Four simple ways to free up time and improve your focus

Bearded man in a suit looking at his watch while using his laptop


Running your own business can be a difficult balancing act. Business owners often have to juggle many tasks, with demands for attention coming from all corners. But taking the time to properly focus on what you're doing, avoiding distractions and interruptions, is essential for productivity

In our 'always on' world, our work life has extended beyond the 9 to 5, and the intrusion of technology has brought new distractions as well as opportunities. According to research by Radicati, the average number of business emails received per user per day in 2015 was 122 and estimates that by the end of 2019 that will have risen to 126.

Not surprisingly, email overload is often cited as one of the biggest causes of workplace stress. But the fact is that constantly checking email and social media and flitting between tasks is bad for productivity.

Here are four easy ways to take back control and make the best use of your working time.

1. Find the time to focus

So how can you manage your time? Can you control the influx of messages rather than being controlled by them? Is multi-tasking the answer? Or is there a better way?

"Managing our time is harder than ever because of technology," says Anna Davis of Achieve Balance, helping business owners get more done in the working day. "Some people are addicted to technology - they hyperventilate when I ask them to turn off their iPhone.

"But turning things off - your email, your phone, your web browser - is the only way to get things done," says Anna.

"Carving out focus hours is critical. The brain is like a computer, and different tasks require different amounts of RAM. When you get distracted, it takes a few minutes to get back to the task afterwards. When you need to concentrate, you should switch everything off - including email and other notifications - and let others know not to disturb you."

But it's easy to let these intrusions call the shots. They can even be welcome distractions when you've got a daunting task ahead of you.

"Procrastination is a problem for everyone," says Anna. "But whatever you are avoiding is often the very thing you should be doing. The hardest part is getting started. Scheduling focus hours in your diary is imperative to ensure they happen."

2. Tackle difficult tasks

One way to get the most challenging tasks out of the way is to tackle them first thing - before you've even looked at the morning emails.

Another approach is to break up daunting tasks into bite-sized pieces. "The key is to take small steps and set realistic targets," says Anna. "If you give yourself just 20 minutes to do something, it's amazing what you can achieve.

"Break each hour into three 20-minute chunks for three different tasks, and use a timer to keep you focused."

3. Take control of your inbox

How full is your email inbox? If it's daunting, or you're finding it hard to track down important mails, follow these steps to help you take back control:

  1. Start by shifting all emails that are more than two months old into archive folders. If you need to find one, you'll know where it is.
  2. Now set up a simple filing system that works for you. Create folders where you can keep relevant emails together. This could include some work-related folders, as well as one for personal emails. The trick, though, is to only create a few so that it's obvious where emails belong - and you can easily find them again.
  3. Now deal with your inbox. Go through your recent emails and:
    • put meeting dates in your diary;
    • add contacts to your address book;
    • save attachments to your computer;
    • cut and paste important information into documents;
    • add tasks to your to-do list.
  4. You should now be able to move the vast majority of your emails into folders. Those that remain should be those that you have yet to reply to. In other words, the emails in your inbox become a de facto to-do list.
  5. From now on, think of every email as a task. You'll find that many of your emails can be shifted almost immediately. By only leaving those that require a response, you'll be able to keep on top of your inbox.

Other tips include making sure you unsubscribe to email newsletters you don't want to receive and not being afraid to delete insignificant emails - you don't actually have to keep them all!

4. Avoid 'time sinks'

Many people find they lose track of time during the working day. Anna says: "Being busy is very different from being productive. With my clients I identify 'time sinks' - activities that eat up time, such as social media."

Research conducted by GWI found the average person spends more than six hours online every day, with 30% of that time (two hours and 15 minutes per day) spent on social media sites.

"Two hours a day on social media is too much. It's better to allow 20 minutes twice a day, and do what you can in that time," says Anna

Another challenge for small business owners can be letting go - they have got used to doing everything themselves, and the idea of delegating doesn't appeal. But spending your valuable time on activities that aren't your main area of expertise is a false economy.

"Find others to do tasks you hate, or which you are not very good at, and which are taking you away from your core business," advises Anna. "There are so many options for delegating today, including virtual assistants you can pay by the hour. And if you are really short of cash, do swaps - offer your expertise to someone in exchange for their help.

Finally, says Anna, it's vital to look after number one. "You are your business," she says. "If you break, so does the business."

Ten quick ways to free up more time

  1. Turn off your phone and email periodically.
  2. Clear the clutter in your office and on your computer.
  3. Use online tools to manage your workload.
  4. Prioritise core business activities.
  5. Do one thing at a time.
  6. Tackle things you have been putting off.
  7. Do smaller tasks in batches.
  8. Do the difficult tasks at a time of day when you are most alert.
  9. Make a realistic daily to-do list.
  10. Delegate and outsource.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.