5 Tips for Entrepreneurs on maintaining your focus: checklists rock

As entrepreneurs and founders of businesses we have a great many balls in the air at any given time. The average day finds many of us actively managing a team, communicating with investors, raising funding, performing HR chores, recruiting, keeping the books, executing marketing plans, performing customer service, and taking out the trash. To accomplish all of this, we struggle mightily to stay efficient and to increase our own productivity, all the while struggling to find the personal capacity to do it all and to do it all well.

Keeping focus is the critical component in our days and our ability to do so can impact not just on how much work we can get done on a given day, but can also seriously effect the ultimate success or failure of our business.

One of the ways that I have learned to manage my own capacity, and maintain my own focus in the face of mighty of all manner of interruption, disturbance, interference, and hindrance is with a simple tool: the checklist. It is as low tech as low-tech gets: a piece of paper (in my case a Moleskin notebook) and a pen is all it takes to manage your own time, improve your efficiency, and increase your capacity. Here are 5 thoughts on why a checklist works and some tips for their use.

1. Efficiency has an ebb and a flow.
Face it: some days you are just better than others. We all have days when we are rocketing along, firing all cylinders and hitting one home run after the next. These are the great days when we can accomplish just about any task we have set for ourselves and these are the days that matter. Of course there will be the less-than-great days and these are the ones that require you to focus all the harder to maintain your productivity. On bad days I am even more dependent on the simple unadorned checklist I use to keep me focused, force me to be task-oriented, and drive me through in spite of that low-tide of efficiency.

2. Distractions abound.
Business (and life in general) is full of distractions, great and small and the humble checklist helps me to keep my priorities well ordered. Email, for instance, is one of the greatest enemies of productivity; plenty of studies have shown that reading and answering your emails in the course of the day can make it very difficult to shift focus back to other tasks. I find myself looking to the checklist after a round of emailing to help me get my mind back onto the other tasks that I have set for myself that day.

3. (Lack of) memory is the enemy.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes just plain forget things. That call I need to make; the email I need to send, or the checks I need to sign. Put them down on your list as they occur to you – a good trick is to maintain a separate list of little stuff; chores such as phone calls, emails, and simple undertakings. Your “big” list is composed of higher level activities and should include just 2-3 items per day; these are things that require deeper thinking, such as strategic planning, analysis, and writing and may often require hours of your time, as opposed to the little chores which will take you mere minutes.

4. Know your peak productivity.
Let your checklist help you in your time of need. For me I am talking about the late afternoon hours, when I know my energy and focus are at a low point. We all have those low points and the trick is to acknowledge them and embrace the predictability of their arrival. I know for instance that I am at my peak time to work is the morning, so this is when I delve into the more complex, higher level work I have on my list; the afternoon is typically reserved for the mundane duties in front of me on the “little” list.

5. There is a memoir in your future.
Finally, let your checklist be your journal. What better place to record the events of your day? What more appropriate place to look back on the notes from a call, or check the date of an event? One reason I use a notebook for my checklists is that I date them as I go and can easily reference the older lists and notes to remind myself of the details of that day, to look up a forgotten name, or to find an important phone number. And if a literary agent should ever come sniffing around, trying to convince me to publish those memoirs, I will know just where to start!

How about you? Do you use lists in the same way I do? Do you have other tricks that work for you to help maintain your focus or improve your productivity?

Photo: Sarah Sosiak