While it’s wonderful not to have to worry about the drama or indignities of the typical corporate job, as a “solopreneur,” you face certain difficulties that larger businesses don’t—not least the fact that you have to wear all the hats at once. Obviously, that’s not an impossible task; at last count, there were about 20 million single-person businesses in the USA, accounting for a whopping three-quarters of all businesses. This does not, however, mean that it’s easy.
If you expect to succeed as an entrepreneur, hard work is a given. Now, we’ve all heard the business cliché “Work smarter, not harder”—and while that statement does hold a grain of truth, you actually have to do both. True productivity means working hard by working smart, using every business technique you can implement as what the military calls “force multipliers,” allowing you to overcome your personal limitations.
In this article, I’ll outline five interrelated strategies that can help you maximize your productivity in startlingly effective ways, allowing you to handle your business as if you were three people (or more) rather than just one.
1. Time Management
Managing your time wisely may be the most effective force multiplier there is, no matter what kind of business you run. While the details vary, this technique is as applicable to the sole proprietor as to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. If you don’t set goals, shut down distractions and interruptions, ruthlessly prune away the trivial and, most importantly, have the willpower to stick to your guns, you’ll be left behind by those who do. Or run down, more likely.
There will never be enough time to do everything, but there will be enough time to do the most important things, so you have to force yourself to be efficient. Start by creating a personal scheduling and organization system, which can be paper-based, electronic, or some hybrid of both. Once you’ve got your system in place, put everything into it: schedules, project due dates, special events, business cards, client and networking contacts, notes, communication and meeting notes, category lists, and to-do lists.
Speaking of to-do lists, they’re arguably the single most important element of any effective time management system—especially your daily lists. Keeping the 80/20 rule in mind, focus tightly on the few most important items on your lists and get them done first. Do whatever else you can in the time you have left over. Don’t hesitate to defer, delegate, or simply abandon your lowest-value tasks if you need to.
And remember: never let a need for perfection paralyze you. Once you’ve blocked out a concept for what you want to achieve within the basic framework of your overarching goals, collect the data you require and move forward when you have enough to work with. Take care of the details as they come; you can’t plan for everything in advance anyway, so don’t let that worry you.
2. Focus on What’s Important
In any business context, your truly important tasks should always be the most profitable ones, whatever they may be. Once you’ve gotten your priorities straight, the real challenge is keeping other things from distracting you. Thus, you have to hone your focus to a keen edge, so you can easily slice through anything that might keep you from maximizing your productivity.
First, you have to give the task at hand your undivided attention, so abandon the entire idea of multi-tasking. It’s been proven to hurt more than it helps. Next, if you can, do your most important task at the time of day when you’re at your highest energy level. Some of us are morning people; some of us work better in the afternoon. You know yourself best, so select the appropriate time for you, and lock it down so you can focus.
Banish any tendency toward procrastination, which often pops up when we’re faced with tasks we dislike, or that seem overwhelming, or that we’re afraid of. Whatever the cause, procrastination is damaging; it blows a task out of proportion and makes it seem harder than it actually is. Even when a task is particularly difficult, all you can do is get started. Break it down into smaller tasks with their own deadlines.
Be sure to insulate yourself from all distractions. According to a recent survey, 28% of the average workday is wasted on unnecessary distractions and recovery of focus. So shut your office door, or find a quiet place to work. Limit your social interaction for the duration of your work period. If possible, turn off your phones and electronics, answering messages only during specific blocks of time. Very little is so important that you have to respond to it instantly.
3. Hone Your Self-Discipline
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and decide to go to the beach instead of to your office or storefront? How would you like to sleep in every day, and then put in one of those fabulous four-hour work weeks when you get around to it?
Sadly, this scenario isn’t anything like the real world. In order to succeed, you need to have the self-discipline to apply yourself consistently to your tasks, whether you feel like it or not. And being human, there will be days when the spirit rebels…and the flesh isn’t especially willing, either. But you can’t afford to indulge yourself often when you’re an independent entrepreneur.
Self-discipline is closely linked to both focus and time management, because neither is possible without it. If you ruthlessly shut out distractions and avoid acting on impulse, then maximizing your time-use comes much more naturally, with high productivity naturally following. Procrastination goes right out the window, because you just don’t have time for it. Ditto for perfectionism.
At its most basic, self-discipline is a form of selective self-training that helps you take full control over your life, and that’s where its chief value lies. It can take a lot of work to harness the power of self-discipline; but once you’ve gotten into the habit, then you’ve set the stage for consistently improving yourself and reaching your goals.
Basically, it all comes down to routine. You have to allocate a specific amount of time for each task, and try to set it in stone. Don’t compromise on your routines, because that’s how you maximize productivity. If you do slip, don’t get discouraged; just climb right back on that self-discipline horse and keep moving.
If your routine gets derailed and nothing else seems to work, here’s a good way to buckle down and get back on track: promise yourself you’ll do just a little more work before taking a break. You might tell yourself, “I’ll work another fifteen minutes on this article,” or decide you’ll rest after outlining five action items on next week’s agenda. Then, when you’ve reached your goal, take a look at how you feel about continuing. At that point, it may be easy to keep going because you’ve hit your stride.
Even if you can’t manage to continue, you’ll have gotten some work done. Reward yourself for that: take a break, get a cup of tea, or do something else that makes you feel good. Then come back and get started on the next task. Eventually, moving forward with your tasks and staying on point will become easier, and self-discipline will seem less like a yoke than like a tool that frees you to get more done.
4. Play To Your Strengths
Work is always more enjoyable if you’re doing what you’re good at. It’s easier to focus, keep yourself on track, and maximize your efficiency, if only because you feel more empowered and fulfilled by what you’re doing. You’ve heard the old saying: “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It may sound trite, but it’s true.
That’s why I advise you to always to play to your strengths. Determine what you’re best at, and then work out the most effective ways to leverage those talents. Now, some people will advise you to focus instead on overcoming your weaknesses before you do anything else. While I understand the desire to better yourself, I think this is terrible business advice. If you’re a horrible accountant but you can sell ice to Eskimos, then what should you hone: your accounting skills, or your marketing skills? What would be most profitable for you?
The choice is pretty easy, isn’t it? Why should you push and push to go from being mediocre to so-so at one task, when you can work on going from great to superb at something else—and enjoy life a whole lot more? In most cases, focusing on your weaknesses is just a waste of time and talent.
If you’re not sure where your strengths lie, sit down and think about the things you most enjoy doing—the ones where you drop into “the zone” and complete your work without noticing time passing. Then seek feedback from others; what do they think you’re good at? Take their feedback into consideration and compare it to your own experiences. Where do they jibe? Most importantly, which of your favorite tasks is the most profitable?
That’s where you should focus most of your efforts. Even if you love mowing the grass, you should hire someone else to do that. Which brings us to our final topic…
While you should never abdicate responsibility for anything within your purview, it’s perfectly acceptable to delegate it to someone else. In fact, it’s just good business sense. Even when you’re the one and only employee of your company, you can always outsource all the jobs where you’re weak or just don’t have time to do because you’re too busy making money.
The concept of active outsourcing has been very much in vogue since Tim Ferris popularized it in his book The 4-Hour Workweek, but it’s nothing new—savvy entrepreneurs have been practicing it for decades. And in the Internet era, where a whole world of people is literally at your fingertips, it’s easier than ever to delegate your work to others.
In fact, I’d recommend that you outsource as much of your work as you can afford to. This is one of the most cogent force multipliers available to the modern business professional. If you can’t keep the books to save your life, hire a professional who can. Hire others to provide IT services, wash windows, mow the lawn, process payments, dust shelves, built your website, submit the taxes, do the payroll, conduct inventory, provide customer service, and deliver items. This can help you control costs, increase your efficiency, and level the business playing field so that it’s easier to compete with the big guys.
With all the little stuff out of the way, you can focus on whatever you can do that serves the business the most profitably. Stay within your area of expertise, and rarely (if ever) do anything that someone else can do better or more cheaply than you can.
Don’t micromanage, but keep an eye on your staff or outsourcers to make sure they stay on track and provide services in a timely manner. Accountability is a must, and should be ensured by regular reporting. And consider carefully before you select an offshore provider for items that can be serviced that way. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with offshore help, some tasks require providers who are immediately accessible, or who understand your culture because they’re a member of it. That’s when you should go for domestic “homeshore” providers.
Running the show alone can be a real pain in the tuchus, a lot like juggling a dozen balls at once. But if you’re willing to put in some effort, you can learn how to maximize your efficiency such that your solo effort is as efficient as any three-person business. Just take a deep breath, apply the methods I’ve outlined here, and start pushing forward. Believe me, after a while it gets a whole lot easier!