Beat the Clock
Increase your productivity with these time-management strategies.
Entrepreneur's Home Office Magazine
By Harriet Schechter
You are now entering another dimension--a dimension where time slowly
freezes and then melts at warp speed. A place where daydreams derail
deadlines, clocks exist only to be ignored, and "schedule" is
just another word for something else to lose.
Welcome to the Home Office Zone.
Working at home can do strange things to your sense of time. A few
minutes on the phone somehow turns into half a day; an hour flies by as
you scramble to prepare for a meeting with a client. Distractions beckon
at every turn, breaking your concentration and fragmenting your focus.
With no schedule imposed and enforced by a supervisor or other workplace
entity, it's easy to drift through the days without accomplishing much.
Then, before you know it, another week has passed--and your to-do
list has doubled in size. As the owner of a homebased organizing service
since 1986, I've tackled the home office time warp for both myself and
many of my clients. What I've found is that the solution--and the
toughest challenge--is creating an effective, easy-to-maintain schedule.
Without one, all the time management tips in the world won't save you
from vanishing into the Home Office Zone.
Structuring a Schedule
Working productively at home requires more than just a home office with
a door you can shut (although I recommend that, too). You also need to
create a schedule with built-in distraction controls. Developing a
flexible yet focused framework for your days and weeks is crucial. How
do you do it? The trick is to figure out two things: what your recurring
tasks are, and the best days and times for you to perform those tasks.
For example, I'm not a morning person, so I've structured a daily
schedule to accommodate my lack of a.m. energy. My typical day is shaped
around what I call the "Four Cs": Calls and Correspondence in
the morning; Clients and Creative Work later in the day. If you're a
morning person, I'd recommend doing just the opposite--schedule your
appointments and projects for earlier in the day to make the most of
your peak energy time.
Two Types of Time
To create an effective schedule, it's helpful to think in terms of two
types of time: project time and maintenance time. Project time should be
prime time. When working on projects or meeting with clients, you want
to be in top form and at your peak energy level. Maintenance time, on
the other hand, is "workhorse" time--that necessary but
undervalued, and often under-scheduled, time that needs to be spent on
tasks like returning phone calls, answering correspondence, and doing
preparation and follow-up.
I have a saying: Life is 5 percent joy, 5 percent grief and 90
percent maintenance. Think about it: 90 percent of what we do is stuff
we have to do over and over and over again. And when you don't schedule
adequate time for maintenance, your business suffers.
For example, two of the top complaints about businesses are
unreturned phone calls and unsent materials. The result: lost
credibility and lost business. The cause: not enough maintenance time
set aside for business communications. The solution: Figure out how much
time you need to block out each day for communication maintenance.
I've learned to schedule an average of two hours each day for phone
time. Your business may not demand as much phone time; then again, it
may need even more. Phone time includes handling incoming calls and
making outgoing calls. If someone calls while I'm on the phone, the
caller can leave a message on my voice mail and I'll either call him or
her back right away or by the next morning. Likewise, if a call comes in
after my day's phone time is over, such as when I'm working on a project
or out of the office, voice mail comes to the rescue. (In my opinion,
voice mail is a homebased business owner's best friend. Your callers
never get a busy signal, nor do they have to contend with call waiting.
It also sounds clearer than most answering machines and is less likely
to break down.)
Keep in mind that the phone will likely derail your schedule if you
let it. Homebased entrepreneur Lee T. Silber of CreativeLee
Speaking and author of Time Management for the Creative Person
(Three Rivers Press), admits that the phone was once a big distraction
for him. "I used to stop and chat, losing track of where I was and
what I was doing . . . losing my concentration on the project at
hand," Silber says. "Anything new is better than what I'm
doing now, right? Wrong. Now I put the answering machine on during
working hours." When you do choose to answer the phone (and
remember, it's a choice, not a requirement), limit the time you spend on
each call. That's easier said than done, which is why I keep a kitchen
timer near my office phone. I set it for five minutes to help me put a
limit on calls that might otherwise make my day spin out of control.
Outgoing calls usually take as much as 80 percent of my allocated
phone time. I make approximately 12 calls per day; each lasts between
two and 20 minutes on average and falls under one of four categories:
- Return calls. I return most calls within 24 hours.
- Follow-up calls. These include everything from
post-consultation calls to following up with prospective clients.
- Networking calls. These cover everything from staying in
touch with existing contacts to initiating new connections.
- Research calls. These involve gathering information for a
variety of projects.
Mail and More
Setting aside approximately two hours daily for mail maintenance
(incoming and outgoing) has also worked well for me. As with phone
calls, I often generate more correspondence than I receive, so that's
where I spend the bulk of this maintenance time. I use the U.S. mail,
UPS, FedEx, fax and e-mail to send client-prospect packets, thank-you
notes, query letters, press releases, birthday cards, and order
fulfillments for books and audiotapes. I keep track of what, to whom and
when I send things by maintaining an outgoing mail log, a simple and
useful recordkeeping system.
After lunch, the second part of my day--the bigger half--usually
follows one of two tracks, and sometimes both: I leave the office to
meet with a client (a consultation, organizing session or speaking
engagement), or I stay in and work on a specific project, such as
writing articles like this one. Since I'm a night owl, I often stay up
late writing, which is one reason I rarely schedule morning
The Four Cs structure gives me a framework on which to build a
flexible schedule that keeps me on track. Not every day is a Four Cs
day; sometimes I have late-morning appointments or I'm out of the office
all day. I supplement the Four Cs with weekly or biweekly maintenance
time for "F & F": Financials and Filing. My business is
quite streamlined in that I rarely have receivables (I usually get paid
upfront or on-site) and I don't have employees; so for me, Financials
mostly means banking and paying bills. If your business requires
invoicing or payroll, you need to allocate more time for F & F than
If you don't seem to have enough time for all your tasks, delegating
certain maintenance tasks to independent contractors is an option worth
considering. Bookkeepers, payroll services and temporary employment
agencies exist for precisely that reason.
Besides the mail and the phone, there's a veritable smorgasbord of
delightful distractions calling to you when you work at home: the
television, refrigerator, pets, your kids, fun stuff to read . . . not
to mention household chores and errands that sometimes seem more
appealing than business chores. (As humorist, drama critic and actor
Robert Benchley once put it, "Anyone can do any amount of work,
provided it isn't the work he's supposed to be doing at the
"The best way to handle outside distractions is to manage the
ones you put in your own path," says Silber. Here's an example:
Silber, who works at home, controls the temptation to watch television
during the day by having his wife take the remote with her to work.
Managing the temptations of the kitchen requires a different tactic.
Don't panic--there's nothing wrong with taking periodic snack breaks.
But if snack attacks are gobbling up your time by sidetracking you too
often, I'd recommend putting a minirefrigerator (or at least a small
cooler) in your office.
Overall, the best way to avoid getting sidetracked by such
distractions is to plan for them. That's right--plan to be distracted
part of the time. After all, one of the joys of working from home is
that, well, you're at home! The trick is to accommodate distractions
without blowing your whole schedule. It's not as tough as it sounds. All
you need is a little "white space."
People who design ads for newspapers and magazines know the importance
of white space. An effective ad generally has a good balance of white
space (unfilled area) and ad copy/graphics. If an advertisement is
cluttered with too many words or images, it's usually ignored; readers
will skip right over it.
Take a look at your calendar or time management system. Does it look
like a poorly designed ad, with too many activities and not enough white
space? Although it may seem more efficient to pack your days with
side-by-side commitments, ultimately it's not as effective as leaving
some free time in your schedule. Block out white space in your schedule
as a buffer between appointments, deadlines, errands and so forth. White
space functions as a sort of shock absorber for scheduling bumps caused
by distractions, interruptions, emergencies and delays. White space
pumps flexibility into your schedule, and flexibility is one of the keys
to an effective structure.
In her book, Organizing Your Home Office for Success
Press), Dallas-based organization expert Lisa
Kanarek discusses the importance of "structured
flexibility." After all, she points out, "Even the best plans
change. Be willing to change your priorities throughout the day. It's
usually easier to get the low-priority items done than it is to
accomplish the important ones, so make a conscious effort to concentrate
on the high-priority tasks."
In 1988, Lesa Heebner made the incongruous leap from stock options to
stock pots. The former stockbroker founded Garlic & Sapphires, a
multifaceted firm offering kitchen design, menu development and
nutritional consulting services. Ten years later, Heebner continues to
run the business solo out of her Solana Beach, California, home office.
But Heebner's recipe for success was overpowered by too many
ingredients. Over the years, the number and range of her ongoing
projects became staggering: designing kitchens for builders, developers
and individuals; presenting seminars nationwide; creating menus for
restaurants, spas and interactive software companies; writing cookbooks
and magazine articles; teaching cooking classes; hosting a weekly
cooking segment on a local TV morning news program; and providing
nutritional consulting services for corporate clients. Her business was
cooking, all right--but Heebner was getting burned out.
"I feel as if I'm stuck on a treadmill," she says.
"There's no time for planning, figuring out what's next, how to
grow, where to cut back. I've had to put a lot of good ideas on
Heebner's challenge is common to many entrepreneurs, and not just
homebased ones. Planning for growth may not seem like a priority when
you're busy trying to grow. But eventually you hit a point when your
plate is filled with projects that have started to feel stale, and
you're itching to develop those new ideas and opportunities you've been
keeping on the back burner.
I recommended Heebner establish a weekly process for planning so she
can operate more proactively. To carve out the necessary chunks of time
from her packed schedule, she needed a bookkeeping software program to
streamline her invoicing process. (This strategy would ultimately reduce
by about 50 percent the time Heebner spent on bookkeeping.) But the very
first step Heebner needed to take in order to regain control of her time
was much more low-tech: sitting down with a pen and paper to make two
lists. One would include the things she was tired of doing, the other,
the things she'd rather be doing.
It's crucial to identify not-so-profitable clients or other business
activities that have become onerous time-eaters. In Heebner's case,
these included some seemingly glamorous money-makers that were actually
taking more time than they were worth: the weekly TV news gig, the food
editorship of a local magazine and out-of-town seminars. "Any kind
of presentation involving food requires a lot of prep time; plus, there
are the transportation logistics," Heebner explains.
Eliminating or reducing activities your business has outgrown can
open up the time you need for those "back burner" business
projects you'd rather be doing. For Heebner, this has certainly proved
true. "One of the items on what I call my Master Dream list
involves national TV pursuits," she said. "Not long after I
said goodbye to my local TV segment, which I'd done for five years, I
was hired to co-host an infomercial for a yogurt maker." The
segment is scheduled to air nationally in October.
In the meantime, Heebner will be busy cooking up other projects. That
back burner is already starting to fill up again.
Harriet Schechter is a time management author and speaker, as well as
founder of The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego.
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