I think one of the biggest challenges running a business–especially one from home–is that there’s no set schedule to maintain or road map of where to go. It’s all in your hands. (And that’s one of the greatest parts, too. But it can also be daunting to be the boss of oneself.) I think it’s easy to slip into a spot where we’re working at our businesses all the time and never working on our businesses. Emails need to be answered, orders need to be fulfilled, add mouths to feed and butts to wipe, and there’s not a whole lot of time or energy left for business building.
This winter, I looked back at my year and noticed that I barely added any new designs to my collection. I came back from Stationery Academy bursting with ideas to refine my workflow and improve my customer experience. I have pages of ideas of blog posts sitting in journals and on post it notes. Scads of sketches and ideas for innovative products. That’s a lot of potential sitting around waiting for the world to see it. And it’s all waiting on me to take it out of potential-mode and release it to the world.
Every business expert/guru/sage out there will tell you that in order to succeed in business and life, you must give time and attention to high-priority, low-urgency tasks like creating new designs and testing new marketing strategies. Spending our lives putting out fires, bouncing from one urgent task to the next puts us on a surefire road to burnout. And I found myself on a high-speed train headed straight for Burnoutsville and I had no idea how to slow down, let alone turn around.
So how did I get out of firefighter mode and get into creation mode? I planned better. And then I did better. If we wait until we’re in our day, we will always choose the urgent task (the email in front of us, the toddler pulling on our leg, the order that is due today) and the business-building tasks, personal-care tasks, and growth tasks will go by the wayside. So we have to plan ahead.
I love to read about productivity. (Reading about it is so much easier than actually being productive.) And pretty much everything I’ve read falls into one of two approaches: A top-down approach in which you figure out who you are at your core, what your priorities are, and what tasks have true meaning for you, then plan your to-dos accordingly. Or a bottom-up approach in which you collect all of your nagging to-dos, sort them into categories, prioritize them, and then plug away to check things off.
Either approach is fine–great even! But if you’re anything like me, you’re super gung-ho when you start implementing a new strategy, and then real life gets in the way and you never get to stage 2. So for me that meant I was having these great little quiet mornings drinking coffee and pondering my true purpose in life… but never getting to the point of implementing tasks that align with that purpose. So I’d switch gears and try a bottom-up approach and have these great days of answering all my emails and going to bed with an empty inbox… but never getting to the point of creating time for higher-level priorities and goals.
So what’s a busy business girl to do? Is there any productivity system or strategy that actually works? Yes! Any of them can work actually. You just might have to switch your focus. For me, I had to move my focus from the top and from the bottom. I had to focus on the middle. I was spending so much time on my “top” (defining my core/values/passions, etc.) that I wasn’t getting anything done. Or I was spending so much time getting little things done that I wasn’t doing anything with meaning. But for the last couple months I’ve tried out a different start point–and it’s working!
My secret? Planning my month. Over the next couple weeks I’ll also share how I plan my weeks and my days, but it really hinges on planning my month. Now I’ll be honest–I think this works best when you do have some bigger, over-arching goals (whether you like to do goals for your year, six months, or even just three). But leaving it at big goals is too daunting and usually the goals are too big or too vague. So whether you have big goals written down or they’re just sort of in your mind and heart, the key is picking some manageable goals and tasks for the month. A month is long enough to accomplish some real stuff, but not long enough to put things off for when you “have time.”
If you’re at the stage where you really don’t know what your big goals are, I highly recommend Lara Casey’s goal setting strategies. Here’s the link to the last step, which has links to all of her steps. I also use and love Whitney English’s Day Designer and the front pages are all about defining your core and setting goals for the year. There are a ton of great goal-setting activities, workshops, and books out there. (Tell me your favorites in the comments!) Pick one, make some goals, and then stop dwelling on this stage and move on!
HOW I PLAN MY MONTH:
Step 1 – Plan to Plan: This is a little gem I get from Whitney English. It seems so simple, but it really was a missing link for me. I can do all the reading and thinking I want about productivity. I can know exactly what I need to do to make things happen. But while I’m busy fighting fires and potty training and filling orders and answering emails, I forget to actually set aside time to fill out my planner or set goals! So I have to plan to plan. Like I actually put it in my planner! I pick a day–I like weekend mornings when everyone’s asleep, but you can pick whatever time/day works for you. I set aside about an hour each on the last Saturday and Sunday of the month to plan the upcoming month. (I split it between two days because inevitably someone will wake up early and require something of me. If I luck out and feel confident with my plan after an hour on Saturday, awesome! I can sleep in on Sunday or use that time for something else.) So I want you to open your planner, calendar, to-do-list app, whatever you use and find an hour near the end of the month that you can set aside just for planning. Write “Plan my month” in there right now!
Step 2 – Review goals and pick a focus (or three): I have ten big overarching goals right now. Ten is a number that works for me for the big picture. I have goals in all the areas of my life: mother, wife, friend, business owner, and just as a person. But I can’t give all ten equal attention each month. There just isn’t enough of me and there aren’t enough days. I’ve realized this after spending a few months working on these ten goals, there are some I’m actually making progress on and others that continue to go by the wayside. So I’ve started picking a “top three” for the month. Three goals/areas that are going to take priority above the others.
For February, I’m focusing on my health/fitness, my marriage, and creating new invitation designs. It doesn’t mean I’m not working on other things like being a joyful mother or improving my workflow (or keeping up with Mompreneur Monday posts!) It just means these are areas that need attention and I want to focus on them this month.
Step 3 – Write some actionable tasks to accomplish this month: Here’s the good stuff. Goals and values and hopes and dreams are all great. But in order to make real progress toward any of those, we have to take action. Start with your top 3 and ask yourself “What actions can I take this month that will help me toward this goal?” These can be small tasks or larger projects, but they should be something you can finish and check off before the end of the month. (If they’re too big to do in a month, then what steps can you finish in the month?) Here are a few of mine:
- Plan and go out for a date night
- Try one new workout activity
- Complete the first assignment for Hand Lettering Class
- Clean Olivia’s room
- Create a questionnaire for custom design clients
- Prepare materials for taxes and make appointment with accountant
You can see that I still include tasks and projects that aren’t directly related to my top 3–and that’s ok! The top 3 goals are shaping the first tasks on the list and there’s still room for others.
Step 4 – Write actionable tasks to accomplish weekly – Some goals require repetitive tasks. I could say for the month, “Design 4 new invitations.” But I’ve known myself for over 30 years now and if that was my task, I’d be looking at my list on February 27th going “How can I design 4 invites by tomorrow? Not happening.” Instead, I have “Design one new invitation” as one of my weekly tasks. Here are a few others:
- Plan meals and buy healthy food
- Write a love note
- Play date adventure with Olivia
- Write Mompreneur Monday post
- List two items on website
Step 5 – Write actionable tasks to accomplish daily – Some of our goals are really habits we want to form. And this is where daily tasks really help. The key for me is to not write too many. It’s challenging for me to incorporate even ONE new task into my daily routine. I use Lara Casey’s Powersheets for my monthly plan and there’s room for 5 daily tasks/goals on there. That is the maximum I think anyone can handle! And I’ll be honest, I’m usually doing pretty well on 2 or 3 of them and the others don’t get checked off as often. But I’m trying to embrace the whole “progress not perfection” idea. My daily tasks are:
- Do yoga, walk, or move
- Eat power foods
- Design my day
- Tidy for 10 minutes
- Turn off my phone and spend real time with my family for at least an hour
Step 6 – Put it in your planner. The first few times I tried monthly planning, I stopped after Step 5. I kept my sheets in my pretty binder. And forgot to look at them for the rest of the month. You can imagine how many tasks got checked off. (I’ll give you a hint, it’s less than one and rhymes with “hero.”) I have to have something right in front of me if I want to actually remember to do it. I actually have to have it in front of me in 3 or 4 places. I have to make it impossible to ignore. So I tape my list right in front of me at my desk. I see it a million times a day. And when there’s a lull or a moment of “Hmmm, what should I do right now?” I look at my list and see if there’s something I can do right at that moment.
This month I took it a step further and planned when in the week or month I’d like to work on my tasks. (I was finding myself on Fridays trying to do all of my weekly goals and it was a little manic.) Picking a day to work on something helps alert me if I’ve planned too much and prevents me from putting everything off until the end of the month. So I plan to blog on Mondays and Wednesdays, list new items on my website on Tuesdays and Fridays, and work on new designs on Thursdays. Date night is planned for Valentine’s Day, I blocked off time on the 21st to watch the first part of my online hand lettering class, and cleaning Olivia’s room was the perfect snow day activity this weekend. Due dates give tasks more umph and importance. Spreading them out through the month makes them more manageable.
Step 7 – Look at the whole month and rearrange as necessary. I also take this time to make sure my calendar is up to date with orders that are due, appointments, and social engagements. After all, it’s these everyday obligations that tend to be the reasons to put off working on our dreams and goals. If I see that I have too many orders scheduled to go out the same day, I see where I can spread those out and I don’t plan to spend hours on a blog post like this one. If I see a stretch of a few days without an order due, I make sure to plan a goal-related task like designing something new or organizing a section of the office so that I don’t just piddle that time away on little tasks that don’t really matter.
Step 8 – Be patient and forgiving with yourself. The first time (or first 5 times) you try this you’re going to plan too many things. More than you can realistically finish. I don’t know anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit who has too few goals, so I won’t even entertain the possibility that you have too little planned for the month. But even though I never end a month with all my tasks checked off, I do accomplish way more than I ever did before I started monthly planning. So when you start to get discouraged, look at all you have accomplished. Then look at what you haven’t and ask yourself “why?” Was it too lofty a goal for the month? Was it specific enough? What did you do with your time instead of that task? Are you planning too many things to realistically finish? Maybe the tasks that keep not getting checked off need to become your focus for next month. Or maybe they aren’t really that important to you and don’t need to make an appearance for a while. You’ll get a sense in your heart of what feels right and what doesn’t. And you’ll do even better at this next month!
Whew! This is a long post! Thanks for sticking with me through the whole thing–I promise that if you follow these steps, next month will be your most productive one yet! Stay tuned, because next week I’ll tell you how I plan my week and after that I’ll share how I plan my day!
Share with me! What goals are you going to make progress on next month? How will you plan to make them happen? Comment below!