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How to Make Time for Stuff When You Can't Possibly Make Time for Stuff

Johnny was late to school one day. His teacher asked why.

He said, “Because I had to run beside my bicycle all the way here.“

“Why didn’t you ride it?“ she asked.

“Because I didn’t have time to stop and get on.“

As a kid, hearing my father tell that story, I just thought it was a joke. Then I grew up and realized it was a business lesson, a life lesson.

There is no such thing as “free“ time. All time has to be paid for, even time for streamlining your life or business.

But how do you choose what to pay?

Entropy Versus Planning, Or How Do You Make Time or Stuff You Don’t Have Time For?

Everything needs maintenance. Equipment wears out. Processes become obsolete. Your business gets out of sync with what you intended to be.

You can shut a piece of equipment down for maintenance and repairs. It’s disruptive, but you wouldn’t run a machine without taking care of it; you know it’s more efficient and less expensive in the long run.

You can’t shut your business down to do maintenance or repairs. A small family owned business has very little slack to pause, take stock (metaphorically) and fiddle with the dials. You also know you can’t keep running the machine without taking care of it.

While there’s no magic solution, there is a way to create the time to work on your business will you continue to work in your business. It grows from a seed planted by Stephen R Covey 30 years ago in that book about the habits of effective people.

Remember the chart of tasks based on urgency and importance? Everything has some level of urgency and importance. We know you’re not spending time in quadrant 4 where things are not urgent and not important. That’s just wasted time. T doesn’t mean recreation and self-care. Those are important. And taking time from quadrant one is fraught with peril. Your day-to-day business needs your attention. Avoid that if at all possible.

Quadrant two, planning and maintenance, is where we’re trying to add more time.

That only leaves quadrant three, things that cry for your attention but aren’t really important.

But how do you do that? How do you stop putting out fires so that you can do more planning so you can stop putting out fires? How do we move time from quadrant three, putting out fires, to quadrant two where we want to be, planning and maintenance?


That’s not a comfortable answer. But let’s review:

We’re not wasting time. Q4 has nothing to offer us.

Q1 is our bread and butter, the reason we want more Q2 time.

Something to remember: Q3, where were putting out fires, comprises things which are urgent but not important. As a firefighter uses a controlled burn to avoid something worse, letting some fires burn will give you time for planning and optimizing.

Which Fires?

And how can they burn but stay under control?

Q3 is all about putting out fires; tasks which are urgent, but not important. The question to ask yourself is what makes these urgent? Often you’ll find the same answer I did

These tasks are urgent to someone else.

Think about where you’re putting out fires the most. Is it work you’ve assigned to yourself, or demands made by others?

There’s our leverage

The head of a family owned business often becomes the place where all the bucks stop. Over time, through our desire for control and others’ desire to avoid getting things wrong, we find ourselves involved in details beneath our paygrade. Here’s how to fix that.

Pick a block of time: Wednesday from 1 PM to 3 PM or Friday before lunch. Sometime you know you could be getting more done. Put out the word that you’re unavailable at that time for anything except emergencies.

And then stick to it.

Put up a sign. Wear a red hat. Close your door.

Hide if you have to.

Do something to remind yourself and others that their fires will have to burn until your timeslot expires.

Two things will happen.

  1. You’ll get more done, starting about the third week. You’ll spend the first two weeks figuring out how to do this.
  2. People will realize they can put out 80% of the fires themselves, and the other 20% will burn themselves out or escalate.

You’ve now reduced your fire fighting mode by 96% leaving only 4% of your fires needing some kind of procedural change, which you now have time for.

Stop putting out fires and start making your business more efficient, productive, and fun.

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