Ten time management strategies to beat ‘overwhelm’ 

Streamline your day with these time management strategies to beat ‘overwhelm’. Here are ten tips to master time management to spend more time working on your business, and less time fighting against an inbox avalanche.

Research from TUC (Trades Union Congress) shows 50% of employees feel working long or extra hours impacts relationships, while one in ten feel like they can’t unwind in the evenings and on weekends.

Entrepreneurs working in early-stage startups will know all too well the daily battle that comes with running and growing a new business. It seems that every email you send, spawns another three into your inbox; each phone call comes just as you are making headway on a task; and your to-do list grows faster than you can work.

Over the past few years here are some tools which have helped greatly with time management, which in turn has helped to reach business milestones, but also helped improve wellbeing at work. Before, to-do lists would summon a feeling dread, knowing every day would end in defeat and a backlog of unfinished tasks - demotivating and stress-inducing.

Inspired by our Wellbeing Partner Calmer, an award-winning training organisation empowering entrepreneurs to nurture good mental health and wellbeing - we are very happy to share with our readers, our tried-and-tested top ten tips for how to streamline your working week, so that you can work on the projects that will move your business forward, rather than get hunkered down by low priority tasks that clog up your inbox and steal your time.

1. Time analysis

Doing an analysis of your time is a really insightful exercise you can do to understand which tasks are swallowing up your time throughout the week. Firstly, this helps you understand which areas you need to streamline, but secondly this also reveals whether you are spending time working on specific tasks which should be completed by other team members, or require new team members. This is especially important if the tasks you are spending the most time on are those of low priority or outside of your skill set - this indicates that it’s time to make a new hire or look to outsource the work if possible.

2. Email subject lines, CC and the power of drafts

This is one that will work great if you work within a team, less so for clients. 

Instead of sending long-winded, multi-paragraphed emails to team members to relay simple points, break things down into bullet points or numbered lists. Better yet, see if your message can be summed up in the subject line. 

This tool only works if you openly communicate with your team and explain this new process going forward, encouraging people to send you emails with clear and concise messages in the subject line. For example:

Email Subject: ‘Hello’, ‘Invoice’ or ‘Mr. Smith’

Email Subject: ‘Client Q.: Mr Smith requires further invoice details’ or ‘High Priority: Client Mr Smith requires help with payment’

Immediately, you are then able to sort through low to high priority emails, without necessarily having to open the email and decipher within paragraphs the actual message, saving time for everyone in your team. You could even create a key of codes with your team; HP (High Priority), QR (Quote Required), CS (Customer Service enquiry). 

If you are constantly sent emails which do not directly need your attention, but that you need a record of, or need to be in the loop with, then ask your team to CC you in the email instead, and set up a rule in your inbox to move all CC emails to a separate folder - clearing your inbox. Make sure your team knows that this will mean CC emails will not receive a direct reply from you.

Are you playing a constant game of email ping-pong with your co-workers? Instead of sending eight questions to your colleague throughout the day, if not urgent, then add each question to a numbered list in a draft email and send this email at a specific time every day, or at the end of the day. This stops your colleague getting constant email alerts and interruptions to your day and reduces the number of email threads subsequently created.

3. Unsubscribe: purge your inbox of the time-wasters

This seems fairly obvious, but how much time do you spend every morning deleting the irrelevant marketing emails you receive on a daily basis? It’s time to purge! Be brutal, and next time they come in, spend a few more minutes unsubscribing to them all, to save you more time in the future.

4. Write a priority list

How do you start each working day? Probably with a cup of tea, a precursory glance at your inbox and a to-do list - but by the end of the day (and six cups of tea later), you probably have only ticked off the small items on your list, leaving the biggest for future You to worry about. 

Here’s an alternative method for you. Start every day by writing your to-do list, then highlight or number the tasks which are high priority and have to be done today. Then re-write your to-do list in order of priority, leaving off the tasks which realistically could be done tomorrow. You should be left with a much shorter to-do list in order of priority - a much more realistic daily goal for you, which when completed will leave you feeling satisfied rather than defeated.

If you want to get really fancy, add on the step as well.

5. Default diary

You’ve written a priority list, now you just need to complete and tick off every item. You start with priority number one, a large proposal for a big client which you have been putting off because you know it will take you an hour. So you decide to be a hell-raiser and skip number one and leave it for the end of the day, and instead complete the smaller items on the list, check, check, check, you feel productive and the Master of Time Management, but 4pm rolls around and you’ve not started the proposal, and the client is growing cold. Sound familiar?

This tool can help you put your priority list into action: create a Default Diary. You can start small on this one before committing to this new way of life. Here’s how:

  1. Write Client Proposal for Mr Smith - 9.30:10.30

  2. Email accountant with tax question - 10.40:11.00

  3. Write job description for new team member - 11.00:12.00

  4. Create and send marketing mailer - 1.00:2.00

Next to each item on your priority list, plot out the time in your day, and be realistic, giving yourself more time for larger projects and leaving time for short breaks and lunch.

As you do this process more often, you can start plotting it within your online calendar, and if you notice a pattern in the type of tasks you have to do every day, create a Default Diary, plotting out scheduled time that you work on various tasks every day, for example:

  • 9.00:10.00: Respond to high priority emails
  • 10.00:12.00: Write and send client proposals
  • 12.00:1.00: Phone Calls
  • 1.00:2.00: Lunch

There are lots of examples and templates you can find if you search the Internet, but start small with your priority list and work from there.

If you spend a lot of your day on calls with clients, then this next tool integrates really well with your Default Diary.

6. Use a phone call diary

Are you regularly frustrated by unscheduled calls which interrupt you in the middle of a task and throw the rest of your day out of joint? By using a phone call diary you can plot time in your diary and schedule calls - this is a great tool as well to ensure you don’t waste time talking to people’s voicemails. When emailing clients, invite them to book a call in your diary (avoiding arduous email threads pinging times back and forth). There are plenty of software platforms (both free and paid) which you can use to do this, such as Calendly and Hubspot, in which you can plot out the days and times, phone call lengths and buffer times for your calls. Of course this won’t stop you from receiving calls during the day, but can certainly help.

7. Plan your week in advance

You guessed it, this is a larger-scale of your daily priority list for the whole week, so that you don’t forget about larger project upcoming which require more attention.

8. Write a 90-day business plan and work backwards

By now you should be flying through your priority list every day, with each week planned in advance and projects big and small accounted for. However, though you’re working your way through the everyday tasks and projects you’re not pushing the business forward. It’s time to write a 90-day business plan, carve out a good amount of time to sit down and assess what you would like to achieve by the end of 90 days to progress your business and create this in harmony with your financial KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and targets. 

Here’s a simple example:

90-day goals:

  • Financials: Reach out to 60 new leads, secure 10 with average sales value of £1,000
  • Team: Hire a new team member
  • Product: Conduct a marketing campaign to raise brand awareness

Now break these goals down, let’s take the example of ‘Hire a new team member’

90-day goals:

Team: Hire a new team member

  • Week 1: Speak with team and assess the business to understand what kind of new team member would benefit the business most and what the role would entail
  • Week 2: Write job description
  • Week 3: Post job description
  • Week 4: Assess candidates and invite to interview
  • Week 5: Assess candidates and invite to interview
  • Week 6: Conduct interviews
  • Week 7: Conduct second interviews
  • Week 8: Discuss candidates with Co-founder/team
  • Week 9: Hire candidate

You can then plot this information into your weekly priority list, and then again into your daily priority list - breaking down what can feel like overwhelmingly large projects into smaller, bitesize tasks, which will over the course of 90 days, move your business forward.

There are many templates available online, and you can even translate this format into annual and three-year plans, working towards large financial and product goals with realistic steps.

This 90-day plan works for all goals, from marketing, branding, financial, HR, sales and more - if you want to go pro you can plot this out in a large A3 chart divided into weeks and days and colour-coded by task type (marketing, sales, etc), if you are more of a visual learner, and hang this somewhere you can see it every day.

9. Out of Office (OOO)

Now you’re cooking. Daily tasks no longer pile up, and not only are you working through your priority list, but every day is moving you towards your larger vision for the business, with weekly and daily tasks taken from your 90-day plan. Time for a break? We think so.

It can be tempting when taking time away from the business, to constantly be ‘available’ to clients and colleagues, but what was intended as an opportunity for you to recharge your batteries and reconnect with loved ones, ends up being a remote working trip. To ensure you don’t miss important emails about important sales opportunities or news of any potential crises, allot one hour, for example, each day to respond to urgent items in your inbox. 

To make this easier, set up an automated mailer before you leave covering the time you are away, and if you need, also the day you return to the office to give you a buffer to get back into the swing of things. Within the OOO, clearly state a secondary contact people can reach out to while you are away, but also include the times each day you will be responding to emails so people know when to expect replies, if any.

10. Schedule emails

This is my favourite tip out of all ten! If you are most productive late evenings or like to plough through all of your emails on a Sunday to give yourself a head-start Monday morning - this is one for you. When sending emails at the weekend or late at night, you feel super productive and just a little big smug - you’ve cheated the system. Until - surprise! - you’ve emailed a fellow weekend-worker, and now an overactive email thread has reared its ugly head - and you’ve also sent a clear message to all of your contacts on a Monday morning that you are available on email at all times of the day and week.

So let’s get that smug feeling back again. When you sit down to fire through some emails of an evening or weekend, before you hit send - set a scheduled send time for the Monday morning instead. Now you’ve got through your inbox, but you can rest assured that you won’t be receiving any replies until you’re back in the office - #winning.

Bonus Tip

If you are feeling overwhelmed as an entrepreneur and looking to improve your wellbeing at work, Startups Magazine recommends connecting with its Wellbeing Partner Calmer to help support you and help you learn how to nurture good mental wellbeing in the workplace and create a culture of wellness in your staff.