Little scraps of time captured on a paper pad next to my computer is how I recorded my paid client work when my children and business were young. Invoicing clients involved adding up 10 minutes plus five minutes plus 15 minutes. Oh! The things I could get done in 20 minutes! The mind boggles. Those days are (thankfully) over, and I no longer charge by the hour.

If you have limited time (because, hey! Pandemic! Homeschooling! All chaos, all the time!), how you choose to spend it becomes even more important.

While nobody is as efficient as a working parent, it’s also important to learn how to make decisions like a boss and not an overwrought, underpaid wildebeest. Not just for your business’s growth and profits, but for your own sanity.

Decision-making is a crucial business skill and time is the most precious resource we have. More hours doesn’t mean better decisions, more productivity and more success. Instead, choosing exactly how you spend your time (and also, what you don’t do) is critical.

So I asked some of my favourite business owners, including those with young kids, how they prioritise their time when time is in short supply.

Starting Sunday

Planning was a big theme of every business owner I spoke with. As Abraham Lincoln said,

“ Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Planning ensures that you make smarter decisions.

For Belinda Weaver, of Copywrite Matters, who has two daughters aged three and six that she’s currently home-schooling, planning the week ahead starts on Sunday: “As I don’t usually have long chunks of time to work, I spend a bit of time each Sunday looking at my priorities for the week. This helps make sure business development activities don’t fall off my list in favour of quickly-executed but unimportant admin.

“If I had just one hour to work, I would split the time between tasks that were time sensitive (and important) and tasks that develop my business. I am getting better at ignoring the tasks that seem urgent but are neither urgent or important.”

Rachel Smith of Rachel’s List, who has a six year old son, also love a Sunday planning session. “I prioritise my time with a sectioned to-do list that I update on a Sunday night. It basically maps out how my week will go, and ties in with a hard copy diary, where I list interviews, podcast recordings, masterclass commitments, due dates and family stuff.

“I work in order of deadlines but if I know I only have an hour, I’ll be really strategic in terms of what I can do in that time – I generally wouldn’t try to write, but I might try and do an interview and transcribe, or knock off all my research so I’m ready to write when I have a bigger chunk of time.”

Monday funday

Monday dawns, with a flurry of ‘seize the day!’ sunrise memes or ‘gimme all the coffee’ ones. For Monica Davidson of Creative Plus Business, setting up her week right starts now.

“Every Monday I sit down for an hour with a cuppa and work out what my priorities are for that week. I check my deadlines, for client work, funding applications and so on, my goals for my business, such as marketing activities, money goals, and any other priorities.

“I then figure out which of those things is the most important, and make an ordered list. If I only have an hour, I will complete the most important thing first, cross that out, move to the next priority, and so on. I’m a big fan of doing the yuckiest thing first, because otherwise I would procrastinate my day away.”

Tackling the most important – or ‘yuckiest’ – thing first is known as ‘eating the frog’. Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can enjoy your day knowing that’s likely the worst that’s going to happen all day long. ‘Eat the frog’ was made famous by sales trainer Brian Tracy and is an adage that I teach, and live by.

Keeping your eyes on the prize

For Melanie Miller of the Profit Lovers, money is central to how she sets up her days: “Money! That’s the first thing I do each day. I check my progress against my targets. How close I am to my goals dictates how I get to spend the rest of my day; if I am close and can see I will hit my goal I have time to be creativity, start on new projects or do nothing … I like doing a lot of nothing.

“If I’m not close to goals, my priority will be the tasks and actions that are most likely to generate sales. When you take care of your money first it removes the stress and allows you to enjoy your business.”

Setting sales goals and tracking these closely enables you to keep focused on one of the key drivers of your business – revenue.

Rethinking procrastination

Even with the tiniest slivers of time, we are human and so we procrastinate. Philosophers back to Plato and Aristotle have a fancy term for this paradoxical failure of the will: akrasia. It encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior.

Business owners are not only great at procrastination, we tend to excel in preproperation as well – which is overindulgence in activities with immediate benefit and delayed cost.

Your day has been skillfully planned to take meticulous advantage of the tiny slices of time available and then a client email demands a certain job be done and you can get an immediate rush of being helpful and useful, plus it’s paid client work, so surely it makes sense to prioritise it, right? Sound familiar?

Take heart – the latest research on procrastination shows it has little to do with lack of willpower, so stop feeling guilty. We dither on how to spend our time because our two decision making-centres, the prehistoric limbic system (which makes impulsive, delaying choices) and the neo-cortex (which can look ahead to the future consequences of doing so), are playing tug-of-war.

So what to do?

My experiment in time

This year I’ve been running an experiment that is part of yoga philosophy, which is about treating time as something that I am, rather than something external that I have (or more likely, don’t have).

If I experience the world within myself, then I am time. (Or as Descartes put it, I think therefore I am.) I don’t ‘use’ or ‘spend’ time. It expands with me the more I focus on expansion, and contracts, the more I focus on what I lack.

I’m also experimenting with treating time as more valuable than money. My natural tendency is to view money as something finite that needs holding onto, and I will happily spend my time to save money.

By reversing these, I hope to earn more money and enjoy my time more.

My time on this earth is finite.

But my ability to earn money in my business is potentially infinite. So I’m trying to treat time as more precious than money and to use money to buy time. It’s a work-in-progress, yet so far, I can report that it’s working.