As Theophrastus wrote, ‘time is the most valuable thing a man can spend’. If you’ve made the transition from working from a big institution to working for yourself you’ll realise how true this is. Time management is a crucial skill for the sole practitioner and needs to be given the attention something of such value deserves.
Working independently, your flexibility and freedom to react to situations more rapidly than someone working within the constraints of a large, ponderous organisation are key advantages. The ability of a sole practitioner or SME to respond quickly to a client or potential client unimpeded by bureaucracy is a distinctive plus point. However agility doesn’t always mean efficiency and you can end up paying a price.
Dashing from meeting to meeting, travelling to and from your office and following up client leads can lead to large chunks of time being used inefficiently. You don’t want to lose your nimble edge and the advantages it brings but planning your time and being flexible around that plan allows you to retain more control over your most valuable asset.
I urge you to review your use of time. I realise I’ve recommended this before and I do so again because it’s important to regularly take a look at how you spend your time – you’ll be amazed how quickly bad habits can creep back in.
Keep a time journal. There are software programs available to help with this, but a notebook and paper will suffice. What you are primarily concerned with is logging how much time is wasted, or could be used more productively, so it’s worth noting down not only what you are spending time doing but what you actually accomplish in that time.
Use the findings from your journal to inform your future decisions. If you are required to travel somewhere on a certain day, what else could be planned to coincide with that location or that route? If you know you are likely to be making a long journey or spending time waiting between meetings, what work can you allocate to that time? Ensure you use the time in your office to complete tasks which require all the resources that location provides. Allocate other tasks, which only require a Wi-Fi connection, to fill these transition periods.
The secondary use of this journal is to form a realistic picture of how long tasks actually take. It’s all very well planning to spend an hour to complete a certain activity, but reviewing a time log will tell you if this is a realistic goal. If your journal indicates that the task normally takes you far longer, give it the time it deserves or, if an hour is all you have, do a job you know you can do justice to.
Thirdly, studying how you spend your time and what you achieve in that given period should indicate when you’re working at your most productive. We like to think we already know this, and happily tell others ‘I’m a morning person’ or ‘I’m a night owl’. However, does the evidence back this up? You might think of yourself as a night owl but, if your late nights actually produce very few results, why burn the midnight oil? If your journal suggests you achieve far more in the morning, call it a night and recommence, rested and alert.
This is particularly useful for managing the time we all know is important but all tend to neglect. Work/life balance is vital but rarely treated as such. When it comes to allocating yourself free time, the decision to ‘down tools’ becomes much more palatable when you have evidence to suggest that you’re unlikely to achieve much past/before a certain point. Time is your most valuable resource, but you need to ensure you’re not too tired to use it – timetable yourself a rest.