Three years after opening my business, I was still working 60-hour weeks (teaching 40+ private music students) while holding down a part-time job as a financial advisor’s assistant. While I was tracking investments and building reports at “the money office” (my kids’ name for the advisor’s office), I would listen to podcasts. I came across guys like Dave Ramsey, Chris LoCurto, Pat Flynn, and Michael Hyatt. These guys all significantly impacted the course of my business, but one statement caused me to change the trajectory of my work. Pat Flynn said something like this: “Small business owners tend to work themselves to death and never take time to do the things they love. They tell themselves that the business can’t run without them, and they become prisoners to it. They forget that they decided to be their own boss so they could have freedom. Make it a goal to do the things you want to do… that’s why we all went into business for ourselves, after all.” (That’s a gratuitous paraphrase… I’ll see if I can find the show notes and provide a real quote.)
This statement resonated deeply with me. I felt like I was sacrificing my family and my personal life on the altar of my business. I made a decision then to begin structuring my life so I could have the freedom to coach my kids’ sports teams, be a Cub Scouts den leader, go for runs while it was still daylight, spend Saturday at home… and eventually become obsessed with hiking.
In order to reclaim some margin and do the things I wanted to do, I had to become very intentional about my work. Here are some things that I have learned to do to keep my business from consuming my life:
Set goals & work with focused intensity. I am a goal setter. One of my ambitions in life is to become a person who is known for regularly setting and achieving goals. I set many goals; some I achieve, some I do not. However, I am certain that I accomplish more in the midst of my failures than I would if I didn’t set goals at all. After hearing Pat’s comments, I set goals to reduce my student load and develop my staff so I could delegate more responsibilities and started working toward them.
Change things slowly and consistently. Dave Ramsey defines his Momentum Theorem as this: focused intensity over time multiplied by God equals momentum. He also frequently says things like, “Most folks can’t focus on something for five minutes, much less five years.” Focus is the key. Set a goal and don’t let up until it is accomplished, regardless of how slow the process is or how long it takes. When we get fired up to achieve a goal, we often rush immediately to make as many changes as possible. However, lasting change happens in small increments over time. In fact, most things need to change slowly as to avoid unnecessary shock to the existing system. If I cleared my student roster immediately, I probably would have lost a handful of good students. If I dumped responsibilities on an unprepared staff, I would have frustrated them and likely lost good employees. Change will happen and it will happen for good, as long as the changes are made slowly and consistently, in the right time. Set your goals, work consistently toward them, and be patient. If you move too fast too soon, you may loose what you’ve worked so hard to build.
Make Monday massive. When I worked for the financial advisor, he viewed Monday as the most important day of the week. He took no appointments on Monday, came in earlier than usual, often worked later than usual, and was incredibly focused. Monday was a super productive day. It didn’t take long for me to learn that I needed to come to work on Monday “blowing and going”, as he would say. This was not the place to drag in late on Monday, linger around the coffee pot, check Facebook over and over again and complain, “It’s Monday… I just can’t get going.” Nope, Monday was a day when we worked extra hard to push the rock up the hill as fast as possible. If we were successful, the rock would roll over the top and the rest of the week would roll down hill with incredible momentum. These days, I reserve Monday for planning my week, communicating with staff regarding company priorities, and thinking strategically about what needs to be accomplished. I only book very strategic meetings on Monday. I also teach 80% of my remaining music students on Monday. Why? Because I want to get as many of my lessons out of the way as early in the week as possible. Because I want to get my “staff machine” moving first thing on Monday so the company is getting more stuff done than I can do by myself. And, ultimately… because I want to take Fridays off as often as possible so I can go hiking. Just a little transparency there!
Plan my work and work my plan. I live by my calendar. I use Google calendar to plan my life, and reviewing the calendar is the first thing on my agenda every day. Taking a few minutes to prioritize and organize my day saves me hours of time wasted from inefficiency later in the week. I am a strident believer in Dr. Covey’s “Big Rocks” principle and Parkinson’s law. I schedule my big rocks first and I give specific time frames to every task on my calendar. I learned in the early years of my business that there is always more work to be done than hours to accomplish it, so I fight vehemently to keep my tasks within the allotted time frame. I could not do this without becoming very intimate with my calendar. I also believe strongly in the power of routine. I try to keep my workflow (daily recurring tasks) the same from day to day. If I can lock in to a routine that works for me, it will become like clockwork. If I try to force my life into a routine that doesn’t fit, no amount of willpower will make it stick. I highly recommend Matt Perman’s book “What’s Best Next” if you want more ideas on how to plan your work. As I have learned to control my tasks with my calendar, I have been able to schedule things that really matter and make sure they get done… like family time, exercise and, of course, hiking.
Create a productive space. I own a coffee shop. Our store is the kind of place where people go to enjoy a drink, use the wifi and work outside of the office so they can avoid their typical distractions, focus, and really get something done. That doesn’t work for me. Being the proprietor, if I sit at a table in the coffee shop and try to work on focus-necessary tasks, I will surely be caught in a conversation with a customer, called away by a barista, or approached by a solicitor who “needs” to talk with me. Because of this, I need a space that is reserved for quiet work, a space where I can spread out checkbooks and budget reports, a space where I can work for hours uninterrupted. To meet this need, I sublet an office around the corner from my store (it’s in my wife’s yoga studio). I have also found that listening to music takes my focus to the next level. I cannot listen to music with lyrics and stay focused; I am easily pulled into the song. Instead, I listen to classical music, specifically classical guitar. I enjoy this music immensely, it adds a rhythmic flow to my thoughts, and I am able to lock in to a very productive meter while working.
Pro tip: if I really want or need to sit in the coffee shop and work, I put in my white ear buds and listen to classical guitar. With headphones in, people are much less likely to approach me. If my employees are hanging out at the store during their off-the-clock hours, I encourage them to do the same. It’s our signal that says, “Please don’t ask me to do any work; I’m here on my personal time.”
I also love listening to podcasts. Some of my favorites are “This is Your Life” by Michael Hyatt, “The Entreleadership Podcast” by Dave Ramsey and “The Trail Show” by Disco, POD, P-Mags and D-Low. There are certain tasks I can do while listening to podcasts (closing the books, building budgets, most financial tasks), but others that require non-linguistic listening (anything that involves writing or reading).
Without a productive space, tasks that should take an hour will take two or three, simply because my mind is not able to run at its optimum speed, thus slowing down the work. The money I spend in rent and utilities for a “corporate office” is well invested into the efficiency of the business and the health of my personal life.
You may find that these tips work for you or inspire ideas that help you get the right stuff done in less time. Regardless of the systems you establish, get a vision for the life you want and start building it. The process should be slow, but the reward will be wonderful.