How to stay focused on your part-time business
I don't know about you, but I didn't have a stellar 2016.
Truth be told, at the year’s end, I looked back and was a little disappointed in myself. Normally, I start out a new year ramped up about what things I want to accomplish. I take up pages in my journal writing out my goals for the year and coming up with a specific plan of how I’m going to carry them all out.
But when 2016 rolled around, I just...didn't. It was January 5 by the time I cracked open my journal, but all I wrote was an entry that essentially read, "I'm going to have to get back to this.” Then I didn’t revisit it until July.
So yeah, not the best start. I’m not exactly sure what made last year so different, except to chalk it up to laziness. For whatever reason, I just didn’t want to set that many goals for myself, and as a result, I didn’t have much to look back on and be proud of.
The one good thing that came out of 2016 was the launch of my writing business. This was a dream that I had pursued for years, and it finally became a reality. But even that wasn't something I planned on ahead of time. It arose out of a necessity to start making more income mid-year.
Anyway, I was determined not to let 2017 start the same way as 2016. This year, I dove headfirst into my goals, and probably went a little overboard. I came up with something ridiculous like 15 things I want to accomplish. They may not all stick, but the important ones will. I want to run a 10K (my first race, which I’m doing in March!), finish a second draft of my novel and send it to some beta readers, read 40 books, and memorize 12 Bible verses.
But I also really, really, want to grow my business.
The problem is, my business is something I do part-time right. I have a full-time job that I love, but it demands a lot of time and attention, and I’m not making enough as a writer - yet - to write full-time. I only have nights and weekends to devote to this fledgling business. And anyone who has tried it knows that starting a business is anything but a part-time job.
Not only is there the actual work of writing, but there's also all of the "business" aspects that come along with it: marketing, planning, pursuing clients, etc. Managing social media well is a full-time job in and of itself. Not to mention there's still all of my other duties in life like spending time with my wife, helping take care of our household, and the blessed gift of sleep. I can only imagine how hard this would all be if we had kids.
I've only been at this for six months, but I can already tell that growing this business is going to be an uphill slog. Fortunately, I’ve never really been one to back down from a challenge.
One thing I identified at the start of the year is that if I want to see some growth, I need to make some changes in how I organize and conduct my time, especially when it comes to my business. With only a few hours a week, I need to be really smart about how I utilize those hours. Below, I’ll outline four things that I’m doing to help myself stay organized and on track for my business this year. If you're in a similar situation, I hope they're helpful. If they are, or if you have a trick or tip that you use that I didn’t mention, please share in the comments! Here we go.
How To Stay Focused On Your Part-Time Business
1. Know where you want to go
Set goals and review them regularly
There’s a famous scene in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice wanders upon the Cheshire Cat and asks for directions: “Can you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” she asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat answers. “I don’t much care where,” Alice says.
His response: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”
This illuminating scene reveals a simple truth: if you don’t know where you want to end up, you’ll never get there. For this reason, it is vitally important that you set goals for yourself and your business.
Goals are tricky. Studies show that most New Year Resolutions fail because they are not specific enough. It’s not enough to say, “I want to lose weight this year.” To be truly effective, you need a plan. Figure out how much weight you want to lose, how you’ll do it, and by when.
So learn a lesson from the Cheshire Cat and spend some time figuring out where you want to go. What do you hope to accomplish for your business by year’s end? Begin with the end in mind, and then reverse engineer your plan. Let’s say that by the end of the year, like me, you want to grow your social media following. First you need to figure out how many followers or readers you want to gain, and by when. Then you can figure out how you’ll do it. Will you take out ads? Will you launch a contest or other promotional campaign? Will you intentionally follow and interact with other individuals whose work you admire? All of these are lucrative options.
If you have a long-term deadline, like the end of the year, that’s fine. But I recommend breaking your goal up further into more measurable, monthly targets. Instead of trying to get 100 more followers in 5 months, focus on getting 20 more a month for five months. This way, you can ensure you’re staying on track and it will feel like you’re actually making progress.
The other thing you need to do to find success for your goals is make them accessible. Put them in a place where you will see them regularly, and review them often. I write mine in my Bullet Journal and look at them at least twice a month, mentally checking in on my progress. This way, I won’t forget anything that I said I wanted to do in January by the time it’s August and January is just a distant memory.
Sharing your goals with others is important too. This year, I decided I wanted to release the first act of my novel to a few beta readers so they can give me feedback on it. I emailed them the first week of January, even though I’m still several months away from actually having a draft ready. I did this so that I wouldn’t chicken out. Now I have five people badgering me about getting my work to them, which keeps the pressure on to actually follow through. Added accountability is always a nice touch.
2. Set aside time to think ahead
Don't underestimate the power of planning
When I first started my business, I wanted to jump in with both feet. I was impatient to get going, and started chasing after any and all opportunities or jobs that came my way. I posted daily blog posts about whatever crossed my mind, because I thought that’s what I needed to do to get readers. The result was a crisis of identity - I wasn’t really sure what kind of writer I wanted to be, or what sort of blog I wanted to operate. But I didn’t care, I just felt productive to be working!
Unfortunately, quantity rarely means quality. I didn’t see a ton of gains for all of the output I was creating. A few blog posts got traction, but many more just went unnoticed. This makes sense - if I didn't even know what kind of blog I wanted to run, how could I expect others to know what I was trying to say?
Eventually, I realized I had to sit down and spend some time figuring this all out. For the first few weeks of January, I didn’t write anything or work at all on my blog. I just dreamed about where I wanted to go and planned out how I would get there. It felt counterintuitive to not be working on something “tangible,” but I had to convince myself that putting in this valuable time now will yield dividends in the future. After all, there is something to be said for working smarter, not harder.
This time helped immensely. I got a clearer vision on what kind of jobs and publications I should pursue, created my work schedule (which I’ll go into next), and filled out a blog business plan. All of this gave me not only a sense of identity for my business but a greater sense of direction as well. Now I don't feel quite so rudderless in my actions.
I try to make planning a part of my weekly rhythm. You can never be too busy to plan ahead.
3. Plan Your Time Wisely
Set a work schedule and stick to it
I realized as I focused on my business last year that there were so many different things I tried to accomplish, I had trouble staying on task. I would focus on one task until something else would pop into my mind, and I’d abandon the first task to focus on the new one. I’m terrible about multitasking and staying on task in general, but this becomes especially problematic when I only have two hours a day to work. There's no margin for checking Twitter on a whim or replying to an email that doesn't need an immediate response. And yet, that’s what I was doing.
This year, I decided to help myself prioritize what was most important by assigning each task to do a day of the week. Here’s how I did it:
First, I wrote out a list of everything that I wanted to accomplish in an ideal work week. I broke everything down into three categories: Business, Writing, and Networking. Every task that I set for myself fit into one of these categories.
Next, I calculated about how many hours per day I had to work on my business. With writing for one hour in the mornings and about an hour and a half at night, I average about 2.5 hours a day. Saturdays are my big work day, so I set aside 7-8 hours on Saturdays. On Sundays I rest. No business tasks at all.
After I calculated my hours, I went through each of my tasks and decided how many hours a week I wanted to "assign" to each one. For instance, I knew that I wanted to spend most hours per week actually writing, so I designated the majority of my time (about 8.5 hours) to just that task alone. This includes any current pitches, blog posts or articles I’m working on. Next important to me was my Business category, for things like planning for the future, updating my income tracker and website, and research. I gave myself about 6 hours a week for that category. Last came Networking, including any and all social media interaction as well as reading and commenting on other blogs - just 3 hours a week for that.
Finally, when I knew how much time I wanted to spend each week on each task, I went through my week and made a schedule of what gets done when. On Mondays, I spend my morning hour planning out my projects for the week, and at night I focus on my Work In Progress for an hour, then spend half an hour looking for new clients. On Saturdays I spend most of the day on my WIP and divide up the afternoon hours into social media, researching, and cleaning up my email inbox.
Why is this helpful? Because it keeps me on task. I’m less likely to fret about my social media presence on Wednesday when I know I have a designated time coming later in the week that I can focus solely on that. If I get paid for one job while I’m working on another one, I don’t have to drop everything right then to update my income tracker.
Is this ideal? Not really - for one thing, I can’t be as immediate and involved with social media as I’d like. But is it essential? Absolutely. With part-time hours, I need to keep everything in perspective and remind myself of what’s most important. This way I ensure that I finish one thing before starting another. Otherwise I’d never get anything done. Surprisingly, I was satisfied overall with how many hours a week I actually have to focus on my business. I was able to fit all of my tasks in, and even have include some flex time for projects that take longer than expected.
And obviously, I don’t follow my schedule to the letter. Some weeks I take more time to finish a project, and some weeks I may not do any research or reading at all. The schedule is just a guide to help me prioritize and stay on task as much as possible. Already, I’ve seen a significant uptick in productivity. Amazing what happens when you focus on one thing at a time!
4. Track Your Progress
Create tools to help you stay organized
So with all of these tasks, schedules and projects, how do I keep track of everything? Well friends, I’d love to introduce you to my two favorite organizational tools: the Bullet Journal and Google Sheets.
If you’re a blog reader, you probably know something about the analog journaling system known as the Bullet Journal. The blogosphere has been blowing up with Bullet Journal tips and tricks since the concept debuted several years ago. My wife introduced me to Bullet Journaling, and I admit that I was skeptical at first. Why would I write things down, when I have a perfectly good phone? But I wasn't really keeping track of everything I needed to, and now I can’t live without my Bullet Journal. I used it so much for my business that I also started to use the system at my full-time job.
My Bullet Journal is where I keep everything: goals, work schedule, works in progress, weekly tasks…everything. The system can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually ridiculously easy to use. What I love about it is how customizable it is, and it helps me not to forget old tasks as new ones come up.
The next thing I can’t live without is Google Sheets. Really the whole G Suite (formerly Google Apps) that comes with my Squarespace subscription has been invaluable. But Sheets in particular is an amazing tool for tracking all kinds of things.
I have several documents that I use regularly: my Finance Tracker and my Project Management sheets. In the former, I track all of my incoming and outgoing expenses, and it calculates how much gross and net income I make. The latter is where I keep track of every pitch I send or job I apply to, and keep a running list of potential clients or publications I want to work with.
The Finance Tracker one was modified from a Google Sheets template, and the Project Management was adapted from the website Writers in Charge. I’m making my versions available to you here for free in the hopes that they’ll help you - feel free to adapt or modify as you wish. All you have to do is click on File > Make a Copy, and it will automatically add to your own Drive.
Bonus Tip: Keep your frustrations in check
Don't be upset when things don't go as planned
Operating a part-time business is definitely a lot of work. If I’m being honest, my biggest struggle is not letting my business consume every area of my life whenever I’m not at my other job. But often my business has to take a backseat to other, more important things in my life, like my family and my church.
That’s why these tools are so helpful, and why I try not to stress when things don’t work out as planned. Rarely has there been a Saturday when I have worked a full eight hours on my business, or a week when I’ve accomplished everything that I intended to get done. There’s always something that comes up that I haven’t foreseen - it’s laundry week, or a friend wants to meet up for a drink. On those nights, my work schedule goes completely out of the window, but that’s okay. I just adjust and recalibrate. I also make an effort to stop when my schedule ends, no matter where I am in my tasks. Boundaries are important when you work for yourself.
I have learned that the reality of being a part-time business owner means that the growth I want to see may not come as quickly or as easily as I might want. The trick is to stay realistic about your capabilities, and to be honest with yourself and your clients about what you can take on. It’s the difference between, as my boss likes to say, “Working with urgency versus desperation.” The first is about making sure you have everything done when you need it done, which requires foresight and planning. The second is about working frantically, in a reactionary way, with no real direction or end goal in sight. Working in desperation just leads to more work, not to mention all of the undue stress it causes.
My hope is that with a little careful planning and these organizational tips, you can stay on track and focus on what’s important, and give yourself the freedom to focus on the other important things in your life as well.
So what do you think? Is anything here helpful? What have you found that works for you? Please leave a comment and let me know!