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As a business owner, you must master time management.

For a small business owner, time management is probably one of the most difficult but crucial things to master. Particularly in a service business, because unexpected distractions are a common occurrence through the course of the day.

So, let’s talk about some best practices that make a big difference.

Consistent use of a scheduling program is a must.

Number one, you should use some type of scheduling program like an Outlook Calendar, or something similar. This is how you can keep track of all your appointments, so you don’t inadvertently schedule overlapping activities.

Make sure to key these appointments with reminders that will give you enough time if you’re in the middle of something, to get out of it and show up where you’re supposed to be on time. Every scheduling program gives you the ability to set a reminder fifteen minutes ahead, an hour ahead, even a day or a week ahead of time.

This is also a good way to maintain a task list and ensure you’re meeting important deadlines.

A good tip here is, try not to schedule more than 50% of your day. That way you can handle all the other items that come up. It also helps you avoid falling into the trap of overbooking yourself. Schedule back-to-back meetings for two or three days in a row and you’ll be behind for a month.

Leaving that much of your schedule open also contributes to your ability to be responsive to your customers, which is a top priority.

Being disciplined in the use of your scheduling program is key to effective time management.

Manage your email instead of being a slave to it.

Another thing you can do to master time management is to establish specific times of day when you check your email, and then stick to that schedule. Maybe you check it right when you get in in the morning, check it right before lunch, and then one more time right before your day ends.

Just remember to respond to your customers based on their requirements and their timelines, not what you perceive to be acceptable. Although there are many different recommendations on this, from a good customer service perspective it’s wise to respond same day to anything you get before noon, and by noon the next day for anything you get after noon.

It does require discipline, but you’ll get back a significant amount of time when you stop disrupting your day to look at every message the moment hits your inbox.

Manage paper flow to keep it from getting out of hand.

Managing the paper flow that comes across your desk can really make a difference too. It helps to set (and follow religiously) a rule of not handling anything more than once. If you’re going to take the time to read it or look at it, do what you need to do with it while you’ve got it in your hand. That way you’re not just moving things from stack to stack on your desk.

Save business that requires complete focus for your “off” hours.

Since we all know that small business owners work a lot more than an 8 to 5 schedule, try to handle things that you don’t want to be distracted with before the rest of the world comes to work. Or, after they go home. For instance, if you’re in a business where your customers typically don’t start work until 8:30 or 9:00, you’ve got from 6:00 in the morning (or whatever time you get up) until then to get the stuff you don’t want to be interrupted on out of the way.

Preplan big activities.

Big activities like out-of-state tradeshows and family vacations that are going to take you away from the business should be planned well in advance. This way you can get all important tasks marked off your list during the month before you leave instead of doing it all on the day you’re supposed to be leaving.

Effective time management all comes down to planning and discipline.

The down and dirty truth is that time management is all about planning, discipline, and not overbooking yourself. You can form productive habits in a short period of time, and when you do, you’re sure to see more profitable results.

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