How to be productive with your limited time

Time is our most precious commodity. Once it passes we cannot get it back so we need to make sure that we are using it effectively.

During the pandemic, we have all been working from home and our boundaries can easily get blurred. For many of us, the consequence of this is that we are working longer hours.

But the question is…. are we being productive with our time, or are we being busy fools?

A while back, I wrote a block post called Being a Busy Fool and it is by far my most popular post. Lots of people are searching on Google for this because they suspect they are being a busy fool and are looking for solutions to being more productive with their time.

So, in this blog, I want to share with you 6 strategies that I use myself, and share with my clients, that are super pragmatic concepts that you can start implementing in your working day to make sure that you are as productive as possible.

Get Clear Boundaries

The first tip I want to share with you is to get really clear boundaries in your working day. Currently, many of us fall out of bed and move straight into our office and start working. We then spend a bit of time reviewing emails or messing around on social media. And then our day starts on. Then maybe we don't have a lunch break and we continue working. Our energy fizzles out towards the end of the day when you're exhausted. To compound this, many others have blurred our boundaries even further by working at weekends in brackets because let’s face it there hasn’t been much to do whilst we’ve been stuck inside).

To counter this poor practice, you need to make sure that you have a sense of arriving and leaving work. If you're fortunate enough to have an office at home, then you can close the door and turn off your computer- clearly demarking the end of the day. To further earmark the start of the day, it’s also a good idea to still be dressing for work (i.e. don’t spend all day in your PJs

This tip is sort of obvious thing, right? But sometimes we just need to hear these things being said again to remind ourselves.

It is also a good idea to have a clear desk policy (that helps create a clear mind policy).

Have a clear desk and clear mind policy

If part of your evening ‘close down’ ritual is clearing your desk then it helps signify the end of your working day and it means when we start our day the next day, we begin with a clear desk (like starting the day with a blank sheet of paper) and consequently, a clear mind. The alternative is to end you day with a messy desk - with papers lying around everywhere, your computer still running with loads of windows open. You start the next day trying to pick up where you left off and quickly feel overwhelmed and stressed!

I know personally that I feel so much better when I arrive at my desk and it's nice & clean and I restart my computer. So, I try to make sure that I have a clear desk policy. Tidying up, clearing my desk and filing paper is part of my end of day ritual which brings me to tip 3 and that is having a morning and evening ritual.

Morning and Evening Rituals

Now, this is something I've borrowed from Michael Hyatt and his book Free to Focus.

The concept of a morning and evening ritual ties into the boundaries tip. Having a morning and evening ritual means that you are going to start and finish your day in the same way, every day.

A simple idea that will have a significant impact.

Let’s look at my morning and evening rituals as an example.

The first thing I do without fail every morning is to make a cup of coffee. I can't start my day without it! The action of making a coffee is like a trigger point to say my working day is starting. The second thing in my morning ritual is to go through my emails (I only check my email at 4 points during the day, so this is point 1). I try and delete as many emails as I can. I flag those that need answering, and if create any significant tasks, I make sure I schedule them in my day.

After cleaning my emails, I review and amend my schedule for the day (I use a tool called Marvin for scheduling but a sheet of paper or whatever your preferred app is will do). The key here is to make sure you allocate some time to plan your day before ploughing into your tasks.  And remember that when you read new emails, they may have some impact on your scheduling.

A good practice for scheduling is to overestimate how long task will take so that you allow some flex for interruptions that no doubt will happen during the day without throwing your schedule out the window.

Your goal is to tick everything off your to-do list for the day rather than creating a long list that never gets any shorter (we’ve all been there!). So, if you have new tasks coming in during the day, don’t just add them to your list but rather think when you need to schedule them. And if it has to be done today, what task in today's schedule are you going to defer to tomorrow or the next day or delete altogether?

So, after making a coffee, cleaning my emails and scheduling my day, I then just focus on the first task in my day. And that is my morning ritual!

My evening ritual looks very similar to that. I'll check my emails again (for the 4th time). My goal with emails is to try and get the mailbox down to zero. I will flag any emails up that I need to address, and I start to roughly outline tomorrow’s schedule. Then, most importantly, I close all my apps and shut my computer down, clear my desk, file any paperwork and I am done.

The key point about morning and evening rituals is that I know exactly how my day is going to start. And I feel like I have some control over my day because I've just invested time in strategically planning my day (which of course is the same way we need to approach our business) as opposed to just sitting down and asking “Okay, What's the priority? What's the big thing? Who is shouting the loudest?”.

The is a psychological benefit to this too - I can have two days that are the same, where I complete the same tasks.  The first day I've sat down and scheduled my day and at the end of the day, I feel accomplished. I feel like I've moved forward. I feel like I've done everything I needed to do.

The second version of that day - I don't schedule anything. Rather, I just sit down and get on with things. And at the end of the day, I don't feel a sense of accomplishment. I have this nagging doubt that there's something I missed. I'm not sure whether I'm moving forward, so it feels like I am just firefighting.

So, it's really important from a psychological perspective that you plan your day as well.

Use your time wisely

Staying with a focus on using your time in the most effective way, the 4th tip is something I have written about many times before and that is allocating your time across 3 ‘pots’ of time: strategy, revenue and admin.  It doesn't matter what you do or whether you're a one-man-band or 30-man agency, all of this applies.

Let’s do a quick refresh on what these three pots mean.

Time management

Revenue – how I am earning money this month

Your revenue time covers all tasks that involve your earning money this month i.e. client work that is already on the books. Simply put money today.

Strategy – how we will earn money in the future

This is all about money tomorrow. Everything you're going to do that's going to help your agency earn money in the future. This includes business development, marketing, proposals, pitches, networking - everything that will create opportunities for you in the future.

Admin – tasks that are costs and keep your agency running

The admin pots include tasks such as HR, managing your team, recruitment, finance, invoicing, credit control etc. All those really important tasks that keep your agency running but are a cost.

So that's a quick definition of these three pots. Now, when you’re scheduling your time, you need to get an appropriate balance across all three.

Imagine the agency owner that's just focused on delivering great client work and has no time to work on strategy. What does the future of their agency look like? They will be busy in the short term and then everything is going to fall off a cliff.  They don't have many opportunities in their pipeline because they haven't focused enough attention on strategy.

Similarly, imagine an agency that is focused on strategy. They may well have a full pipeline for the future but they're going to have major cash flow issues in the short term because they don't have a lot of client work on their books.

And lastly, if you get busy with revenue and strategy but at the expense of focusing some time on admin then you're going to quickly have cash flow issues because you have no time for invoicing or credit control!

So, the key here is to get the balance of your time across Revenue, Strategy and Admin right.

If you are not sure what that balance should be, I have an exercise that you can do to track your time over a couple of weeks to work out what your balance should be. You can access the tool here.

Otherwise, a good approximation is to spend around 60% of your time in revenue, 30% of your time in strategy and 10% of admin. So that means 60% delivering client work, 30% working on the future of your agency and then 10% working on the admin, (which is 1/2 day a week).

What does your split look like and how do you make sure that you get that balance, right?


The Notional Hourly Rate

The 5th area I want to talk about is the concept of a notional hourly rate.

Now, if you know me, you know I never want you to be selling hours to clients, so this might sound a little strange! But that's not what I'm talking about here. You should be value pricing and value selling to clients (which is a whole other topic!).

The concept of the notional hourly rate is really simple and is a good way for you to consider whether you should be doing a task, delegating or ditching it. Let’s say that notionally, an hour of your time is worth £150. Then the question you want to be asking yourself with all the tasks that you do is “Is this task worth £150 or more, or is it less than £150?” And if the answer is it's less than £150, you should be asking yourself, “why am I doing it?” (and you should probably be delegating this to somebody else).

If you're doing work that's worth £50 an hour instead of £150 then that probably means it's stopping you doing some work that's worth £150 on more (and that often looks like strategy work).

I use this is a quick yardstick for myself when I'm planning my day. Should I be doing this, or should somebody else be doing it?, or should I not be doing it all?

So, if you can delegate then delegate as much as possible, It might be that you have a team of freelance staff or a VA.

The 4Ds

This is another quick way to assess if you should be doing a task or not (and works in conjunction with tip 5).

The 4 Ds are: Ditch it, Delegate it, Defer it or Do it.

For every task, (especially one that’s less than your notional hourly rate) you should be asking yourself, can I ditch this task? Is it something that I need to do? If the answer is yes then ditch it and move on to the next task.

If the answer's no, then ask yourself can I delegate this to somebody else and don’t kid yourself - don't tell yourself Well, I could, but I haven't got the time or what they won't do as well as me. Those are not good reasons not to delegate. If the answer is yes, then spend the time delegating effectively.

If the answer is no, then ask yourself, can I defer it? In other words, can I do this at a later date, or does it have to be now? And if the answer is yes, then defer it and. schedule it for a later date.

If the answer is no, I can't defer it then you need to do it so schedule it for today.

Now I've added in 5th element to the 4Ds, which is 'Automate It' because there are so many great apps and useful productivity tools. That means sometimes we can get more efficient by using automation (e.g. email marketing systems, which can automate so many aspects of email marketing etc.).

The importance of having a plan

My last tip in this blog which will help keep you focused on the tasks that matter and keep your agency moving forward, is to make sure have a plan (which you will have developed during your strategy time).

I recommend that you have a one-year plan, which is broken down into quarterly plans, then monthly and weekly plans.  And if you have a management meeting, (which I highly recommend you do), then you use your monthly plan as the basis for the conversations in the management meeting to ensure that you are all thinking strategically and not diving into an operational discussion.

So, these are my 7 tips that to help you keep focused and productive:

  1. Make sure that you get really clear boundaries about when you're at work and when you're not working.
  2. Have that clear desk policy so that you start each day with a blank slate.
  3. Create a morning and evening ritual so that you start and finish the day in the same way.
  4. Break your time down into strategy, revenue and admin - making sure that you get the balance of your time across those three areas right for you.
  5. Understand your notional hourly rate and evaluate tasks against this rate
  6. Use the 4 Ds (Ditch it, Delegate it, Defer it, Do it) and I added in Automate it
  7. Have a plan for your agency for the year, quarter and month

Apply these techniques and you will find your productivity and focus increasing, and motivation improve.

Time management

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