Of all the skills required to lead and run a small business, the one that seems to be both the most crucial and least talked about is personal organisation. At best, a business school education gives some thought to time management and perhaps to prioritisation, but these leave the small business leader completely unprepared for the fire hose of emails, phone calls, and things to do that are essential in running a small business in today’s digital world.
A reality check first: there are far more things “to do” than there are hours in the day, so simply writing tasks in a list isn’t going to work: You have to be OK with the fact that some things are not going to get done – ever. There’s a lot of theory around this, for example, the 80/20 rule says that 80% of the results come from 20% of the activity, which is great if you know which 20%. There are a lot of organisational systems available too, from quick list managers to full-blown GTD (getting things done) approaches, but for many small business leaders these seem to be either too simplistic, or too demanding and costly to implement effectively.
I therefore recommend an approach based on asking three questions of absolutely everything that shows up in your life – every email, phone call, person walking by who interrupts you and every piece of mail, which are:
- What is it?
- Who is it for?
- How do I feel about it?
Once you’ve answered those questions, and captured the answers in your list or organisational system, then you’re ready to decide what to do next to get your day (and business) moving.
1) What is it?
A lot of business communication today is very poorly put together and therefore not clear. When someone “just wanted to reach out” to you – are they singing a number by The Four Tops? Probably not – they’re asking for something. To understand their request, you need to ask what they are asking you to do (the task) and why they are asking you to do it (the big-picture job).
2) Who is it for?
When working with clients, colleagues or shareholders, it’s really easy to end up doing things that deliver more value to others than they do for you. A client might ask whether you can go the extra mile to deliver x, while a colleague might ask, “can you cover me while I…” You know the story. Being clear on why the other person wants you to do something as well as what’s in it for you is essential. If you’re doing something for a client and you don’t know why, then things are likely to come off the rails pretty soon!
3) How does it make you feel?
Good leaders have their own vision and values and are able to shape businesses and teams with clear direction about what should be done. In my experience, the way many leaders communicate with others can be through a clear mission and vision statement, but just as important is how they respond to what comes across their desk. The standards that you set with your colleagues don’t come from motivational posters on the wall, but from how you interact with them and understand what’s “OK” and what’s not.
When you get into the practice of asking these three questions, I’ll hope that you’ll find, as I have, that you’re able to use the framework to describe what your vision is, what it delivers for everyone concerned, and how it’s something that you can all feel good about.