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Commentary by Stuart Crawford

RISMEDIA, Jan. 17, 2008-Small business owners know that they have to focus on the important items or tasks at hand to secure success, including focusing on growing your business instead of just working in it. It is a safe bet that we all know that focus is important to our overall small business success, however do we practice it?

What distractions do you allow into your life?

Distractions are the number-one focus killer. It is estimated that for every distraction that occurs in our life, it takes about fifteen minutes to get back on track or get back to the same thought pattern you were at prior to the distraction occurring. So how much wasted time does that add up over the course of a year?

Here are some basic tips:

1. Telephone – Turn off your mobile phone, put it into “Do Not Disturb” mode or even unplug the phone during your times that you need to focus (If your business is running effectively, your incoming calls do not have to be returned right away). The telephone for some reason to a lot of us is something that they feel they need to answer all the time. During your times that you need to focus, remove the telephone from items that may distract you. Another good tip is to have your assistant play the gatekeeper role for you. A good PA will be able to filter the time-wasters from the calls you need to address or even assist in delegating it to another department or even handling the calls for you.

2. Close the door – Many businesses today have this “open door policy,” although I believe in this approach in principal, I also do not want a constant flow of people coming into my office whenever they have something they want to talk to me about or on something they think is urgent. My time during the business day is precious, especially my focus time. If I do not have my focus time during the day, I need to make it happen at some other time, which means taking valuable time away from family or even my own personal downtime. Close your door.

3. Close your e-mail applications, Instant Messengers and other distractions on your computer – Just like the telephone, e-mail and instant messengers are applications that are important in business, however, they can be a constant distraction. Many business owners feel that when an e-mail comes in, they have to respond to it right away just like the telephone. Again, this eats up valuable “you” time. Another great tip when it comes to e-mail is to set up rules or policies. Rules can move messages automatically in to folders so you don’t see them until you want to or a policy is something that you can do manually to basically move things to a folder so you can get to them later. I have a folder called “action later” which stores all the e-mails that I eventually have to do something with.

4. Everyone books an appointment – No one is allowed to see me without an appointment. Sounds pretty cold, however, that’s the way it is. My time is extremely valuable to me, if you want some of it, then an appointment needs to be booked. Once again, if I just allowed people to see me whenever it was convenient for them, I would never get anything done. You need to ensure that your own employees, clients and partners schedule time or you schedule time with them. It is also important that you set rules around your calendar so that you can keep to your “focus time” plan.

5. Set time guidelines – It is important to set realistic time guidelines. For example, all of my meetings in my schedule are two hours long. Why is this? Have you tried driving across town lately? Traffic problems are just one reason, however, the most important reason, having time between meetings is important. Many times we find ourselves rushing from meeting to meeting, dropping items, showing up late sometimes (totally a lack of respect to you and to the person your meeting), and not hitting everything in the planned out agenda because you are being rushed. Having this scheduled time allotted provides you preparation time and enough time hit all the important points without rushing through them. If you do not use all the allotted time, then you have some free time to see to other important items that may require some immediate attention.

6. Set an agenda – When having meetings with co-workers, clients or vendors, it is important to have an agenda and then distribute it ahead of time. In my opinion, nothing is worse that someone requesting a meeting with me without letting me know ahead of time what we will be discussing. Sometimes, items can be taken care of without even meeting, which saves valuable time. I have made a policy that I will not meet with people without knowing the agenda ahead of time. It just saves valuable time which may increase time that I can use to focus on my business. Also preparation and showing up prepared saves valuable time in your business.

7. Focus time – Schedule time in your calendar for you. Focus time is an allotted period of time that allows you time to focus on your plan or goals. Einstein had a focus chair that he sat in to do his thinking; you also need to have something like this in your life. It doesn’t matter where you do it, it could be in your home after the kids and spouse go to school or work, you can travel to a special place (I go to the mountains once a month for a morning of focus time), or you can go to a coffee shop or somewhere that is calming. It is important that you have a place that allows you to focus.

8. Understand the word NO – People also need to understand the power of the word “NO.” No is not a negative word. In this case, “no” is simply a response to activities or items that do not serve your overall goal. I use “no” as a way to empower others. Many times I will have an e-mail, telephone or employee asking me for help on an item. Instead of giving them the answer, I say NO to that and YES to providing them the resource where to find the answer. This also empowers your team to develop their skills. Many people take the easy way, instead of rolling up their sleeves and digging into something. They usually have the skills; however, it is easier to ask someone for the answer or even sometimes the culture doesn’t allow for employees to be empowered (if this is you, change this immediately, you can’t control everything). It is truly amazing what people can find out when they dig into something for themselves. Talents that they didn’t even know they had, emerge, it is truly amazing.

9. Make focus your number one priority – Your focus as a business owner must be the number one priority. Stop the leakage of your time and start focusing today, you will be truly amazed at the results that you will have in just one month. Do not let the day to day distractions stop you from focusing on your end goals and important business items. Many times, the urgent distractions are not really all that urgent.

Stuart Crawford is the Director of Business Development for IT Matters Inc., Calgary, Alberta’s award winning Microsoft Small Business Specialist.

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