When running a small business, you wear many hats, and time management skills become essential to success. The Naval Academy taught a simple time management system to incoming plebes each year, and I’ve adapted that system over the years to running SoftBaugh. A “time management system” can also be thought of as a “task management system”, since you use time to accomplish tasks. Over the years, I’ve tried most of the big names for planning systems and software, including web- and cloud-based systems, but I keep coming back to the old reliable pen and paper method that works for me. Plus, what I use doesn’t take up half the briefcase with giant planning books, and I can walk around on a project site without stuff falling out everywhere. Better, my planner is always “connected”. This system incorporates four major low tech components:
• A wall-mounted whiteboard
• A large, year-long paper calendar
• Full sheets of scrap paper
• 100-page, wide ruled, bound composition books
On the top third of this whiteboard are a half-dozen major objectives. These are things like “Finish Project X”, “Attend Tradeshow Y” or “Write Proposal Z”. If your list has dozens of items, then one of two things are true; either you haven’t identified a high-level objective that swallows up some lesser objectives, or you have too much on your plate to be successful. If the former case, tease the higher-level objectives out of hiding. If the latter, figure out what objectives you can drop to avoid spreading yourself too thin. The exact number of high-level objectives isn’t important, but three to eight is usually a good number. If you can’t list three, then you probably need to figure out how to change “Make lots of money” into some concrete objectives to accomplish that.
On the bottom two-thirds of this whiteboard are some short-term tasks (within, say, two weeks) that need to get accomplished to support your major objectives. “Attend Tradeshow Y” might have several short-term supporting tasks, such as “Make Travel Reservations for Tradeshow Y” and “Design Collateral Material”. One or two dozen such tasks is a good number. If more than that, figure out which are the highest priority or the shortest-fuse. If too few, figure out what tasks can be added to support the major objectives.
Then, prioritize each task with respect to all the others. I use “A” for things that must be done first and ASAP, “B” for important things that we can do when stalled on our “A” tasks, and “C” for background tasks that are important but can wait if the others fill up the available time. I put an “R” next to recurring tasks, and these usually float up near the top. If the list winds up with a lot of “R” tasks, consider delegating, automating, or renegotiating the requirement.
I like large desk calendars, with a year of sheets all at once. When a new event or deadline comes in, it gets written on the calendar. Each morning, we look at the calendar of items, look a week or two in advance, and see if our daily plan makes sense. Once a week, we look a month or two in advance and see if there is something sneaking up on us. If there is a high-priority event coming up right after the start of the month, we’ll put a tickler on the blank spots in the calendar on the previous month. These calendars are also a great place to store the recurring tasks. They are also important for making a note of when you talked to someone or had an important meeting, and the overall topic.
Scrap Paper Sheets
Scrap paper, with one blank side, is great for daily planners. Fold it in half, used side in, and it fits nicely in your composition book (see below) as a placeholder. Put your daily task list items on one side of the folded paper; I like drawing little check boxes to the left, although I usually line through the entire task when completed. Notes can be taken on the reverse side. At the end of each day, open the sheet and evaluate against your calendar, whiteboard and project or client tasks (see below). Copy your notes to wherever appropriate and start a new task list for the next day on a new scrap sheet. Shred the old one. Avoid the tendency to accumulate a pile of these. Each task should be completed, carried forward, or deliberately eliminated, and all notes should be handled. Shredding establishes an important discipline in this regard.
Need a daily calendar? Block off a portion of the task side and put the times and events on there, such as “10:00 call Bob”. If something pops up for today, add it to that area. No fancy blocks or time slots needed. If a new event pops up for some future date, put it on the notes side, and transfer it to the calendar on your daily wrap-up.
If this seems too adhoc, whip up a template that does the same thing: checkboxes and daily time slots on one half of a folded sheet, and notes on the other. Print these in batches. I think the scrap paper version works fine, though. Just make sure the scrap doesn’t contain sensitive information on the used side. Sensitive scrap goes right into the shredding box for batch shredding later, non-sensitive scrap goes into the reusable scrap pile.
This is your meat and potatoes logging tool. The world is awash in these ubiquitous (generally black-and-white cardboard-covered) student composition books for about a dollar each. Wide-ruled is best as this gives more room to make corrections or add more information if a conversation circles back. This Mead version is a good example. For businesses which revolve around intellectual property, these notebooks can be crucial when establishing when and how you invented something. Logging is important for any business, though, especially when on the phone. Rather than a stack of scrap notes, important details from calls or meetings are automatically organized by date. Since you also noted the phone call or meeting on the calendar, it is easy enough to then find the details in your logbook.
Your primary logbook is not a place to keep task lists; they get buried or orphaned too easily. However, a project- or client-specific logbook can be exactly the place for this kind of list. At SoftBaugh, we start a project or client logbook when we close the sale on a new project or take on a new client. If the client is likely to need only a few big-ticket projects, each project gets a unique logbook. If the client is more likely to need a large number of small projects, then all of that client’s projects go into the same logbook. Client or project, the first page of each such logbook contains contact information for the client and some general notes about the client’s hot-button issues or important project requirements. The second page is an index into all primary logbook entries prior to starting this book. For example, “17 Apr 16: discussed requirements” lets me know to go back to that date in my primary logbook, and bang, there are the notes from that conversation.
Once a client or project logbook is started, all subsequent information goes in that book. An exception might be when you get caught without it and the notes wind up in your primary logbook. If this happens, just make a note on the second page of this additional information, and copy the essentials into the next position in the correct logbook. If you start developing many contacts within a client logbook, also note these on the second page with the date. For example “Bob Jones, 333 555-1212, 27 May 16”.
To maintain a client- or project-specific task list, start on the final page, and work backwards. This portion of the logbook is essentially your lower whiteboard for that client or project. When a page of tasks is down to about one-third or one-fourth, copy them onto the current page and cross off the entire page with a diagonal line. Avoid having many pages with a few stragglers on each page. This is a sure way to orphan, and thus forget, an important task.
It is important to only write on the right side of the book. Avoid the temptation to write on the facing pages, this just makes things terribly messy, especially with bleed-through. Even if you don’t think bleed-through is an issue with your super space pens or whatever, wait until you spill some coffee on it. These composition books are so cheap there is no need to make your life more difficult by taking messy notes. From time to time, Walmart, or various dollar stores, will have these for as cheap as fifty cents each. Keep an eye open and maintain a good stock.
When you run out of primary logbook pages, start a new logbook. Write the date range on the cover for later reference. We usually put our preprinted shipping labels on the book, which contain room for date ranges. When you run out of client- or project-logbook pages, start a new one, but this time, copy all the contact and major highlights to as many pages as needed, and include your important cross references on the following pages as a longer version of the original page one and page two process in the first such book.
Notably missing from this low-tech system is the idea of contact management. We strongly recommend contact management software if your business depends on personal sales or marketing to more than a handful of people. Sometimes, however, contact management software tries to be an enterprise-wide task management tool also, which usually leads to a mess. As a supplement to our low-tech task management system, rather than a be-all system, the contact management software can then be relatively simple. We’re currently evaluating some open-source options; we’ll get back to you. We’ll also discuss some ideas for combining the best features of this paper system and contact management software.
Another important exception regards those TODOs which arise from a client call or meeting. Write these in the logbook inline with the discussion, rather than flipping pages. Later, transfer them over to the client or project task list in the back, and put a star by them to show they came from the client. Write the date of the call or meeting beside the entire block. We’ll discuss this process in more detail in a future article regarding client relations and interactive listening.
In this article, we’ve presented a system that uses simple and inexpensive pen and paper methods to facilitate time and task management. Following this system, you will outperform the vast majority of people who are glued to their smartphone apps or cloud-based systems. You will also impress your clients when they see that you are up-to-date on their projects, and that their hot-button TODOs are being addressed in a timely manner. Plus, you don’t look like you are updating your Facebook page when making meeting notes; people get really sick of looking at the back of everyone’s phones.
For a small business, this system is correctly sized; you’re not going to make a moonshot or coordinate a large team with this system alone. But, most people will be much more effective with this system than some fancy cloud-based software they forget to use. Alternatively, you won’t get trapped as some project managers do, diligently massaging and updating charts while the project spins out of control because they are afraid to leave their desk. For those large moonshot project administrators, thanks to span of control and delegation, this system will still be effective, only your tasks will look like “10AM: meet with payload planners”, “Have assistant update the PERT charts”, or “Review booster vendor proposals”. You certainly will have a lot of scrap paper at your disposal, even in the most aggressively paperless offices.