The writer is London-based co-founder of footwear brand Sante + Wade
The story of cynical weatherman Phil in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day has become shorthand for a particular kind of relationship with time. We have all experienced moments when we seem trapped in a loop, unable to break free from situations that fill us with dread.
It can feel that way when running a business. Small firms with one to four employees spend a quarter of their time on financial admin, according to the 2020 Make Business Simple survey published last year by Starling Bank. That figure rises to 30 per cent for sole traders. And this is all hours not spent on generating sales or research and development. So it is no wonder time always seems to be in short supply.
Interior design company, Avocado Sweets, has worked on residential and commercial spaces for more than a decade. But in recent years, the success of its commercial business had eclipsed its residential arm.
Susie Agathou, its managing director, recognised the company had to do more to bolster the residential side of the operation and give it an identity of its own. “It was something that we were conscious of and that we’d come to the decision that we needed to do, but we were so busy servicing our clients on their projects . . . that it was always pushed to the back burner,” she says.
This classic refrain of too much to do and not enough time is one that resonates strongly with me. In some respects it is a process issue and there is no shortage of books and apps advising business owners about how to be more productive and extract greater value out of the day.
The Pareto principle is also regularly trotted out as a cure-all — spend 80 per cent of your time on the 20 per cent of your workload that really matters. But the truth is when you run a small business, everything matters. Of course you should identify and prioritise the most high-value tasks, but in the absence of team members to delegate to, putting off tedious administration only makes the job swell in importance.
As Agathou says: “It’s always been really important to balance out the creative and the more administrative tasks. We have to be incredibly organised in the work that we do, as well as coming up with left-field ideas and solutions.”
When the pandemic struck, Avocado Sweets saw all its hospitality projects either cancelled or postponed. Being so consumed with the day-to-day in the commercial side of the business had left it exposed and the company had to beef up its residential offering as a matter of urgency.
“I think what it has brought into sharper focus is where we could invest more time in our own business. When you are busy ensuring a fantastic result for your clients, you do not always take the time to look at your own business in the same way as you would somebody else’s,” Agathou says.
As luck would have it, the pandemic gave her and her co-founder and husband, Evros Agathou, the much-needed time to overhaul their company. The revamp of the residential side, now called Home Studio, has generated new clients and changed how they work.
“It’s about not getting bogged down in the workload,” says Agathou. “I try to build in time to be creative. So if I’ve got a meeting, I’ll try and walk there . . . talk to new people. I try to force myself to get out and about. You have to build it into your day because time is short. But even simple things like that can make a massive difference.”
There are 1,440 minutes in a day and I am as guilty as the next person of wishing I could double that amount. I would spend more time being creative for its own sake, because the pleasure it gives me feeds into all areas of my business.
So perhaps effective time management is less about fitting more in, but rather adding things that may not have measurable key performance indicators into the Pareto principle’s 20 per cent.
As weatherman Phil discovered, getting out of the time loop means making the right sort of changes — quality over quantity, reflection over output. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it does suggest that for every business, it is worth looking at efficiency in different ways.
There has always been a tension between productivity and creativity, but in the post-pandemic world where businesses are having to make drastic changes to ensure their survival, perhaps they no longer need to choose between one or the other.
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