As a small business owner, I am like the fabulous Bartholomew Cubbins of Dr. Seuss fame. I wear 500 hats, all different and all important. But unlike Mr. Cubbins, who wore his hats one at a time, it’s a business imperative that I find a way to juggle my hats right. Recently I gave up my office space in favor of working from home. While it’s extremely convenient in a bathrobe-and-slippers kind of way, I find that it has forced me to prioritize my time and my business in a new way.
Since I am famous in my circles for my ability to be distracted – that and my love of white boards – I find that I must have a system in order to be productive at home. With my propensity to be distracted at key moments, and especially when I feel overwhelmed, a simple set of tools is crucial to keeping me on track. I figure if I can be productive at least 80% of the time, this constitutes success.
1. I have my annual goals broken down into implementation tactics by quarter. This way, I know what my larger goals are for the year, and what activities I’m doing to get me there. I have this posted on my desk at eye level, so I see it every day.
2. Every day I make a to-do list, and I try to cross off at least 80% of the items. White boards, people, white boards! My to-do list always varies somewhat, but here’s a sample:
b. Customer Requests (Quotes/Scheduling changes/Quality Control responses)
c. Hiring – set up interviews
d. Update Infusionsoft copy & campaign for new website (Tactical project)
e. Send out Quality Results to staff
f. Employee engagement and QC at least once a week
It’s my goal to have two or three items on this list every day that are mission critical. Cash flow, staffing, and customer service usually are my top three mission critical activities. Then I try to move forward a piece of one or more of my larger tactical projects each day. These tactical projects usually can’t be completed in one sitting, but I try to move the needle on one of them every day, and touch all of them at least once per week.
Finally, I have made a commitment to try to interact with my employees out in the field at least once a week. This doesn’t go on the list every day, but I view it as crucial to succeeding in this new virtual environment. This usually takes the form of a random quality check at the homes they are working in, but I try to say hi, pass out kudos, etc.
3. I take myself by the ears and make myself focus on the essentials of the business for two hours.Consistent execution over time is my personal Achilles heel, as I’m easily bored by routine. Unfortunately, it’s also a basic requirement for running a successful business. For me, these not-so-fun essentials are things like invoicing and collecting payments, following up on customer emails, and scheduling. I’m not yet able to outsource these items, and they must be done daily or chaos takes over. This is not always easy for me since I sit at a desk in my family room, and at any moment something more interesting could surface. However, I try to make sure I give at least two solid hours to good old-fashioned company management before I get distracted by lunch, squirrels or my dirty dishes.
4. Once a week, I review the big picture.
a. I have to do this, because I’m a big picture person. Too many details will overwhelm me. Seeing how the to-do items I’ve completed relate back to my bigger goals keeps me from drowning in the sea of details that can arise over the course of a week. It also helps me keep any emerging details in the right priority order.
b. Are there any tactical projects I’ve completed that I can check off? Yay! Whiteboard moment!
c. Success Assessment: Based on what I’m seeing in the wild, do I need to change gears or regroup on any of my quarterly tactics? Is the tactic working like I thought it would?
d. Assess my employees’ mood and anything blocking their daily success – if they aren’t happy, quality and attendance degrade first, followed by turnover, so I try to keep a pulse on the mood of the group and remove what roadblocks I can.
5. I work on fun stuff every day. The parts of my business that I like to work on, I save for after my two hours of boring-but-responsible business ownership. Then I reward myself by doing what I enjoy. It’s why I love being a business owner – I can lose myself in P&L analysis, improving an internal process for new customers, or finding a better way of connecting with my employees. When I’m in my happy place I never even notice time.
6. I give myself permission to be distracted sometimes. I think this is important for someone like me who is creative and needs grist for my mental mill. There are times when it just has to be okay that I’m taking off on a walk, reading business tech news about solar roofing, or planning a culinary masterpiece for dinner. I come back to the mundane details of my business refreshed and with new ideas to move things forward.
7. I’ve hired a VA. Actually, I have two. My sales calls are being handled by a call center now. I only pay if they book it. I also have a behind-the-scenes VA who handles my internet quotes and my drip marketing campaign. I hope to soon have the VA handling the data entry for my KPIs, follow ups on customer feedback and background work and scheduling for all my hiring interviews. Maybe one day I will consolidate this all into one office staff job; maybe not. Right now, it costs me a few hundred dollars a month for each, and they each have a very different expertise, which is less bother than hiring one part-time person who might not have skill in both. It’s working, it keeps me sane for less than the cost of my previous office space, and I don’t have to answer my phone.
There are so many books and systems out there constantly touting their value, that it can feel like a bit like a wine-of-the-month club. Maybe they all work; maybe some methods are worth more than others. Maybe that wine-of-the-month club is actually the best way to go! For me, though, the key to successfully working at home has never been about reading a book, or adopting the exact “right program”, but finding a sustainable process that ensures I can be productive at least 80% of the time. That, and a couple of whiteboards.
Amy Thomas is CEO of Eastside Housecleaning in Issaquah, WA. Previously, Amy was in the insurance industry for 18 years. She holds a BS in Business Information Systems from Linfield College.