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Getting tasks done with The Laundry List

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This article is an excerpt of The Laundry List by Rachel Brenke.

This chapter would seriously be the easiest one to explain if I could just say, “OUTSOURCE!” But alas, not all of us can afford to outsource, or may not even want to for certain aspects of the business. There are even some tasks we simply cannot push off on an intern or hired help.

So to combat being buried under cumbersome tasks, we must institute measures to get tasks done. These include setting hours, calendar scheduling, to-do lists, automation, wrap ups/reviews, and figuring out how to balance household obligations amongst it all.

SETTING A SCHEDULE OR NOT

The first most important piece of advice I can give you is to make set hours. The very next advice is to throw it out the window…for the most part. This section should probably be more appropriately titled “Not Committing to a Schedule.” Like most things with being a mother, you should always expect to be flexible. But don’t be Gumby. You don’t want to be so flexible that the business hours start to overtake the family hours, because it is a slippery slope once you’re there.

Stick to a certain amount of hours per week. This will help your sanity, recordkeeping and income level. By paying yourself a steady salary based on hours worked, consistency will unfold. But with these certain amount of hours comes flexibility.

For example, say Little Timmy has a preschool play at 10am one day but you typically try to work 8-5. So what?! Unless you have a pressing deadline or customer product/service to deliver, be flexible. Take yourself down there with your camera in hand to capture every minute of the play.

Yes, you just might need to make that time up, but who better to approve this mid-day absence than the boss (ahem…that’s you)? Tack on an extra hour elsewhere in the day or week. When the anxiety of stepping out mid-work day (whatever your hours may be) starts to rise, just think about why you became a business owner in the first place. More than likely one of the reasons was so that you could be in charge. But are you really in charge if you’re letting the business run you? As always, keep a balance, making sure you are getting your work done but not to the detriment of your family and yourself.

IDENTIFYING CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS

Identifying customer expectations will help to formulate the next few parts that we are going to go over (prioritizing tasks, scheduling and all that jazz). Knowing what your customers expect and what you want to deliver will help to provide a foundation on which you can build your plan to get tasks done. It is extremely important to note that there are reasonable and unreasonable expectations from customers. In this day and age with the onslaught of social media and technology, expectations can be skewed as the public is demanding an “on demand” response or delivery of product despite physical, business or legal constraints. The reason this is of such importance is that chasing down unreasonable expectations is a waste of time, money, and emotional investment.

The more time spent on actions with little return on investment is essentially like the time my son took my Blackberry PDA/phone and threw it out the window as we were driving down the highway. Do what?

Oh yes…I was driving down the highway with the windows down, hair in our wind and music up to sing along. I glance in the rearview mirror to see my work issued Blackberry (employment prior to entering self- employment) skipping down the highway. Apparently he got bored playing brick breaker and didn’t know of another way to dispose of said electronic system.

Oh yeah…imagine me explaining that one to the boss.

Any action that is attempting to appease and feed unreasonable expectations of unreasonable customers results in a loss for your business and yourself. Imagine how the Blackberry looked after that trip down Interstate 95 outside Washington D.C. That is exactly how you’re going to end up feeling after continually appeasing your unrealistic customers. This beat-up feeling will unfortunately enter into your psyche and manifest as frustration, exhaustion and demotivation. All of these will creep into other areas of the business and your home life, which do absolutely no one any good. The last thing we want is Little Timmy asking you to cut out paper snowflakes with him, only to be told no because the exhaustion from continually trying to chase these unreasonable expectations. Those expectations should never become a barrier to enjoying those little moments with your children.

Reasonable Expectations

  • Timely response to communications (48-72 hours).
  • Providing enough information through the website, brochure or storefront to relay types of products/services, descriptions, and starting prices.
  • Issuing of refunds or product delivery within quoted policy timelines.

 
Unreasonable Expectations

  • Immediate response to communications (less than 24 hours and outside office hours).
  • Refunds to be issued for circumstances not covered in your policy or due to the customer’s fault. Example: Customer purchases a digital product but fails to comply with internet/computer requirements and demands a refund despite having been informed in the product description.
  • Customer expecting you to meet deadlines without contracted responsibilities fulfilled on customer’s side of the agreement. Example: An accountant not receiving all requested financial forms by deadline unable to fulfill obligation of creating and delivering fiscal report.
  • Expecting the business to be open on company set holidays.

 
Questions to ask to identify customer expectations

  • Do my customers expect an immediate response?
  • Am I able to set up supports in place to provide customers information or an experience with my company before I am able to get back to them (website, etc.)?
  • Are my employees, if any, equipped to handle business in my absence? If not, what can I do to prepare them?
  • Will not having standard hours hurt my customer relationships? (Remember that every business needs structure and not to let customers unreasonably dictate your business).

Keep in mind, what might be an unreasonable expectation under a certain set of circumstances may convert to a reasonable expectation depending on the industry, job and deadlines approaching.

Laundry Tip: Always consider each situation and the development of policies with an open mind and thoughtful process of consequences that may require damage control for yourself (exhaustion) or your business (bad publicity).

TO-DO LISTS AND PRIORITIZING TASKS

In order to be productive in the flexible hours that you do reserve for yourself, it is extremely effective to have a running to-do list and prioritized order for action. Having both of these on hand and readily accessible will allow for quick entry into the important tasks at hand, so you can maximize the productivity in the hours that you do work. This also helps to create a standard experience across the board that customers can come to expect and rely on during their business relationship with you. By having to spend a decent chunk of time each morning figuring out what to do for the day, you are spending less time on important tasks or wasting time that could be put toward your family time. Have to-do lists and workflow steps prominently displayed or accessible for use.

Ways to Display To-Do Lists:

  • Custom Whiteboard – Have a custom made whiteboard with a checklist of customer workflow steps
  • Plain whiteboard – For smaller daily to-do lists have a blank white board that is easily reached
  • Running Digital List – Keep a running digital list in a word processing document, spreadsheet or application

A running to-do list can be organized into two main categories: over- arching (global) tasks and immediate tasks. Over-arching tasks include all items that are in need of being worked on or accomplished in the foreseeable future. The immediate tasks include those with approaching deadlines and daily routine activities.

Example of Running To-Do List

A structural framework for a running to-do list of daily priorities for businesses will look similar to this. Note: Will vary dependent upon industry.

  • Top Priority – Responses to inquiries, orders, social media engagement and customer service communications
  • Medium Priority – Business related transactions such as marketing inquiries, potential business opportunities, day-to-day overhead responsibilities
  • Low Priority – Email responses to non-crucial players should come as time permits. These include inquiries from local organizations, schools, etc.

For example, an individual with a consulting or service based business would have the following running to-do list.

  • Top Priority – Responding to customer inquiries, following up with previous inquiries, customer product orders and populating Internet sites with upcoming session specials
DailyOver-arching
Customer InquiriesUpdate Website
Social Media EngagementFiling of customer documents
Re-ordering office supplies
  • Medium Priority – Responding to or sending out inquiries for business relationships with local photographers, vendors and small businesses as marketing opportunities, designing and ordering marketing materials for upcoming events
  • Low Priority – Revamping product packaging and researching new products

Laundry Tip: Don’t be shy to include family daily to-dos. If they are important and need to be accomplished they are every bit as important as the business to-dos.

This to-do list should also be accompanied by deadlines on the calendar and written in a priority order. As soon as a commitment is made, whether formal (product delivery date) or informal (promising to follow up with a customer), put it on the calendar. Consider including “Calendar Submission” as part of your customer workflow.

No matter the industry you will find that you take the same workflow procedures to see a customer through from beginning to end. Whether it is a photography customer that you see through the shooting process or a salon customer you want to convert into repeat business, there are methodical steps.

Business owning = busy = distracted

Being working mom = even the kids are lucky some days to get their hair brushed.

See my point?

Unless you have successfully outsourced this area (see the chapter on outsourcing), the responsibility to remember everything rests on your shoulders. Having set workflow procedures that include this calendar submission will increase the probability of following through and increasing the customer experience.

Basically: If you find yourself doing it repeatedly, quit running into a wall and institute it as a normal step in your workflow through automation or templates. If you keep banging your head into a wall, it doesn’t hurt less. It is counterproductive.

WORKFLOW AND CALENDAR

The trick to a successful calendar is ease of access to the schedule and identifying priority tasks through identifying marks. Ease of access to the calendar may be accomplished through the use of a smart phone, tablet, or computer with wireless internet connectivity, or even by going old school with a day planner. Having a calendar on hand will allow for quick adjustments in daily workflow, enabling you to make the spontaneous decision to skip out for a surprise lunch at your child’s elementary school cafeteria. Identifying marks and color-coded entries can also help you make quick adjustments in daily plans. Just like with the email color-coding, using a standard system to identify high priority and low priority will increase efficiency in daily decision making and accomplishing tasks.

Sometimes we just have to automate, and sometimes it is better that we do! Automation can lend to more efficiency as we have less jumbling our mom brains because the tasks are being accomplished without thought on our part. Automation can lend to efficient prioritizing of tasks such as email labeling, newsletter messaging systems, social media posting systems and calendar scheduling.

In most industries, emails are the center point of communications, and on some days they can be the bane of our existence. Especially Monday mornings….can I get an amen to that one, sister? I sometimes dread Mondays because of the amount of emails that will be sitting there waiting for me. You know, if I actually allowed myself to not work during the weekend that is! Email labeling or tagging is a crucial aspect of helping prioritize daily tasks. This can help turn your mountain of emails into small little hills you can conquer one at a time.

I totally admit to having a quick flash to Braveheart-style charging up a hill…but I digress.

AUTOMATE, AUTOMATE!

The email you use will depend on how the emails are categorized, but the idea is that keywords or addresses are set up to be labeled in certain categories. To take the organization a step further, set up various folders to direct these labeled emails. This will allow you to run through your daily to-do list in priority order without having to open each email and decide which to answer first.

Examples:

  • Website submissions through a contact form always come from the same email address. Tag this email address to go to an Inquiry folder.
  • Constant contact with one person is a marketing opportunity. Tag this email to be diverted to the Marketing folder. After labeling and directing emails to the appropriate folder, you can take it a step further (again, depending on email customer) and dedicate a specific color to each task to allow for quick priority recognition at a glance.

Examples:

  • Product orders through your website may be color-coded as red for high-priority attention.
  • Follow ups from local businesses or organizations inquiring as to a future get-together event may be color-coded as yellow or green for medium to low priority attention depending upon the calendar and marketing plan schedule.

WRAP UPS AND REVIEWS

Having all these ideas in place means absolutely nothing if the tasks aren’t being accomplished. Institute into your schedule a wrap-up and review process of a set time schedule. This is especially important when it comes to taxes. I just heard a groan come from deep within you, but I promise by instituting a wrap up of taxes you will thank me.

Think about it this way: You keep everything filed and organized, but don’t load it into your spreadsheets or expense tracking program, figuring that your organized files will save you at the end of the year. Wrong. The timing of this is horrible. As time creeps into December, the stress and hustle of the holidays increases. By the end of the year business owners are pretty much ready to shelve things until 2013.

Okay…that doesn’t sound so bad…

…I’ll push it off until January. Oh, really?

Then what about all the beginning of the year tasks that need done (i.e. marketing campaigns, customer services, production of new items, etc.)? You will then be forced to hole up in your office for a day, or two…or three going through all of your folders and information to input everything. (Side note: This is one area I really recommend outsourcing if possible).  End result? Taking time away from kicking off the New Year fresh and never catching up without great detriment to yourself and your schedule. You know those nights the kids never sleep and you feel like you’re never going to catch up? Take that feeling and add on the IRS deadline. Kind of didn’t think you wanted to go there!

So the tax example seems extreme, but it’s not. Not that I’ve ever done that. No. Not me. Never. HA! But realistically, you should always be on top of organization and accounting. If you’re sitting there and thinking that you’ve got that down, let’s look at your reviewing of your business and marketing plans. Are you committing honest evaluations and critiques of business actions and marketing campaigns? Waiting until an entire year, or even half of a year, has passed to evaluate these will leave you in your competitors’ dust. And it will leave you exhausted, much like rocking faster in a rocking chair but going absolutely nowhere. Or trying to clean the house with two toddlers and a dog running around spilling mac and cheese on everything. Ahh…now you get it!

BALANCING HOUSEHOLD OBLIGATIONS

Working In-Home

One may think that working in-home means you have plenty of time for chores. Wrong. I have found from working both sides of the coin that working in-home can be harder. It is easy to get sucked into the idea that you need to have everything done at once.

Remember our to-do lists?

Those little buggers are just as important for the household duties. Having these running to-do lists will allow for proper allocation of time and will avoid embarrassment when you show up at Sally’s ballet bake sale sans cupcakes.

 
Working Out of Home

Just like running your business needs organization, so does your home. I’m going to adopt the same methods two-year-olds do to bang something into your head. Going to repeat myself…again.

Schedule, schedule, schedule.

Put everything into the calendar. By scheduling all aspects, the entire family will know what is going on at all times, which sets expectations for fulfillment of obligations. The schedule also provides boundaries for priorities.

HOW AM I GOING TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN FOR REAL?

Now go write everything down in your business plan. Oh yes, we are even planning hours. You are more likely to commit to your plan if it is in writing. Even if you never look at it again, hopefully it will be a telltale heart, beating to remind you that family comes first. Here are a few questions to help you formulate this part of your plan.

  • What is your plan for your hours worked?
  • What is your flexible schedule going to look like?
  • Are you just going to work until everything is done?
  • What about priorities? How much are you really being compensated for your time?
  • What automation techniques can you implement?
  • Does your current email customer offer filtering and color coding? If not, should you move to a new platform while retaining the address?
  • What can I do to better manage customer expectations?
  • Am I relaying my expectations of my customers appropriately?
  • Am I providing customers enough information to understand my policies?

Let’s take it a step further. Not only are you going to outline the hours and flexibility guidelines, but you are also going to write out the customer workflow procedures mentioned above. Write a manual as though you are handing over your entire office to someone else to run for a week. Who knows? You might just need a quick flight to Hawaii for a Mai Tai on the beach sans kids!

Love this article?  Get The Laundry List for even more great tips!

Getting tasks done with The Laundry List

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Hi, I'm Rachel.
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I'm a multi-faceted entrepreneur, business strategist and intellectual property attorney ready to help you start building the life + business you dream of!

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