow not got there. I guess it was a mix of old habits dying hard, feeling my projects weren’t big enough to need ‘proper’ project management and just not getting around to it. If any of this sounds familiar to you, please do give a tool like Asana or Trello a go – it could change your working life!
Where from here?
All my emails currently drop into a single program (Thunderbird) on my PC, as they have for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years. At the moment I’m investigating switching my business email to GSuite, which will mean:
- I can check my personal email at weekends without looking at my work emails. This will make it far easier to switch off on a Friday.
- My email won’t be taking up space on my web server
- Accessing my email on the go will be much more efficient
- I can make much better use of Google Calendar plus all the automation features that come with GSuite.
It’s not rocket science, is it?
None of this is rocket science. I think most of us know we should be doing this stuff. But many of us don’t because the effort of setting it all up feels greater than just flying by the seat of your pants. All of the above has taken me about nine months, implementing a little at a time. It’s like getting one plate spinning before moving on to the next, then the next. But it’s worth it. I’m far more productive, much less stressed and I don’t forget things much at all these days.
If I’d tried it all at once then I know I would have given up, it would have felt too hard and too restrictive. And it’s important to have a process first before you add in the apps. For example, I knew what needed to be done every month for the Drive meetings, then I used Asana to turn it into a repeatable system. If you start using apps without a plan you risk duplicating information and just getting overwhelmed and abandoning them.
The world today is full of interruptions, which not only make you feel as if you’re ‘always on’, but also make a huge dent in your productivity. By building a lot more structure into my week I feel far calmer and get a lot more done. Why not take one idea and give it a try?