This post is part of a series on ten foundational principles of being an entrepreneur.
Whether you’re just getting started or you are well into your business, you’re probably already feeling it. It’s always there. It wears on you.
The pressure of the to-do list.
No matter how much you accomplish, more is waiting to be done. Since your business starts with you, you may feel like it’s up to you to do everything. And sometimes—especially at the start—it is.
For many entrepreneurs, the large volume of work leads to a start-and-stop approach. Instead of following a project or task through to completion, they only partly finish before jumping to something more pressing. Many things get started, but few finished, compounding the overwhelming feeling of the to-do list.
Without a boss (you are the boss!), staying accountable for completing your work can be tough.
If this describes you, there’s good news! A few simple tactics can help you manage your workload and plan for success.
Get It Out of Your Head
The first step is to get all the information out of your head and onto a place where you can see it. Grab a sheet of paper, dictate a note on your phone, or open up a Google doc. The mechanism is less important than the activity of making the list.
When you’re done, leave it for a bit. Go on a walk. Make dinner. Sleep on it. As other things come to you, add them to the list. Part of that overwhelming feeling is keeping everything in your head and worrying you’ve forgotten something.
If your list is long, writing it down may initially add to your stress. But being able to see everything in one place can help you categorize and prioritize.
The truth is, you can’t do everything. At least not at the same time. You have to figure out what is most important.
Look at your list. What are the one or two most important things that, if left unfinished, keep your business from moving forward?
For example, suppose you want to open a coffee roastery. Items on your long list might include: coming up with a business name, securing a space to roast in, leasing the equipment, sourcing beans, and creating packaging.
All of these items are important. But some are dependent on others. If you don’t have space to roast in, where are you going to put the roasting equipment (and the beans)? If you don’t have a name, how can you create packaging? What are you going to put in the packaging if you don’t have space to roast in or beans sourced?
By looking at everything at once, you can figure out what should come first—and what can be done more efficiently if you wait.
A helpful method is to think about what you need to do in the next 30 days. Which things need to be done this month? Which things are others dependent on? What should be done 60 days from now? 90 days?
Going back to the coffee roastery example, focusing on the business name and finding space are foundational for the rest of the items. Using the first 30 days to complete these two projects will make the other items go much more smoothly.
Don’t Tackle Too Much
Perhaps you looked at the example list above and thought more could be done in the first 30 days.
A common mistake entrepreneurs make is trying to do too many things at once. The more items you tackle at the same time, the less focused you’ll be. You only have so much time and energy. Identifying what is most critical, strategic, or important to do at the moment—and focusing on that—will get you further faster.
Think in terms of milestones. A milestone is a significant development or marker on a journey. It typically marks a turning point or an accomplishment. Once you pass it, you don’t circle back again.
What milestones must you reach to move your venture forward? Focus on the big items, not the details. And only one or two at a time.
Break It Down into Manageable Tasks
Once you have your tasks, get SMART about them. Make sure each task is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely.
When a task is SMART, it’s easy to know whether or not you’ve completed it. For example, the task “tour potential spaces” can be made SMART by adding some details: “tour 3 potential spaces that fit the specifications by September 12.”
You’ll know it’s a milestone because it can’t be completed in one sprint; you have to finish smaller projects to be able to reach it. These smaller to-dos are your tasks.
For example, if the milestone for the coffee roastery is securing a space to roast in, tasks might include: doing research on what roasteries need, defining the specifications of the space (what it needs to have, where it needs to be), getting recommendations for a commercial realtor, interviewing realtors, touring potential spaces, etc. All of these items are tasks that help you accomplish the bigger milestone.
Plan for Success
Identifying what needs to be done is one thing. You’ll maximize the chance of staying on track if you also identify when you will do it. Due dates are important, but actually blocking time on your schedule to do the tasks will get you further and help you stay on track.
Lots of great tools can help with this (including this one that we created), or a simple method is to timeblock. All you need to do is block out time to work on each task on your calendar or whatever you use to plan your days.
When it’s time to work on a task, turn off your phone, email, or anything that distracts you and focus on getting it done. Prioritize it as you would a client meeting, a doctor appointment, or anything else you wouldn’t skip.
If something important comes up, make sure that block gets rescheduled for another date and time.
The to-do lists will not get shorter with time. Entrepreneurs by nature are always trying to build and improve. But with the right strategies and enough practice, you’ll find the right rhythm and discover what works for you.