Making Goals That Work: Project Management For Small Business

Eleanor Mayrhofer is the owner of e.m. Papers.  She joined us in the Aeolidia Facebook group for a Q&A about Project Management Strategies. Creative product-based businesses, come join us! We do these live typed chats once a month.

Eleanor worked at an international digital agency for 10 years, but left about 5 years ago to work full time on her printable business, e.m.papers. Like many folks in the Aeolidia community she is (mostly) a one woman show, so she has to be super organized. One of the good things about her corporate job was that she spent some time as a project manager. This role not only helped give her the organizational skills to run her business, but taught her a great deal about how to translate project management best practices and jargon into a language that creative people can understand.

We’ve tidied up the Facebook back and forth into something readable so we won’t lose this great info, and you can see Eleanor’s thoughts on project management for small business here. All quoted text below is from Eleanor, and all bold text is from our Facebook community.

eleanor headshot

Project Management Systems

There are 6 basic steps when it comes to getting organized and achieving goals. The first is setting goals, I like the SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time Boxed). The second step is defining scope. All this really means is figuring out what projects and activities you’ll need to do in order to achieve your goals. The third step is estimating. Once we’ve set goals and come up with projects and activities, it’s important to step back and really try to estimate how long it’s going to take to get projects done. This is often the place we may have to go back and reduce the amount of goals and/or projects we set up.

The fourth step is planning – plotting out when at a high level (ex. yearly) mid-level (monthly) and low level (weekly/daily) we’ll be able to get things done. The fifth step is executing – in other words, doing the work. Pretty straightforward, but I’ve got some favorite ‘tricks’ and approaches I like to use. And finally, the last step is reviewing. Regularly pausing and taking a step back to see if you’re on track and assess progress as well as make course corrections.

six step plan for project management for small busienss
Here is where I get really stuck, do you do a step-by-step or how do you keep from derailing from actions that get you closer to your goals? For example, creating a listing in etsy vs. promoting listings that are ready… I don’t know if I explain myself correctly. Avoiding busywork I guess is what I mean..

Well, I basically think through the projects and activities that will help me accomplish my goals. I break those into smaller and smaller steps. So I know whether what I’m doing leads to accomplishing a goal, or if I’m just screwing around wasting time on busy work.

I struggle with organization. Once I get it in place I have an impossible time keeping things that way. What’s your advice on building systems and sticking to them?

This is where I think reviewing is key, and it’s a step a lot of people want to skip. First my advice is to use tools you like and will stick with, whether it’s Evernote or pen and paper to do lists.

Second, carve out some time each week – Just half an hour or even 15 minutes, to review your goals, your plans and what you need to get done. It also helps to do this monthly and quarterly.

I also find it’s really helpful to hang my goals up where I can see them every day.

I definitely struggle with carving out time to review and tidy. My inbox will go to zero only to creep back up to over 800 and my Evernote will be clean and then will get all clogged up again.

Think of it as maintenance, like brushing teeth, reviewing and refining consistently helps things from getting totally out of hand.

What are your favorite methods for staying organized in both the physical world (hacks, tips, tricks) and the digital world (apps)?

I use a mix of high and low tech. At the beginning of the year I re-read a great book called ‘Your Best Year Yet‘ to help clarify my goals (both personal and professional).

I reduce these down to 10 and hang them up at my work space.

Then I use Evernote to list out the projects and activities I need to execute to meet the goals.

I chart out some milestones across a 12 month calendar to use as a kind of ‘map’ and that also hangs at my workstation.

Finally, I use Asana to set up projects, and break those down into tasks. This is an online collaboration tool. So I can share tasks with project colleagues, my VA, my tech guy etc. This is the tool that I’m in everyday. But I regularly review the list in Evernote because it’s more of an overview.

One of my problems with my goals is just getting started. LOL! I always feel very scattered. This year, I am working at actually writing, planning and organizing my goals. I feel it’s the only way my business will grow. 

You’ll like the book I mentioned earlier. It’s really great, it asks you to review the past year, what your successes were, what your disappointments were and what you learned. It then helps you define goals in relation to both your roles in life and your values. It’s straightforward and easy to understand. I even got my husband on the BYY train!

I really like that you revisit your goals to see if you are on track and to make adjustments. Do you pencil in time for yourself as well? I’m trying to do that this year, instead of just hoping I’ll have time to swim. I also have a bench in my studio where I am prototyping new work. Do you set aside weekly time for that or just when inspiration strikes?

Absolutely! One of the things I learned was to get very very conservative with my goals. I took a cold hard look at the time I actually had in a day and did my scoping and estimating on what was realistic. I have a pic that illustrates this:

organizing goals - project management for small business

I don’t formalize the process enough, which means that I let myself get away with skimming over those important planning (and especially) reviewing steps. 

It’s easy to put them off when you don’t have a system. Over the past few years, I just find myself procrastinating and flying by the seat of my pants. I’m working had to change that this year.

It is especially hard to review yourself when the biz is mainly just yourself all day / everyday. My mind circulates ideas and problems over and over with no new information if I don’t talk about them to someone else and actually hear my own words and find out that it’s only my own personality problem OR that it is a real entrepreneurial type issue and have good feedback from a business person in another industry. I go to a weekly business networking group. 

Yeah, that’s tough. It can feel like the wrong thing to stop and pause, but that’s often what is needed. It also helps if you can find a like minded person off or online and schedule regular checkpoints to keep each other on track.

Now more than ever it’s getting harder and harder to combine my day job, my etsy shop, the everyday chores and having a life. I have made some sort of schedule and eliminated unnecessary tasks but still I feel all over the place and always tired! My biggest trouble is keeping a good inventory system for the supplies and staying organized!

When I feel everything is just too much, I revisit my goals and get rid of any goals or projects that aren’t absolutely essential. It can also feel counter-intuitive but I try to add more time for myself to avoid getting burned out. Simplify.

Yeah, thats a big goal for 2016… but it entails to stop feeling so guilty anytime I say no or cancel a project. 

Saying No is super important! Remember saying no to things you don’t want, is saying ‘Yes’ to things you do want.

Going back to the topic of reviewing, I’m pretty terrible at estimating (Eleanor’s Step 3) so I know that the review process would help immensely as a way to hone that estimating skill.

So true! If you don’t know how you’ve done before, how can you reasonably predict how you’ll do in the future? Good point.

Estimating is tricky. For something you’ve never done before (say, moving your online shop to a new platform) I recommend being very generous. Estimate how long you think it’ll take and then double it.

For something you do regularly, especially task based things, try to create a metric for yourself: time it a few times, so you know how long it takes, and build that into your planning

I actually just read your Design Sponge article this morning and sat at McDonald’s alone with Diet Coke to think through the information – a meeting with myself. Would you comment on the “Relevance” step, please? Trying to process that idea.

Sure. Relevance really means setting a goal that resonates with you. I like to say ‘What gets you out of bed in the morning?’

There are some things we have to do for our businesses (taxes, accounting) but when setting strategic goals, what gets you really excited? If you look at a goal and just aren’t feelin’ it, scrap it.

Learn more about project management systems

Eleanor has a project management course on Skillshare covering this very topic! Please do check it out. I wrote all summer last year about the behind the scenes business part of running a business, and you can learn more about planning, setting aside time, and doing the work here.

Make sure to join our Facebook group here! Chat with other business owners, some of whom are doing very well, about all the ins and outs and daily details of running a business. If you have a topic that you’re an expert on, and would like to answer questions in our group, email Arianne.