Are you running your own creative business by yourself? Feeling overwhelmed by all the different jobs that need to be done – from doing creative work and marketing, to keeping up to date with new technology and doing your own finances …
People are often surprised to learn that The Design Trust is actually a very small business run mostly by one person (me!) with some additional freelance support.
So, here are my 12 personal tips on keeping all those different plates going (without dropping too many of them in the process!):
1. Focus on a niche
People who read this blog regularly know that I am a big fan of niches! So what does that mean? A niche is the combination of what you do best and love doing most for a targeted client group. You can find more info about niche marketing and how to identify your niche here.
The great advantage of a niche is that you won’t be spreading yourself too thin. By focussing on a smaller group of potential clients and people you want to work with, you will get to know their needs quicker, become more effective in what you do for them, and your profile will increase faster.
Instead of being a small fish in a big pond, you just decreased the size of the pond (and have become a bigger fish)!
And that saves time on understanding your clients, coming up with better ideas and products for your clients, promoting yourself and increases the likelihood of people getting to know you and buy from you!
2. Is it urgent or important, or both?
Many people work on what presents itself as the most urgent job, and they will constantly feel that ‘they are behind’. Their workload is being led by other people’s demands and deadlines.
When I read Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People I discovered this really interesting but very simple concept. He suggested that you identify firstly what is important and what is urgent, before deciding what you will work on. The best way to do this is by creating a square with 4 areas and label them as follows:
- Urgent and important
- Urgent and not important
- Not urgent and important
- Not urgent and not important
Then look at all your work that needs to be done and put them in one of these squares.
The idea is that most people spend most of their time on things that are urgent. If you really want to do something about being chronically too busy, then this might help you to make a strategic change.
Covey suggest that you need to spend 25% of your time on tasks that are not urgent but important – the more strategic aspects of your life and business. For example your vision or direction, your systems, training and self development.
If you spend your Monday mornings and Friday afternoons on these areas of your work, then as by magic far less things will become ‘urgent’.
Understanding this concept really helped me to make more regular time available in my diary to work ON my business The Design Trust and not just IN the business.
But it also helps when I am feeling very stressed to consider if it is actually that urgent or that I am just following other people’s deadlines. Makes it easier to say NO to people if I realise that what they want me to do isn’t actually that important to ME.
You can read more about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in our blog post of The Design Trust favourite books on business planning.
3. Be busy … work part-time and have some kids!
OK, I know this sounds a bit contra-intuitive but I actually really believe that I get more done because I am really busy and have got kids!
As the saying goes: ‘Want to get something done? Ask a busy person!’
I run The Design Trust as a part-time business as I have got two young children who go to nursery and school. Most days I have only got between 9.30am and 3pm to work (and then evenings and weekends …). Having this very clear daily time structure really helps me to stop procrastinating and get things done.
I don’t have too many meetings (more about that later) or get copied into endless emails from colleagues that would all eat into my time.
Regularly I challenge myself at 2pm to get something finished before 3pm. I make it a game, and it works for me!
Also I have noticed that when I am really struggling and working very hard on solving a problem, that I find the solution when I am actually on the school run! Just a little bit of distance and physical exercise helps me find the answer.
I see many creatives work on jobs for far too long, ‘over work’ it (which doesn’t actually make it any better!), filling up all their time with ‘work’. If you have got two jobs on the go you will get them done in time, but the reality is that if you would have three or four jobs then you still would get them all done in time.
Time just seems to be filled up with ‘work’ – whatever that ‘work’ is …
Next time, just get some extra work in, the quality of your work might actually improve!
4. Set your own deadline, and announce it publicly!
One of the actions that really help me over my procrastination is to announce a launch date in a very public way.
I promoted several times that I would launch The Design Trust website in January 2012, and yes it did go live on the very last day of January! It did the trick for me.
Creating public accountability (or commit a specific action or deadline with a friend, buddy or mentor) can really help you to get things done.
I have supported many designers and makers over the years getting ready for their first trade show or craft fair. I have seen how helpful this can be to actually manage and get started in ALL aspects of their business. When there is a clear purpose such as a trade show, then it becomes clearer what and when other things need to done such as the designing and making, getting a website and other promotional material ready, costing and pricing the work etc.
Doing a show is a great way to create a time framework with clear (public) deadlines for you and your business – especially useful if you haven’t got any projects to work on and your diary is pretty clear.
5. Say NO to most meetings
I have got very limited time (and don’t get paid for having meetings like employees!) I have to be more ruthless.
I try to reserve one day every two weeks to have several meetings back-to-back in Central London.
I say NO (in a very polite way!) to most of the meeting requests I get.
I firstly check (mostly by email) why somebody wants to have a meeting, and what would be discussed or agreed.
If I don’t think it is a potential ‘match’ for The Design Trust I will try to refer people to other, more relevant, organisations.
If at all possible I will try to talk on the phone or via Skype instead, and reserve face-to-face meetings for a brainstorm or good catch up meeting.
This approach has really has saved me loads of time!
And the meetings I go to now have a very clear purpose, are productive and I enjoy them much more as they aren’t a drain any longer!
6. Block time and group tasks together
I find it really useful to block specific jobs together.
So I (try to!) check my emails only twice a day, I tweet during breaks or when I am waiting for a train or meeting to start, I do my admin on the first Monday of the month, I group my phone calls together, I plan two ‘writing days’ per week, I ‘favour’ certain tweets to read and follow up later in the evening, …
I put little sticky notes throughout my diary with specific jobs on them. That means I can plan recurring jobs months ahead, but at the same time it gives me a bit more flexibility as I can easily move them from a Tuesday to a Thursday.
My old fashioned weekly paper diary might look like a yellow dotty duck, but the system works for me!
This is a major tip: You really need to block time in your diary to get the work done.
7. Don’t do it all alone!
Somehow many creative sole traders think that they have to do EVERYTHING themselves …
Let me tell you: You can’t!
Focus (as much as you can) on those things that you are best at, and get other people to do the other bits. It is very likely they will do them quicker and better than you!
I know that especially when you get started with your business that this is pretty hard to achieve (I am still learning too, and it isn’t always easy for a control freak to let go and delegate … ;-)).
Look at where you make the biggest impact, what you are really good at. Your job is to coordinate all the different aspects of your business, but where possible get help from others.
Get a photographer to do your pictures (one of the best investments you can make!), ask a bookkeeper to set up your financial systems, work with a designer on your branding and website, ask a friendly copywriter to help you write your website or marketing copy, get help from others to do your domestic chores.
This doesn’t always need to be expensive. Often using an expert can save massively in time and minimise frustrations. But also be creative and swap your skills or products with others – you might be surprised how open many others are for some bartering!
8 The right job for the right energy
Do you feel like you need to be in ‘the right mood’ for certain jobs? That you can’t really get creative if you have only got two hours?
It really helps to know how your personal energy works throughout the day and connect that to what you need to do.
I do most writing and creative thinking at the beginning of the day when I am more fresh, and more repetitive jobs (such as emails or editing) in the evening.
When I want to develop bigger ideas, create e-books or one of our services such as the Online Shop or Get Clients Now! programme, then I know I need more, and especially solitary time. My husband and two kids go a couple of times a year away for a long weekend to grandpa and grandma, so that I can have a solid 12 hours of working ‘it’ out and getting a good head start. Once I have done the ‘big’ thinking I can divide it up in smaller jobs that I can get done later.
What would work for you? What energy do you need to get different jobs done?
And sometimes you just have to push yourself a little, stop thinking, stop waiting for the ‘right’ mood to appear and just create the ‘right mood’. Change your internal dialogue, put some relevant music on (whatever that is), and get started!
You might surprise yourself how easy it actually is to stop procrastinating!
9. Do that what creates the most impact
The Design Trust is a very small company but it looks far bigger than it is. Why? Because I focus on doing a lot of marketing in the first year and work with other (often far larger) partners to reach out. That makes us look bigger and raised our profile immensely.
If my in tray is overflowing I will ask myself the question: ‘What can I do that will make the biggest impact?’
I will then do:
- loads of small quick jobs in succession so that I can cross off loads of things on my to do list (which makes me feel more productive and therefor better),
- or work on something that I have been putting off for too long (and about which I have been worrying far too much so that I can finally sleep better again),
- or I work on something strategically to help me save time (see above under ‘Is it important or is it urgent?’),
- or I really focus on what impact I want to make as a social enterprise to our audience.
You see: ‘impact’ to me can mean different things on different days!
What is important to work on today for you and your business?
10. What give you energy? What sucks your energy?
There are certain jobs, people and projects that give me loads of energy and inspiration. A joy to work with and for, and I will create my best work. Time seems to fly, and I get into the ‘flow’.
However … there are also people who suck my energy, who make me stressed, and who really tire me out. And then I get crossed about them and myself in my head, having endless disagreements, taking even more time up than necessary!
It is not always possible to choose and select who you work (or live!) with, but I have found that as a sole trader I have got far more freedom in this than most employees. So I use that knowledge – I try to work mostly with people who inspire and energise me.
Especially if you are setting up your own business or have a stressful time (such as a trade show, product launch or a difficult project) make sure you surround yourself with people who support you, who are enthusiastic about what you do, who want to see you succeed. Some people might be scared of your potential success, don’t want any changes in their lives, aren’t very brave themselves or want ‘to protect’ you from any disappointments. If you want to run your own business you will need all the emotional support you can get, so find somebody who can be a critical friend who will listen regularly to your stories, and who can give constructive feedback.
And it isn’t just about people. It is also about helping yourself, and find something to do that ‘gets you out of your head’ and gets you doing things. A nice brisk walk, cooking a wonderful unexpected dinner for your partner, baking a banana bread with your kids, pottering in your garden, cutting down the hedge, putting some 1980’s music on and dance like a teenage, … (yes, these are all personal examples that work for me …)
11. Stop multi-tasking
You probably have already heart this from the experts: multi-tasking actually slows you down.
But I actually love having different jobs on the go at any one time. But sometimes this can get a bit out of hand, so I remember this little story (sorry can’t remember its origin!):
Imagine that every job that you have to do is like a monkey running around.
There are nice monkeys, awkward monkeys, difficult monkeys, big monkeys and small monkeys.
It is your job to put the monkeys back in their right cage, and only when you have locked the monkey up is your job finished. So you might be able to manage with 8 monkeys running around, but adding the 9th might turn it into a complete chaos.
This metaphor really helps me when I am running around like a headless chicken to decide which ‘monkeys’ to put back in their cage first!
It also really helped me with a boss who was unable to delegate to jokingly ask him ‘Whose monkey is this, yours or mine?’
12. Good stress versus bad stress
And you know what? I actually have learnt the bad way over the years that I need a little bit of stress to make things happen …
Without a little bit of stress, some butterflies in my tummy, putting the bar just a little too far out of my reach, I wouldn’t push myself and get it done.
But I have learnt that I am not a superhuman who can spin 15 plates, that I don’t take the right decisions when I haven’t slept (or eaten!) properly. I know that when I am unable to laugh at myself anymore that I have gone too far …
Make sure that stress is a positive contribution to your work, not a negative one.