We’ve all heard it.
To be a successful small business owner, you have to manage your time.
And, I agree. I also understand that our lives and schedules are fluid and ever-changing depending on the situation. To be successful at managing your time, you must also be successful at understanding the mindset, the best way to plan, and the tools that work for you.
I’ve organized this article into three areas that all work together to help teach you the different methods and tools you can use when managing your time. The perfect schedule you used last week may not work the next. Your incredibly productive colleague has a time management strategy tailored to their life. It may be an utter failure if you try to copy them simply because your life is different. I hope this article gives you the resources to experiment and build a time management toolbox that you can use to manage your time the most effectively for you.
Table of Contents:
- Find the Balance
- Start Small
- Don’t be afraid to say no
- Work in your ideal flow
- Avoid Distractions
- Task Switching
- Rest Time
- Emotional Support Tools
- Have a Goal
- Plan your year, quarter, month, day
- Make a List
- Make a schedule
- Block your time
- Don’t Overbook
- Avoid Multitasking
*This post contains affiliate links. It is no extra cost to you and provides a small commission to me. Any affiliate links are of products I use and enjoy!
Set Your Mindset to Manage Your Time for Your Small Business
Your mindset around time management is the best first step to being successful. Even if you’ve researched the best tools, tactics, and practices, if you aren’t mentally and emotionally about to use and implement them, they won’t work. Here are ways you can safeguard and build a healthy mindset around time management. These tools are helpful for your small business success, and also apply to life in general.
1. Find the Time Management Tools that Work for You
You don’t have to follow anyone’s suggestions for time management. You don’t have to be a part of the 4 am club to be good at managing your time. And you don’t have to have a zero-based calendar to be a master at managing your time. The best time management for your small business is whatever works FOR YOU. In order to find that, it takes experimentation, curiosity, and trial and error. (Just like most things in life!) Remember that how you managed your time last year may no longer work with your life right now. Approach your schedule with flexibility and kindness. Your business will grow and change over time, and most effective way to manage your time will grow and change as well.
2. Start Managing Your Time with Small Steps
When you google “time management tips for small business owners” it has 675,000,000 hits! There are MANY people sharing all the different ways to manage your time. It can be really easy to feel inspired and motivated to jump in feet first and completely revamp how you spend your time. I encourage you NOT TO DO THIS! The best way to incorporate time management tools into your small business is by building new habits one by one over time.
In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he says:
Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. … The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. … What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.Atomic Habits, pg. 15
By wanting to better manage your time, you will most likely need to change your habits. Start by picking one new time management tool, then implement it into your small business long enough that you
- Decide if it is the correct tool for your business and,
- It becomes integrated into your business systems and procedures.
The most common time frame to gauge a new habit is 21 days. However, if your business runs on quarterly goals, you may take those 3 months to implement one new tactic. Your patience in exploring slowly will pay off.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
Having effective time management for your small business will involve you saying “no.” It can be hard to cultivate the skill of declining. When you say “no,” you are choosing your priorities and plans for your time. When you say “yes” to something other than what you scheduled your time for, you are also saying “no” to what you had already committed to. Now, of course, there will always be times when schedules need to shift. Creating boundaries around the time you spend in your small business will help you navigate when to say “no” or “yes.”
In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism, he says:
The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost- in other words, the value of what we are giving up – then it is especially easy to fall into the non-essential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.Essentialism, pg. 138
Some examples of where to say “no” within your small business:
- When you procrastinate out of fear (of judgment, of failure, or of the unknown). If you find yourself not working on what you had scheduled time to do, notice this and examine why you’ve chosen (either consciously or unconsciously) to avoid the work. This insight can help inform you of mindset changes you may need to work on.
- When you become distracted. Say “no” to social media, friend’s calls, and emails (to name a few) during your promised focused work time.
- When your work is the priority. Your friend may invite you to a last-minute lunch date, or your client may “need” a meeting with you that day. You get to decide if those really should take priority over what you had already scheduled for the day.
4. Work in Your Ideal Flow
Your ideal workflow is when you’re able to sink into a mental state of focus and your productivity can peak. In a state of flow, you forget about time, you aren’t distracted, and you feel fulfilled by the work. In order to settle into your flow, set the environment by finding the right time of day, a quiet place without distractions, and a long enough period of time for you to settle in. When these three things align, and with a bit of practice, these times of flow are wonderful experiences and help move your business forward.
5. Avoid Distractions
I’m putting this in the mindset section because many of the common distractions happen because we let them. For example, if you are choosing to spend a chunk of time on focused work, but you also have your email open, it will be very hard to ignore that tab as new emails come in. You may think you can multitask [link to multitasking section], but in reality you are choosing to distract yourself from the priority of the scheduled time. Along with email, any notifications, background activity, or mind-chatter can all be distracting. Small business owners have to juggle enough as is. Whenever you can put your focus on only one thing, the better that time spent will be.
I used an app called Forest App on my phone. You can set a timer from 10 min-two hours. If you complete the timer without canceling, you plant a virtual tree or plant and earn points. If you cancel early, the plant dies. I like this app because when my brain says, “Go check social on your phone,” the open app is just enough of a deterrent to stay focused. Also, if you raise enough points, you can use them to plant an actual tree in real life!
6. Task Switching
Task switching is when you move often between different tasks. Each time you switch tasks, it can take seconds to minutes for you to refocus on what it’s front of you. The more often you switch tasks, the more of your time and energy is wasted in refocusing. This repeated task switching will greatly affect your productivity. You often wear many different hats as a small business owner and it can therefore be necessary to bounce from task to task. Managing your time best will focus on switching tasks as little as possible throughout the day.
Time blocking is one way to help you stay focused on one thing at a time. For example, you may set aside 30 minutes a few times a day for checking email. If you aren’t in one of those blocks of time, your email stays closed. Another way to block time is for specific marketing or administrative tasks. This can be helpful if there are parts of your business that you don’t like doing! It can be easy to become distracted and switch tasks if you need to spend time on a task you don’t enjoy doing. However, if you set a timer and commit to only working on that task, you will make more progress in that committed time because you are consciously choosing to not switch tasks.
7. Rest Time
Rest is productive. I’ll say it one more time just for good measure. Rest is Productive! Proper time management for your small business includes adequate rest. Your ability to focus, be present, and use your time management tactics and tools will all fail if you don’t have proper rest. The physical and emotional benefits of proper rest have been more in the mainstream these past few years. As a small business owner, it’s possible that your time is constantly being filled with commitments to your business as well as your personal life. It can be hard to create the time to slow down and recharge. If a full night’s sleep is either not possible, or not consistent, look into these 7 areas of life to find an area you can spend some time in to get some relief.
8. Small Business Emotional Support Tools
Starting a business can be isolating. You have this idea in your head and heart that you are working hard to turn into a reality. The moments of challenges and roadblocks and frustration will happen. You may be derailed from the promise you made to yourself and start to either work longer and harder to push through or loosen your deadlines to the point of not moving forward. Building an external support system allows you to step outside of the immediate needs of the business so you can access it if you are putting your energy in the right direction. Friends and family are always a good place to start. However, starting a business is risky and hard and even those with the best intentions may not understand that you need a pep talk and not their projected fears or worries about your decisions. Finding and building a community of other business owners will help give you the support, guidance, and comradery needed to push through when times are tough. A few places to look are:
- SCORE –SCORE is a part of the Small Business Administration. It is a free resource provided by the government. You are connected with a business coach who helps guide you in areas you are having a hard time with concerning your business.
- Online Business Communities-
- Chamber of Commerce –Most cities have a Chamber of Commerce. The main purpose is to build a thriving economy through networking, support, and guidance for the local businesses. Here you can often find a wide range of business experiences to draw upon.
Planning as a way to Manage Your Time
9. Know Your Priorities for your Small Business
“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.” Greg McKeown of Essentialism.Essentialism, pg. 16
When I think about my business, I have different buckets I put my focus and time in. I have my client work bucket, my marketing bucket, my finance bucket, and my future planning bucket among others. I have goals, deadlines, and projects within each bucket. In order to keep on track and manage my time, I have to remind myself that muddling my priorities will only slow the growth of my business. Each year I pick the big priority for my business. As of writing this, my big priority is my business foundation. As I move through the weeks, months, and quarters, it helps me stay focused because that one priority is what I first use to manage my time.
As you plan your time, pick one top priority for whatever segment of time you planning. Whether it’s the day, week, month, quarter, or year, choose ONE thing that is the main focus. This doesn’t mean you only pick one task or one project. This is about what tasks or projects are part of that one priority. As an example, let’s say your priority for the year is to gain more clients. Once you’ve scheduled out all the repeating and required tasks and commitments for your business, all other time should go towards gaining more clients. That is your one priority. When you do this, it helps cut down on spending your time inefficiently.
Macon York of MaconYorkPress must keep the big picture in mind when managing her time:
10. Have a Goal
Being a business owner and setting goals really go hand in hand. In order to see your business move forward (or backward), it’s best to have something to work towards. When you google “how to set a goal,” you get back 684,000,000 hits!!! In my experience, the best method for setting a goal is whatever works best for you! I’ve experimented with many different methods and styles until I found one that works. Setting goals, following your plan and achieving the outcome take constant flexibility and experimentation.
My current goal setting and execution were developed by mashing together three different small business-specific resources. In my research on setting and achieving goals, weight loss seems to be a popular example. However, it was hard for me to fully understand how to apply these systems and tactics to my business. How do I pick goals? How do I know what my priorities are? How do I navigate what my business can look like 5 years down the road? These foundational questions are very specific for small business owners. When you manage your time as a small business owner, learning how to set business goals is a valuable skill in the health and growth of your business.
Here are three different approaches to setting goals for small business owners.
11. Plan Your Year, Quarter, Month, Day
What’s all the rage come December of any year? Planning those resolutions for a brand new year, and reviewing what you accomplished. Whether you choose to plan your year in December, January, or some other designated month, decide on the one overarching priority and the big 3 to 4 goals/commitments/achievements for your business to be your guidepost for the following 12 months. From there you can start to organize what order these achievements should happen best, and create more and more detailed plans of how these will come to fruition. I take my planning quarter by quarter. My client load ebbs and flows and I’ve found that picking one goal per quarter allows the flexibility to manage my time around that goal, my client work, my other business tasks, and my personal obligations.
If you aren’t tired of hearing me say it, it’s really up to you to figure out how many goals are realistic for you and your business. A few things to take into consideration when making your plans are:
Do you have personal trips planned?
Normal business tasks?
Check out this podcast for an example of how Wandering Aimfully owners Jason and Caroline Zook managed large projects.
12. Make a list
A must-do when you talk about time management and planning is getting all your tasks out of your head and written down. It doesn’t matter whether it’s physical or digital. Don’t trust your brain to remember everything. You’re setting yourself up for failure. On average, our brains can only hold 7 things (plus or minus 2) in our short-term memory at a time. If you add in your nonbusiness list, like, don’t be late to the dentist, those seven slots get filled up quickly!
Creating a list is a great first step in managing your time as a small business owner. Perhaps you write out a weekly to-do list, then fine-tune it each day. Or if you have a quarterly goal, you write out each and every task it will take to achieve the goal. The best method is whatever works best for you. One caveat is your list should be easy to access and kept up to date. Making a list then shoving it to the bottom of the pile on your desk, or in a random Google Folder labeled “Time Management” isn’t productive or helpful. Also, if you have the same to-do list from last month that you are adding things to more than you’re crossing off and achieving, it’s become more of a dumping ground rather than a productive piece of information.
Creating a massive brain dump list can be amazingly helpful. Especially if you are planning out a larger project. You will feel lighter emotionally from getting all of those ideas bobbing around in your head out and onto your list. You can also start to see the big picture of how all those tasks work together to improve your business. Instead of using your time trying to remember what to do next, or backtracking and fixing something you forgot, your lists will help you stay on track and use your time well. Once you’ve got all your tasks out of your head, the next step is to organize and slot them into your schedule.
Celeste Flores of Clay And Steel explains how lists and boundaries are a must have in managing her time:
13. Make a Schedule
Now you’ve got your plan for the next chunks of time and you’ve written out all the tasks to achieve them. The next best way to manage your time is to schedule, schedule, schedule. As James Clear says;
“If you commit to nothing, then you’ll find that it’s easy to be distracted by everything.”
Let’s take for example that your goal is to work 30 hours a week on business-related tasks. What I’ve found best is to schedule between 20-25 of those hours each week. That remaining 5-10 hours a week allows for the ebb and flow that business and life have. In the best-case scenario, each day you can get a head start on the next day’s tasks and by Friday your weekly list is empty! Worst case scenario is life has other plans and you either barely make it to 20 hours, or less. Either way, by creating a small amount of white space each week allows you to maintain momentum and sets you up to achieve those weekly commitments.
Your schedule may be in a paper planner, on your Google calendar, in a Notion Dashboard, or in one of the many project management tools (ClickUp, Trello, Asana, Monday, etc…) View this schedule as your “Plan A.” If you reference the Mindset section of this article, it can help guide you in making decisions if you need to change your plan. Keep on reading below for ways to schedule and manage your time.
14. Block Your Time
Time blocking has been one of my best tools in time management. Through experience, I’ve found I can stay focused for up to 3 hours (with breaks). After that, I need a good break for some food and movement. I create two 3 hour blocks for each working day. Normally I do a morning block, followed by a lunch break, then the afternoon block. I was first introduced to time blocking by Emily Thompson of Being Boss. She’s created a great worksheet to help guide small business owners in blocking their schedules.
A more “traditional” block maybe 4 hours of work, an hour lunch break, then another 4 hours. Or perhaps you have family commitments where you work for 2 hours, then break for the family, get in another hour in the afternoon, then another 3-4 in the evening. Your weeks may vary in terms of when you have time. This is where sitting down each week and creating that schedule and blocking out dedicated work time is crucial. In my business, my goal is to keep my working time to 30 hours a week. I keep that as the “big block” and track my time [insert time tracking anchor link] each week around that goal. If my Plan A doesn’t work, I can easily see where I am in total weekly hours worked and adjust my remaining blocks of time to accommodate.
Another way to manage your time in blocks is if you have repeating tasks such as accounting, cleaning, marketing, client calls. These can be placed into repeating blocks of time. Perhaps you have blocks of time on Wednesdays and Thursdays for client calls. Maybe on the first Friday of each month, you reconcile last month’s finances. Scheduling these blocks of time honor your commitment to your business and help you manage your time.
Yana Dirkx, owner of Workjoy uses time blocks in this way:
15. Don’t Overbook
I spoke about this a bit when I talked about Making a Schedule [insert anchor text]. In Western Society, we love to go for the ultimate productivity and efficiency of our time. If we only got up at 4 a.m., then we could achieve greatness. We believe we can manage and juggle 4, 5, even 6 “top priorities.” We’ve been conditioned and taught that a “normal” and “successful” life is working 40 hours a week, plus staying physically healthy, plus after-school activities, plus maintaining all our relationships, plus, plus, plus…
All that to say, there will be times when your schedule is full. It is a necessity to keep food on the table and bills paid. You may be in the grind of getting a business up and profitable. Or managing multiple schedules between partners, kids, family, and friends. In our current society, an overbooked schedule is often seen as someone succeeding and thriving in life. “Effective Time Management” is thrown around as the missing part in our chronically overbooked lives. This is still touted even with all the media around the benefits of meditation, physical movement, and slowing down to be present. I encourage you to look into Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism [insert book link], where he outlines “the vital few from the trivial many.” It’s a way of thinking that can help us manage our time and learn when to say “no” to things that don’t serve us.
What I can say is this, when possible, schedule your life to 80% capacity. When possible, find those 5-30 minutes to sit quietly, go for a walk, dream about the future, find gratitude. When possible, plan for a future that allows you the space to thrive as a human.
*Caveat, this is coming from a cis-gendered lower-middle-class white woman. I am learning and understanding how my view of life is privileged. I understand the privilege of the ability to create space in my life largely due to the circumstances of my upbringing and the color of my skin.
16. Avoid Multitasking
I will admit that multitasking is possible. However, concentration on two tasks at once is not. Yes, you can brush your teeth while listening to the morning news. Yes, you can clean the house while carrying on a conversation. It is not possible to work at your highest quality if you’re trying to do more than one thing at a time. If you are writing a blog post, but also check your email every few minutes, you’re trying to multitask and the blog post is going to take longer to write and the quality will be poor. You will get more done, at a higher quality, by diving in with your full focus. The best time spent in your business is when you can focus on one thing at a time.
Build Your Time Management Toolbox
17. Track Your Time
Data is information. As a business owner, it seems normal that you track sales, expenses, inventory, and milage. Tracking your time should be just as important. When you track your time, you’re gathering useful information about how you work, and the health of your business. Take hourly employees as an example, they exchange an hour of their time for a set dollar amount. Your hourly rate is also a meaningful metric as a small business owner. Our business can quickly infiltrate all areas of our days and lives. When you’re just starting out, or in a season of launching a new product, you will probably be working more hours than is ideal. The only way you’ll know for sure is if you track it.
Time management for small businesses includes knowing how long different tasks will take. This helps you know how much to price your offers, when you’re working more or less than you committed to, and if one area of your business is getting too much or not enough attention.
Here are a few examples of the power of tracking your time in your small business:
- Let’s say you run a project-based business. By tracking how long different client projects take, you can then see if you’re rate is able to pull a profit. If you’re charging $500 for a job that takes on average 10 hours to complete, your hourly rate is $50. Once you subtract taxes and business expenses, you’re left with somewhere between $20-$35 (depending on business expenses). This information allows you to calculate how many of these projects you need to meet your income needs.
- How about you have a product-based business where you make jewelry. You can track how long each piece takes to make, photograph, list, package, and ship. All this time is part of your overhead.
There are many many many methods and apps and programs to help you track your time. A few recommendations are:
Manage your time by creating automation for any repetitive tasks! This can be creating email templates, recurring bills, marketing sequences, scheduling social media post, and client forms. As an example, I use Content Snare to gather my clients information about their business and brand. I have a standard form with a built in email sequence to remind them of their deadline. I was able to create this once (well, it took a few clients to get it where it is today), and now it takes me about 10 minutes to create and send to a new client. This form orginially took me over two hours to populate and then schedule the reminder emails. That time I now spend on other parts of my business.
Another amazing tool is Zapier. Zapier connects different apps to create an automated workflow. For example, if a client bought a product from Gum Road, you could set up a zap that adds them to your email marketing welcome list. Then another zap that triggers the welcome email sequence to send. Then another zap to move their email into the main list.
One more example is to use email templates. I use Google Workspace for my business email. I have a series of email templates that cover client onboarding, website feedback, and offboarding. Even though I customize the email for the client, the basic info is all the same. By creating the template, I manage my time but not reinventing the wheel for each client, and not having to copy and paste for another client’s email. That time is spent in other ares of my business instead.
19. Delegation and Outsourcing
Delegation is a small business owner’s superpower. The power of delegating allows you the time and space to think big about growth and operations and how to build profit in your business. Make a list of the areas of your business you don’t like to work on. Bookkeeping was an area for me that I struggled with. As hard as I tried to keep up with classifying expenses every month and keeping my money organized for my CPA, I always put it off till later. Once my income allowed, it was the first expense I outsourced. Not only did this clear up time in my schedule, I found I was able to focus easier on my business knowing this area was taken care of.
Areas in your business you can look into outsourcing are, bookkeeping, posting on social media, and email marketing. Managing your time as small business owner goes beyond business only delegation and outsourcing. Perhaps there are areas of your personal life you could hand off to someone else. Do you have other people in your household you can share chores with? Can you order in a meal delivery service? Are there options for house cleaners, lawn care, or laundry? These don’t have to be an all or nothing. Perhaps you have a big launch coming up, and the best way to manage your time is to get a meal delivery service for a week or two. Or maybe your business got an unexpected bump in sales and all your time needs to be focused on those sales so you hire someone to clean your house once a month. Stay curious and experiment on where and how delegation and outsourcing can help you manage your time.
20. Create Your Processes
I mentioned in the making a schedule [create anchor link] section a few different programs to help build out your processes and systems. These programs all have the ability to create and duplicate processes. When you onboard a new client, create a new project, or marketing a launch, these are all areas that are repeatable and therefore have the same blueprint each time. Process Driven have a great program on building out your small business processes. They focus on implememtation in ClickUp, but the tools can be used in whatever project management system you use.
When you create your processes, come to them with an experimental mindset. This is an area where it’s a time investment in the beginning that pays off later. And your processes are never completely done. They are created then adjusted and tweaked over time with more experience and engagement. It’s way easier to make adjustments to a current process than to start from scratch each time.
A good starting point for documenting your processes is to open a blank document and make a list of each and every step for everything you do in your business. This may take anywhere from a day to a month to fill out depending on how things run in your business. Once that list is made, you can either create a simple to-do list that you copy and paste each time you are doing the task, all the way up to a multi step process with due dates and multiple people involved. The process, systems of operations, and lists help you manage your time by taking the guess work out of what a project will take to complete and how long it should take.
As an example, my process to write an article like this is
- Decide the Topic
- Research the Topic
- Find Keywords
- First Draft
- Edit Draft
- Write Title
- Find Images and Graphics
- Format it in WordPress
- Finalize SEO
You may be thinking that 11 steps to write one article seems a bit overkill! But, this structure helps my time management because I don’t spend time thinking or remembering or worrying about how long it will take and how to do it. One step further is I have a project set up in Notion with all these tasks (with the estimated time) already populated. I simply duplicate the project, assign a do-date to the tasks and then execute.
21. Clean Your Space
Anytime you have to hunt, dig, and search, it takes time. Whether it’s that elusive missing sock or the client document. Deleting, organizing, and donating things in your digital and physical space that you no longer need clears up your mental space. This clarity helps you to focus and in return manage your time better. Energy rises and dips throughout the day, and every time you spend energy in an untidy/cluttered/unorganized space, it takes that energy from an area of your business you need it for.
Chances are you’ve heard of Marie Kondo or the Minimalism movement. Both have value in how you can approach what a clean space is for you. Be ruthless and remove what you no longer need, organize what you do, and build a practice of tidying up to keep your physical and digital spaces clean and ready to support you.
First, if you made it through this whole article in one sitting, well done!
Second, I hope this article can act as a resource hub for you to return to when you need to brush up on your time management skills. Time management for your small business is a practice. The goal is not to perfect your system or search for the ideal combination of mindset, planning, and tools. The goal is to meet each project, time frame, and decision equipped with the knowledge to make the best time management decision at the moment.
Are there other time management tools and tips that I missed? Let me know on Instagram!