When you’re starting a small business or working from home as a freelancer, you need to make every minute of time count; it’s a race against the clock to break even before your new endeavor uses up your savings and breaks you.

But there are always a million and one things that interfere with and take over your day. Your to-do list of twenty items that you intended to tackle by the end of the business day has reduced in number by only one or two tasks, and you’ve got more to add for tomorrow.

You realize you’ve got to get ruthless and cut away every minute you can manage to shred. Thursday recently wrote about 8 great ways to be ruthless with your time. Here are some more ways to be ruthless with your time, but this time we’re focused specifically on when things don’t go quite as planned. Here’s how you can get started.

Life-Story Phone Calls

There are many busy people in the world who, like you, know they need to get off the phone and get back to work, but you’re bound to get someone on the line who wants to share their life story or form a deep and meaningful relationship over the phone. It could be some lonely hack from your PR firm or the janitor you’ve hired for the new office, but for some reason you can’t seem to shake them.

1. Ask for an email

One simple way to get someone off the phone is to ask them to send you ‘the details’ in an email. This tip works when you’re dealing with someone who needs to send you some kind of information. After they’ve agreed, thank them, give them your email address, and say goodbye before quickly putting down the phone. Don’t hesitate, or you’ve blown your chance.

It’s firm, but still polite enough to use on business calls.

2. Provide Contextual Cues

Taking a hint from The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie, start your call with something like “Hello, what can I do for you?” There’s a reason you hear this every time you’re dialing into a call center or a big business – it’s to avoid any bush-beating and get right down to business. They know time is money, and so do you – don’t feel like you’re getting too “corporate” by using this technique. It focuses the other person on the issue at hand, which is especially effective if you know someone who tends to waffle before they get to their problem – not after.

On the other end of the call, you can use a cue to signal that the end is near. You can usually tell when you’re a few minutes from the end of a speech because the speaker starts dropping hints (if you’ve done this and heard a sigh of relief, it may be time for a new career path!) – the same can be done on the phone. Phrases like, “before we hang up,” or “one last thing before I go” tell the individual on the other end that you’re out of time and can’t chit-chat. Fortunately, most of the time they get the message using this tactic.

3. Last Resorts

When worst comes to worst, there’s always a solution.

Unnecessary Demands

It’s amazing how often people you work with or, if you’re not self-employed, people you work for are so willing to put extra demands on your time knowing that you’ve got a full plate. If they know you’re good with computers – but you aren’t the company tech support guy – and constantly ask you to fix their self-inflicted tech problems, or if your boss keeps asking you to take on advertising projects even though your role is public relations, what do you do?

A combination of firmness, honesty and tact is required. If you try to find excuses that aren’t based on the honest truth of the situation, you’re only going to make more problems for yourself here. Next time you’re getting nagged to take on somebody else’s job or clean up after your co-workers, gently remind them that while you’d love to help, you’re swamped with the work you’ve got and it’s really outside of your field.

The key is to be politely firm, and though some people find this incredibly difficult at first, it will really be one of the biggest time savers you implement.

Email and Feeds

I talk about dealing with your email and feeds effectively frequently because I find that of all the connected people I know, this is the one thing that kills time more than anything else – even though it can be one of the least time-consuming parts of your day. Since I’ve done this topic in-depth so much already, I won’t repeat it again – check out this article for a primer on how to deal with the overload of information in your day more effectively.

Work-at-home, not housework!

If you work from home, according to some recent statistics I’ve read there’s a pretty good chance you have a spouse (and/or kids) there too.

One of difficulties I had when I started working from home was being asked to put towels on the line or do dishes while I was in the middle of writing an article. Thus, I lost my train of thought and had to spend way more time than I should have catching it again, and if you succumb as I did, you will lose far too many business hours.

Now, you don’t want to put the wife in a bad mood – we’re all smart enough to know that! – and avoiding the housework is a surefire way to do just that. But you must have a conversation where you set the limits of your working hours and under what conditions you may be interrupted.

In my house, we’ve agreed that if the door to my office is closed and I am on the other side of that door, it means I’m working and can’t be interrupted unless it’s an emergency. If the door is open but I’m clearly working, it means I’m not working on something that requires total concentration but shouldn’t be interrupted unless it’s ‘important’ – a step down from ‘emergency’. What constitutes ‘important’ and ‘emergency’ needs to be defined, because you and your partner will certainly have ideas that differ.

If I keep up my end of the deal and don’t spend twelve hour days working in my office and help out around the house afterwards, it leads to you being way more productive, and less tension in the air around the house. Often the hidden bonus is that she’ll get sick of waiting and do it all herself. Yes, that was a joke. Especially if she’s reading this.

When Technology Ruins the Day

First off, two tips I cannot stress enough:

  1. Always have a bootable back-up, somewhere.
  2. Always have a non-bootable data back-up, somewhere else.

If you follow both of those rules you will be back up and running in minutes for 90% of the cases where your day would normally be lost to ‘computer troubles’.

I have also previously talked about my system of synchronization which keeps essential data – though not big files (for example it doesn’t sync my master recordings, which are more valuable than my contacts and email archives) – that is required for day-to-day operations on each device. For me, this includes a Mac mini desktop, a laptop and a PDA phone.

If you’ve got a spare machine around, get it loaded up, and get it to sync off your bootable back-up frequently. This is a bit of a luxury, but if you can do it, knowing that all you have to do is plug in a new machine and power it on before getting back to work is a great feeling. You may only have to catch up on a couple of days (or, with diligence, hours) of work, which is much better than weeks, months or years.

As a last resort, keep a pen and pad handy, and ensure that you at least have a back-up of your contacts somewhere that isn’t prone to electronic or mechanical failure! You’d be surprised how much you can get done if you have to, with just these tools.

What about you?

Do you have work day time-wasters you can’t seem to make go away? Let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can come up with a solution.

Or, if you’ve managed to deal with some problems we haven’t listed here, let us know how you solved them!

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