Need more time back in your day?
By Michaela Cavallaro

If so here are some simple steps you can take to save more time each day, be more efficient and concentrate more on the core of your business. You spend all your time putting out fires. When management is busy dealing with the crisis du jour, there's no time to figure out how to prevent the problems in the first place. Key employees burn out, and the business loses its way. Owners and managers who spend all their time putting out brush fires often overlook more fundamental issues that can threaten a business. "We can pay so much attention to getting the product out the door that we don't notice the product was in its death throes," says Jamie Walters, founder of San Francisco-based Ivy-Sea Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on leadership and entrepreneurship. Walters also is author of Big Vision, Small Business, a book about the role of vision in small businesses.


Revisit your vision for your business. Walters has great empathy for the demanding schedules entrepreneurs face-she's one herself-but she maintains that it's crucial to schedule time for what she calls a "vision checkin." The idea is to take time to ponder and shape the priorities and direction of your organization. Run the results past trusted advisors, who might point out blind spots. That done, you can work on specific strategies (several of which we'll address below) to get your work-life back on track. Owners and managers spend their time doing jobs someone else could do as well or better.

Ashlyn Gomez, who runs a Dalton, Pa.,marketing firm called Inkwell Business Writing, is reluctant to hand off responsibility to even the most trusted employee. "Entrepreneurs tend to be do-it-yourselfers, so it takes time to learn to actually trust and value the contributions of others,"she says. She's right about that. But business owners and managers who underestimate their staff and fail to delegate often find themselves overwhelmed. The results can be hard on your firm's bottom line-not to mention your mental health.

Delegate. The first step is to decide which tasks you should delegate. Mark Ellwood of Pace Productivity, a Toronto consulting firm, recommends pondering two questions: First, how does your business make its money? Second, how much of your time are you spending on the tasks that are directly related to that goal? For example, let's say you are a partner in a law firm that makes its profits finding clients and performing their legal work. You probably should focus on those tasks, not on administrative jobs that an office manager can easily do or oversee.Many entrepreneurs claim they can't afford to pay someone else to do a certain job-or they insist that no one else will know how to do the work right. Chances are, neither claim is true, but such errors of judgment can lead to dismal results.

Ellwood's verdict: "Delegation is where entrepreneurs are most likely to fail." You might start by delegating tasks such as administrative work and Web site development. Ellwood himself hires a specialist to implement his concepts for his website. He could certainly learn HTML, but it's far more efficient to pay someone else to do it while he focuses on meeting with new clients.

What if your employees are too busy to take on more work? Consider hiring a new person, or outsourcing some of the work. That way, Ellwood can do the work for which clients pay him: analyzing the results of their time studies and recommending how they can be more efficient. This kind of letting go isn't always easy, but it can be very liberating.You overlook or underestimate ways to use technology to make your company more efficient. That knowledge can be an important resource as you work to help your employees become more productive.

"A lot of what we see is small business owners either misusing or not taking advantage of software to streamline what they do," says Dave Waldrop, director of business development for Microsoft. Waldrop and others on his team do this by emphasizing the right applications for the right job and encouraging small businesses to link them all together. "For example, if a small business owner is using an Excel spreadsheet to manage payroll, it's functional, but it's not really what the program was designed to do," he says.

As an alternative, he recommends to his clients that they start using more comprehensive small business accounting software, which can now be used to track cash flow from the point-of-sale as well as automatically link to your payroll provider. "This can save you lot of time and it reduces the chances for mistakes," Waldrop points out, "because you're not having to re-enter financial data several times over." In addition, more and more small business owners are combining accounting programs like Microsoft's Office Accounting Pro or Intuit's QuickBooks with small business management software suites like those offered by Microsoft, NetSuite, or Hyperion Solutions to create helpful "business dashboards." The purpose of these dashboards is to distill all of a small business's sales, inventory, and financial data down into a single page of real-time, key performance indicators which, in turn, can be used by an owner or manager to make better informed, more timely decisions.

Focusing on the big picture rather than getting bogged down in the details is the real goal, here. Or, as Waldrop puts it: "We want to prevent small business owners from always getting stuck in the back office, we want to keep them in the front office." Whatever your strategy for enhancing productivity, it's helpful to lead by example. Case in point: If you interrupt whatever you're doing to respond immediately to employees' emails, they'll get the idea that they should do the same. Similarly, employees who see you making time to meet with your advisors about the company's strategic direction, communicating your goals clearly, and delegating or outsourcing appropriate tasks, are likely to follow suit. Chances are, your company will be the better for it.

Michaela Cavallaro is a freelance writer. In 2005, he was named the National Small Business Journalist of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.