From the December 1997 issue of Startups

What is your most valuable resource to build your homebased business? While money and your product or service are vital, many experts and entrepreneurs agree that time is your most precious commodity. In starting a business, minutes carry multiple demands; you can easily think of twenty tasks to fill each hour. Because time is a limited resource, it requires astute delegation. Managing your day is equally as crucial as budgeting your money. If you use your time successfully, you'll be able to oversee your business, market and promote your enterprise and eventually expand your business to reach the level of success of which you've always dreamed.

The following suggestions will help you take command of your most important investment--the time you spend today:

  • Organize your workspace to streamline your operations. Since 1981, Bob Frare has managed his sales training company, Partner Selling Group, from a 10-by-10-foot office in his Albany, New York, home. "My office is the smallest, most highly organized space possible," Frare says. "I believe strongly in touching papers only once and keeping a specific place for them. I focus on one paper on my desk at a time. And when I'm finished, it goes in my file or in a large wastebasket beside me."

Frare's favorite organizational tool is a cubbyhole system with separate slots for stationery, envelopes, client letters, invoices and receipts. "I used to spin around to look for my stationery and jump up three times for the envelope and stamps when I wrote a letter," Frare says. "Now everything is right in front of me, and I know when to order more supplies. When bills come in, I don't mess with them individually. They go in the slot for bills until my part-time bookkeeper comes in." Frare finds that keeping his office clutter-free saves him time on each transaction, and customers frequently compliment him on his efficiency.

  • Create a list to keep track of tasks. A time-management expert and author of seven time- and business-management books, Jeffrey J. Mayer is also a consultant and speaker in Chicago. "As a reminder of tasks to complete, most people leave papers and Post-its on their desks," says Mayer. "Instead of piles of papers, create a list of priorities. You can keep adding new items to the list and, when you finish something, scratch it off. Ask yourself, `Which is the most important thing to do?' After you decide which task to pursue, instead of thinking about it, just do it."
  • Assign vital tasks to the "prime time" of your day. In his book, Time Management For Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, $17, 800-434-3422), Mayer says that each person has peak times during the day when his or her energy and concentration are high. "During this time, it's possible for you to get twice as much done in half the time with half the effort," Mayer says. "During your prime time, give yourself two uninterrupted hours daily. Leave your answering machine on, turn off your beeper and don't read your e-mail. Do something important that will make you the most money." If you have a project that requires an hour to complete, make an appointment with yourself during your prime time and block that time out on your calendar.
  • Maximize your accomplishments by multitasking. Azriela Jaffe, author of Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples (Harper Business, $13, 800-236-7323), has been called "The Queen of Multitasking." She's an expert at making every minute count. A business coach and speaker in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jaffe believes that a cordless phone is a must for homebased business owners who want to make the most of their time. "The best part of working at home is that tasks can be done in short spurts," Jaffe says. "Whenever I'm doing something that doesn't require my total attention, I find something to do alongside it. I'm always on my portable phone."

Jaffe begins by planning her day early each morning. She determines which tasks she hopes to accomplish by the end of the day and decides which ones she can combine. "I segment my day at the beginning--which may mean I prepare dinner at 10 a.m., if chopping vegetables would work with a phone call to a colleague," Jaffe explains. "If two of my tasks are talking with a colleague and printing documents or reading mail and downloading an e-mail message, I do those during the same half hour rather than spending half an hour on each."

  • Set aside blocks of time for e-mail and phone transactions. Telephone calls and e-mail messages can actually eat away your prime business time if you allow them to repeatedly interrupt your work. "Set aside one or two times a day to answer and return phone calls. You have greater success in reaching people right before lunch and at the end of the day," explains Karen L. Snyder, owner of The Project Pleasers, a homebased marketing and public relations consultancy in Pipersville, Pennsylvania.

Snyder also recommends setting one time daily--or every other day--to monitor e-mail. "Keeping up with e-mail can drive you crazy. Schedule a set time of day to check it," she advises. "Otherwise, you waste time signing on and off your computer during peak work hours--hours you could dedicate to getting your `real' work done." She checks her e-mail every other evening, after her children are in bed.

  • Outsource to make time for your most important tasks. "Entrepreneurs often want to complete all the tasks themselves and wear all the hats. Remember: You can't do everything, and not every task requires your particular talents," says Janet Zaretsky, owner of jRae Consulting, a homebased business coaching firm in Austin, Texas. To make the best of outsourcing, Zaretsky advises entrepreneurs to take a notebook along with them for a week. "Any time you find yourself doing something that someone else could do, jot it down," she says. "At the end of the week, review the tasks that you list repeatedly and consider them for possible outsourcing. If you can, cut one or more tasks out of your schedule by assigning them to someone else. You'll find that the tasks you're letting go of are those you merely tolerate. They don't have to be completed by you."

Zaretsky hired a CPA to do her accounting and uses broadcast e-mail rather than bulk mail. "I knew I couldn't outsource my actual coaching calls, but I found other tasks I could assign to someone else," she says. "If you can cut a task out, do it."

  • Use time-saving equipment. "If you're starting a business, plan to purchase equipment that will save you time, reduce telephone tag and allow you to multitask," says Randy Spotswood, owner of Stage Four Productions, a Web-site design company in Columbia, Missouri. "Mandatory equipment for a start-up office includes an answering machine, a cellular phone, a fax machine and a computer with Internet capabilities. All these items allow you to either make contacts and transactions faster or to continue to receive customer calls and contacts when you're away from the office."
  • Hold office hours sacred. Spotswood says the greatest temptation of owning a homebased business is allowing yourself to be distracted by household tasks. "Don't let your boundaries blur so that work time is invaded by household responsibilities," he says. "Before I consider any kind of appointment not related to work, I try to schedule it for evenings."
  • Budget time for breaks. "Taking a regular break relieves you of the monotony of sitting at a computer for several hours," Spotswood says. "Resist the temptation to work constantly, and remember that your rest is important, too. Taking a break lets you see your work with fresh eyes and helps you recharge your mental batteries so you are once again up to the task ahead."

Carolyn Campbell, a home-office entrepreneur for 20 years, has written more than 200 magazine articles.

Timesaving Tips

Lesley Spencer, founder and director of Home-Based Working Moms, a women's networking association in Austin, Texas, and Marnie Pehrson, author of Keeping Your Sanity In A Home Business (CES Business Consultants, $18.95, 800-524-2307), offer the following tips to help you make the most of your working day:

1. Pool projects. Schedule meetings and errands for a certain day of the week to reduce the time you're out of the office.

2. Make the most of "down time"--the time you spend on hold over the phone, in line at the bank or waiting in the doctor's office. Spencer uses this time to catch up on her mail and skim monthly publications. Pehrson makes lists of tasks to complete in five, 10 or 30 minutes to consult when she has a few minutes of down time.

3. Don't hide behind busy work. Write a mission statement and, when you start a task, ask yourself if it's moving your business toward your goals.

4. Use your computer to save time. Use mail-merge lists, macros and templates. Consider ways to incorporate data from your database into form letters to avoid retyping and recomposing letters.

5. Consider running two computers at once. "I use a chair with wheels and have disks copying on one while I check e-mail on the other," Pehrson says.

6. Learn to delegate and ask for help when necessary. "Whether it's asking your spouse to clean the kitchen or hiring a student to stuff envelopes, remember that you can only do so much," Spencer says.

7. Consider sending a faxed or e-mailed newsletter rather than a printed, full-production version. "I call customers and potential clients to see if they would like a free subscription to my faxed newsletter. People rarely turn me down, and I've found it's a great way to turn prospects into customers," Pehrson says.

Books To Make Time For

Time Management for Unmanageable People, by Ann McGee-Cooper (Bantam Books, $11.95, 800-258-4233), is a nontraditional time-management guide designed for entrepreneurs and other creative thinkers, taking into account their bursts of enthusiasm in starting tasks and pursuing multiple ideas.

Microsoft Office 97 for Windows for Dummies, by Wallace Wang (IDG Books Worldwide, $19.99, 800-434-2086), includes several sections on electronic time management.

First Things First, by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, $23, 800-223-2336), emphasizes relationships, results and effectiveness rather than efficiency as tools to gain control of a hectic schedule.

Contact Sources

Home-Based Working Moms, P.O. Box 500164, Austin, TX 78750, (512) 918-0670

Jeffrey J. Mayer, 50 E. Bellevue Pl., Chicago, IL 60611, (312) 944-4184

jRae Consulting, 13110 Bayfield Dr., Austin, TX 78727, (512) 252-9017

Partner Selling Group, bobfrare@aol.com, (800) 298-1904

Marnie Pehrson, (423) 892-8985, http://www.computerexperts.com , ces@pwgroup.com

The Project Pleasers, 6024 Split Log Dr., Pipersville, PA 18947, (215) 766-9359, projectpls@aol.com

Stage Four Productions, 2022 El Chaparral Dr., Columbia, MO 65201, (888) 988-0087, http://www.stagefour.com