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How To Clean Up Your Business

Spruce up your work by chucking these eight productivity pitfalls. No Swiffer required.

This story appears in the May 2011 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Spring cleaning isn't just about clearing cabinet clutter and that space behind the toilet. It's also a good time to get rid of the tasks, people and situations that drain time, money and energy from your business--and you. Here are eight productivity pitfalls to cart to the curb.

1. Scattered day plans.

Failure to plan their days is the No. 1 reason business owners waste time, energy and money, says New York City-based time-management expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. By not planning their days, they tend to become reactive and distracted, diminishing their productivity and the revenue they can generate. Although a daily to-do list is a start, Morgenstern recommends planning a three-day arc. By looking at a three-day period--and the meetings, deadlines and other demands on your time--you can make better decisions when surprises or emergencies arise. A three-day plan also gives you a clearer idea of when you can postpone activities without overbooking your future. Morgenstern advises spending at least a few minutes each day updating your three-day plan.

2. DIY syndrome.

Morgenstern estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the small and midsize businesses she consults with waste employee salaries, including their own, by not focusing each person's time on the optimal task for that person. Kristin Marquet, founder of communications firm Marquet Media in New York City, found this to be her experience. When she mapped out how she was spending her time, she found she was devoting about 10 hours each week to administrative tasks. At her hourly rate of $100, she estimates she lost approximately $10,000 by trying to do everything herself. After that realization, Marquet hired a bookkeeper, writer and website designer, who cost one-forth of the revenue she would have lost if she had handled the tasks herself. "Although you may feel as if you don't have time to train anyone, spending six hours training someone on a two-hour-per-week task saves you nearly 100 hours per year," Morgenstern says.

3. Disorganized direction.

To make the delegation process more effective and less time-consuming, Bakersfield, Calif.-based business growth consultant Russell S. Allred, co-author of Best Practices of High Performance Entrepreneurs, recommends creating task-related systems and processes. Write a list of steps for each task you perform regularly in your workplace and the best practices for completing those steps. Many people learn through observation, so ask your employees to shadow you to see how you perform the tasks, he says. For maximum efficiency, create process sheets for as many activities as possible, and try to train more than one employee in each. If the employee who usually handles the task calls in sick or leaves, someone else can fill in--or, at least, you'll have an easier time training a replacement.

4. Untamed distractions.

A survey by home and office product company Brother International Corp. in April 2010 found that an estimated 38 hours per employee are lost looking for misplaced items in the office each year. And let's not think about how many hours are spent watching cute animal videos online. Many people have no idea how to manage the overwhelming amount of communication that comes their way on paper and electronically, says productivity consultant Kimberly Medlock, founder of Productive Matters in Olive Branch, Miss. To cut down on distractions and time-sucks, clean up your act, she says. Develop hard-copy and electronic filing systems to help locate important papers and information more quickly. Limit e-mail check-ins to certain times of the day so that you're not constantly interrupted by the "ping" of a new message, and unsubscribe from any recurring e-mail you don't need. If social media is a problem, look into tools such as Anti-Social or RescueTime, which put up a wall between your computer and distracting sites for blocks of time.

Staying Clean
As you purge the problem areas in your business, here are four suggestions to improve and protect your performance

Tap your suppliers. If you're working with subcontractors or suppliers, stay informed of developments in their businesses, says business consultant Russell S. Allred. They're experts in their fields, so they may be able to help you come up with new ideas or ways to save.

Have backup systems for people and data. Nothing drains time or money more quickly than losing valuable data or personnel, says Matthew Cornell, a productivity consultant in Amherst, Mass. Share important information and how-tos with more than one employee, and create safe and proper systems for backing up and storing important and sensitive data.

Track "lessons learned." As you grow your business, some ideas will work--and some will fail miserably. Business coach Maria Marsala recommends creating a "Lessons Learned" sheet to record the institutional knowledge you collect. Did a marketing idea tank? Record the situation in detail on paper or in a database--as well as your analysis of why it didn't work--and share the information with employees.

Stay on top of the money. "If you don't know where you're wasting money this month, it's too late to figure it out at the end of the year," Allred says. Have good systems for collecting your money promptly, following up on late payments, paying bills on time and understanding the big-picture financial condition of your business, he says.

5. Leaky expenditures.

By checking his monthly expenses closely, Eli Mechlovitz, co-founder of, an online glass tile retailer, found a variety of unwanted subscriptions, warranty programs, fee-based website analytics programs, utility bill errors and other incorrect or unwanted charges. Eliminating these budgetary leaks has saved his Brooklyn, N.Y., company approximately $4,000 per month. "It's so easy to add a subscription here and there or a small program that doesn't seem like it costs much. But over time, these things add up," he says. Every quarter, be sure to review where the money is going, he advises, and discontinue or fight unnecessary or incorrect charges.

6. Collecting (all) customers.

Maria Marsala, a business coach in Poulsbo, Wash., finds that many of her clients waste time and energy serving the wrong customers. She encourages them to define their "ideal" customer--the person or entity that will pay a fair price for their product or service, value their business, return and buy from them again and generate referrals. The greatest marketing investment and effort should be devoted to finding and courting those ideals, she says. Marsala initially marketed her coaching services to all small-business owners. She decided to define her niche in the business-to-business world serving established business owners who didn't balk at her fees. Then she created an opportunity to sell to a different audience by developing a series of CDs for startup or more cash-strapped business owners.

7. Energy-sucking employees.

When Mechlovitz has trouble with unproductive or negative employees, he tries to move them into positions that better suit their skills. In one case, a warehouse worker who wasn't good at picking orders turned out to be an exceptional packaging team member. But if an employee isn't a good fit or is miserable, he says, you have to end the relationship--quickly. A negative employee "sucks all of your creativity out of you and leaves you drained," says consultant Allred. "And why? You're the boss. Why are you messing with this person?" Of course, it's more complicated when the individual is a family member or close friend. Have a frank discussion to find out why the person is unhappy and what can be done to change the situation. At the very least, you need to stop the person from spreading the negativity, he says.

8. Persistent procrastination.

If you constantly avoid tasks or put off work until the last minute, you need to figure out why, Morgenstern says. Burnout could be from being overworked, but she often finds that procrastination is rooted in uncertainty or intimidation. If a project seems too big, procrastination can be a coping mechanism. She suggests breaking the task down into manageable steps you can do in shorter chunks of time: "You don't get eight hours to focus on something anymore. You'll get a 30-minute or one-hour window. Learning to chunk your work so that you can look at the time you have and figure out what part of the project you can finish in that time will help you find a place to start to get it done."

Gwen Moran

Written By

GWEN MORAN is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).