When you run a business, one of the biggest challenges you'll face is managing your own time.
You'll undoubtedly want to take on as much work as possible to ensure healthy cash flow and future growth, but you might run the risk of burning yourself out.
To be successful, you don't have to 'burn the midnight oil' and become a martyr or saint, destined to bend over backwards for other people and burn yourself out. It's about finding balance.
You can thrive without excessive work and overtime. It's just a case of making small positive changes to manage your time more efficiently. The following tips will set you straight.
Assess your clients
Go through your list of clients and pick out those who are taking up too much time for little return. You know the ones I'm talking about – the type who hire you for small jobs every month but cause a lot of stress. What's the point? Get rid of them and make room for higher quality customers who pay you a better fee.
How do you get rid of them? Put up your prices or write a letter explaining you no longer provide that particular service. A word of caution – when saying goodbye to clients, don't burn any bridges and remain professional.
Have a vetting procedure
Any business will have those types of emails or phone calls from potential customers, asking for help, but that leads to nothing. You might be inclined to arrange a meeting and spend two or three hours, discussing their requirements or putting together a proposal, only to find they go elsewhere.
To ensure you only spend time on serious contenders, avoid those who only want to 'pick your brains' and steal ideas. Have a 'company procedure' to vet anyone who contacts your business. Try to determine their budget early on and get a feel for their business, to see if they're a good fit. A meeting should only be arranged if you believe it's worthwhile.
Learn how and when to say no
It's difficult saying 'no' to friends, family and business associates who might want your help – often for free. First of all, it's difficult for these people to understand the pressures, difficulties and stressful work you already have to deal with. Secondly, they probably don't realise how busy you are. Don't be guilted into doing things for people you know. You're running a business, not a charity.
Recognise and tackle distractions
There is always something to interrupt workflow and impact productivity. To ensure you stay focused, identify distractions and eliminate them. Read our advice on how to stay productive at work.
Stick to a routine
To be time-efficient, follow a proper routine. Have a defined start and finish to each day, and don't work late. Keep working hours as productive as possible, and you'll find that you won't need to work long hours. Besides, if you make the most of your leisure time, you'll be fresh and fully prepared for the next working day.
Have adequate systems in place
For effective time management, it's crucial to have a system in place. There are plenty of free and paid-for services available to help. I love Things – a Mac application for daily to-do lists. But there are plenty of other project management tools to consider.
Follow a realistic plan
Taking on too much work will only lead to burnout, so keep things manageable. Create a calendar and religiously follow it. Don't throw in lots of extra work when you know you won't be able to handle it. And if you're still working overtime? Put your prices up!
Learn how to delegate
When you freelance, it can be challenging to let go of control and allow others to help. But if your work is taking over your life, it might be time to admit defeat. Why not consider creating a reliable network of other freelancers to share the workload? Or perhaps now's the time to expand and take on staff?
Whichever route you take, be sure to delegate work wherever possible. Delegation isn't a case of giving up. It's about doing the best for your clients without letting standards slip. Just accept that every business will eventually need a bigger team to support an expanding client base.
Limit time-wasting activities
Meetings and conference calls can take up a lot of time. They can also be very draining, particularly if you have to travel and attend something hundreds of miles away. Try and limit meetings to a specific day each week, for example – make Tuesdays your 'meetings day' and only book things on that day. You can then spend the rest of the week concentrating on the juicy stuff, i.e. actual work.
Focus on what's important
No matter what you're currently doing, there will always be hundreds of other jobs waiting for you to tackle. Just focus on what's important right now and deal with the priorities. Then you can look at other, smaller jobs once you've handled the important stuff.
Be fully present and concentrate on one job at a time. Multi-tasking is never productive. To do something well, focus on that and that alone. You'll do a much better job and feel less stressed because of it. Only once you've completed that job should you move onto the next.
Take time out regularly
Running a business can be very stressful, so make sure you take lots of breaks and holidays to relax and 'get away from it all'. Even if you go and visit a friend for a weekend or go camping, it's so important to prioritise downtime.