Appearing in In The Black Digital site, July 2017
Cutting the ‘to-do’ list down to size
It’s about organising the tasks rather than increasing the hours.
“A lot of people in business tell me they are too busy, with too many tasks to do and not enough resources to do them,” says Mark Holton, business coach and consultant. “But the reality is often that they often don’t devote enough attention to time management and setting priorities.”
According to Holton, many SMEs principals have no effective business plan. In some cases, they may have drafted a plan in order to obtain finance but afterwards the plan is filed away and forgotten. The result is that the workload of each day is driven by the in-box rather than organised around achieving goals.
“For many SME principals, their only strategy is to put in more hours. But as they do that the quality of their work falls, and their personal life invariably suffers. Their task list needs to be systematic and they need to understand their priorities. This is where a good financial adviser can help. They can set up a system of metrics to identify which clients yield the most value and which type of work is best for the firm. In some cases, it can make more sense to say ‘no’ to a client. That’s the sort of thing that can be seen more easily by an external adviser, who can offer a broader perspective and financial understanding.”
He notes that many SME principals say that they do not have enough time to establish a system of priorities. The result is a to-do list which is disorganised, ad hoc, and seldom completed. Holton’s response to the ‘too busy to think’ line is that good time management and prioritisation have to be seen as investments in the firm, so that even if there is a short-term cost there will be a long-term gain.
Matt Malouf, business strategist and entrepreneur, and author of the new book The Stop Doing List (Wiley $27.95) agrees that there is a tendency for SME principals – although it can be found in managers in all organisations – to want to do everything themselves.
“My research shows that many people don’t really know how they spend their time, let alone how they should allocate their time to reflect their value. You’re in trouble when your to-do list is larger than the amount of time in the day. The answer to that is not the making your day longer but reducing the number of tasks.”
The website that accompanies the book, http://www.stopdoing.com.au, provides a downloadable time log that allows managers to track in detail how they spend their time. Malouf suggests that the log should be kept for a fortnight, at least twice a year.
“When you see it written down you often realise that time is being wasted on distractions, such as emails and social media,” he says. “Much of that can simply be eliminated. There are other tasks, such as organising meetings and initial website responses, that can be handled by software.”
Especially when a company is at an early stage, an untenable to-do list is usually a sign that it is time to recruit people to take over some of the workload.
Malouf notes that when entrepreneurs first think of hiring more people they often think of full-time employees. But there is also the option of part-time people or contracting specialists for particular tasks. In fact, he believes that hiring specialists rather than generalists is often the better course.
“You have to be clear on the skill set you need, the conditions of the job, and what additional training might be needed,” he says. “Delegation is a skill in its own right. There is no point in hiring someone, training them, and then re-doing their work. Supervision and oversight is important, but so is the need to let people do their job. You need to get past that mentality of ‘if you want it done right do it yourself’.
“It can be worthwhile to invest some time and money in learning how to effectively delegate. That also helps you appreciate that it is best to start slow and build up with your management skills.
“In my experience, many entrepreneurs and SME principals eventually realise that they need to learn how to be a manager. The trigger is often when they lose a good person or there is some other setback. That makes them realise that business growth is about effective time management, people management, and self-management.”
Likewise, Holton emphasises the aspect of investment, arguing that investment in people – including yourself – is as important as investment in equipment or technology.
“Unfortunately, there are still many people in the accounting profession who think in very technical terms,” he says. “That might be connected to accounting education, which focuses on technical issues. We are seeing more management education appear in accounting courses, and an increasing willingness for accountants to acquire management education to supplement their finance skills, but it’s a long process.”