From the May 2001 issue of Startups

Q: One of the reasons I decided to become self-employed was the rigamarole demanded of me while working for someone else-forms to fill out, justifications, other people's schedules to keep, and on and on. But I know that to run my business successfully, there are things that regularly need to be done. What are they, and how do I "make" myself do them without feeling the resentment I did while employed?

A: Larger businesses can hire people to whom to delegate routines, but anyone operating a one- or two-person business from home has tasks that, if not done regularly, produce unforgiving consequences. While each business has its own demands, some common tasks include:

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Making (and keeping) marketing contacts
Billing and following up on unpaid invoices
Paying bills
Reconciling your bank statements
Filing receipts
Making tax payments and filing required forms and reports
Processing snail mail
Answering e-mail and phone calls
Processing orders
Sending thank-you notes
Reading newspapers and other periodicals
Filing and cleaning up work in progress
Ordering supplies
Running business errands

Of course, communications technology enables small businesses to increasingly use off-site office support personnel, such as virtual assistants, to delegate many of these tasks. But if you're not financially able to or willing to delegate, you must find ways to get yourself to do things that pile up when left undone, resulting in growing irritation as well as additional time, energy and cost on your part.

Essentially, a routine involves establishing a regular time, space and manner for getting things done. Although setting up regular routines and rituals may seem confining, they actually make handling of administrative minutiae into habits, meaning things get done without you having to think much about them.

Here are several rules of thumb for creating effective routines and rituals:

Identify those things that must be done over and over in some timely fashion, and then ask yourself how you can get them to happen automatically. Do you need to remind yourself to do them, putting them onto your electronic calendar as repeating tasks? Or maybe they can be tucked seamlessly into what you already do each day, week or month through what we now call multitasking, like answering e-mail while you're "on hold" making phone calls.

Assign repetitive tasks to a convenient time, place and procedure. We, for example, have always had a file cabinet in a closet near the front door, so when supplies and materials arrive in the mail or we return home from purchasing them, we can simply take all receipts out of the packages and put them right into the proper file. Because there's no home delivery where we are, we go to the post office just before it closes around 4 p.m. each day. Then we open and process the mail when we get home.

Give your routines trial runs. Once you've identified when, where and at what intervals you wish to carry out various tasks, commit to following your routines diligently for at least six weeks. If, during that time, you find yourself avoiding or resenting them, it's a sign you need to make adjustments. Either the routines you've established aren't functional, or you need additional help to manage them because they're taking up too much of your day. Effective routines simplify, not complicate, your life.

Blend the things you like with the tasks that are most difficult or unpleasant to you. For example, if you hate filing and enjoy a particular kind of music, play it while you take on the filing, and turn this into a ritual.

The best routines and rituals enable you to dispense with them in the quickest and least intrusive way, freeing you to focus on what's really important. Think of them as the power flow in your home office, always in the background, but forever enabling things to work while you go about your business.


Small-business experts Paul and Sarah Edwards' latest book is Changing Directions Without Losing Your Way (Putnam Publishing Group). Send them your start-up business questions at www.workingfromhome.com or in care of Entrepreneur.