So small business owners…how are you doing on your vacation this year? Have you grabbed a few long weekends? Did you take an extended summer vacation? Thanksgiving is next week, are you taking some time off then? (And, I don’t mean a few hours to eat turkey and pie.) How about Christmas, New Year’s Day, Kwanzaa maybe?
No? Well you may not be rested and relaxed, but you are not alone. According to a survey conducted at the beginning of 2015, 42% of Americans did not take a single vacation day in 2014. Another recent survey found that Americans use only 51% of their paid time off each year, and that 61% do at least some work while on vacation, with 25% reporting being contacted for help by a co-worker, and 20% reporting being contacted for help by their boss, while on vacation.
The Expedia 2015 Vacation Deprivation Study found that American workers leave an average of 4 vacation days (out of an average 15 days provided) on the table each year. Yet, the study also found that in exchange for just a single extra day of vacation, for a full week 49% of Americans would give up beer/wine/liquor, 47% would avoid social media, 40% would ditch coffee, 26% would abstain from sex, 19% would give up the Internet entirely, and 11% would forego a shower.
If we want it so badly, why do we give up so much vacation? According to one recent study, 33% of respondents think that they cannot afford to take their time, 40% fear returning to a mountain of work, and 35% believe no one else can do their work. By contrast, another study found that 20% of people don’t take time off because they fear they are easily replaceable and could lose their jobs.
Vacation-Deprived Small Business Owners
Small business owners are even more vacation deprived than the general working population. According to a recent survey conducted by Constant Contact, 43% of small business owners report not taking vacations, 56% report feeling like they can’t be away from their business, 51% report not having enough time to focus on themselves, and 40% report not spending as much time with friends and family as they would like.
A 2014 survey found that only 57% of small business owners planned to take vacation that year, and of those only 15% plan to “un-plug” entirely, with 67% planning to check-in with the office at least daily while on vacation. Those vacations tend to be shorter too—with the small business owner taking off only 5 days per year compared to 10 days for the average “corporate” worker. One hopeful finding from the survey is that things get better with time. 70% of owners of small businesses that have been open for over 10 years report taking vacations, as compared with 47% percent of small business owners with companies that have existed for less than 10 years.
Vacations Are Vital to Your Health and to the Health of Your Small Business
If you are one of those vacation-deprived small business owners, waiting until that 10 year mark to take your vacation is probably not a good idea. With that kind of timeline you are likely to burn out before you ever get there. According to the Spring 2015 Bank of America Small Business Owner Report, 85% of small business owners work more than 40 hours per week, 55% work more than 50 hours per week, and 10% work more than 70 hours per week. You just can’t keep up that pace without a break. In fact, there is an entire organization, TakeBackYourTime.org, dedicated to “Improving lives by eliminating overwork.”
Science is also on the side of taking regular vacations from work. 9 Reasons To Take A Vacation ASAP, According To Science from Huffington Post highlights ways that taking vacations can actually improve job performance, including helping a stressed worker recover and return to optional functioning, allowing your brain to relax and work on problem solving and memorizing new skills in the background while you have fun, and how vacations make “bosses” better “leaders.” This infographic highlights other benefits of taking vacations including a healthier heart (middle aged men who skipped vacation for 5 years were 30% more likely to have a heart attack than similar men who vacationed for at least 5 days per year; women who vacation less than once every 6 years are 8 times as likely to develop heart disease than typical men), and feeling happier (anticipating a vacation boosted happiness for 8 weeks leading up to it; 34% of professionals feel better about their jobs and are more productive after returning from vacation).
For a real deep-dive into the science of taking breaks, read the Scientific American article Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. It’s a long article that details multiple studies and covers, “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.” (Not a bad idea for a vacation read—Hint, Hint, Hint!)
Process Mapping Your Way to Delegation
OK, so you know you need to take a vacation, but how do you go about actually making the time to do it? Clearly if you run a specialty turkey shop you’re not going to take off the week of Thanksgiving; and if you run a small toy store the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not an optimal vacation time. But just about every small business has a slow period, or at least a slower period, that can be leveraged by its owner for some well-deserved (and performance enhancing), vacation time. And, even if you really don’t want to pull away from your business for long stretches, you can find a way to block off a day or two a week (sometimes called “the weekend” by non-business owners), or just an hour or two each day, to concentrate on anything other than your small business. (In case you’ve forgotten that’s your spouse, your children, your friends, your pet, your hobby, a novel, etc.)
The key to finding those opportunities for down time is truly understanding all of your businesses processes and procedures, how you are currently managing (or doing) each one, and where you have opportunity to take some off your plate. Yesterday’s Tip of the Week post, Free Process Mapping Tools for Small Business, provides detailed information on how to begin mapping your small business processes, how to use these maps to optimize your small business, and free process mapping tools you can use.
Another approach is to create a time audit for your day, or for your week. As this post notes, “There are exactly 24 hours, or 1,440 minutes, in each day. That amounts to 168 hours in one week and 8,760 hours in one year…So, the question is not one of where do you find more time. You cannot do it. The real question we need to be asking is how do we manage the things that we do in the 168 hours that are available in the week?” The post goes on to provide instructions, and a worksheet, for creating a written audit of your day in 15 minute blocks. Once you do that, you can hone in on places where you are wasting time and places where your time could be better used, as well as those where your time commitment is critical. (Don’t forget sleep, that’s critically important too!)
If you go through your business process mapping, or your time audit, and find that you are at the center of just about every one of your small business processes, then one good way to both optimize your business operations and to find some time for vacation is to delegate.
Did you just cringe at that word? Many small business owners do; but truly believing that you must do everything yourself is not only foolhardy and possibly delusional, it can actually be detrimental to your small business. Not only will you be an overworked small business owner, the team you worked so hard to put together may be underutilized, and you may be spending more time and money on tasks than necessary. This 2010 infographic from UK company Timelody works through a calculation to show that failure to delegate work that does not require a specific employees’ (or your) expertise costs businesses approximately €14,000 ($21,189 in 2010 dollars) in lost revenue each year.
Strategies for Delegating
Delegating does not only mean passing the task to another person on your team. It can mean outsourcing it, which doesn’t necessarily mean spending big money on fancy expert firms. This New York Times post from a few years ago provides information on a number of companies dedicated to meeting the outsourcing needs of small businesses, including Fiver which offers services in $5 units.
Automating (typically via a software program or system) is another way to take routine and repetitive tasks off your plate. For example, if you commonly send the same response to a particular sales inquiry you could configure your email program to automatically send a response to any email received at your sales email address that contained a specific keyword. Or, instead of mailing invoices to customers you could use automated electronic invoicing; and instead of manually charging your customers monthly service fees you could use a recurring billing system.
So, how do you know which tasks to delegate? Take a look at all the places you find your name in your business process maps, then as this infographic suggests, ask whether the task could be accomplished by a monkey. If it can, delegate or automate. If it can’t, then consider whether you are the only one with the ability to do it, and the only one you trust to do it. If not, then it is a prime candidate for delegation or outsourcing. For some concrete examples, read 10 Daily Tasks You Should Be Delegating (So You Can Grow Your Business).
Additionally, work through your process maps with your team. They may see places where you are doing things that could be easily consolidated with their current workload. They may also see tasks they are interested in learning—which is a great opportunity for you both.
The key to a successful delegation is not simply giving away a task, but using the opportunity to improve the overall business by shifting responsibility. This means making sure that you pass on key knowledge along with that responsibility, and that you stay engaged with your team and/or your outside contractor to not only make sure that things are getting done successfully (even if not exactly as you would have done them), but also to offer help and advice when asked (or needed). A recent post, Delegation versus Abdication, nicely illustrates the difference and notes that simply handing over a task and forgetting about it is unproductive and actually breeds distrust and disrespect, while effectively delegating assigns the right task to the right person and supports them through to success.
Trust But Verify with Project Management Tools
Of course, if you’re ever going to get that vacation in you’re going to have to loosen the reins a bit and let go enough to trust your team (or your outsourced team) to handle things on their own for at least a little while. That is certainly more easily said than done. However, it brings to mind the “Trust but Verify” platitude. Clearly you don’t want to implement systems that make your team feel spied upon and untrusted. But putting a system in place that can simultaneously help your team organize their time, keep track of their progress on key tasks, and provide you visibility into all of your critical small business processes, is a win for everyone.
Microsoft Project is one of the best known project management and collaboration tools, but it isn’t free and it can be more complex than a small business requires. The following are some free alternatives:
- Project Libre
This is an open source replacement for Microsoft Project, can open and edit any Project file, can be used to create project files from scratch, and is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
While not a full blown project management system, ToDoList enables you to break complex tasks down into smaller units, add, delete, and track tasks, and view reports by top-level tasks as well as a day-by-day accounting or on a calendar. It is available as a free Windows download here. Be sure to check out the online help, beginning with the Getting Started Guide.
This free web-based project management collaboration tool was designed with small businesses in mind. You can start with a Project file, or create new projects from scratch. You access it from your web browser, and can save to cloud-based storage such as Google Drive and Drop Box for easy team sharing and collaboration. It even integrates Chat with real-time group editing sessions. See it in action in this video, and provide your name and contact info to register for a free account and get started.
More of a to-do-list check-off than a project management application, PIP (Process in Place) enables you to create tasks with sub-tasks that you can share with your team. These can be one-time tasks, or recurring ones that must be completed in regular intervals. As people complete their assigned tasks and sub-tasks, they check them off the list. You and your entire team get visibility into what is done and what is outstanding. Sign-up for a free account here.
Now that you have all the tools in place, there is really no excuse for refusing to take any time off. So this Thanksgiving, give thanks for your small business, give thanks for your small business team, give thanks that you have a few free hours to enjoy a meal with your family and friends, give thanks for mobile devices that let you sneak a quick peek at your business any time you feel separation anxiety, and for the sake of your sanity and for the success of your small business, plan your next vacation!