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5 Tips for Balancing Your Clients’ Calendars With Your Own

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5 Tips for Balancing Your Clients’ Calendars With Your Own

It’s easy to be the client’s yes-man: agreeing to last-minute projects and too-fast turnarounds, booking back-to-back meetings, and worrying about how you’ll complete the work you take on.

Don’t get me wrong: Clients’ needs are important. In fact, they’re the reason you see profits at the end of the quarter. But if you’re constantly reacting to client needs, when will you have time to work on all of the other things that keep your company moving forward?

Resist the urge to overload your schedule. Not only does it put you at risk of letting a client down, but it can lead to all sorts of chronic health problems. 

Balancing your client’s calendar with your own can feel like walking on a tightrope. Cut yourself some slack with these five tips:

1. Know when you work best.

When do you feel most energized? It could be in the morning right after a cup of coffee, or in mid-afternoon as the office gets quiet and your inbox traffic slows. Identify the time of day when you’re at peak productivity.

No matter what part of the day works best for you, block this time out on your schedule for focused, distraction-free work. Don’t let the whirlwind of meetings and emails keep you from spending this time on your most pressing projects. 

This is the work of setting boundaries, which benefit everyone involved: You finish projects on time, and your client gets a better outcome. Don’t feel guilty for it. 

2. Use an online scheduling tool.

Although paper planners and calendars have their benefits, working from an online calendar is the best way to stay on top of the fast-paced work environment.

To that calendar, add not just your meetings and appointments, but also those blocks of time when you want to do deep work. Set it so that your team members and, if you so choose, your clients can see your availability. 

Giving clients open access to your calendar might be nerve-wracking. But think about the advantages of such a system: Clients who can see your calendar will understand that you can’t meet at a time that you’ve already committed to someone else. Make rearranging your schedule the last resort. 

3. Build a buffer into timeline estimates.

When setting the project timeline, be realistic. Give estimates according to when you could comfortably complete the work, not when you could do it if you pushed everything else out of the way.

Sure, it’s nice to impress a client with a quick turnaround. If you do that for every client, though, you’ll quickly run out of time and energy. 

Apply the “buffer” approach to your meeting schedule as well. Give yourself small blocks of time between appointments to decompress, answer emails, and prepare for the next one. 

4. Look at the big picture.

You know what times of year are most and least profitable for your business. The same is true of your clients.

It’s likely that your clients have an idea of how their year will look and what they might need in a given season. At the start of the calendar year, ask your long-term clients what projects they anticipate needing your help with. Not only does reaching out early show that you want to maintain your relationship with them, but it lets you know well in advance what’s coming.

Go ahead and add those projects to your calendar. Set reminders to follow up with each client for details as the start dates draw closer. 

5. Get creative.

Make use of every minute of your schedule. If you find yourself squandering interstitial periods, ask whether you could use them to buy yourself time elsewhere. 

For example, you could take lunch meetings or chat with clients over happy hour. If you usually commute to appointments, could you take some of them via a videoconferencing service?

Videoconferencing is a good solution for all sorts of meetings. Not only does it keep you at your desk, but it allows you to share your screen and record the conversation.

At the end of the day, remember that you’re the captain of your calendar. It’s OK to occasionally feel overwhelmed by your workload, but it shouldn’t be the norm. Client needs are important, yes, but you should not live by their beck and call.

How to Squeeze More Time Out of Your Busy Schedule

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How to Squeeze More Time Out of Your Busy Schedule

Entrepreneurs have it hard. Not only do they have to operate a business, but they also have to ensure that they can manage their day-to-day tasks on top of it.

Staying busy isn’t a bad thing, but many entrepreneurs find themselves trying to fit too many things into their schedules. 

If you’re an entrepreneur who is feeling overwhelmed, or the days just keep getting busier, here are a few ways you can free up your time for the most important things on your calendar:

1. Get Rid of Pointless Meetings.

Your time is valuable and deserves your respect. It might not always feel like it, but you have control of your own calendar. In order to free up your time, it’s critical to take a closer look at some of your meeting schedule.

Stop letting people put unnecessary appointments on your calendar.

Make clear to employees, clients, and vendors what constitutes a meeting and what the expectations are for that meeting. A meeting should have a defined purpose, an approximate start and end time, and a detailed agenda. 

Implement a policy that you won’t take a meeting that does not include these items. If someone feels they can’t include these items when scheduling a meeting, perhaps a phone call or email might be a better use of your time. 

Evaluate your current schedule and make changes as needed.

As a leader, it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of your current schedule so you can make the most of your time. Are you meeting deadlines? Is your meeting schedule working each week? Do you feel the pressure of the clock? 

Answering these questions and making changes where you see fit will help clean up your calendar and free up more time in the day.

Learn to say “no.”

Although the word “no” has an inherently negative connotation, go ahead and get comfortable with it. Others will understand if you need to decline the occasional meeting. Offer to reschedule it or suggest an alternative solution. 

Leverage an online scheduling tool.

Appointment scheduling software like Calendar are incredibly helpful for calendar management. Use them to minimize email back-and-forth, avoid overbooking yourself, and getting a quick glimpse of your day’s appointments.

Go ahead and block off one day a week for deep work. A popular method is to implement a one-day-a-week no-meetings policy. Use that time to prevent or solve complex business problems. 

2. Reduce the Amount of Time Spent at Your Desk.

Entrepreneurs often feel like they are “too busy to take a break.” But that simply isn’t true.

Breaks are good for the brain, and spending 8 hours at your desk doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve had a productive day. When you find the luxury of a free, 15-minute time period, try filling it by doing something for yourself, rather than trying to cram in another task.

Options include:

  • Meditating: If you feel anxious or overly stressed during the workday, use your free time to meditate. It could significantly reduce your stress level and give you the boost you need to continue on with a productive day. Even something as simple as going into a quiet room, focusing on your breathing, and clearing every thought in your mind can make a huge difference in your day.
  • Listening to a short podcast: Podcasts can be a way to unwind, and a great learning tool. Thousands of podcasts are uploaded every day on topics like business, money, news, politics, comedy and more. Listening to a podcast that aligns with your line of work can offer inspiration on a slow day. 
  • Reading a book: A short, 15-minute break is plenty of time to catch up on a chapter of your favorite book. Whether you’re reading for business or pleasure, reading is relaxing and can heighten brain function.

Don’t be afraid to take that little bit of time for yourself. You’ll be less stressed and more productive.

3. Cut Out Busy Work.

While it’s important to fill up your free time with non-work tasks, you’ll also find that much of your schedule is filled with busy work. Identify these tasks and limit the time you spend on them. To assist with busy work, appoint your top employees to managerial roles, and don’t be afraid to delegate these tasks as you see fit. 

Cutting out busy work will free up time for business development. For example, you can focus on managing your business’ social media pages. As an entrepreneur, people want to hear what you have to say, and find your experience and opinions very valuable. By putting out thought leadership pieces or video content, you can gain your following, and next thing you know, you’re viral—and so is your business. 

You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel when you pare down your calendar. Be proactive, and don’t try to take on too much. And if you have already, make changes so you can be your best self. 

Wake Up, Listen Up: 7 Podcasts to Kickstart Your Day

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Wake Up, Listen Up: 7 Podcasts to Kickstart Your Day

In the car, on the train, or while you walk to work: Your morning commute is an ideal time to kickstart the day with a podcast. 

Unlike articles and videos, podcasts let you keep your eyes on the road and your mind on your bigger things. Multitasking may not work in many contexts, but audio content lets you learn new things while you go through your morning routine.

What show should you choose? You probably aren’t looking for a dense, data-heavy podcast. But when you’re gearing up for work, you probably don’t want a fluff-filled talk show, either. These podcasts offer the perfect balance of educational and easy:

1. The Daily

This one’s for the news junkies out there who don’t have time to sift through multiple sources. Published each weekday by The New York Times, The Daily is a quick, 20-minute recap of the day’s biggest stories.

Think of The Daily like a first cup of coffee. Host Michael Barbaro brings New York Times reporters in to share a bite-sized version of a larger story they’re reporting. It’s sharp, thought-provoking, and over before you know it. 

2. HBR IdeaCast

If you like to start the business day thinking about business, give HBR IdeaCast a listen. Harvard Business Review’s weekly podcast features cutting-edge thinkers in business and management on subjects ranging from digital transformation to combating subconscious biases. The shows, which run between 20 and 30 minutes, invariably offer actionable ideas to help entrepreneurs grow personally or professionally. 

3. How I Built This

Have you ever wondered how big-name brands and movements came to be? In NPR’s How I Built This, host Guy Raz interviews innovators, entrepreneurs, and next-generation thinkers about how they developed their signature achievements.

Who are those entrepreneurs? The founders of Patagonia, Zappos, and Lyft have made appearances, as have the owners of “Main Street” companies like Tate’s Bake Shop and Chicken Salad Chick. If you’re looking for a place to start and like the NBC show “Shark Tank,” check out Raz’s interview with Daymond John

4. The Pitch

Speaking of “Shark Tank,” The Pitch takes the investing show’s approach to the airwaves. The Pitch’s tagline says it all: “Where real entrepreneurs pitch to real investors—for real money.” New episodes air only once a week, but they’re anything but predictable. As with “Shark Tank,” investors sometimes bite on unexpected products and pass on ones that, to the listener, seem promising. Some listeners might find it a little high-stakes for the morning, but it’s certainly a good way to wake up. 

5. TED Radio Hour

If you’re a fan of TED Talks, try the TED Radio Hour, which companies multiple Talks around a single theme. The podcast hits on everything from how to be more creative, the power of positivity, and why kindness is so important.

One thing to beware of: TED Radio Hour episodes last, as the name implies, a full hour. Be prepared to hit pause when you pull into the parking lot at work. 

6. StartUp

Think of StartUp like How I Built This but for the startup ecosystem. Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg hosts an eclectic lineup of leaders who fall outside the lines of traditional business. With his signature offbeat humor, Blumberg interviews personalities from cycling whistleblowers to gay country music stars. With episodes running roughly half an hour, StartUp is a great way to laugh while you explore the nooks and crannies of entrepreneurship. 

7. Planet Money

Planet Money might be best described as a podcast about money for people who hate money. Although each episode has some sort of tie to the finance world, they’re often looser than expected. The tale of the FCC taking on robocalls, the cost of free doughnuts, and the business side of choosing the color of the year are some of the more noteworthy topics the show has recently covered. Short, 15-25 minute episodes make Planet Money a great choice for commuters.

Whatever your business background and listening tastes, there’s a podcast for you. Put one on, sit back, and start your day with a good story.

How to Handle a Meeting-Happy Client

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How to Handle a Meeting-Happy Client

Saying “no” is tough for everyone, including entrepreneurs. You want to do right by your clients, but you can’t spend your whole day meeting with them.

Every moment you spend in a meeting is one you can’t spend working on your business. Don’t let meeting-happy clients pull you away from your other priorities.

Start by keeping a time log so you know exactly how you’re spending your time. If one or two accounts are responsible for a disproportionate amount of your meeting time:

1. Get to the root of the issue. 

Clients know their time is limited, too. If they keep asking to meet with you, look for common themes. Show that you’re working to solve their needs, and you should see those requests fall off.

Try this: When the client reaches out, respond by asking for more details about the reason for the meeting. In many cases, a meeting simply isn’t necessary. If it’s something that you can address yourself, do it. Report back, and ask if the client still wants to meet.

2. Delegate. 

If your client constantly asks to meet — especially if it’s for a legitimate reason — one solution might be to ask a team member to take the meetings. That way, the client feels supported, and your schedule stays open.

Be sure, though, that the client respects your employee’s time. Ask them to schedule meetings at least 48 hours in advance, and ensure meetings last no longer than an hour. 

3. Be direct and quick.

What if, despite you solving the client’s issue, he or she still wants to meet? Say no, but don’t beat around the bush.

Being decisive and clear benefits everyone. Think of it like tearing off a Band-Aid: It’s better to get through the pain quickly than let it fester. In fact, a great client will appreciate your straightforward, timely response.

4. Provide additional resources.

Just because you say “no” to a meeting doesn’t mean you can’t be a good partner. If you can’t solve the client’s issue yourself, share content about it or make a referral to someone who can.

If multiple clients have come to you about this issue, consider developing a whitepaper or similar asset around it. A robust content strategy can be a great way to bring in new business. 

5. Template your responses. 

No matter how well you handle meeting-happy clients, there will always be more. Prepare yourself for the next one by setting up templates. Make each response is decisive and inoffensive.

Start with two: For those that you see no reason to meet with, “My calendar is booked for the foreseeable future” is a good response. For the rest, say something like, “I would love to discuss this with you further, but let’s wait for our next scheduled meeting.”

Practice makes perfect: The only way you’re going to get better at saying “no” to your clients is by doing it over and over again. Own your schedule, and don’t be ashamed of it. 

6 Ways to Use a Spare 15 Minutes at Work

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6 Ways to Use a Spare 15 Minutes at Work

When you’re used to moving from task to task or meeting to meeting, fifteen minutes of downtime can be a bit unsettling. You don’t want to waste half of that time thinking about what to do and wind up regretting it.

Luckily, there are so many ways to spend downtime at work. The key is to have a plan to make the most of it:

1. Declutter.

Decluttering can significantly benefit your mental state and productivity levels. Maybe there are papers piling up all over your workspace, or perhaps you struggle to find office supplies you need. Downtime is perfect for reorganizing the area that you work in. 

But decluttering doesn’t end there. Your digital workspace is just as important as your physical one, so use your downtime to get rid of unneeded files and create new folders for organizing the ones that you do need. 

2. Respond to emails.

How often do you open up your email to find an empty inbox? Don’t let them pile up; spend your spare 15 minutes deleting unnecessary ones and responding to others.

Which are worth answering immediately, and which should you put off? Apply the two-minute rule. If you need more time than that to answer any one message, shelve it until your dedicated time to answer emails. 

3. Get some reading done.

Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to read through some news articles, informative editorials, or blog posts. If none of those tickle your fancy, haul out an inspirational book

What if you aren’t sure what to read? Take those 15 minutes to prepare your reading list. Send out emails asking for suggestions. Order them according to your interests and the insights you expect to gain by reading them. 

4. Play a game.

Games are not a waste of time when they have a purpose. If you’re feeling a little burned out or are struggling to get your brain in gear, play a game of Sudoku or a word search. Keep a booklet of puzzles in your back pocket for cab rides and airport lounges. The New York Times has some mini-crosswords that won’t take as long as their larger ones. 

5. Listen to a short podcast.

Podcasts are another good way to stay informed during periods of downtime. There are dozens of business podcasts whose episodes are 30 minutes or less. Put on a pair of headphones, and take a walk. 

What if you’ve got a little more time? Throw on a TED Talk. Learn something new by selecting one outside of your field. And if you do need to cut it short, podcasts can always be paused and resumed later. 

6. Meditate.

If you get anxious during the workday, why not take 15 minutes to meditate? Even short periods of meditation can significantly boost your productivity and reduce your stress levels.

Consider using a meditation app like Headspace or Calm to guide your sessions. Otherwise, simply listen to your breath, and try not to judge your thoughts. You can meditate in an office, a conference room, or while walking. 

Downtime is not the same as — or shouldn’t be, anyway — wasted time. Fifteen minutes may seem like a small amount of time, but when you use it wisely, it can make a big difference in your day.

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Setting Holiday Hours

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3 Things to Keep in Mind When Setting Holiday Hours

 As I visit different stores to do my Christmas shopping, I always wonder how different companies decide when they will be open during the holidays. 

I see some stores and companies shut down for a few days, or even a couple weeks as the year comes to a close. Others seem not to skip a beat and remain open all the way through Christmas and the New Year. 

Setting holiday hours is a matter of balancing competing needs: On one hand, it’s important to respect employees’ need for work-life balance. On the other, don’t you want to maximize the time your customers can spend in store?

So what should your holiday hours be? That’s up to you; make the call with these considerations in mind:

1. Holiday rushes happen.

Although you should set regular hours for most of the year, your holiday schedule needn’t be set in stone. Sometimes it’s best to be flexible on certain weeknights or over the weekend to take advantage of big shopping rushes. 

A business that chooses to stay open for even 30 more minutes on a few nights during the Christmas season stands to benefit when competitors are closed. Earn enough, and you might be able to give everyone a few extra days off. 

2. Your customers have similar shopping habits.

Of course, you still want to predict busy periods when you can. Don’t just sit around and try out different things: Talk to your customers.

You sell one set of products to similar audiences: Chances are, those customers have similar shopping habits. When do they want to shop? What products should you be sure are stocked during those periods?

Ask, too, about incentives. Is there anything else you could use to draw them in? Are there certain deals your competitors are offering?

3. Your staff has holiday plans.

It’s a busy time for everyone during the holidays. Family members come in to town, there are plenty of activities for kids, and travel is common during the week between Christmas and New Years.

One way to honor your staff’s holiday plans without losing out on sales? Build your holiday schedule around the hours that your team is most motivated and productive. Morning hours might be a smart bet, when most people’s energy levels are higher. 

What if you run a restaurant or other service that people tend to visit at night? In that case, you stay open only at night. You’ll keep your servers and bartenders busy, giving them ample opportunities to collect more tips from generous customers.

Making the Call

As 2020 approaches, it’s natural to want to celebrate. But before closing up shop, remember that you’ve got visitors who are checking their list twice and thinking of you. 

Staying flexible with your hours to accommodate shoppers is a powerful way to boost your bottom line. It can make you a bigger name in your community, put some extra cash in your staff’s pocket, and ensure everyone gets the gifts they want. 

So what should your holiday hours be? Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all schedule. Be flexible, check with your team, and ask your customers. Soon enough, the answer will present itself.

When Are Hour-Long Meetings Worth it?

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More than 10 million meetings are held every day in the U.S. Well spent or not, those interactions add up to billions of dollars in employee time.

Given how expensive meetings are, it’s incumbent on businesses to use them sparingly. If something can be accomplished via email or a quick chat, it should be. But while that should be the rule, there are some important exceptions.

When Long Meetings Make Sense

When are lengthy meetings appropriate? At least four common business situations call for them:

1. Executive-level negotiations

When you’re trying to forge a partnership or sway an investor, an hour-long meeting might make sense. High-stakes decisions don’t lend themselves well to snappy phone calls or quick chats at Starbucks.

Start by developing an agenda. Estimate the amount of time you’ll need for each step; before creating the calendar invite, add it up to determine a meeting length.

If you suspect you’ll need more than an hour, consider breaking the meeting up into two or more sessions. Executives and investors are busy people, and they simply may not have a calendar slot large enough to accomodate a multi-hour meeting. 

2. Performance reviews

Whether you’re digging into marketing data, financial projections, or employee conduct, performance-analysis meetings take time. Because these reviews do not happen every day (or even every week), spending more time on them isn’t such a bad idea. 

The greater measure of time between reviews, the lengthier a meeting can — and is expected to — be. A quarterly review may take an hour and a half; an annual, whole-company performance analysis might be worth spending an entire day off site for a retreat. 

3. Long-term planning

Certain long-term topics are worth taking a full hour to discuss. Take hiring: Filling an open role costs more than $4,000, on average. In terms of lost productivity and the company’s reputation, making a mishire costs even more.

Another is product development. New products costs millions of dollars and years to develop, and just 1 in 20 of them succeed in the market. At that level of investment, an extended discussion is warranted: What’s the product’s audience? What need does it fulfill? How does it do so better than similar products on the market?

4. Feedback on major projects

Project feedback is a mixed bag: A blog post doesn’t require a meeting to review, much less an hour-long one; a high-fidelity prototype that cost $30,000 to produce, however, probably does. 

How can you determine where that line is? Ask yourself two questions: How important is the project to the business, and what’s the risk to the company if it does not go well? If in doubt, ask a colleague whether they think it’s worth getting the whole team together to discuss.

Conducted properly, these types of meetings deliver more value to the business than they cost in employee time. But many other common reasons for meetings do not meet that bar.

When to Keep Meetings Short (or Cancel Them Altogether)

Fortunately, knowing which meetings can be cancelled or kept short is relatively simple. Don’t even dream of scheduling a full hour to discuss:

  • Weekly progress updates, especially with individuals or small teams: If the update can be summed up in an email, it should be. If you need to know how an individual is progressing on a project, send them a Slack or set up a quick call. 
  • Revenue and expense breakdowns for the wider team: Understandably, you want your workers to know how the company is faring. But figures can be shared via email; if employees have questions, they’ll stop by to ask.
  • Brainstorms for marketing assets, such as blogs or email campaigns: Competent team members can come up with topic ideas on their own. If a large number of topics are needed at once, ask everyone to bring a few ideas to the table, using the meeting time to pare them down to the strongest ones. 
  • Personal schedule updates, such as vacations or appointments: Use an online calendar to communicate out-of-office events. Send an email to explain where everything stands before leaving the office. Again, expect colleagues to bring any questions they may have to you directly. 

There’s nothing wrong with getting multiple perspectives on an issue. The fact is, though, few business situations require hour-long, team-wide deliberations.

Treat team members’ time with respect, and they’ll treat your company’s time the same way. That’s one topic everyone can agree on, no meeting required. 

To Be More Productive, Let Tech Lighten Your Load

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You’ve heard it before: “It’s sad how much we rely on technology these days” and “All people do is stare at their phones!”

As someone who works for a tech company, I happen to believe that when used appropriately, technology can actually boost your productivity. Think of it like outsourcing: Yes, asking another team to take on work only you could do is a bad idea — but many projects are a matter of repetition.

If you’re tired of all those smaller tasks getting in the way of your mission-critical projects, take these five tips for using tech to enhance your productivity:

1. Embrace automation.

Why bother spend your waking hours on monotonous work when software can tackle it for you? Automation technology can help you with all sorts of tasks, including:

 

  • Posting on social media: Whether your full-time job revolves around social media or you do it as a side gig, content management programs can save you huge amounts of time. Tools like HootSuite allow you to write posts ahead of time and schedule them for any day and time you’d like.
  • Backing up files: Backing up files is extremely important so that you don’t lose everything when disaster strikes. Fortunately, it doesn’t require your undivided attention. Saving files to an external hard drive used to take hours. Nowadays, cloud-based backup can happen in the background while you work.
  • Responding to emails: If you find yourself repeatedly answering the same questions over and over again, it may be time for some email automation. Certain scripts can suggest responses for common questions. And of course, automated out-of-office responders let people know when you’re away. 
  • Paying bills: Every business has bills to pay. Why write checks by hand every month when you can set up automatic payments? You’ll never miss a payment, which means you’ll also pay fewer fees and have happier vendors. 
  • Signing emails: Developing a professional email signature might sound like a low-priority task, but think about it: How many emails do you send in a day? Do you use the same signature again and again? Stop writing it out every time, and let your email client handle it for you. 
  • Sending reminders: Tools like Slack and Trello let you set reminders for yourself by the hour, day, or week. Stop adding Sticky Notes to your monitor or setting your watch, and start letting software remember for you.

 

2. Use a digital scheduling system.

Time management is one of those things no entrepreneur succeeds for long without. Learn to control your calendar. A cloud-based scheduling system will keep you organized, make you more collaborative, and cut down the time it takes to schedule meetings.

The right online calendar will integrate with your other tools, feature a clean interface, and take relatively little time to set up. Get one not just for you, but for your whole team. Simply being able to look at each others’ priorities at any time will make your company more productive.

3. Default to video conferencing.

Why bother traveling just to take a meeting? Unless it’s an investor interview or an employee firing — the sort of thing that you want to do in person — do it via video and don’t waste your time traveling.

Offices that are thousands of miles apart can use video conferencing software to hold meetings and collaborate between teams. Beyond saving time, videoconferencing also eliminates the stress and cost of flying people in from remote locations.

4. Get an instant messaging platform.

Can you and your employees still be productive when working from home? When you’re away from the office, you can’t just pop over to your co-worker’s cubicle every time you need to ask her a question. Even with email, it may take her hours to respond to your message.

Instant messaging platforms like Slack are used by companies of all sizes. Direct channels let you get fast answers to those random questions, while public ones let the wider team weigh in. Opt for the paid version, which allows you to search back through Slacks since you adopted the tool.

5. Analyze only what counts.

Today’s business intelligence tools let you get a deeper understanding of overall company performance. Most project management software comes with reporting tools to analyze how much time your team is spending on each type of task.

Although you can analyze everything, though, realize that not all data is important. Is knowing the open rate of internal emails really worth your time? What about your intern’s weekly time breakdown? Analyses are only worthwhile if they actually save more than they cost. 

There are many ways technology can boost your productivity to help you get more done. Realize that you’re fortunate to live in an age of smartphones and software. Why not use them to your advantage? 

How to Break Down Big Tasks to Boost Your Productivity

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notebook-breaking-down-big-tasks

When you try to tackle a task that is too big for a single work session or strategy, it can feel like running right into a brick wall. Productivity can plummet, morale can suffer, and a general state of stress and anxiety can ensue.

The next time you come up against a task that feels too big to handle, follow these steps to break it down and meet the challenge one step at a time:

1. Brainstorm then order action steps.

When you’re not sure how to approach a big task, get out a pen and notepad. Start by brainstorming all of the things you’ll need to do in order to accomplish it. The right starting point will become clear once you see them all on paper.

Say you want to develop and launch a new product. It’s a big task, but you probably know the smaller steps:

  • Research product-market fit.
  • Wireframe the design
  • Develop a minimum viable product
  • Beta-test the product.
  • Analyze the beta test results.
  • Research the best time to launch the product.
  • Make alterations and re-test the product (and repeat if necessary).
  • Develop a marketing campaign.
  • Make alterations (if necessary).
  • Develop a marketing campaign.
  • Officially release the product.
  • Follow up with customers for feedback.

Even to someone without a background in product development, that order probably makes intuitive sense. But it can be tough to see that until you’ve actually listed everything out.

2. Don’t overthink things.

For most people, writing down the individual steps involved in a project makes approaching them easier. For others, though, it can trigger a case of analysis paralysis.

If you find yourself in that boat, don’t think about the project as a whole. Focus just on that first step: What do you need to do in order to get the ball rolling? Thinking beyond the step immediately ahead of you only puts more stress and pressure on your shoulders.

Mentally simplifying projects, especially at their outset, makes you more motivated. Keep a map of the broader project tucked away so you can reference it without giving it brain space all of the time.

3. Group similar tasks together.

As you work through the individual steps in a project, it’s wise to group similar ones together. Performing multiple actions that are closely related is known as batching, and it can be a great way to knock out large parts of a project quickly. 

Say you’re building a website and need to create an individual page for a dozen different products. Create all of the pages at once. Then, go back and write all of the product descriptions in a row. After that, go back and add the back-end metadata to every page. You get the idea.

Batching similar tasks lets you get into a flow state. Not only will that mental state make you more productive, but it will help you enjoy the work.

4. Tackle tough tasks during your prime time. 

It’s important to be aware of when you do your best work. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was famous for writing as soon after first light as possible. Many others find that their prime working hours are in the late morning or the wee hours of the night. 

Identify your own “prime time,” and schedule the hardest parts of your project for those periods. Once you have a list of subtasks, you should be able to identify which things will be easy to do and what items may require a bit more work — physically, mentally, or both.

5. Schedule your time.

In the words of William Penn, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” If you don’t make an effort to schedule your time, you’re going to get bogged down as you go along. 

Schedule not just each phase or subtask of your project, but your entire day. Designating time to do things like respond to client emails and exercise ensures you don’t let other important priorities fall by the wayside as you make progress on your initiative. 

Proper scheduling will also give you the opportunity to take breaks regularly. Breaks are a critical part of maintaining long-term productivity.

Avoid working on the same task for more than two hours at a time without giving your brain a rest. Schedule a ten-minute break every two hours, or at least switch to a lighter task at that time.

6. Celebrate milestones, even the small ones

When you finish a step in a massive project, it’s tempting to move on immediately. Don’t: The way you handle those small wins dictates your future progress.

The human brain is reward-oriented. If you train it to expect good things when you finish a task, you’ll be all the more motivated to tackle future ones more efficiently.

Be sure, though, to reward yourself in healthy ways. Try:

  • Taking a walk
  • Making yourself a healthy meal
  • Booking an experience for yourself
  • Brewing a cup of tea or coffee
  • Calling a friend

Every massive accomplishment started with a single step. Plan well, schedule things smartly, give yourself plenty of breaks, and recognize the good work you do. Keep at it, and you’ll be there sooner than you know it. 

How to Have More Productive Brainstorming Sessions

By | Business Tips | No Comments

The combined brainpower and creativity of your employees is a powerful thing. When you focus that many people on a tough problem, you’re able to find solutions that no one person could spot.

Why do some brainstorming sessions seem to produce better results than others? Because brainstorming is about more than just mentioning whatever comes to your mind. Here’s how to make yours more productive:

1. Make brainstorming sessions a staple.

Imagine walking into your conference room one morning, pointing to people at random, and telling them they’re going to brainstorm: They’d feel clueless about what they should be contributing or what you might want to hear.

When you make brainstorming sessions a way of life at your office, you create a culture where employees are always prepared to think about new ideas. People who expect to be asked for ideas on a regular basis not only come up with better ones, but they feel greater buy-in when those ideas are implemented. 

Set a regular time, and start each session with a clear team mission. Once a week, perhaps right after your all-staff meeting, put everyone’s brains together and see what problems you can solve.

2. Encourage pre-brainstorm solo ideation.

Why bother sending out an agenda before the brainstorm? Introverts, in particular, need time by themselves to think clearly, but everyone can benefit from pre-ideation.

Ask each member of the brainstorming session to come prepared with a few ideas ahead of time. Doing so will make members more confident in their own ideas, and it will allow others to build on those ideas. Depending on the problem at hand, three to five starter ideas per person should be plenty plenty.

3. Get the time and place right.

How creative do you feel at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon? What about first thing on a Monday?

Take advantage of the fact that most people do their best creative work in the mornings. Schedule your meetings early in the day, but give people time to get oriented so their brains aren’t on their inboxes.

Consider a change of scenery as well. If it’s a nice day, take your team outside. If not, how about a trip to a local coffee shop instead? New environments encourage new ideas. 

4. Work in small, strategic groups.

One of the most common mistakes in brainstorming exercises is allowing too many people into each session. Three to seven participants is the perfect number of people to get ideas flowing without having too many voices talking over each other. Adding more members tends to result in unproductive side-conversations.

Choose people who have different points of view on the subject at hand. Think about personality, too, taking care not to overwhelm the group with too many talkers. Especially when the topic has to do with business strategy, include members from multiple departments.

5. Provide structure and limitations.

Think about how your son or daughter responds to “How was your day today?” compared to “What did you eat for lunch?” The first question is so broad and vague that it often yields the famous one-word response, “Fine.”

Adults and children alike struggle to respond to a prompt that is too open-ended. Limiting the question a bit can actually prompt better, more specific answers. 

Help your team out by providing boundaries, such as a budget or a specific audience. Giving your brainstorming sessions a few definitive guidelines will allow your team to think creatively within those set bounds and come up with effective solutions.

6. Suspend judgment.

For a brainstorming session to be productive, everyone attending must feel free to mention all their ideas — particularly the crazy-sounding ones. An idea that initially seems off-the-wall may turn out to be the perfect solution.

Create an atmosphere where your employees are not afraid of “sounding dumb” by focusing on quantity of ideas over quality. Setting a timer and asking the team to spitball as many ideas as possible in five minutes is a great way to make everyone feel comfortable around each other.

Once everyone’s ideas are up on the whiteboard is the time to pare them down. Until then, there truly are no wrong answers. 

There’s a solution out there to every business problem. Put enough brains together — and get the conditions for the conversation right — and you’re sure to find it. 

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