Recently, I had the following question sent to me:
What are several e-business applications that you might recommend to a small company to help it survive and succeed in challenging economic times? Why?
It was great timing because recently I started keeping track of the programs I depend on to do business. As a small business with a small staff, we depend heavily on keeping projects organized and accessible by the entire team. Here is my list and reasons for the best tools an online company should be using:
1) A good email marketing program — Email marketing helps you to sell to your clients in their inbox, instead of hoping they see your social media post or visit your website. You can control the opportunities for your business to receive more traffic and higher sales conversions by regular, curated content for your list. MailChimp, AWeber, and Constant Contact all offer free or low-cost basic plans, meaning you can create personalized, branded emails without breaking the bank.
2) A social media automation program — HootSuite and Buffer both allow you to take time back in your day, which is important when you are trying to resuscitate a business. Having consistent social presence helps you to maintain trust with your current customers, and build trust in new markets. You can easily tailor your content for multiple social media platforms and schedule them to post ahead of time. BONUS: Canva is a great free program for creating branded graphics, which allow you to promote your business better, for less.
3) A blog — Companies always hear that they need a blog, but many are inconsistent or irrelevant to their audience. Using LinkedIn, Medium, AND your hosted website’s blog regularly allows you to build credibility and clout within your industry. You can share your expertise and build trust — plus blogging allows you to craft a message and call-to-action for your reader, making it more likely for them to make a sale. I have received clients not only from my blog but from guest blogging. Even small contributions to other blogs have lead to clients. (HARO — Help a Reporter Out — is my favorite way to find writing opportunities!)
4) A few web tools — Google is King of the web as far as search goes, so it makes sense that the tools you need to be successful are offered by them. Analytics, Webmaster Tools, Tags, Apps for Work, Voice, Calendar, Adwords, and Ask are all necessary to operate an e-business.
Analytics helps you to monitor your web traffic and find out what works for your audience, and what doesn’t. Webmaster Tools allows you to be indexed by Google, so whenever your website has a change or addition, it’s seen in search results. Tags help you to differentiate your website based on its content, industry, and expertise. Apps for Work keeps your organized, by offering domain-specific email addresses, email management tools, CRMs, Accounting, and other applications, allowing you to keep your business in one place, managing and following up with leads and customers. Voice is a phone program that allows you to have a phone number other than your personal cell. Calls come through the Voice number, your calls are announced, and your voicemails are emailed and transcribed. Voice means you won’t miss another opportunity to follow up, and if you get a call that someone else can answer, they can check the messages on the designated email. Calendar is great for individuals and teams — I color coordinate different tasks and activities within my calendar to keep everything straight. I book meetings and can see my staff’s availability as well. Adwords is another website traffic tool, but this one is not free. Adwords can cost as little or as much as you want, and it’s used for creating advertising campaigns that show up in search results. This is important when you want to rank higher in searches, and want to be on the top or side “featured” ads. Lastly, Ask is a great web and mobile capable tool. You just say “Okay, Google…” and give it a command. I use this to send emails, text messages, or to open applications. It’s not perfect but sometimes works when you’re time crunched and don’t want to swipe your text, or if you’re attempting to multitask.
5) A good contractor — when times are hard, staffing can dwindle. The need is still there, so hiring a temporary contractor or freelancer can help when work needs to be done. Finding work that can be delegated can be a challenge, but anything that is not your main focus (working with clients) can and should be delegated when it makes sense. A great freelancer makes sure that tasks are completed in alignment to your goals, and communicates openly with you to get the work done.
Imagine this: you are an insurance agent that needs to grow their business. You specialize in insurance sales and can cite your offerings at the drop of the hat, but marketing and sales are a bit tricky. You have three choices: 1) you can try to balance growing your business and create the marketing yourself, knowing that it won't be as effective, 2) you can hire someone to help with your marketing who has the knowledge, experience, and time, or 3) you hope you can get by without marketing. In the short- and long-term, it makes more sense to pay a contractor or freelancer to complete the work for you - they are more efficient, knowledgeable, and can tailor their work for your needs and budget. Your ROI will be worth it!
6) Cloud document management — Google Drive is a great program for managing paperwork in the cloud, but personally, I prefer using Dropbox and Evernote. Dropbox allows me to create, store, and share documents easily with clients and customers, and allows me to access the documents anywhere. Evernote allows me to organize projects and coordinate with staff within different notebooks, meaning that we can all be working together, no matter where we are.
7) A good notebook — You can’t always do work on a computer, so Rocketbook is a great tool to have in your arsenal. Rocketbook allows you to designate each of 7 icons to email addresses or files in the cloud using your cell phone. You write in the Rocketbook, snap a picture of your page (with the corresponding icon marked), and the app puts your files where they need to go. When the notebook is full, you toss it in the microwave to make the ink disappear. It’s a bit pricier than the other options, but due to its portability and ability for reuse, it’s worth the cost.
These tools are important for a business at any stage, but due to their low cost (many are free) and high capabilities, they are crucial for struggling businesses. Almost all of the programs are mobile-compatible, allowing you and your team to work from anywhere. They have streamlined a bunch of processes and kept our business as close to paper-free as possible.
I have written my fair share of business plans. I have reviewed them, and judged them and looked over various investor pitches including them. I have been contacted by multiple businesses looking for them. And over the past fourteen years, I have questioned the necessity of them. There’s a huge misconception that every new business needs a business plan in order to be taken seriously. Companies that have no real reason to have a business plan spend money unnecessarily on their creation. I see it all the time — “URGENT! I need a business plan written immediately! I can pay $100 for you to write 10–12 pages!” Realistically, many of these companies need business plans the least.
STOP UNDERAPPRECIATING THE VALUE OF YOUR PLANI want to call out every business that ever tried to pay someone to write their business plan for them for a low amount of money. Your business plan, when you need one, is your first sales opportunity. That plan, with all of its required, formatted, and structured information, is your first impression to investors who may or may not fund your idea. Are you really willing to allow the lowest bidder to have that much control over that initial impression? Besides, in order to get a professional plan, you have to pay for it, and $100 is not going to cover it. In the event that you truly need a business plan, budget at least $50 per hour for it, and be prepared to be an equal partner in the preparation of the entire plan. An absentee business owner in the business planning process is noticable to investors, and they will never fund your business if they think you didn’t put in due diligence into your business plan.
STOP UNNECESSARILY OUTSOURCING WORKI want to touch upon why a company would consider outsourcing their business plan. Imagine that you are a business owner that has put countless hours, blood, sweat, and tears into your idea. You have bootstrapped and built, acquired customers and failed, and now you have reached a point where you have proven yourself and your company enough to pitch investors for funding. Are you willing to outsource your business plan, which is a reflection of the work you have put in so far and the promises of what you are willing to do to grow your company? If you are, evaluate your reasoning. Is it a lack of confidence in the writing and pitching process? If so, you might be better working with a consultant to build your business plan rather than outsourcing it. If it is due to a lack of time, then you need to reevaluate your priorities. Like I said, this document is your first impression to potential business partners and investors, and if you don’t have time to craft that message yourself, then there might be an opportunity for you to outsource other areas of the business so that you can focus on creating your plan.
STOP ASSUMING YOU NEED A BUSINESS PLANI want to remind businesses that not every one of you is seeking funding, therefore, you don’t need a structured business plan. If you feel like you need a more organized visual of your company, look into creating a business model instead. A business model puts all of the fluid parts of a growing business in front of you, so that you can test and adapt your business to fit what works. The basis of the business model is to see what you are doing, for what market, and how it is working for you. You put the information on post-it notes so that when something changes, you aren’t digging into a certain section of a document, you are pulling the note down and swapping it with the current information. It is a living part of your business, rather than a rigid document living on your computer.
Business plans take time, effort, and experience to craft them properly. That said, most investors hate them. They are boring and the information is typically fabricated. There is no passion shown in its pages, and most businesses seeking investment funds are high-risk, so even with twelve pages of thought out plans, there is no guarantee of success. Investors invest in people, not ideas or papers, so put in the time to craft your personal brand, level of expertise, and love of what you are doing. This goes much further than a “must-have” document. Infuse everything you do and write for your company with a strong brand built on purpose and proven need, and you might have a chance. In the meantime, stop posting want ads for low dollar business plans. They are offensive and will get you no where. Invest that $100 into a consulting session and a template — you will get farther.
If you need help deciding on where you should be putting your money in your early-stage startup, I can help. Finances are tight, but investing in someone who has experience starting and growing businesses can move you ahead quicker, without wasting so much time and money on things that don’t work.
Several months ago, I hit a wall. I realized that I had more projects planned than I could handle on my own. With good intentions, I had placed tasks throughout my Google Calendar for all of the projects, plus my timely work-related tasks, plus personal tasks, as well any meetings or appointments or reminders I needed. I had notes and lists and files full of information to get everything I thought I needed to get done, done. Needless to say, I found myself overwhelmed and unproductive.
I know that I’m not the only person who does it — puts dozens of meaningful-seeming tasks on your calendar, only to move them along since they don’t take priority, only to realize that nothing got done toward your idea or project. I also know that I’m not the only one who feels like they are spinning their wheels day after day because they have a ton of ideas of things to do and no time to do them.
How did I remedy this issue?One night, while I was desperately trying to get some sleep, a stream of thoughts came to me. It started with acknowledging that my lack of productive work has been a serious problem in my work life. Then it made me think about the last time I felt truly productive.
I thought about how, when we are young and learning to communicate, we create bright, colorful, simple notes and lists. We hang them up for everyone to see. When we get a little older, we use notes to exert our wants and needs — signs like “Stay Out!” or “3 days until Disney!” Our notes still excite us and were reminders for things that mattered.
In our teen years, our notes turn more clandestine. They stay hidden and are passed in secret, and are less about things that make us happy or excite us, and more about our private thoughts and feelings.
The older we get, the more utilitarian our notes get. In school, we take notes to remember things that we will be tested on later. In business, we take notes for certain files. These notes only emerge as a touch-point to move us from A to B. They’re not flashy. They’re not colorful. They’re not fun or visual or something we put up to keep front of mind.
And this is where we, as adults, have it wrong. Notes should not be ideas and thoughts that are buried in Word documents and accordion files. They should be visual reminders of our goals. They should be in front of us as movable tasks that we can shift — ideas that can be pulled up when time allows to help us move forward.
After a couple hours of these thoughts, I wrote them down. The next day, I wrote everything that seemed important on my calendar onto a post-it note. I dug into my Evernote files and wrote down long forgotten ideas. I sorted through my physical files and pulled out any tasks that were bumped from my to-do list. And then I cleared my calendar of everything movable. I called it my Clean Slate Project.
What did this do for me and my productivity?The last time I felt truly productive in my work life was nearly a decade ago. I had been consulting startups for a few years and had an opportunity to become more involved in one. I understood how many hats employees of a startup had to wear, but I never expected to be tackling the tasks of four different positions at one time. I remember feeling overwhelmed and wondering how I could shift from Purchasing to Marketing to Design to Project Management and still get enough work done.
The way I handled the various tasks of each position became clear to me — I had to make it visual and it had to be color-coordinated. I didn’t have space or the budget to have a white board for each position, so I had to make do with what I had: post it notes. I assigned each position a color and used coordinating post it colors for each. Every time I had a task arise, I added it to the post it for that position. I designated an area on my desk to my post it storage. Each morning, I would organize the post its in order of importance, pulling one as a single focus. If I had time, I’d pull the next. If I didn’t, then each night, I’d color-coordinate my post its and leave for the day.
This did more for me than I realized. It allowed me to delegate my workload for the day depending on what was important. It allowed me to keep important tasks and duties in front of my face instead of tucked in a binder on a shelf. It allowed me to use my available down time to work on creative projects and ideas because I had to plan at my fingertips. Despite the extreme differences in my titles, I felt balanced about the work I did. When I went home at night, I felt relaxed knowing that I had my plan for the next day. When I came in to work in the morning, I felt motivated to clear through the post it notes.
Fast-forward back to present day — I decided to use that method again. Now that I own two of my own businesses, run various workshops and trainings, and have several side-projects, I needed that same sort of visual reminder of what I needed to do. I needed the flexibility to move tasks based on importance. I also wanted things to be in front of my face so that I didn’t forget about them.
By taking everything off of my calendar and putting them on post its, I was able to more than double my productivity in just a couple weeks. Every day, I can see exactly what I want to get done. By pulling a single post it and putting it next to my keyboard, I can focus on just one thing at a time. Then, when I have time between clients, I can pull another task and work on it. If I don’t finish it, I can put the note back with the others to pick back up when time allows. And even better, when I complete a task, I can physically tear up or throw away my reminder so that I can move on.
This method is not for everyone, but having bright, colorful, visual reminders works great for me and my multitasking career. The psychological benefits from having creative tasks and ideas side by side with my day-to-day duties helps me to feel excited about my workload, rather than feel dragged down by having to stick to a time table on my calendar. Plus, when you get to actually purge a completed task, it somehow feels like more of a relief.
What one method have you found that keeps you on task?
It’s no surprise that startups are stressful. The whole basis of starting a business is taking risks, which doesn’t leave much room for comfort. The stress that an entrepreneur feels can be beneficial to getting a venture off the ground, but some entrepreneurial stress can be prevented.
Cash flow is the top stressor that entrepreneurs have when starting a business, and is the biggest factor in canning an idea. Most startups turn to seed or angel funding when cash gets low, but risk and low valuation can keep businesses from getting the capital they need to feel comfortable financially. A founder’s lack of income can impact their ability to keep the entire company afloat, and a lack of payroll expenses can keep employees from coming or staying on board during the early stages of a business.
While a start-up can’t guarantee a certain amount of sales or cash flow, there is something that a founder can do to maintain their finance-related sanity for the first year.
First, build up a cash reserve. Second, make sure you don’t invest in areas of your business that are unnecessary. Third, bootstrap as much as you can. And fourth, pay yourself first. These four tips will at the very least keep you afloat, and at the most allow you to build your company without breaking the bank.
A cash reserve sounds like an easy thing to prepare prior to starting a new business, but many entrepreneurs poorly plan or mismanage their cash reserve. Many business owners plan for the best case scenario instead of the worst, which leaves them scrambling if things go wrong. Your working capital needs should include six months of income, plus save 5–10% of all revenue earned. This can be adjusted for different business needs, and as the business grows, a different cash reserve percentage or total may be necessary. If you need to keep inventory, have more legal costs due to trademarks or patents, or have to rent a commissary or manufacturing space, you will need to prepare for higher upfront costs and include them in your budget.
It’s ideal to imagine your startup working out of a huge office, with staff collaborating in a free-flowing workspace, however, businesses need to not invest in areas that aren’t necessary. Office space, for the most part, is an expense that most businesses don’t need, especially in the first year. Instead, your home office or kitchen table are the most cost-effective workspaces. If you need a place for collaboration, a coworking office or local cafe would be the next least expensive options. As far as staffing needs go, many of them are also unnecessary for a startup. Instead of dishing out an annual salary and benefits for a full time assistant, employ a virtual assistant. Contracting work out when your cash flow is low makes sense — you only pay for the projects and hours you need work done. You work with qualified, capable people who can finish your projects for much less than a full-time team can. Saving money by not paying out huge rental and salary fees is a great way to keep dollars flowing where that are beneficial.
Bootstrapping is almost a competition among some entrepreneurs, but all should employ a reasonable level of it in their business ventures. Cutting down expenses to the bare minimum will help that cash reserve hold out in case things go south, or production takes longer than planned, or an unexpected cost pops up. In the event that you face a large, unplanned expense, the best action is to pay for it yourself. If that’s not realistic in your business, then next best step is to ask family and friends to invest in you and your business. If this also doesn’t garner enough, before you turn to the bank, turn to your network. Crowdsourcing is a popular way to gain funds necessary to take your business to the next level, and build a customer base. Investors and banks will have additional costs associated with their services, so bootstrap whenever you can to cut those costs.
Founders who start a business often cut back on everything, work ridiculous amounts of hours, and refuse to cut into a businesses profits by not paying themselves. This is contradictory to what should happen: founders should always pay themselves first. There is a lot of time, effort, and brain-power associated with starting a business. Startups cannot exist without these founders, so it only makes sense that they are paid for their efforts. Startup owers shouldn’t be raking in the dough to the detriment of the company, but they should be setting aside a liveable wage for those first few years. A good industry standard is no more than $75,000 per year for at least the first year, despite profits. Those who don’t pay themselves end up broke, burnt out, and with nothing to show for their efforts.
Financial issues can stop any business in their tracks, but with a little planning, saving, cutting, buckling down, and knowing where to put your money, a startup can succeed and founders can build their dream company. Staving off financial stress can help you put your focus where it is needed, on product or service development, customer relationship building, and exposure opportunities, instead of wondering where your next dollar is coming from.
Opportunity. Sometimes it feels finicky and uncertain. Sometimes it feels like the well has dried up. Sometimes it feels like opportunity is definitely not knocking.
And then sometimes, opportunity feels like a floodgate being opened. Everywhere you turn, there are new opportunities.
Are you controlling your opportunities for opportunity?
Berle had it right: If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. When was the last time you actually built that door? If you are not constantly cultivating opportunities, they won’t happen. You can only sit on opportunity and ideas for so long — idleness leads to nothing. Take those ideas, plans, and goals, and put them into action.
I moved from an area where my business was primarily word-of-mouth, to an area where no one knew my name. It was 2010, and the country was still in recession. Opportunities, so they seemed, had dried up. I waited for knocks on the door that never came.
In 2013, after almost three years of career stagnancy and few opportunities, I decided to build a few doors.
How do you build opportunity for yourself and your company?
First, I started attending local networking events. I joined two civic organizations. I finally updated my website. I increased my social media exposure. And most important — I started crafting how I wanted to work, the types of projects I wanted to be involved in, and the types of opportunities I wanted to find. Then I told anyone who would listen (not in a forceful way — craft your “opportunities wanted” pitch into your introduction).
After a few months of making opportunity my main career goal, it happened. I can happily report that through networking myself and my business, building better marketing, and talking about my goals and what I can offer others, I find myself happily busy doing work that I love.
So how can you take this leap to build better opportunities for yourself?
Know what you want to do. Know your passions. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Continue your education in the things you want to do. Then talk about them. Find networking opportunities. Build social media and internet marketing into your daily plan. Actively approach opportunities you want head-on. Then watch the floodgates open.
What’s the first thing that you do when you want to find a new resource, research a new problem, or find a solution?
You GOOGLE it! But what comes up when your potential prospects, leads, and customers are Googling you?
Like many, I went to college following high school. Also, like many, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After a few years spent jumping from Entomology to Pre-Law, to Microbiology, I settled on pursuing my degree in Psychology — but not to become a therapist. My goal of getting a degree was so I could, ideally, head my own research lab. Over a decade and a half since I started on that journey, I’m no closer to doing biochemical research, and that’s okay. It turned out that Psychology, while my passion, was not my true calling in life. Business, especially working with startups, ended up being what I loved to do.
Over ten thousand dollars in student loan debt later, I was approached with an opportunity. I was working in an architecture firm at the time and was contacted by two local businessmen. They had seen the way I worked and thought that with a little mentoring, I could manage a few companies they had invested in. Turns out, they were right. Within a few months, my naïve, fresh set of eyes had uncovered policies and processes that just didn’t make sense. Eventually, new practices were put forth that made the company’s successful, and the investors happy — and I had found my niche.
Now don’t get me wrong — my education in Psychology has been extremely beneficial, but for many years, I thought that without “MBA” after my moniker, I would never be taken seriously in the business world. Once again, I was schooled in ways that I never expected — and mostly for free.
The library has been a business owner’s best friend. MOOCs have helped me learn new industry standards in business, as well as other areas that have drastically changed how I run my company. Mentors and advisers have taught me that hands-on doing is far superior to hands-off learning. Most important of all, I learned how to think about problems and solutions, not just what to think.
The recent financial crises have proven that a college education doesn’t mean that you will have a successful career. Looking throughout history, many successful and memorable thought leaders were either drop-outs or drastically changed paths or careers. This isn’t meant as an attack on higher education — it still serves its place in terms of careers that require certain licensing, as well as being a part of the adult maturation gap between high school and “real life.” My main point is that a crowdsourced education can be just as helpful in your career, and won’t leave you penniless.
Continued education is huge in most careers, and many resources are available for free, or a low cost. Coursera, edX, Lynda, BrightTalk, and Future Learn are just a few of the places you can find classes to learn new skills to build your educational background, including many classes from top colleges and universities. Over the past several years, I have taken free classes in Lean Entrepreneurship, Social Entrepreneurship, Project Management, Coding, Foreign Language, Astrophysics, Cognitive Behavior, and Infectious Diseases, just to name a few, all from the comfort of my own home. Take a look — you never know what you’ll learn next!
What are your favorite sources for free online learning?
Every day, I get asked to explain what I do. Over the past 16 years, I have worked hard to find the right way to explain the answer, depending on who was asking. There are so many reasons that a business should hire a consultant, and I only fit about half of the needs that are brought to me. My brand pitch answers the question “what do you do,” but tends to leave more questions. After giving this some thought lately, I’ve identified six specialties that consultants tend to help with.
Objective perspectiveBusinesses often fall into a routine and see the same results because of it. Like the quote, “when you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always gotten.” When that strategy stops working, it’s time to bring in someone with new insight. A consultant is great for this because they come without the baggage an employee would bring. They are invested in finding, diagnosing, and solving your company’s problems without being invested in the company itself, which creates less of a conflict of interest problem for the business. Consultants bring creative solutions, resources, and tools to solve issues that are keeping the company from moving forward. They are the short-term intellectual capital that a company requires when they don’t need a full-time person with that skill set.
Automation and optimizationSometimes changing workloads among employees cause problems that a company cannot fix on their own. There might be skill gaps or overlaps that can cause decreased productivity among the teams. A consultant can evaluate and implement solutions that save time, save money, increase productivity, and build scalability within the company by evaluating the needs of the company and the skills of the employees. Then, the consultant can offer advice on how to automate and optimize the workloads so that the right people are contributing to the right work.
Crisis managementThere are several things that can cause a “crisis” within an organization — employee turnover, exit planning deficiencies, declining sales, and restructuring are just some of the actions that can throw a company into a downward spiral. These issues can cause serious and sudden productivity issues, declining sales, and poor strategic planning. A consultant can help in crises by assessing a company as it is and building a plan to get it where it needs to be. Crisis management consultants work similarly to the automation and optimization plan but under extreme pressure to turn situations around quickly.
Facilitating a functional teamIn business, personalities can be just as important as skills. Serious personality differences can cause conflict among teams, which reduces the team into a dysfunctional semblance of individuals who are unwilling to work together. Consultants can work through these issues to develop cohesion and make sure that goals are better aligned. They can teach skills and procedures in order to overcome the conflict that exists, and create a plan to keep it from destroying the progress that a team should have. They can also evaluate the needs a particular team should have, and make recommendations for missing or overlapping skills that would help the team to flourish.
Internal personnel cannot be the bad guysOftentimes, it is detrimental to a company to hear bad news from the higher ups. The news can create an anxious and sometimes hostile working environment. When a business has to deliver bad news, a consultant might be the best choice for the message. Consultants specializing in delivering changes and strategies that cannot come from internal personnel can craft the bad news in a way that makes sense, and since they are an outsider, the ill effects of the message are often taken less personally. A consultant specializing in crisis management is often the right fit for delivering the changes to the masses and knows how to strategize a plan for a turnaround.
Building new opportunitiesBusinesses looking for growth have many options, and sometimes the path leads them to develop new lines of business, and occasionally, a new business altogether. Sometimes companies have current ideas and projects that need outside validation in order to move forward. A consultant specializing in business and product development, project management, and startup growth strategy is the right fit for these needs. In many cases, employees don’t have the entrepreneurial skill set needed to grow creative ventures — but a consultant can teach a team the right skills, strategies, and processes for achieving the goal of creating a new product or service. They can also facilitate team building and evaluate skill sets in order to build the right team for the project.
Most businesses need to hire a consultant to solve a problem that they have at one time or another. Clearly identifying the needs of the company and finding the right consultant to fit that need is important to gain the results desired. Not every consultant will be the right fit, so be sure to have an understanding of what you need and make sure that they can offer the right solutions. Whether it’s for a fresh point-of-view, to improve productivity, to solve a serious problem, to fix a broken team, to deliver bad news, or to create a new venture, consultants can find the right way to grow your business.
There’s a huge misconception about balance and life — especially when you own a business (or two). We believe that balance means that all things are of equal value, meaning we should have an equal time of work and play. Instead, for work/life balance, we should be using a different definition of balance: a condition in which different elements are in the correct proportions. This misunderstanding of balance leads us to spend 8 hours a night sleeping, 8 hours a day at work (minimum, if you’re lucky), and the remaining 8 hours doing tasks like eating, exercise, personal time, and spending time with family. We see those 8-hour blocks of time as balance, but we’re missing one huge thing: quality.
When you think about the quality of your life, where does work fall? Likely, somewhere behind family and health, and possibly behind experiences. Our work/life balance doesn’t really fit with the personal importance of each element of our life. Most people, especially business owners, short change their priorities for more work — and this not the best way! So what can we do about it?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve cracked the code for how to add more hours to your day so that you can do it all, but I haven’t. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a realistic way to cut your work in half so that you have more time for other things, but once again, I haven’t. I can, however, tell you that balance does not mean that all sides are equal, and I can tell you ways to build in more time for things that matter.
Prioritize your work activitiesYou’ve heard time and time again that you need to have a daily task list. You’ve heard that you need to put the most time consuming and easily avoidable tasks first. There is so much advice about how to prioritize your daily work schedule, but few talk about passion. What are you passionate about? What is the reason you started your business? Was it to post an update to Facebook every day? Likely not. When you find tasks like these that you dread, or are time-consuming, outside of your area of expertise or passion, or just plain drain you, delegate them.
About 9 months ago, I realized that I was using too much of my work time doing administrative tasks that didn’t add to the company’s bottom line, that I didn’t enjoy, and that kept me from taking on more clients. I remedied that by hiring a part time virtual assistant. The time I save by delegating work that needs to be done but not by me, adds to my quality of life and minimizes the time I spend doing tedious work. Financially, it’s beneficial because I regained a few billable hours to my week which far outweigh the cost of hiring someone to do the tasks I don’t enjoy.
Prioritize your healthThere was a ridiculous article I read a few weeks ago, explaining all of the things that so-called experts tell us we must do each day to live a healthy life. I’m sure you’ve read how much time you’re supposed to exercise, and what you should be eating, and how sitting is killing you. Yesterday, I read that sitting for 2 hours negates 20 minutes of working out. If that’s correct, then the average employee who sits while working needs to combat that with 80 minutes of exercise (on top of your already busy day).
I fall into that idle employee, but I decided to make a few small changes that help me stay a bit more active. When I can, I work at a standing desk. I thought I would hate it, but I actually enjoy it. When I sit, I use a Yoga ball or stabilizing stool. I raised my computer up so that I wasn’t hunched over all day. Being a consultant, I spend a couple hours daily on my phone. Instead of sitting, I pace. I walk from room to room, back and forth, taking notes when I need to. These small changes mean that instead of sitting for 8 (or more) hours at work, I sit for 2–3, with frequent breaks.
Prioritize your mealsBreakfast is normally grabbed quickly, and lunch is normally something revived in the microwave. I enjoy cooking and typically cook every dinner we eat in a given week. As much as I like to cook, and more so like to eat healthily, this is an area that is time-consuming. Grocery shopping, food prep, and meal planning are important, but as my time feels more and more crunched by outside obligations, fast food and convenience items creep in. Instead of planning a weekly menu, I recently decided to try a meal service. Each week, I receive the ingredients (portion controlled) for 3 meals. Allowing this decision to be made for me frees up not only meal planning and prep times, but it also frees up mental space, allowing me to feel more relaxed and less rushed.
For breakfast, lunch, and snacks, my meal prep time saves the day. Breakfast is typically a protein shake or green smoothie. Having everything portioned out ahead of time in appropriate size containers takes away any excuse that leads me through the McDonald’s drive-thru. Lunch consists of grilled chicken, fresh veggies, a piece of fruit, and some sort of dipping sauce, like ranch or Asian peanut sauce. One day a week, I prep all of the chicken for lunch, then freeze whatever I won’t use within a couple days. Each day at lunchtime, I replenish what I used from the freezer. Snacks consist of sliced salami, cheese, and veggies. Planning ahead of time and taking the excuses out of your meals makes staying on track a lot easier.
Prioritize your family lifeIt’s easy to get caught up and stressed out in work life. It’s easy to be “off the clock,” but still feel like there’s more you can get done if you just do a little work in the evening or on weekends. With running two companies, I definitely feel like I can capitalize on my relaxation time in the evening by doing work. What I realized is that by not shutting off my work brain, I was shortchanging my family. I wasn’t present in their needs and wants. Instead of giving them my full attention, they would get less than half my attention as I typed or read away on my laptop. Instead of enjoying my time away from work, I was trying to fit my family in around work, not the other way around.
Lately, I set a quitting time. What I’ve realized is that a lot of the tasks that I thought were crucial to my success were time fillers and wasters, and rarely added value to my business. I also realized that as a partner and mother, my time with them is limited. In a little over 7 years, my son will be off to college. I want to have a relationship with him while we are under the same roof, and more importantly, I want to build a better relationship with my partner, because while my son will temporarily live with me, my partner will be here long after, and we need to have a good foundation. Instead of focusing on fitting in work in the after-hours, I focus on fitting in games, conversations, and being together.
Prioritize your sleepWhen faced with a 24 hour day, with not enough time to get things done, many people cut sleep first. Reducing your sleep, however, reduces every aspect in your quality of life. A lack of sleep ruins your focus, making you less productive, and more likely to waste time and get less done in your work life. A lack of sleep makes it less likely for you to get up and keep moving throughout your day, making you more likely to shorten your lifespan, among other health-related issues. A lack of sleep makes smarter choices less likely to happen, especially when they’re food or drink related. A lack of sleep makes you short and irritable with your loved ones, hurting feelings and relationships. Sleep is crucial to your success at every level.
What are your favorite steps when prioritizing your day?
Like this article? You might enjoy The Better Way to Waste Time. Click here to read it now!
I remember the day like it was yesterday, not a few decades ago. I walked into a room of strangers, a mix of 5-year-olds like me, plus their parents and our very first teachers. I remember feeling scared, overwhelmed, excited, but unsure. I didn’t know a single person besides my mom, and she’d soon be leaving me. I clung close to her side, observing the others and waiting to see what happened next.
There were two kindergarten classes in one room, and eventually, we were being called name by name to be sorted into our groups. I remember hearing the name “Nicole” , and walked hesitantly to the front of the room. There, I found two other confused little girls, also named Nicole. Turns out, I wasn’t the right Nicole, but in that moment, I found a connection with the other two, and we all became each other’s first friends.
Fast forward to a few years ago. A lot had changed, but I was in a similar situation. I had recently moved to a new city and was trying to find connections for my business. I didn’t know a single person, and prior to then, didn’t need to market my company locally to find business. For the first time in several years, I felt like I did that first day of kindergarten.
I walked into a local chamber of commerce meeting with hesitation, fear, and angst. Once again, I didn’t know a single person, but I did know that I needed to make allies, friends, colleagues, and customers. One stone-cold fact kept glaring at me: I didn’t know how to network.
Over the years, I had forgotten the one basic key to networking: find common ground.
I found that avoidance had become my go-to mechanism, but I was no longer in a position to resist that practice of introducing yourself to strangers. I sat, observed, and approached very few people during the business card exchange. I asked questions and tried to be confident, despite being terrified. I felt like that 5-year-old little girl again.
The next time, I decided to find shared experiences and make connections. I made it a point to remember names and specific information about the person, then recorded it in my Outlook contact list and information. At each meeting, I briefly connect with those I know, connect them with others, and connect with new people with ease. Each time, it grew a bit easier and easier to do.
Networking is scary — but we were able to do it in kindergarten and didn’t die.
I’m not a networking expert, but since that event a few years back, I have learned a thing or two about networking myself and my business. I still walk into a room with hesitation and fear, but that quickly subsides as I remember what I need to do, and the things I’ve practiced. A commonality is the simplest way to connect with someone new, then it’s up to you to build a meaningful connection. Getting over the fear of meeting new people gets easier with time.
Do you ever find yourself with a hole in your schedule that isn’t quite large enough to fill with something productive, so you pull out your cell phone and idly full your time by checking your Facebook feed? I hate to tell you this, but you are wasting time the wrong way.
I get it. I’m guilty of this too — whenever I find myself with unplanned extra time, I typically pull out my phone. It’s a hard habit to break, but there are far better uses of your time between tasks and appointments that four games of Bubble Shooter. According to a Nielson report in 2014, Americans over 18 use apps on their phone for an average of 43 hours and 31 minutes each month. That’s nearly two whole days, and is a lot of unproductive down time spent on things that don’t benefit your life.
Are you looking to take back those precious hours? Here are some better ways to waste time:
Get in the habit of carrying a book with youA 2001 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those who regularly read are 2–1/2 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Reading not only improves knowledge, but it also can help to improve your memory, reduce stress, and give you improved focus and concentration. As Groucho Marx put it, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Carry a notebook and penDid you know that writing daily can boost your immune system? In 2013, a New Zealand study found that writing reduced stress and helped healing after monitoring a ground of individuals who underwent medically necessary biopsies. A separate study found that writing helped with asthma, AIDS, and cancer patients as well. Help your body efficiently overcome both physical and mental trauma by putting pen to paper instead of poking at your phone.
Do nothing at allSpending down time meditating benefits your body and mind in many ways. It encourages a healthy lifestyle and helps you to practice self-awareness. Another great benefit of meditation? It slows adding by creating more grey matter, or cells, in your brain. A Harvard study found that meditation also lengthens the markers on your chromosomes that show your biological age.
Fill your free time with fitnessWe have all heard that sitting is the new smoking — our idle activity is slowly killing us. Instead, get up for your few free minutes and get moving. Squats, burpees, Yoga, or a quick trip around the block can help. In fact, you can help combat the midday slump without the addictive addition of caffeine by getting your heart pumping, even for just a few minutes. Quick workouts also drastically improve your mood.
Getting unhooked from your cell phone habit will improve your memory, decrease Alzheimer’s risks, reduce stress, improve immune functions, increase lifespan, boost your energy, and make you happier. Instead of tuning in to your mobile device, tune out and take back your free time.