E.W. Howe, a legendary newspaper and magazine editor from back in the day, once said something that ought to resonate with small business owners everywhere.

"Half the time [people] think they are talking business," he averred, "they are wasting time."

Why is that? Why is it so easy to get sucked into workday activities that lead nowhere and distract us from the responsibilities that matter most to our customers, employees and investors?

There are no easy answers, but I've given this a lot of thought and identified at least three time-wasting tendencies to avoid at all costs.

1. Accepting pointless outside meetings.

Nod if ever you've received a message through email, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc., that was a variation on one of these themes:

A) "I notice we have quite a few contacts in common and would love to get together to know you better."

B) "I'm impressed by your success and am wondering if I can sit down with you sometime and pick your brain."

What does A) even signify? The existence of the Internet means you can practically take random sets of people from opposite sides of the earth now and discover connections through one social media tool or another.

As for B), it's a siren song on those days when you're not feeling particularly like a winner, and success seems far in the distance. Suddenly, you get a glorious compliment from someone who claims to admire you--who hopes to sit at your feet and greedily lap up your wisdom.

Don't be a sucker for either of these approaches. Learn to recognize them as B.S. and ignore them. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the senders of these invites are just trying to sell you something.

2. Refusing to hire an assistant, even when it's justified.

When I was a kid, we refused to pay for services we could do ourselves. If a piece of farm machinery failed, we learned to fix it. If the car needed an oil change, we got our hands dirty.

It was an admirable, tough-minded philosophy. But then I opened my first business. Suddenly, I had countless duties that demanded my attention if I just wanted to keep the thing going.  

I still remember the day when I guiltily drove my truck to the local Walmart to pay someone $10 for an oil change. "You shouldn't be caving in," I thought. "A penny saved is a penny earned."

Then it dawned on me--a mind-blowing truth. In terms of the health of my company, the few precious hours I'd save for work were far more valuable than the cash I'd fork over to the mechanic.

Too many business owners see hiring an assistant as an unnecessary reduction in their own compensation. It's easy to to draw a direct line to what you'll lose--paying money for outside help equals less money for you.

It's much harder to see that expanding your capacities and freedom will ultimately translate into expanded profits. It can be a scary step to take, but one you'll soon wonder how you ever survived without.

3. Failing to plan ahead.

This one just seems obvious, right? If you're failing to plan, you're planning to fail. In this context, however, I'm not talking about high-level strategy or crafting a foolproof business plan.

I'm talking about the kind of planning that can be done at night while you're in bed with your favorite show on in the background. The kind of planning that offers a bird's eye view of the following day.

Clearing your inbox at night is the perfect way to begin. It saves you from a chaos of correspondence in the morning and allows you to separate what's urgent from what's important.

It's a crucial distinction. Let's say you have two talented employees who are at each other's throats over a misunderstanding. That's an urgent matter; you want to resolve the dispute ASAP before it spins out of control; but it's something you can delegate to a trusted lieutenant.

You're also in the middle of a fundraise, and in dire need of a conversation with a trusted mentor who has helped guide you over rough terrain in the past. This is important. It's consequences are potentially far-reaching, but it's something that shouldn't be rushed and that you have to take care of personally.

Categorizing your emails like this helps save time because you can get everything lined up for the next day. You tackle what's urgent first so that you can devote your energy to what's important.

There are plenty of time wasters in business. Looking for financing, for example, consumes more than 26 hours for small business owners. If Howe is right about the ease with which we can fool ourselves about priorities, it's imperative that we slash the unimportant and non-urgent starting now. 

Published on: Jul 9, 2018