“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.” – H. Jackson Brown
That quote is one of my favorites of all time. Why? Because it’s so true. I hear people say all the time, “I don’t have enough time.” Well you know what? No one interesting has enough time. I want to build a billion dollar business, raise a couple of great kids, travel all over the world, learn to play the guitar, read more books, write a novel, go to cooking school, and a thousand other things. The time doesn’t exist to do all of it.
Einstein, Da Vinci, or any of the other great human beings in human history did not have “enough time” to do all the things they wanted to do. But, they were able to effectively utilize the time they did have to do something big and important. If you want to accomplish something with your life, you’ll have to learn how to utilize your time well.
Adding Hours to a 24 Hour Day
The entire premise of this post rests on one simple concept:
If you stop spending 15 minutes of your day doing something you don’t have to do, you effectively added 15 minutes to your day.
That’s not profound, top-secret advice, but it’s very important advice to fully understand. If you spend 15 minutes looking at baby photos on Facebook, that’s 15 minutes you no longer have to market, manage, or improve your business. That’s 15 minutes you don’t have to sleep. That’s 15 minutes you don’t have to spend with your spouse, kids, or friends.
Only you can answer this question: Were those minutes on Facebook worth sacrificing the minutes for other things?
I can’t change physics to do anything about a day being 24 hours long, but I can show you how to increase the time in your own day.
1.) Rise and Shine
The house I grew up in is surrounded by an 80-acre corn field. It’s in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. I loved it. The one issue was that the bus ride to school every morning took about 40 minutes. That meant as a little kid and all through high school, I had to get up at 6:30 to make it to school by 8:00.
Every single morning for 12 years of my life, my mom – who has a big personality and an even bigger voice – acted as our alarm clock as she’d belt out, “Rise and shine, boys!” Every damn day at 6:30 am. At the time, I hated that so much. I am not a morning person.
When I went off to college, I felt free. I made sure none of my first-semester classes started before 10 a.m. I’d sleep right up until 9:45, throw on sweat pants, and rush out the door. Then at night, I’d hang out with friends playing Tecmo Bowl, watching TV, or playing cards until 2 a.m. I became incredibly unproductive. It turns out that my mother’s booming voice at 6:30 am was something I needed. It would take me about 15 more years of trying to sleep in to figure that out.
If there is only one thing you take away from this post, here it is: You can increase your productivity by 30% by going to bed and getting up an hour earlier. I have no facts to back up that statement. I only have my hard-earned experience.
This one tactic will make you incredibly productive because mornings are the ideal time to get things done. Once 9 a.m. rolls around, the phone starts ringing, emails start flooding in, people start calling, texting, IM’ing, and just generally trying to keep you from work. Once your coworkers and customers are in the office, you are going to get significantly less done.
In my first post of this series last week, I told you to get up at the same time every day. This week (unless you’re one of those crazy people like my mother that gets up at 4 am), I’m telling you to work on getting up an hour earlier.
2.) “You’ve got (to shut off) mail.”
Email can be awesome for productivity. I read a post recently by Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOMoz, about why he prefers email to the phone. He says you can usually accomplish in 3-6 minutes over email what a phone call would take 30 minutes to do. But here’s the problem with email: it’s so easy to send something, so everyone does. Most of these emails are completely unnecessary, like when someone sends an email response that says, “Thanks for the email.” In any given day, I probably receive about 100 emails. If every one of those requires 3 minutes of time (and some require more than that), I’d spend 5 hours a day working on nothing but going through email. Obviously, that is not feasible if you want to have a productive day.
So what is the key to effective email management? How do you make it an effective, time-saving tool instead of a horrible time suck? You start by turning your email off for most of the day. I know that sounds terrifying, but hear me out.
I go through my email first thing every morning and last thing every night. I try to only read and respond to email 3 or 4 other times throughout the day. I confess that I frequently fail at this, and it’s something I’m actively working on. The reason I fail is because I leave my mail program open, and a little icon pops up every time I get an email. There it is taunting me like some email siren calling from the deadly cliffs of unproductivity.
What I’m working on (and recommending everyone else do, too) is to turn that email program off. For me, this should be simple – just close the browser tab that my Gmail is displaying in. Then I can’t be distracted by incoming email; I have to make a conscious effort to look at it.
“But, Matt, what about all of those super urgent emails I get because I’m so important that no one can go an hour or two without hearing from me?” I hope you realize how ridiculous that concern is. You will get a phone call or text message if something is really urgent. Constantly running into urgent situations? You have other major issues beyond email.
3.) How a Messy Inbox is Like a Messy House
A friend of mine lives with a woman who used to be incredibly messy. Dishes on every surface of the kitchen. Clothes all over the bedroom floor. Papers and books scattered through the living areas. An absolute disaster. One day, he said something to me that really made sense: “Living in a constantly messy house is incredibly stressful because it’s like being surrounded by a giant to-do list all the time.”
The same can be said of a messy inbox. Having 100, 200, 1,000 emails in your inbox makes your email unmanageable, and it’s insanely stressful. You’re blasted by a giant to-do list every time you open your inbox. It also makes it much more likely that you’re going to miss something important because, like keys in a dirty home, it’s easy to lose track of something in a mess.
Whenever I go through my inbox, one of six things happens to every message:
- Delete it without even reading. I subscribe to HARO and try to respond to three reporters a week. I get six emails a day from them. If I’m busy, these go straight to the garbage.
- Read and archive/delete it. This is the vast majority of emails. They might contain useful or useless information, but they don’t require any follow-up. Save yourself and someone else time by not hitting the reply button to say something useless like “Thanks,” or “Good to know.”
- Read, respond, archive it. I have one rule for responding to emails: only respond if you’re providing useful or actionable information. Otherwise you’re wasting your own time and, more evil than that, wasting someone else’s time.
- Read, add something to my to-do lists or calendar, then archive it. If someone emails me the time for a meeting, I put the appointment in my calendar, and then archive the message. If there is an actionable item I am responsible for, I’ll add it to one of my to-do lists.
- Read, forward it to followupthen.com, then archive it. Opening up my calendar or to-do lists takes time. Sometimes that’s not necessary. Assume a salesman emails me a link to some cool new iPhone accessory. I don’t have time to check-out the website right now. Instead, I forward it to email@example.com, archive it, and forget it. Four hours later the email gets sent back and I look at it then.
- Read, take some sort of immediate action, then archive it. If someone emails me saying they just found a high-priority bug on our website (for instance, if our online scheduling tool is not working), I immediately take action.
One thing you should notice is that every one of these actions resulted in the email being removed from my inbox. That is critical to keeping a clean inbox and your sanity.
During the first few weeks I was in business, I wrote a custom email to every customer that ordered a phone repair service on our website. I would email them exactly what they needed to do next, how long it would take, when they’d have it back, etc.
Then, I’d email them when I got the phone so they knew I had it, email them when it was fixed and mailed out, and then emailed them a follow-up in a couple of weeks to make sure everything was okay. What a time-sucking pain.
Fortunately, I’m a software developer, so I was quickly able to automate this entire process. Here’s how it works now:
- A customer places an order online and my server automatically sends that person an email with all the details of his or her order and how to proceed.
- When we receive the customer’s device, we click a button in our admin tool and it generates an email letting the customer know we have it.
- When it’s fixed, we click another button and the customer gets an email saying it’s fixed and on its way back.
- Step #3 also starts a timer that goes off in two weeks. When that happens, our server automatically sends the customer a follow-up email.
When I was doing all of this emailing by hand, every single order required 15-20 minutes of emailing work. I also had to remember to do it. The automated system only requires that we remember to click a button when a device comes in and another button when it’s fixed. This takes about five seconds!
That’s the power of automation.
You should constantly be looking for ways to automate your work day. A good thing to consider is a programming acronym called DRY. It stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” The idea is to stop yourself from writing the same code multiple times. You should write it once, turn it into a function, and then call that function whenever you need that code.
The same goes for your work life. If you’re doing the same task (or very similar tasks) over and over, you should start figuring out how to automate that task. Are you constantly typing the same kind of response emails to customers? Check out Gmail’s canned responses or build a FAQ or Wiki page to answer common questions.
Are you repeatedly crunching the same kind of numbers when quoting customers? Build a spreadsheet that allows you to plug in a few numbers and then automatically spits out the quote. Are you spending time calling or emailing customers every day to remind them about appointments? Stop it! There is software out there to do this kind of thing for you automatically.
Remember, if you can automate a process that normally takes you 15 minutes and you do this process four times a week, you just added an hour to your week – 52 hours to your year. That’s an entire extra week of time you have. Find four such processes and you’ll be giving yourself an entire extra month! How cool is that?
5.) Effective Delegation
Much has been written about delegation, and I assure you it has been written far more eloquently than I could write about it. However, I do have a few things to say.
The benefits of effective delegation are amazing. It’s how a small company becomes a big company. It’s how a Fortune 500 employee becomes a Fortune 500 CEO. It’s how Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffet all became billionaires.
What’s that you say? You’re a single person operation with no intentions of expanding? A perfectly happy copywriter, web designer, accountant, or lawyer? You have a comfortable living and no need to grow? You don’t need delegation?
Delegation is how a successful copywriting father reliably makes it to his daughter’s soccer games instead of stressing over quarterly taxes. He finds an accountant to do that. Delegation is how a successful attorney is able to take her family on a two-week sailing vacation to the Caribbean. She has another lawyer, personal assistant, or law clerk make sure clients are taken care of while she’s off the grid.
Delegation is also how a software developer really makes customers happy. When I ran a one-man business building websites for small companies, I had several web designers I worked with and recommended to customers. In effect, I delegated the job of designing a customer’s site to someone I knew would do a good job and that worked well with me.
Effective delegation is how an entrepreneur stays focused on doing the things he or she loves to do, is good at, and brings in the money. It’s about having someone else properly and efficiently do something on your behalf so you can stay focused on growing your business. It is not about getting someone to do something you don’t want to do so you can go play on a beach. That’s not increasing your work time. That’s having someone else do your work.
Again, there are much better resources on delegating (try the E-Myth by Michael Gerber), and I recommend doing some additional reading on the subject. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- Every single employee you hire is someone you are delegating responsibility to. That’s an important thing to remember. When Ray Kroc started McDonald’s, he delegated the task of making french fries to his employees.
- Know something about what you’re delegating or won’t know if it’s being done right. Ray Kroc spent a lot of time learning how to make a great french fry (it’s an interesting story actually). By the time he was done he knew what a good french fry tasted like. This made it possible for him to delegate the process to someone else because he could easily figure out whether that person was doing it right.
- Don’t delegate and walk away. People need to be properly trained first. For example, it would be silly of me to hire an employee, hand them a cracked iPad, walk out the door and expect it to be fixed an hour later. That’s setting someone up for failure and it’s bad delegation. We spend at least two weeks training our employees before setting them loose with customers.
- Delegate and monitor. If you’ve got #2 above right, then you know when someone is doing a good job. Don’t ever assume they are. Always keep an eye on them. The more trust they earn by doing a good job, the less you have to monitor them. But, don’t ever completely stop monitoring performance.
6.) “I Hate Accounting” + Facebook = Unproductive
There are a number of things that come with being a business owner that I do not enjoy. One of these is anything related to accounting. I know it has to be done, but I hate it. I have an accountant and I’ve built some nice software tools for tracking and automating our income and expenses, and then importing them into Quickbooks.
But I can’t completely let go of the numbers and just trust this system. I have always gone through our expenditures to confirm that everything looks good. It also helps me to know where we’re spending our money. I try to do this every single week and it doesn’t take long. An hour, tops. That’s it. Sounds simple, right?
But I hate it. I hate every single second of it.
So what do I do? I try to start it and then end up on Facebook, Twitter, and Hacker News instead. Then, I’ll actually get started and leave my email open. The first email the comes in and I jump all over it – anything to avoid my weekly accounting. Since I’m in my email, I naturally end up checking Facebook and Twitter again.
Before you know it, I’ve been at this “one hour” task for two hours, and I’m not even half done. It’s amazing how much time you can effectively waste. The point is, if you have a task you really, really don’t want to do – and we all have them – you need to remove every other distraction while you do it.
For the past month, I’ve put weekly accounting on my daily to-do list on Mondays. Then I try not to let myself even check email in the morning until it’s done. It’s hard. I don’t like it and I don’t always succeed. But for the past month, I’ve pretty routinely been able to get that one hour task done in 60 minutes instead of three hours.
That’s two additional hours added to my week.
Two Important Rules
I mentioned these two things last week, I’ll say them this week, and I’ll say them again next week – they’re that important to remember.
- Baby steps. If you don’t know how to play guitar, you can’t just decide to be good and be good. It takes time and practice. Start with the simple things, master them, and grow from there. The same goes for any other skill you want to acquire, and time management is definitely a skill. Master the small stuff first.
- Be patient and forgiving. You’ll have bad days and that’s okay. Learn from the process, and get better the next day. Don’t beat yourself up.
Like last week, you don’t get out of this post without something to work on immediately. To effectively manage your time, you need to take action.
First, you’re going to continue doing what you did last week:
- Make sure your alarm clock goes off and you get up at the same time every day.
- Spend 30 minutes on Sunday night or Monday morning listing the 7-10 major things you’re going to accomplish during the upcoming week.
- Spend 10-15 minutes every workday morning making a list of the three things you are definitely going to accomplish that day.
Now for the new homework:
- You know that alarm clock? Set it 30 minutes earlier. I know I said to get up an hour earlier, but I think taking baby steps is critical. If you’re used to getting up at 8:00 every day, trying to get up at 7:00 won’t work. Too much, too fast. But, 7:30 is a different matter. You can get up 30 minutes earlier.
- Pick the one item from your weekly to-do list that you know you have to do, but really don’t want to do. Then, pick one day next week and force yourself to do that task first thing on that day. Before opening your email. Before looking at your Twitter or Facebook feeds. The very first thing you’ve got to do is knock out that one task. Don’t allow yourself to do anything else until it’s done. I think you’ll be shocked by how fast it gets done.
- In the next 48 hours, go to followupthen.com and create an account. Then, go through your inbox and follow each of the six steps I listed above for dealing with a message until your inbox is empty. Then, keep it empty for the rest of the week. Note: if you have over 100 emails in your inbox, select every email past 100 and archive it before you even start. You’re never going to read them anyway.
Quick disclaimer: With the exception of JCD Repair, I get no compensation of any kind from any product listed in this post. They are mentioned because they are awesome.
I will once again be right there with you this week. I normally get up at 7:30. I will be getting out of bed every day at 7:00 am. I am not a morning person, but I too have a lot to get done. And if I can do it, you can do it.