When you’re an entrepreneur, who inevitably wears many hats, managing your time can get tricky—especially when it’s tempting to work all day to grow your business. But being successful doesn’t mean being a slave to your work. Below, four accomplished entrepreneurs share their productivity strategies and how they overcome potential obstacles.
Productivity Strategies for Success
1. They’re clear about their priorities.
“I think the most important element is that I have a very clear sense of what is most important for me to accomplish at any given time,” said Peter Bregman, a consultant and Harvard Business Review’s most popular online columnist. He begins each year by identifying five priorities. He then uses these top goals to create a nontraditional to-do list, which he calls a “six-box to-do list.”
He explained: “Each one of my five areas of focus gets a box in my to-do list. The sixth box is labeled ‘the other five percent’—that’s where I put everything I think I need to do that doesn’t fit into my top five—and I keep that box very small.”
2. They’re strategic.
Bregman, who’s also author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, knows how to use his time. He recommended readers be strategic “about the highest and best use of their time and make discreet, specific decisions about how you are going to spend each hour.” If you don’t make deliberate decisions about your day, “it’s almost impossible not to let distractions carry you away,” he said.
3. They begin the day with enjoyable activities.
Professional life and career coach Kristin Taliaferro believes that starting the day off on your own terms is key to productivity. “If you begin your day checking email, for example, you’re at the mercy of everyone else’s agenda and that can absolutely shape your day and cause you to be unproductive with your goals,” she said.
Instead, she recommended readers engage in enjoyable activities (like walking or reading spiritual texts) and “wait until you feel grounded and clear about your agenda for the day.”
4. They don’t multitask.
Multitasking creates the illusion of productivity. “It’s very easy to multitask and jump from one thing to another without completing anything—that leaves us busy all day but unaccomplished,” Bregman said. He makes it a rule to “finish one thing before going to the next.”
Bregman and other entrepreneurs prefer to work in blocks. He typically begins his workday by writing for several hours. Then, he gives himself 30 minutes to respond to email. (He takes these email breaks throughout the day, which he said works better than responding to email as it comes in.)
Taliaferro, who also believes multitasking is rarely effective, tries to schedule back-to-back phone appointments in the mornings and later focuses on writing projects or responding to email.
Brittni Melhoff, founder of papernstitch.com, a curated exhibition site for artists and makers to showcase their work, and editor of the papernstitch blog, suggested readers try the pomodoro technique. “It will help you manage your time by breaking your day down into 25-minute intervals, so you can focus on just one task at a time,” she said.
5. They batch tasks weekly.
Melhoff schedules “different reoccurring tasks for different parts of the week,” such as writing blog posts on Mondays and marketing and client work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “I find it really helps to keep my mind focused on one topic for the day, whenever I can, so that I don’t drive myself crazy with every tiny little thing each day,” she said.
Similarly, Taliaferro sometimes “set[s] aside an entire day [to wrap up] ‘loose ends’” for her business.
6. They keep their energy up.
Taliaferro always takes at least one break “in the middle of the day to refresh my mind.” As she explained, “Productivity has a lot to do with how you feel. If you remain energized, you can work smarter and get more done.”
She also makes sure to eat healthfully, exercise, get enough sleep and engage in other self-care activities. “This helps me feel strong and centered when I’m actually working,” she said.
7. They work mindfully.
“I try to be totally focused on whatever I’m doing, whether it’s listening to a client or returning an email,” Taliaferro said. To facilitate this, she tries to eliminate potential distractions. For instance, when she’s writing, she turns off the phone ringer. “When you’re very present, it’s actually pretty relaxing. When you’re relaxed, you can get more accomplished,” she said.
8. They take full days off.
Entrepreneurs can easily get burned out. According to Carol Tice, a fulltime freelance writer who writes the award-winning blog Make A Living Writing, taking at least one day off a week “is probably my biggest productivity tip.” She always takes Saturdays off and stays completely offline. On Sundays, she works for several hours so Mondays aren’t so hectic.
9. They’re well organized.
Tice, who used to be an executive secretary, believes that her ability to track “information, deadlines and projects” also is important for her productivity. For instance, she’s recently started using a program called Freshbooks to keep records and bill clients, which has saved a lot of time.
10. They tackle tasks they’re passionate about.
Naturally, it’s easier to be productive when you’re passionate about your projects. So, Tice, for instance, works on what she’s “hot to do [that] morning. “I’ll often do that, even if it doesn’t appear the most pressing priority. What you’re in the zone to do goes fast, as opposed to forcing yourself to do something you’re not in the mood for,” she said.
Taliaferro also finds that when she’s working on enjoyable tasks, “time flies by so I’m more productive and happier.” She’s able to do this because she tries “to outsource tasks as much as possible” and has a virtual assistant.
11. They don’t waste time.
“I don’t have a lot of time-wasting stuff in my life like watching TV or playing on Facebook,” Tice said, who spends just several hours a week on these kinds of activities.
Tice added: “Remember, like the Kabbalists say — we are never ‘just killing time.’ Time kills us. Spend your precious moments doing stuff you love, and stuff that makes the world a better place.”
12. They take it easy.
Entrepreneurs tend to set high standards for themselves, which is one of the reasons they’re so successful. But there’s a flip side: If you don’t accomplish your goals, you feel like a failure.
“Productivity comes from positive self-esteem,” Tice said. She emphasized the importance of forgiving “yourself for what you didn’t get done.” It’s common not to accomplish goals “in the timeframe [you] originally envisioned,” she said. “Look at all the movie release dates that get pushed back.”
(And as a bonus tip, Tice said: “Do what my dad taught me: Look in the mirror every morning and say, ‘Damn, I’m good!’”)
Productivity Pitfalls that Limit Success
These entrepreneurs also deal with a variety of obstacles. Here are several pitfalls along with their pointers for overcoming them.
Having a lot of work.
For Bregman, like so many others, the sheer amount of work is a big challenge. “My best tactic for overcoming it is cordoning off time for each task. I designate two hours to do nothing but write—and I know that I don’t need to do anything else in that time.” He does the same for email and phone calls. “As long as I’ve designated time to do each piece of work, then I don’t worry about getting it done—I know I’ll get it done in the designated time—and that frees me to focus on the one thing that’s most important in the present.”
Tice’s biggest obstacle, she said, is her “tendency… to skate at the dangerous edge of being overbooked.” Because she enjoys cultivating her skills, Tice often picks projects “a little outside my comfort zone.” This creates a time crunch and can lead to missing deadlines.
To prevent this, Tice tries to get a good sense of which deadlines are flexible and usually avoids “scary drop-dead deadlines.” If she does accept bigger projects, she breaks down her “goals into one-month chunks to make them less overwhelming and more doable.” She also mentors writers and helps them consider: “What little piece of it could you do today? This week? Focus just on that. Keep repeating this, and soon you’re at the top of the mountain.”
Procrastinating on dull tasks.
Everyone can relate to procrastinating on certain tasks, but the more we push back something, the more worried (and paralyzed) we get. Many times, a task doesn’t take long at all, but our worry only magnifies it. As Taliaferro said, “It really only took 30 minutes to do [a task she dreaded] but it felt much longer since I spent time worrying about it!”
So she takes a different approach: “Now, I accept the fact that I don’t love this particular task, and set a timer for 30 minutes whenever I have to do it. It’s a reminder to power through and get it done.”
Reducing how much you worry about and procrastinate over a task also “free[s] up a lot of time and energy,” she added.
Dealing with distractions.
Many entrepreneurs work from home, which creates a host of distractions: dirty dishes, dust-filled surfaces, laundry. What helps Melhoff is to “shut the door to my office to signify my work zone and avoid working in the common areas like the living room, dining room, or kitchen.”
If Melhoff still feels distracted, she takes a break: “[I] step outside to get some fresh air, take my dog out, anything that gets me away from the computer and out of the house. When I come back to my desk, I feel more alert and ready to tackle the world.”