Time, or lack of it, is an ever-present concern for SMEs. This is hardly surprising given that owner-managers frequently wear many hats and find themselves juggling a variety of roles from looking at the bigger company picture to dealing with the day-to-do minutia of running a business. Claire O'Mahony tells us five ways to stay on track.

1. Audit your working week

Completing a log of how you spend your time can be illuminating.
"You learn so much about where your time goes," says Moira Dunne, founder of Dublin-based productivity and time management consultancy BeProductive. "It's a really reactive world we're in now, largely because of all the digital communication. Most people  work with their email switched on the whole time and if you’re in a small business it’s very hard to not do that because you want to be available but it does mean that you’re constantly getting interrupted."

Dunne suggests getting strategic about what has to be done and the time available to do it. "It’s about identifying  something like 'We get 10 queries a day coming in from X’ and looking at putting something in place to support that – should they all be coming into me; can we reroute them to someone else, or are five people monitoring the same group inbox and they’re all getting the same distractions, and does that make sense?" Coaching psychologist and organisational consultant Síle Walsh advises doing an energy audit.

"I recommend energy management to my clients instead of time management. There's only 24 hours in a day but the energy we use in each hour can vary. When we understand what the energy use is for the activity, and the payoff, it makes it easier to manage what we do," she says.

2. Put monetary value on your time

According to Dunne, if you were to make a list of the activities that make money and a list of what you spend time on, the two are not always aligned. "It’s useful for each company or individual to say what are the most valuable activities in my role or for our team or our business and it’s identifying  the things that don’t contribute to money making activities and then trying to reduce those or eliminate them."

Meetings, while they can be productive, can also be a drain on resources and she points to tools like the Harvard Business Review’s Meeting Cost Calculator to assess what the financial costs of meetings are for a company.

3. Cultivate the art of delegation

Owner-managers can find it very difficult to hand over any aspect of their business, when they feel that can do the task quicker and more efficiently than someone else. However, delegating means freeing up time and allows them to focus on more important activities. For example, this might mean stepping back from direct contact with clients, which can be difficult according to Dunne.

"You might really enjoy those tasks because sometimes they're much more tangible than sitting down at 9am on a Monday morning and saying 'I’m going to be strategic for an hour’. That’s really challenging for the brain whereas the interactive customer stuff can often be a comfort zone," she says.

Walsh agrees that one of the best forms of time management in a small business is to nurture the skill of delegation. "I say nurture because to simply delegate for a leader-manager can set them up to fail. If we don't build the capacity of our team then delegation doesn't work." Delegation allows a team to grow and encourages them to stay with a company. "It’s not about getting people to do something for you so that that you don’t have to do it. It’s also about developing your team and giving them more responsibility so that they can see a development path," says Dunne.

4. Build flexibility into your plan

According to Dunne, it’s pointless coming up with a plan and maxing out your schedule for the day and then not being able to respond to issues or situations that subsequently arise.

"Don’t over schedule because then it means that it’s not realistic and when all those calls crop up, this becomes a stress and you’re thinking, I can’t get my plan done now, when in fact that’s not realistic for the business that you’re in."

5. Look after yourself

"When we sleep and eat well our mental function is better, allowing us to work more effectively," says Walsh. "Time management is not about managing our time but ourselves in relation to how we spend our time."  Dunne also maintains that energy levels are key when it comes to productivity, so it’s important to be able to switch off and have breaks.

"I often say to people if you have to work long hours – and you might have to do this for a particular crisis – while you might be productive doing those extra hours, you’re often stealing productivity from the next day."

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