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What to do when there’s too much to do

At the beginning of your business journey there’s a very good chance you’re doing most of the legwork yourself. Even as your business grows, or whenever you have a team around you, there will always be particular tasks that fall to you, and only you.

Many entrepreneurs thrive on keeping a number of plates spinning at any one time. Others prefer to focus on a single task until completion and move on. Either way, for business founders and leaders it’s actually a great feeling to be busy: it shows your product or service is in demand, which validates your business idea and your approach, and fuels your own passion and belief in your business.

But what happens when a couple of the plates look like they’re teetering, or when the work stack just looks endless? How can you ensure that you maintain quality from sale to sale? How can you deliver on expectations? On occasions, even for the most passionate and committed business owners, there is a really fine line between being busy enough and being too busy.

Look out for burn out

If you’re working too hard, for too long, and not factoring in enough sleep, leisure or relaxation time – it can have huge detrimental effects on the quality of your thinking and your decision-making ability. All of which can actually make you less productive. More seriously, you risk heading for burnout, a condition which affects your physical and mental wellbeing. You can find out more about burnout here and if that’s a concern for you it’s important to seek medical advice. There really can be such a thing as ‘too busy’.

Sometimes you don’t actually know you’re too busy until you’re already neck-deep in it, and perhaps feeling overwhelmed. You might even feel trapped – you’ve made commitments to your customers, you need to fulfil the sale or deliver the order, and you worry about disappointing them and whether that could affect your business reputation or if customers will continue to buy from you? It might feel like you simply can’t unravel it all. You can’t see the wood for the trees!

If that sounds like you – it’s all going to be ok. Trust us.

First of all – BREATHE!

Really – take yourself away from your desk for just ten minutes, pop outside or at least turn your chair away from your laptop screen and just take some deep breaths. You’ve realised you no longer feel in control of things, which is the first step to regaining that control. If things are really feeling complicated, you might need a few hours thinking time. It might sound ridiculous and self-indulgent to deliberately take yourself away from work at your busiest time, but if you’re overwhelmed and stressed this is actually a good business strategy. Work out the soonest possible time you can take yourself away for just a few hours as soon as you can, to help clear your head and re-energise. Reschedule any commitments if necessary, put on the autoreply, take yourself away from your usual work or home zone (a walk or a trip to the coast for an hour or two is great) and leave your work mobile in a drawer until you’re back at work. Your business won’t collapse and your clients or staff can cope for a few hours. On the other hand you’ll gain fresh perspective and be in a better position to address any work issues.

Talk to someone.

A friend, a family member, a partner, a mentor. Sometimes simply talking about the various things on your to do list – without breaching customer confidentiality of course – makes it easier to identify a plan to tackle it. It certainly helps when things feel overwhelming. The beauty of speaking to someone outside the business is that they can see it all from a different perspective, they can identify possible solutions that you may be too close to see, and they can put themselves in your shoes as well as the shoes of a customer.

Raid the stationery drawer!

Find the post-it notes. Write everything that needs dealt with on a different note, find a bit of wall that you can claim, and put them up under one of three columns – Must Do, Nice to Do and Park. That will allow you to identify priorities and separate them out from the things you think you ‘should’ be doing that actually won’t drive your business forward (and realise your earning power) right now. As you prioritise you will identify the things you can put in the Nice to Do (they’re not essential or immediately necessary) and the Parking Lot – they’re things you can revisit at some point in the future. You can always move the post-its around if priorities change. (And it’s really satisfying to take them off the Must Do column as you go!)

Get extra help

If everything is falling on your shoulders, is there any chance that you could outsource something even for a short time? Could you make use of one-off services available through online platforms such as Fiverr or People per Hour? Could your accountant take on this month’s bookkeeping too, or could you contract out some admin as a temporary paid task? Is there anything that could be considered work experience or that a student could take on as a sideline? (Remembering that good work practice points to paid placements rather than unpaid). A little short term investment now could be worth it, if it increases efficiency or productivity, keeps orders going out the door and ensures your income maintains a steady flow. If that’s simply not an option, is there a friend or family member who can temporarily help with a nutritious meal and a household task or two just so you don’t have to take it all on at home as well as work?

Communicate with your customers

If you are just so busy that orders are affected: for example if they will be delayed or can’t be fulfilled at all – let your customer know as soon as possible. Your customers are humans too, they all know what it feels like to be busy and they understand there are only so many hours in a day. They also know that even the best plans sometimes go awry. So they are likely to be much more understanding than you fear. There may be a temptation to avoid the difficult conversations but lapsing into silence, not returning emails or calls can cause knock-on issues for your customer. Explain the position, discuss alternative options – a new deadline, a change of specification that’s easier to complete, a part delivery with the rest to follow – and of course, do your best to honour whatever is agreed. Refrain from committing to anything that you know will still be too challenging. The customer will appreciate the communication and chance to change their plans, even if there is some inconvenience

Say ‘No’ (Sometimes)

It’s really, really hard to turn business away, especially if your business is still at an early stage. But sometimes it’s necessary and believe it or not, it needn’t actually mean the loss of a customer. Like any business opportunity there are some points to consider:

  • Can you deliver the work (product or service) without too much disruption to your usual production process or your mainstream services or product range?
  • Can you still make a profit?
  • Will it affect the quality or the timescales for other sales or projects already committed?
  • Is this an opportunity for a new service or product that other customers might also want?
  • Is this an opportunity that could lead to further business from the customer?

The answers to these kinds of questions might help you decide if the opportunity is worth taking on. If the sale is quite simply too much to be able to take on alongside your existing work, then it’s totally acceptable to discuss a longer delivery timescale. It’s not a bad look to be much in demand and there are many customers who will be prepared to wait, in order to get the quality service or product that they want from YOU.

Change your habits

None of this works if you slip into the same work habits or allow a similar situation to happen again. On the one hand, you may recognise the signs earlier and be able to quickly deploy whatever tactics have worked best this time around. On the other – prevention is better than cure. So perhaps it’s time to rethink your working day, block your calendar out with lunch breaks (remember them?), time when you go home, time to go to the gym or even just take a short time away to meditate. And while you’re at it – mark your calendar with time for a longer, quality break as soon as you can plan for it. You need it – and your business needs you at your best.

At Women’s Business Centre we aim to be a go-to source of support for you as you work through your business journey. Sign up for exclusive access to additional content, resources and information.


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