Commercial Currents: Business Systems–Part 2

Craig Olson
Posted 2019-10-17

“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.”– Peter Drucker

Last month we wrote in broad terms about managing the systems of your business. Specifically, we wanted you to track your time. As the management thinker Peter Drucker always stressed: “Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.”

In order to do that, we must know where we are spending that time now. There is no such thing as good time or bad time. Time is the only thing we can’t get more of, so we’d better use it wisely.

Getting started: Time blocking

If you’ve already done your homework and know how you’ve been using your time, then the next question is—how are you going to use it more wisely? It’s simple: block out your time. Now, before you get the idea that this is too simplistic, let’s take a look at what that means. There are two types of time blocking that you want to think about. First, blocking out time to develop the systems you need to make your business run more efficiently, and second, blocking out the time needed to work those systems. At first, the process will be heavily weighted with thinking about and writing down, step by step, what you do every day.

Now, a word about blocking the time to block the time. For any task that takes concentration, try as hard as you can to set aside 90 minutes. Yes, we know that 90 minutes is a lot of time, and it seems ridiculous until you actually try it. In his book,

Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights this skill and notes that the brain hates it—at first. So, turn off the notifications on your phone or put it in another room, close every program on your computer except for word processing, and shut down anything that will create a distraction. With your laptop in hand, head outside—it’s a beautiful Fall day.

As you start on your list of tasks, the first 20-30 minutes will be tough. Your brain will be looking for that dopamine hit brought on by a ding or buzz telling you how important you are because someone texted or emailed you. With notifications turned off, resist the need to check in. You’ll notice that as things begin to relax, your brain becomes focused on the task at hand and you can work on writing out all of the processes your business relies on every day that are locked in your head.

Tracking your daily business activity

Now that you are engaged, continue writing down the concrete, physical things that you do every day or on a regular basis. It should be as basic as tracking your physical movement during the course of a day from the minute you unlock the door to your business to when you go home at night. How do you physically open your business? What lights go on first when you walk in the door and are the switches to the right or left of the door or behind the counter?  Do you turn on the coffee maker to warm up the water? What are the instructions for making coffee? Where is the “Open” sign kept when you are closed, and where does it go once you open? What is the step-by-step process for counting out the register at the end of the day? It’s your business—think of everything you do and write it down. Just so you know, this will take more than one session, but it’s important to take the time to do it.

Once you’ve gotten through a few processes, sit down and look at the instructions again—but this time imagine that you’re training a new employee to open the store. While it may seem crazy to hear, you are essentially teaching them to take your place—if not physically, then at least mentally. As Michael Gerber states over and over in The E-Myth, “You should be working on your business, not in it.”  What if something terrible happened and you couldn’t get to work? How would it go on? That’s the question you need to ask yourself every day if you’re going to build a business that will thrive. The fact that you need to be the fount of all knowledge only holds your business back.

Yes, it’s hard. Craig Olson of our Small Business team notes that even as a one-person business with the occasional part time employee, he’s struggled with the belief that he is the business and the business is him. It’s an easy trap to fall into. We all know it’s just easier to do it ourselves—that is, until you can’t, and you have no backup.

Hard tasks vs. Soft tasks: Building your business manual

Once you’ve walked yourself through the “hard” tasks you complete on a regular basis, start thinking about the “soft” tasks. Many of these will be computer-based: receiving payments, ordering supplies, printing and sending invoices, preparing bids, and writing advertising copy. Document these tasks from start to finish. For computer-based tasks, take a screen capture of every step. Each time you move to a new screen, whether in accounting or online banking, take a screen capture that you will insert into your procedures manual to illustrate the written steps.

For example, Craig shared that when he was creating the procedures manual for his rare book business, he documented and took screen shots of every step of uploading his inventory onto online listing sites. It was a long and arduous process, but a few months later when he went away for a week and a friend filled and shipped orders for him while he was gone, she had no problems processing orders from four different sales platforms after only walking through the process with him once. All she did was follow the manual.

While it saves time to operate most of your business pieces online, it’s important to always keep a hard copy of your manual—a physical binder with all your procedures printed out. It’s much easier to thumb through a manual than to try and page through a document on your computer, toggling back and forth between the document window and the site where you are doing the online ordering or bill paying. Plus, after spending hours creating these processes and procedures, it’s nice to see a physical result sitting on the edge of your desk or work table.

Final steps: Creating the freedom to work on your business, not just in it

Finally, there’s a third level of organization. As you write out the instructions, you’ll begin to see patterns and you’ll also see inconsistencies: “Why am I writing bills on Monday morning before the mail arrives? There are always a couple of bills in the mail that wait until the following Monday for me to pay.” Now, you can begin to plan your work into blocks that take your personal and business work style into consideration, focusing on things like when you are the most productive, when your business is the busiest, and when certain tasks are due. At that point, you are beginning to work “on” your business, not just “in” your business, and by giving yourself a higher altitude of vision you will begin to see opportunities and avenues for growth that didn’t present themselves when you were constantly in the trenches.

Need help moving forward? If you’d like some coaching on this process, feel to reach out to Craig Olson at or via phone at (207) 594-9209, ext. 148.

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Further questions?

Interested in sharing your favorite business inspiration or have questions about our small business support services? Contact Craig Olson or Claire Donnelly with the Island Institute’s Small Business team.


What We Do

The Island Institute’s Small Business Team provides business and financial planning to help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of starting and growing a business. For more information on our small business support services, feel free to contact Craig Olson.

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