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See that beautifully arranged desk top in the image above? It’s nice to look at, but come on. No one’s desk actually looks that Instagram ready. When you’re a small business owner, any given day is a mountain of multitasking that can easily turn to mayhem. So much time can be wasted simply trying to decide which task to do first.

Some days, all the theories and systems in the world won’t keep your day from derailing, but most of the time, a few simple tricks can make all the difference. Your desk still won’t look like a geometric dream come true, but you’ll end your days feeling accomplished and capable.

 

Prioritize Your Tasks

The order in which you tackle your to-dos affects how efficiently you get your work done. Self-development author, Brian Tracy, is well-known for his “Eat That Frog” method, based on a quote by Mark Twain:

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Start your morning by getting the most important, most difficult, and most dreaded task out of the way, so you are free to focus on the rest of your day. Get it done before any distractions encourage you to procrastinate, then you don’t have to spin your mental wheels thinking about it.

This time spent absorbed in one, high-value task is also referred to as “deep work” and is very beneficial to your mental abilities and productivity.

Plus, getting that one big thing done gives you a boost of accomplishment that sets the tone for a successful day.

 

Email is Not the Enemy

An inbox full of unread and unanswered emails can feel so daunting that the task of organizing your email gets put off, and the problem just continues to grow. Depending on the type of business you run, there are two good methods for staying on top of your emails without letting it eating up hours of your day.

If you are responsible for corresponding with clients, it is important in to respond quickly. However, if all you do is reply to clients as their emails trickle in during the day, you’ll likely get nothing else accomplished. Schedule short blocks of time throughout your day to reply to emails. The first one can be scheduled after your morning hour of tackling the “frog.” Additional time might work around lunchtime, and again at the end of the day. 

If replying to client emails is not much of a factor in your business, you might want to try the “yesterbox” method, created by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. He considers yesterday’s emails today’s to-do list and answers yesterday’s emails today, “There’s a sense of progress as you process each email from yesterday and remove it from your inbox, and there’s actually a point when you have zero emails left to process from yesterday.”

Working with email is essential, but letting it overwhelm you is not. Some real things you can do to control your email time are turning off notifications of new emails on your phone or computer and setting a timer when it’s time to look at your emails–and honoring it.

 

Rethink Time

Named after a very smart Italian economist, the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) says that 80% of your outcomes (income, customer base, etc.) result from 20% of your input. Today, the theory has been applied to all aspects of life from workouts to relationships, but it’s especially true when you’re running a business. Remember that frog you ate? That was probably a big, slimy chunk of your twenty percent for the day. 

This does not mean that the other 80% of your efforts are a waste, but some of them can be lowered on your priority list, delegated to someone else, or even eliminated. The trick is to figure out which activities belong to that 20% margin and focus more energy and time on them.

Creating to-do lists is a good way to visualize where your efforts should be focused. Keeping the 80/20 rule in mind, order the items by the effect they will have on your business’s results. Anything that can directly lead to increased sales takes precedence. 

 

Give your Brain a Break

Your brain works hard and needs a break if you’re going to do your best work. Whatever recharges your batteries, whether it’s exercise, reading, or meditation, build time into your schedule to clear your mind. Treat this time with the same importance as the frogs. Just as intense workouts call for periods of active rest, so should your typical work day.

Staying constantly busy does not mean you are in a constant state of productivity. Dov Frohman, the former vice president of Intel Corporation, insists, “In Western culture today, we live under the premise that ‘I’m busy’ means ‘I’m efficient,’ and if you’re not busy, that’s seen as a big, big problem… If you look at the calendars of most leaders and managers, you see that there is no space for reflection, no space for reevaluating failures, no space for daydreaming, which to me, is an essential part of leadership, because just about every one of my breakthroughs were results of daydreams.” Making time for your brain to rest may lead to your next great business idea.

 

Sample Day

So here’s what all of this adds up to. Not accounting for any appointments and the brain relaxation that works for you, or what your 20% activities are, the framework for a productive day may look like this:

  1. Turn off or silence your phone. Do not open your email or social media.
  2. Eat a frog.
  3. Turn your phone back on. (It’s unrealistic to tell you to keep it off much longer.)
  4. Spend a set block of time on emails. You’ll finish what you don’t get to at the next block of email time.
  5. Take on tasks in order of their effect on your business’s results.
  6. Identify tomorrow’s frog(s) and tasks.

 

Recommended Reading:

Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch