12 Ways to Make ‘Down Time’ Productive

12 Ways to Make ‘Down Time’ Productive

Or, ‘The Art of (Wisely) Putting Off For Tomorrow What Doesn’t Need to Be Done Today’. Before we get started. It is not 2:30 pm in the Doldrums. And I am not suggesting you schedule time to “put off for tomorrow what we could have done today”.  And much as I love them, we are not scheduling naps, lingering and loitering, or other dillydallying. (The Lethargarians schedule is one of the best scenes in The Phantom Tollbooth.)

The pace of most professions & businesses has its own ebb and flow. It feels as though we’re either so hectic during some seasons that finding time to breathe feels like a luxury, much less the time or energy for more work. Or it is so slow during other seasons that paint drying is more entertaining and you add twiddling your thumbs to your workout routine.

For small businesses and micro-preneurs, managing these fluctuations proactively is vital to business growth and stability.

What do I mean by “proactive time management”? Quite simply, it is about prioritizing. In the middle of the frenetic pace of approaching deadlines, focus on tasks with high priorities and defer others. During the lulls, focus on things that are important to the growth and organization of the business, but are not necessarily time sensitive.

These “seasons” can happen at certain times of the year, month, week, or even day. Those who work in accounting, are obviously in crunch time the first few months of the year, while those in roofing in the Northeast would be in a slower season as snow covers their workspace. But depending on your business, there may be a daily lull during certain hours rather than weekly or monthly. What to do?

Tip #1 :: Reduce mental clutter.

During the stress of the busy season, keep a running list of tasks that can wait until things slow down some. Unless you have the most amazing memory in the world (and I want to know your secret!) don’t try to hold the list in your head; it wastes energy and causes stress.

I love using project management software like Asana for this. Just because a task is not urgent, does not mean it has no deadline. By entering a deadline on the task in Asana, it automatically prioritizes your list when and keeps it ready when you have time to tackle it.

Tip #2 :: Reduce physical clutter.

If your tasks have physical items associated with them, start a file (or a box if necessary) to keep these in one place and save time searching later. Use folders and paperclips to keep like items together and pop a Post-it® on there if you need a memory jogger.

Uh-Oh. To-Do List Is Empty, But the Lull Isn’t Over!!!

First, pat yourself on the back for your amazing efficiency! I don’t remember the last time I saw a blank To-Do List. Can you send me a picture, please?

Here are a few ideas of action items that you can work on that will make good use of your ‘down time’, but, more importantly, they can grow your business and make your next busy season run a bit more smoothly. You know your business best, so consider this just a starting point for productive and efficient ‘down’ time.

  1. Clean up electronic files. After a busy season this is crucial. Consistent maintenance saves stress and time trying to find things later. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t in your organization system, then clear your desktop of unnecessary files, re-organize folders, or create a new system if needed.
  2. Organize your emails, don’t drown in them. Take the time to unsubscribe from newsletters you never read; delete junk and unnecessary emails; and file emails.
  3. Purge paper files. Admit it, you knew this was coming… Find a file retention schedule online and consult with your CPA or attorney if your industry is highly regulated. From this, create a schedule specific to your business and communicate it to everyone in the office. From that guideline: file, archive, or shred. Avoiding a file purge wastes valuable space in your active files. I worked with a client with 12 jam-packed file drawers in her home office that had not been purged at all during multiple life and business changes. After purging and re-organizing, she had 2 drawers of active items and a couple boxes of archive files. With the extra space, we were able to re-arrange her office and create a welcoming and functional space that made her love getting up and “going” to work.
  4. Update your bookkeeping. Make sure everything is updated, receipts are entered and filed, bank statements are reconciled, and that all payments have been received (gulp…it might be time for collections). Run your Profit & Loss Report and Balance Sheet by month. Review them in detail to make sure expenses are categorized correctly – your accountant will thank you and you will thank yourself when it’s that time of year again.
  5. Create a budget. Yes. I said an uncomfortable word. But budgets are your friend! They give you a guideline to follow and achieve your financial goals. And, depending on what type of lull you are in, a good budget will ensure that this season is secure, not scary.
  6. Create templates. Templates in Word, Excel, and Outlook of items that you need frequently can, once again, save time and stress (there’s more than one theme going on here). Are there questions that you find yourself answering repeatedly via email? Save them in a document and next time, you can copy and paste! Or, create a folder in your inbox for ‘FAQ’s’ and drag and drop your replies so you can forward them along.
  7. Review and update your marketing plan and materials. Online or print, they all become outdated as your business grows and the market changes. This is a great time to freshen up and evaluate new strategies. Oh, and don’t forget to inventory your supply of brochures and business cards so you don’t run out during the next busy season.
  8. Create new content. I bet if you think back to your busy season, you learned something new or had a great idea for your blog or social media. (Go back to Tip #1 – keep a running list in Asana or a document. I’ve even been known to email myself an idea while out and about and inspiration strikes.) Once you have your new content, get it scheduled for publication now, and let the software keep your marketing updated without having to think about it.
  9. Networking! Keep your business moving and growing by networking online and in person with other professionals in your industry, other industries that complement yours, and industries that you may be able to refer business to. Networking frequently gets put on the back burner when work is demanding all of your attention. Now is the time to build relationships with those in your network and developing new ones.
  10. Make your way through the TBR (To-Be-Read) file or pile – all of those great books, articles, and magazines that have been stacking up because there was simply no time. Don’t forget to file them so you can find what you need again or trash / delete the ones you don’t need to refer back to. Scanning paper articles reduces clutter, and using services like Instapaper for your online articles or Pinterest for visual ideas keeps things in order and easily referenced.
  11. Learn something new! This is a great time to take advantage of online classes available from sites like Lynda.com, Skillshare, and the many professionals who are sharing their expertise in webinars and other training platforms. It can be something fun, or something to grow your business. Whatever the topic, learning a new skill is invigorating.
  12. Look back and review. Assess the past year in your business. What worked? What could be more efficient? What needs to change? What would you like to change? Now, take a look ahead. How can you implement those changes? Do you have goals you’d like to achieve over the next year? Make a few changes and goals – now is your chance to get started! Don’t wait! Remember, things only change if you make the first step.

Finally…. STOP WORKING! This is the time to take a break, get rested, and refreshed. We aren’t made to run ninety to nothing without a break; that is the leading cause of burn out. Don’t let time with family and friends or pursuing favorite hobbies pass you by. I love going out into nature with my camera during a lull. It is peaceful, yet energizing, for me – body, soul, and spirit. A little self-care now will ensure that you are ready to tackle that next busy season with strength and enthusiasm.