Feeling frazzled? Do you find yourself getting up early, working late, and still not getting it all done?
If this is you, like many small business owners you may be stretching yourself too thin.
As a small business owner, you have a lot to do. If you don’t manage your busy work, your workload can seem impossible.
In this tutorial we’ll take a closer look at busy work. We’ll also show you five steps to help you manage even your most mundane tasks and reclaim some of that lost time.
What Is Busy Work?
Is busy work holding you back? Many small business owners are burdened by busy work, but don’t even realize it. That’s because busy work feels just as important as other work, but it doesn’t have the same impact on your business.
Busy work can be business tasks that need to get done, but don’t contribute to the bottom line. Examples include accounting and tax tasks, answering emails, website maintenance, clerical tasks, and other routine tasks. It isn’t that those tasks aren’t important, it’s just that your business might be better off if they were handled differently.
Examples of this might be redecorating your office or taking classes, but never applying what you learn. Even tasks like promoting your business through social media or checking your email inbox can be busy work if done excessively.
Eliminating busy work starts at the top. If you, as a small business owner, are wasting a lot of time with busy work, then chances are good that any employees you have are also wasting time. You can improve your approach though.
Here are some key steps to take back your time and reduce your busy work.
Step 1: Know How You Spend Your Time
The key to finding out how to reduce busy work is to find out how much time you’re really spending on it. Most of us don’t do that. The last thing we want to make time to do when we’re busy is track our time.
Yet tracking how you use your time is the start to reducing busy work. Without tracking your time, you can’t be sure where you are being ineffective.
When tracking your time, be detailed. Include everything you do in a day, no matter how insignificant it seems. For better results, track your time over several days instead of just a single day. Also, be honest. If you spend two hours a day checking Facebook or an hour watching YouTube videos, record that activity.
For example, imagine you’re a web developer. After tracking your time for a few days, you discover that besides coding, testing, brainstorming and maintenance tasks, you also spend time on the following busy work tasks:
- Checking email, average time spent: ten minutes per hour
- Administrative tasks, average time spent: an hour per day
- Watching YouTube videos, average time spent: a half hour per day
- Leaving your desk to get a snack (not a mealtime), average time spent: half hour per day
Your time tracking also shows that you spend an hour and a half each week meeting with your team members. You hold the meetings regularly, even if no one has questions and there are no problems.
Unnecessary meetings are common time waster, by the way. Statistics from Atlassian, show that half of all meetings are a waste of time.
When you add this time up, you find you have only an average of about five hours of productive time each day. I bet that’s a lot less productive time than you thought you’d find. You need to make the most of it.
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, infers that you’ll find that a small number of tasks are wasting the majority of your time. Reduce the time you spend on those tasks, and you’ll reduce busy work.
Learn more about Pareto Principle and how to perform a Pareto Analysis. Check out our Tuts+ tutorial on the subject:
If you have employees, have them also track their time to find out how they are spending it. You can use time tracking software like Harvest to assist you.
If you know how you spend your time, you’re ready for the next step.
Step 2: Plan Your Time
Once you know how you are spending your time, you can start to plan to use that time more effectively. Planning your time starts with prioritization.
Here are three questions to ask about each task you identify:
- How much time did I spend on this task during working hours?
- What, if anything, does this task contribute to my business?
- Can I delegate this task or reschedule if for personal time?
These questions will help you prioritize your tasks and set planning goals.
If you start each day without a goal, it’s easy to find yourself waffling and wasting time. Instead, use a calendar or planner to schedule your time more effectively. Here’s a guide on how to use a printable paper planner, if you're not keen on using a digital calendar.
As a more specific example of how prioritization and planning can help reduce busywork, let’s take a closer look at the five busy work time wasters identified in the example in Step 1. Here’s how you could address each time waster:
- Checking Email. If you’re spending a lot of time checking email each day, you’re not alone. According to a study from Reuters, many workers spend up to 6.3 hours a day checking email. To reduce this busy work, try limiting yourself to checking your inbox three times a day: when you start work, before lunch, and before the end of your work day.
- Administrative Tasks. Most administrative tasks really do need to get done, but are you the best person to do them? Often, the answer is no. We’ll talk more about task delegation in a later step. If there are a few administrative tasks that only you can handle, consider handling them all at once. Set aside a few hours each week for administration.
- Watching YouTube Videos. Unless these videos are work-related, watch these during your personal time. Use a distraction blocking tool like Stayfocusd or Freedom if you have to. If the videos are work-related, ask yourself if you’re really going to use the information.
- Snacking. I get it, you get hungry when you work. But leaving your desk to get snacks can be a big distraction. Consider keeping some healthy snacks in your office so you don’t have to go far to find something to eat. Even better, keep a container of cool water nearby. (People often mistake thirst for hunger.)
- Meetings. Unless there’s a set agenda, meetings can take a lot of time. Be especially wary of routine meetings with no real purpose. If your small team meets every week whether they have something to discuss or not, consider replacing the weekly meeting with a status report in the form of a memo.
Now that you’ve planned your time, let’s examine some other ways to reduce busy work.
Step 3: Use the Right Tools
As a small business owner, you have many responsibilities including lots of routine tasks. It’s not uncommon for a business owner to try to handle those tasks using only the software tools they are most familiar with.
If you haven’t added any new software tools to your work process in several years, chances are that you’re not working as efficiently as you could be.
If you find that a single type of task is taking a significant amount of your time, look for a more efficient way to perform that task.
For example, payroll is one type of task than can take a lot of time as your business grows. It can take a long time to process payroll even if you only have a few employees. There are ways to streamline the payroll process.
Disorganization can also be a big time waster for the small business owner. Fortunately, there are many tools to help you with organization and productivity.
For small business owners with employees, it’s also important to make sure that your employees have the right tools as well.
Tools are not the only way to reduce the time you spend on routine tasks.
Step 4: Get Help
Does it seem like the only way to get everything done is to do it yourself? Many small business owners overextend themselves by trying to handle everything. That’s a quick route to burnout and mistakes.
Even if you’re not ready to hire more employees yet, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Outsourcing some of your workload saves you time and allows you to focus on your core business. Here are three types of tasks to consider outsourcing:
- One-time or Occasional Tasks. Your business may not be big enough to hire an employee to design your web page or write your marketing copy, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself. This type of task is ideal for an independent contractor.
- Tasks that Require Specialized Knowledge. If you find yourself constantly doing a lot of research because you don’t know how to handle certain business tasks, you might be better off delegating those tasks to someone with professional training. For example, taxation is one area where many small business owners are weak. Accountants are specifically trained on how to handle business taxes.
- Routine Administrative Tasks. A virtual assistant can help if you spend a lot of time on routine clerical tasks such as sorting and answering email, promoting your business on social media, or updating your contact list. Most virtual assistants work as independent contractors. You can hire them for a set number of hours each week or month. Or, you can work with them on an as-needed basis.
To tell whether it make sense to hire someone for a task ask yourself these questions:
- How long does this task usually take me?
- How much will I have to pay to get someone to perform the task for me?
- Can I do a first-rate job on this task?
At first outsourcing some tasks may seem too expensive. For example, you might think you can’t afford to hire an attorney or an accountant.
There’s one final step that will reduce busy work (and improve your health).
Step 5: Get Enough Rest
It may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes the more you work the less you get done. This is especially true for the small business owner, who may be burdened with busy work and other concerns.
Tired people work more slowly. If you’re working long hours and going to bed late to try to get more done, don’t. You’re probably sabotaging yourself.
Not getting enough sleep is a serious health problem. Lack of sleep can cause concentration problems and in some cases may lead to illness. Most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep, so plan your schedule so that you get plenty of rest.
If you have employees, make sure that they also take enough time off to get adequate rest.
Your Next Step: Take Control of Your Busy Work
As a small business owner, you may feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do. It doesn’t have to be that way.
To take reduce your busy work, remember the five steps in this post:
- Track your time to learn how you spend it.
- Plan your time by prioritizing important tasks.
- Use the right tools to work more efficiently.
- Delegate administrative tasks, one-time tasks, or tasks that require expertise.
- Get enough rest.
To learn even more about improving your productivity, start with the basics, dig into our series on building your own productivity system, or check our productivity category on Tuts+. Here are some of our most helpful productivity tutorials for small business owners:
- How to Stay in Control of Your To-Do List in 2021David Masters16 Aug 2021
- Your Productivity Style: Find It and Use It for Better WorkAnnie Mueller09 Nov 2020
- How to Do One Thing at a Time—and Stop MultitaskingAndrew Blackman11 Aug 2021
Take a few initial steps to get started with the tasks you and your team work on in your business.
Experiment with areas that can make your small business workflow better. You want to make sure your time is being used best, as there's only a finite amount of it.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.