By Brett Owens
Getting through your to-do list faster isn't what time management is actually about – at least not anymore. After all, this is the digital era, baby!
You have a handheld supercomputer sitting in your pocket, a nonstop barrage of interruptions, and more expected of you than would have been expected of three accounting professionals a mere twenty years ago.
Rather than managing our existing allocation of time as if it was finite, we need to find ways to make our share of time larger, preferably by a multiple of two or more. Forget the modest notion of merely getting things done. We need to do better, and we can if we employ some "radical" strategies.
Strategy 1: Focus Intensely on the Single-Most Important Item
What you really need to do is to look at everything on your list, pick the single-most important thing, and then work on it, uninterrupted, until it's completed.
The uninterrupted part is the toughest, by far. While it's easy and tempting to check your e-mail, answer the phone, respond to an instant message, or click over to a Web site, if you can eliminate the interruptions, you'll boost your productivity significantly and be able to work the same or even fewer hours.
No, you're not squeezing thirty hours into a twenty-four-hour day. Instead, you're making sure two things happen:
First, you're working on the single-most important task at hand – not the most urgent task or the easiest one – the most important one. Don't mistake this for putting out the biggest fire – emergencies are one thing, getting your most important task done is another. Most of the time – if we even have the time – we plow through our to-do lists without questioning whether it makes a difference if we complete most of tasks or not. The sad truth is this: It doesn't matter. The 80/20 rule tells us that 80 percent of our results will come from 20 percent of our input. By picking the single-most important task to work on, we're making sure that this action falls within the critical 20 percent.
Second, by focusing 100 percent of our energies on the single-most important item, we'll accomplish it much faster than we would've if we'd allowed ourselves to be distracted by interruptions, or worse, tried to multitask and complete two or three items at once.
Interruptions are the real killer. It's amazing how fast you can get something done, if that's the only thing you do.
Strategy 2: Automate Everything – and I Mean Everything
Everything that's being done manually in your office or when you work remotely needs to be given a good hard look. We're on the eve of 2012. At long last, software is actually starting to work!
The dirty secret few software industry providers want you to know is that adoption rates – and I'm talking about adoption rates on anything – are actually pretty dismal. I believe that's the case because most business software has traditionally been quite complex, requiring a lot of adoption, training, and wrangling on the part of the user. The result? We ultimately opt for a simple solution like Word, Excel, and perhaps QuickBooks to manage a practice.
If you've written off software for years – and trust me, you're not alone – now is actually a good time to take a look around. Here are a few key business processes you can easily automate to help expand your available productive time:
Accounting:QuickBooks Online is good alternative to QuickBooks desktop. With QuickBooks Online, you can log in to your clients' accounts directly without the need to send files back and forth. If you're up for considering alternatives to the QuickBooks universe altogether, you might want to start your search with upstart Xero, an online accounting software program.
Time and billing: Our friend Dustin Wheeler, CPA, of Wallace Neumann & Verville, LLP, just wrote about a sweet time and billing hookup between my beloved Chrometa and our partner FreshBooks. Check out Wheeler's easy workflow.
Project management: We use two products for project management. First, WorkFlowy is a great, free app for keeping a bullet point list you can share with your colleagues. It's essentially a whiteboard on a Web page, which is often all you need for good project management. For more collaborative bells and whistles, such as milestone tracking and file sharing, check out Basecamp, the most popular project management app for small business.
E-mail marketing: I'm a huge fan of sending out a monthly e-mail newsletter. I believe it's the highest leverage marketing activity you can do. More leverage gives us more time. If you're new to e-mail marketing, the easiest tools to get started with, in my experience, are MailChimp and Constant Contact. Both make it easy to import your existing contacts and get started. I highly recommend you put this on the top of your marketing to-do list.
Strategy 3: Ditch (Most) of Your Social Media Efforts
If you think this idea is controversial, you probably need to be reading this. Are you actually getting anything from your social media efforts, or do you just feel busy?
Don't confuse effort with effectiveness. If you're not tracing new clients back to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, maybe it's time to dial back or outright ax the time you put into social media.
I speak from experience. At Chrometa, we don't use social media as a lead-generation tool because we found it doesn't work! I think social media is a great way to interact with clients and colleagues and to engage in conversation. It's fine as a virtual watercooler, but it's a big-time sink in terms of business development.
The Bottom Line
Remember when outsourcing was all the rage? Well, computers have come a long way, overtaking humans in a wide range of tasks. This is a very good thing for the enterprising professional. You can command a workforce much larger than your current one for the low monthly price of most software offerings.
Whether you consider outsourcing as part of your plans for 2012, the bottom line is simple. Eliminating your interruptions, automating your busywork, and reducing your social media burn should help you grow your total productive time – and make your work more fun and fulfilling to boot.
Take baby steps. If you only have the bandwidth to adopt one of the three time-saving strategies in this article, then go for one and tackle the others in succession. Make yourself a list of goals and stick to it!
About the Author:
Brett Owens is CEO and Co-Founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time management software that accurately records and reports back how you spend your time. Previously marketed to only the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation and improving personal productivity. Brett is also a blogger and founder at ContraryInvesting.com, as well as a regular contributor to two leading financial media sites, SeekingAlpha.com and Minyanville.