Small business owners, whether working in a busy office, on the road or from home, can easily get distracted – and overwhelmed. From email (and text) messages bombarding their inboxes and smart phones, to having to stop what they are doing to attend meetings or put out fires, to the temptation to check social media, it can be hard – make that nearly impossible – to stay focused and complete tasks on time.
And while many entrepreneurs claim to be excellent multitaskers, research has shown most are not.
So what, if anything, can small business owners do to stay focused and on top of things? Following is a list of free or inexpensive tools (listed alphabetically) that can help.
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1. Active Inbox
A Gmail plug in that allows you to organize your inbox as tasks. Small business owners like it because whatever project management system you use, a lot of tasks actually happen via email. And Active Inbox allows you to keep track of project-related emails and easily follow up with people. The app works particularly well for entrepreneurs who are followers of David Allen’s Getting Things Done® method.
“Asana is a great tool to organize and stay up-to-date [on] projects, assign tasks to team members and keep track of everyone’s progress, including my own,” says Steve Benson, founder & CEO, Badger Maps. “Getting reminders about due dates and being able to add comments and links back to relevant docs on Google Drive makes it very valuable for us and helps me manage more efficiently.”
“Asana lets you list and organize tasks, as well as assign tasks to teammates,” says Craig Bloem, founder & CEO, FreeLogoServices.com. “It also helps you track project status and communication. Any messages you send through the interface are saved in a conversation history, providing helpful background information on each project. You check off items as you complete them, and when you do, the tool even shoots a little unicorn across the page to celebrate your accomplishment.”
3. Google Calendar
“I plan everything on Google Calendar,” says Ophélie Castelot, communication manager, Space Designer 3D. Google Calendar helps business owners – and workers – “stay focused on what needs to be done and have a better understanding of exactly how much time is needed to complete a task. Plus, you can share a calendar with your coworkers, so everyone can see what the others [are doing].”
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4. Google Keep
“This simple, straightforward app can help [you] keep track of many projects,” says Rhonda Waterhouse, an entrepreneur with three businesses, including Daisy Yoga. “The colored rectangles act like expandable sticky notes. I have one for each project and even one for home. And I can check off items as I complete them. Recently Google added a feature to allow users to pin important notes to the top. This is the best to-do list I’ve found!”
“Nimble [a popular social CRM app] allows me to add all my contacts into this neat and well-organized CRM system,” says Vicky Llerena, founder, Social Vibes Media. “Once you upload emails, the system is smart enough to recognize social media handles for each contact. It’s great to segment my lists, set reminders for follow-ups and put a face to the name when I am about to give a friendly follow-up call to my prospect.”
“If your job relies on building and maintaining relationships with customers, partners, leads or anyone outside of your organization, a CRM solution is a must,” says Mark Lee, partner, Hokku PR, who recommends ProperWorks, which seamlessly integrates with Google G Suite.
“ProsperWorks syncs with your email, pulls data from email signatures and organizes all of your contacts in one place so you can easily access pertinent data like past interactions, contact status and more,” he says. “This kind of automation means less time wasted on spreadsheets and manual data entry, and you’ll know exactly who you’re interacting with at all times so you can craft a highly relevant and personalized experience.”
“Todoist is the best task manager on the market today,” says Gavin Jones, founder and director, MeeTime. “The main benefit of this app is the number of platforms that it is available on: Android, iPhone, web, Mac and Windows.”
“There are so many planning and organizing tools out there, but I have found Todoist to be the most effective,” says Jennifer Straus, people ops strategy and analytics, Kabbage. “It allows [you] to label each task, which, for me, involves assessing the difficulty of the task.
“With each task labeled, I can spread out my more taxing tasks throughout the day and the week,” she explains. “In addition, I can easily add notes to the elements of my list as I come across relevant information or hold meetings pertinent to the task. With this one tool, I can keep my to-do list accurate, have a plan for the week [and] set reminders for the future.”
“To stay productive, I organize all my projects in Trello, a project management tool,” says Shayla Price, a B2B content marketer. “It helps me manage the content production process from start to finish. I can add due dates, create checklists and even invite people for collaboration. Productivity is all about having one central location for your projects, and Trello makes that possible for me.”
“I live by this tool,” says Llerena. It “helps my team and I create tasks for our entire group. The free version allows you to add team members, create separate boards and apply lists to each board. The tasks are like cards, so you can easily move them around from list to list or remove once complete.”
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Tips for staying focused at work
- “Make a daily to-do list so you can keep track of your assignments and adhere to deadlines,” says Deesha Adyanthaya, public relations specialist, Capterra. “As you complete assignments throughout the day… check them off and prioritize what needs to be completed next.”
- Turn off notifications on your smart phone or turn it off entirely while working on tasks that demand laser focus.
- “Respond to emails only a few times a day, during a scheduled time,” says Bloem. “By limiting your inbox time, you avoid the never-ending distraction of new messages. If someone has a real emergency, they can always call.”
- Only check your social media accounts at pre-scheduled non-work times, e.g., before work, at lunchtime and after work or before bed.
- Take breaks. Stand up and move around – stretch and/or go for a short walk or do some yoga – every couple of hours (if not more often). Research has shown that sitting for long periods of time is bad for productivity and bad for your health. Moving can increase blood flow and often stimulates new ideas, too.
- “Set a clear ‘open door’ policy,” says Brad Brooks, chief marketing, product and engineering officer, DocuSign. “If your office door is open, welcome others to come in. If it’s not, don’t. Don’t have a physical door? Set a weekly time on your calendar for open discussion. [Then] keep [to the] schedule [to ensure you] are not interrupted when you are heads down on a project.”
- Keep meetings short and focused or eliminate them. “The truth is that most meetings can be summarized in a [short] email or replaced with a real-time discussion via chat,” says Steve Goldsmith, general manager, HipChat. “But if there is a good reason to hold a meeting, make the most of your meeting time – and keep it brief and focused. “Agree on an agenda for the meeting ahead of time, and be sure to clear it of all non-urgent or stale items.”