Finish this sentence: “I don’t have time to…” What comes to mind for you? We hear this phrase every day from our clients—things like: I don’t have time to work on my business, focus on leading my team, see my kids, take a vacation. Every business owner struggles with time management. It’s hard not to when you’ve invested everything you have into building a successful company. And often when we feel overwhelmed by a lack of time, we look for a quick fix, something that promises to help us find better focus and productivity. But no one tool is going to fully solve the problem because ultimately, when you struggle with overwhelm as a small business owner, it’s not just about how you manage your time—it’s about how you manage yourself.
Here’s the truth: Time management is often seen as the means to a desired end—learn to manage your time and you’ll have more of it. But in reality, time management is just the beginning, because once you can see how you’re using your time, you can make some educated choices about the way you use it. So really, time management leads to self-management. And effective self-management is a fundamental quality of a strong leader: If you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage your team? Or your business?
So, if you’d like to make a meaningful change in how you use your time in the business, here’s our strategy to develop self-management skills that last.
Acknowledge how time management leads to self-management
Being able to accept that your trouble with time management is largely self-induced is a hard pill to swallow. When we speak with clients, we often hear a lot of people-focused blame, that low workplace productivity or inefficiency is the root of the problem. Often the case is that you’ve created (or have been unable to eliminate) time management issues through your patterns and tendencies. So, the first step is to realize how your habits dictate your day, and learn how to control them instead of letting them control you. Rather than a one-off exercise, it’s an enormous and critical shift that can take months, or even years—but by exploring the ways you work and how to improve, you’ll help yourself out of overwhelm and improve business efficiency.
Discover what’s true: Track your time
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: You won’t like this part. In all my years as a business coach, I’ve had maybe one or two clients that actually enjoyed tracking their time. One former client was a lawyer who billed by the minute—imagine how his time log looked. When he said he couldn’t possibly do it, I told him to rubberband the clipboard to his arm—and it worked.
You’re not a walking, talking to-do list; but when you’re running at top speed, desperate to get everything done, you can lose sight of how you’re actually spending every valuable minute of your day. This is where a time log tracker can be insightful—you can use an app like Toggl or our free Daily Time Log. This isn’t a calendar or schedule to plan ahead (though that’s important too!): It’s a tracker that records every activity you perform throughout the day. To really get an idea of your patterns, you should track every day for two weeks.
Yes, it can feel awkward or tedious to log every single thing you do for that long. But when you face it at the end of each day, you can read all the telling moments in your story that you wouldn’t recognize otherwise—because you were busy living it.
This practice is not about getting the time logs perfect. it’s about having a revelation, about facing all the many ways you’re using time, even the unproductive ones—and that’s uncomfortable. But it’s from this point that you’re able to start seeing those patterns.
Identify your patterns
In the process of tracking your time, trends will start to emerge. You may see that every day around 2pm, you start leaving out details, or maybe from 9-10am, entire blocks of time are missing because you’re always so busy that you can’t remember what you did after the fact. And you may start making observations or drawing conclusions on what’s happening—but don’t dive right into trying to fix these pitfalls on the fly. You could overcorrect or create short-sighted changes that'll obscure the bigger picture, and you’ll likely fall right back into your old habits.
Instead, wait until you’ve completed the two weeks time tracking and take an objective look at how you’ve spent your time. From a bird’s eye view, your time log lets you look for larger patterns in your day-to-day flow. And go easy on yourself—this isn’t to make you feel guilty or stressed. The more objective you can be, the better you can assess where you’re doing well and where you can do better.
So, maybe you’re spending five hours a week running back and forth between the office and the warehouse, ten hours a week visiting clients, or an hour a day just looking for paperwork. Some of these activities are time bandits—distracting, frustrating or ineffective things that steal your time—but not all of them. Some are valuable activities, but maybe not ones that you should be doing. What do these activities actually point to? Why do you dwell on a certain task or constantly avoid something else?
Let’s look at the example of visiting with clients. Yes, this might be a critical part of your role—you may even like visiting with clients—but is there another reason you’re doing it, something that speaks more to your own anxiety or some inefficiency in your company?
- Why am I doing what I’m doing?
- Should I be doing this? Is this task, activity or pattern serving me?
- If yes—how? If no—why not?
By looking at all your activities, you can identify the root causes of your own productivity issues: Maybe it’s micromanagement that keeps you returning to the warehouse. Maybe you’re not delegating tasks to the right members of your team.
Once you can clearly identify productive versus unproductive patterns in your day, you can begin pivoting to create a plan to better manage yourself.
Develop a practice for managing yourself
One important element of self-management is to honor your process and determine if any of these patterns are aspects of your personality. After all, you started your business because of your own values, passions and skills—and it’s gotten you to where you are. Don’t just go all-in eliminating the traits that make your business unique. Instead, focus on altering habits in ways that are motivating.
Without even doing the time log, you may already have an unproductive habit in mind. If so, think about it as you answer these questions:
- When did this activity first develop, and why does it tend to happen?
- What emotions surround that activity?
- Why does it continue to occur even though you know it’s unproductive?
- What’s preventing you from breaking this habit?
At this point, it may feel empowering to take the first step of working through this challenge, or it may feel very frustrating. That’s okay. You’re simply considering how to shift away from the behaviors or issues you’ve identified as being ineffective or frustrating.
- How can you shape a different habit around it?
- What organizational structures or systems are connected to this that you can lean on?
By addressing these questions for yourself, you’ll not only be able to identify where disorganization is holding your business back, but how you may be supporting that disorganization at your own expense—and how to find solutions. The ways in which you fall short in keeping organized are reflections of how you can improve your business.
Returning to the example of visiting your clients, maybe this is something that started years ago when the organization grew: You feared that your new employees couldn’t serve the clients like you could. This fear has cost you incredibly. So instead of trying to budget more time in your day, tackle that fear—eliminate the need to visit with clients through better hiring and development processes, and creating an org chart that works.
Once you get started, give yourself a generous but realistic deadline to implement solutions. Allow yourself space to get creative, make mistakes and try things differently. This process won’t change everything overnight; but by re-conceiving what it means to manage and organize yourself, you’ll find the time you need and create a clearer path to the business—and the life—that you’ve always envisioned. If you need help getting started, we’re here.