By Mike Southon, FT Columnist

Those of us that are self-employed soon learn that the true currency in business is not money, but time. If we can learn to manage and manipulate this most precious resource, then the money will flow, as if by magic. The problem is that most people find learning to manage one's own time is the most difficult part of setting up as a business.

This is likely to be an issue for a lot of people at the moment. The new year is a time when many people take the heady step of striking out on their own, often either because they are bored with their current lifestyle or they are forced to through being made redundant.

In a corporate environment, time management is enforced by a higher power, a process which always also generates plenty of good excuses for not meeting externally imposed deadlines. There are invariably genuine and easily documented evidence of having been let down by customers, suppliers and co-workers. 

These pressures apply in equal measure to the self-employed, but the downside can be an immediate and fatal cash flow crisis rather than a missed quarterly profit target. So the first and most essential personal skill for the aspiring entrepreneur is always one of time management.

This could mean realising sooner rather than later that all our efforts should be directed towards generating revenue, or that extra hours need to be applied to complete a project and thus receive an agreed stage payment. The trouble is that the importance of time management is often undervalued among those considering entrepreneurship.

People tend to think they will make a good founder because they are bursting with new ideas and enthusiasm. This is an essential first step towards starting a business, which always involves the making of promises, but it is not enough.

What characterises a successful entrepreneur is their ability to actually deliver on their promises, which typically involves engaging a second person who is adept at project management. In the meantime, the creative entrepreneur is forever rushing from one place to another and invariably arriving late for appointments.

Fortunately, my own career in start-ups was predicated on punctuality, as I was always responsible for sales. Confucius might well have said that "the salesman who turns up late for a client appointment will never close a big deal", so a wise sales manager will always arrange time management courses for new team members.

When I became self-employed, I was forced to master the basic spreadsheet, not only to monitor my own sales pipeline on a daily basis, but also to mange my own personal time in the form of a daily, online calendar, accessible on whatever device I might be using.

Personal discipline involves my making a specific diary appointment for every promise that I make, ensuring the system pings me audibly when that promise is due. Then, I make an instant value judgement as to whether that task should be done immediately or postponed to a quieter time.

This approach is exemplified by the most effective day in our working calendars, the day before we go on holiday. There is always a towering list of things to do, but we are forced to apply a ruthless filtering mechanism to each item, prioritising, delegating, and even deleting where necessary.

As we finally get on the flight to somewhere warm and sunny and look forward to a few days of uninterrupted sleep, we are happy in the glow that we achieved everything we could on that last day, but rueful that not every working day was as effective.

My advice would be to find a good book on time management and have that as your holiday reading.

Originally published in The Financial Times: Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker-

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.

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