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One Task At A Time

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Do you ever drive to the shop in the morning with a plethora of tasks to complete, and scratch your head on the way home wondering why nothing seemed to get done?

Al Utzig does. As owner of Utzig CARSTAR Collision Service Center in Janesville, Wis., he says he’s constantly thinking about different things that need to get done. That’s on top of the two high-level tasks—such as marketing initiatives and planning chamber of commerce events—on his mind to make headway on daily. But something routinely happens that takes energy away from focusing on his own to-do list.

Utzig says his production manager was recently out on vacation, which forced him over those responsibilities. Then his customer service representative called in sick and Utzig found himself at the front desk checking in parts. He’s also often interrupted with customer issues and employee questions. And sometimes he just plain procrastinates. All of those issues equate to lost work time and an ever-expanding list of things to get done.

“Some days don’t go exactly how you would like them to. Just when you think you’re going to be able to handle a task, something else comes up,” Utzig says. “I may not get any of my own things done because I’m just trying to keep this business afloat.”

Sound familiar?

If you’re constantly distracted, overwhelmed or feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get things done, it might be time to refresh your daily routine and habits.

“The power of habits is significant—what you do and when you do it,” says workplace performance expert and consultant Jason Womack. “You have to identify not just what you do, but what you want to be doing. For busy people, that can be too much.”

Before you find yourself drowning in an insurmountable pile of paperwork and projects, Womack says shop operators should think about making small changes to the way they execute their workday in order to become more productive and efficient business leaders. Tackling your daily tasks with more organization and strategy will keep you from constantly feeling overwhelmed, and will allow you to make consistent progress on new initiatives to keep the business moving in a positive direction.

Womack identified six strategies all shop operators can implement quickly to establish more productive work habits. With practice, you’ll become better organized and find time to cross items off that long to-do list. Womack says that will make you a more competent and trustworthy shop leader, and improve the perception and confidence employees have in you.

Make Your To-Do List Manageable

Womack says business owners constantly struggle with reprocessing information. They look at their to-do list several times per day before acting on it because they feel intimidated by the series of daunting tasks ahead of them.

That typically happens because owners place large tasks into one line item on their list, Womack says. It feels like too much to take on, so these tasks frequently move to the back burner. But that can haunt you, and not making progress on such a big item can lead to the feeling that you didn’t accomplish anything that day.

For example, you might have “work on marketing plan” as an item on your to-do list. You may feel overwhelmed to tackle the project knowing it will require a lot of time or effort to complete.

The solution is to break down your to-dos into simple, easy-to-manage tasks by avoiding the use of words such as “plan,” “create” or “implement.” Marketing items on your to-do list might look like “call newspaper for advertising quotes” or “make a Facebook page.”

“We build up such a sense of dread that what we have to do seems insurmountable,” Womack says. “Once you can get started with something small and manageable, you realize it’s not so tough, and you make real progress. Take small steps, and don’t worry about achieving the ultimate goal all at one time.”

Prioritize Your Time

Womack says business owners and managers are only capable of being excellent at up to four major tasks in any given day. The challenge is that shop operators have far more than four things that need to be juggled regularly.

Spend time each night dividing your to-do list for the next day into two categories: what needs to be done and what would be nice to get done.

Womack suggests making a list of all the high-level responsibilities you have. First, understand and accept the fact that you won’t have time to think about all of those things everyday. Some tasks will have to wait. That’s OK, he says, because taking on too much at one time can spread your focus too thin, causing you to perform poorly and make hasty decisions.

He also suggests you put together a plan for the four responsibilities that you will focus on every day of the week. Change that focus to a new item each day. That allows you to constantly cycle through everything that needs attention so you can continuously make headway on several simultaneous projects.

“When people train themselves to focus on the words ‘next’ and ‘progress,’ it becomes natural to expect constant movement, motion and completion of work,” he says.

Avoid Distractions and Interruptions

It’s not easy to remain productive as a shop operator when people knock on your door with questions or concerns. Those questions are sometimes valid things that need to be dealt with immediately, but not always. Some situations can take a toll on your ability to get things done because you constantly have to refocus your concentration.

You can avoid that by bunching interruptions together, and doing more at one time, Womack says. Identify a strategy that allows employees to record all nonemergency questions or comments throughout the day, and schedule a specific time to check back in with them. That way you can address several questions with only one interruption.

Womack says you could also consider designating certain hours of the day as “interrupt” times when employees know you’re available to talk, and other hours when it’s known that your door is to remain closed.

Womack says it’s also important to avoid distractions and keep momentum while working on any given to-do. It’s a good idea to write new ideas and tasks down as they come to you. Saving those ideas for later rather than immediately working on them will help you maintain concentration and get things completed before moving on to something else.

Block Out Time

Womack says shop owners can become more productive by actually scheduling blocks of work times for themselves, rather than just hoping to find a few free hours on a whim. Make sure to think about what you will work on during that time in advance, and put that on the schedule.

“Most people who time-block spend the first portion of the time figuring out what to do,” Womack says. “Script out what you plan to accomplish when the time becomes available.”

In addition, he suggests you consider your personal work habits, such as attention span, in order to block time successfully. Some people can work for hours on end before getting distracted, while others can only work for minutes. Don’t block out long periods of work time if you can’t be productive for the entire duration. People with shorter attention spans could perform better with four 15-minute blocks of time rather than one solid hour.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Take time to look back at the end of each day and recognize your accomplishments. Womack says the human psyche tends to remember unfinished business and often fails to recognize completed tasks and progress. That can bog you down over time, he says.

Womack suggests keeping a record of daily achievements and completions. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to reflect on your day’s work. Review your achievements at the end of every month. That helps you identify whether there is anything that you tend to spend too much or too little time on.

Compile a List of 15-Minute Tasks

Womack says shop owners can scratch more items off their to-do list by taking advantage of every free second, and capitalizing on time they may not realize is available.

Try to identify all of the work-related tasks that you’re able to complete in roughly 15 minutes of time. Why? Because it’s short enough to find and long enough to matter, Womack says.

Think about how often a customer shows up late for an appointment or a production meeting ends sooner than expected. You might be able to find several 15-minute windows throughout the day that could be transformed into more productive time.

In 15 minutes, you could review a few invoices, look over a repair, meet with a technician, call an insurance partner, write a thank-you card, read a new manufacturer bulletin or catch up on industry news—all items that are commonly left for another time. When you’re lucky enough to find a few spare minutes, pull out that list of quick tasks and take advantage of the opportunity to cross a couple of things off. That’s where you gain productivity, Womack says.

Stay Positive Utzig of Utzig CARSTAR says he does his best to organize his daily and weekly Outlook calendar with several tasks that should be accomplished each day. But as much as he improves with managing his daily responsibilities, Utzig knows that unexpected situations in the office or shop floor will regularly steer his attention elsewhere. When that happens, Utzig says it’s about having patience and priorities to avoid feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.

“You have to have patience, and you have to prioritize what’s really important to you,” Utzig says. “There is no right way to do that; what’s important to one shop owner could be completely different compared to another.”

Utzig’s priorities? Take care of customers first, employees second, and his own responsibilities third. Utzig says establishing those priorities has taught him to feel OK when certain tasks take longer than expected to complete because he knows he’s constantly acting on the things most important to him at any given time. That helps Utzig avoid constantly reflecting on all the work still on his plate, and allows him to go home happy.

“Some days just won’t turn out exactly like you wanted them to. That’s when you have to love what you’re doing,” Utzig says. “Life is too short not to come home with a smile on your face, regardless of how difficult or challenging the day was. The business pretty much consumes my life, but it’s by choice and I love what I do.”

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