Ask an Expert: Time to think about ... how you spend it

Q: Do you have any tips to make my business better next year? — Jeremy

A: I do indeed. In fact, throughout the year I come across all sorts of business tips and ideas that never make it into a column for one reason or another, so answering this question seems to be a good time to share two of the best of the rest.

Get a handle on email:Are you being emailed to death? I know sometimes I feel I am. Indeed, lately it seems like I send and receive email for a living, and that is not a good thing at all.

Apparently I am not alone. Check out these statistics I recently read:

• 66% of people not only read email every day, most also expect a response the same day.

• 41% of us check e-mail first thing in the morning.

• 61% of us check it while on vacation.

• "Crackberry" was named the 2006 Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary New Word of the Year.

Here's my favorite email stat: In 2005, a psychiatrist in London gave IQ tests to three groups: The first group was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, the second was stoned, and the third was the control group with no impediments.

Of course the third group scored the best on the IQ test. But the surprise is that the stoners did better than the e-mailers by an average of 6 points. Now that's sobering.

So just how do you get a handle on email? Here are a few ways:

• Get a good, nay great, anti-spam program. This saves so much time it is amazing. Personally, as the last one I had ended up flagging a good 10% of legitimate emails as spam, I spent just as much time sorting through the spam folder. What a joke.

• Set aside time, once or twice a day, to handle email, and stick to it. And no, not everything needs an immediate response.

• Outsource it. There are plenty of services that can sort though and deal with a lot of your email and prioritize the rest.

Which leads me to…

Get a handle on time management:In his great book The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferris says that it is possible to work, well, four hours week and still be highly productive.

Ferris, an entrepreneur, says that he was "slaving through 15-hour days, seven days a week, feeling overwhelmed" (Fortune Small Business, Sept. 5, 2007), when he came across the work of Vilfredo Pareto. The Pareto principle has commonly come to be known as the 80-20 Rule.

Taking a cue from Pareto, Ferris says that he decided to pinpoint the source of most of the sales in his business and discovered that of more than 120 wholesale customers, it was a mere five that brought in 95% of his revenue. He then decided to spend time profiling and duplicating those five profitable customers.

Next, "I realized I could reduce my hours by limiting tasks to the critical few and cutting my work time to force myself to focus on the most important projects."

Here's how:

• He adopted a "low-information diet" by giving up newspapers and watching news on TV. He gets his information reading headlines when passing newspaper stands.

• He avoids most meetings, and those that he does go to are for making a decision.

• He spends one hour a week on email, on Monday mornings. "I rely on outsourced personal assistants in India to manage my in-box and handle other time wasters. The cost: just $4 to $10 an hour."

• Finally, he avoids most phone calls.

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