Know where, when and how to focus your attention, energy and resources.

It was a lovely spring day and I was sitting in my office relaxing after another long, hard heating season when the phone rang and shattered that peace. It was a call from an old friend who had once worked as a subcontractor for us before moving out of the area.

It had been three years since Tom had left the subcontracting business behind to work on his own jobs and create his own customer base. Back then Tom had asked me for some business advice. In particular, he wanted to go over what planning he needed to reshape his company. We spent time discussing the hidden expenses that a contractor needs to account for.

I had no doubt that Tom would succeed. He was talented and a hard worker. And, Tom was very focused on the type of work he wanted to specialize in and knew how to make every job a masterpiece. He supplied the personal attention and the time that this type of work would demand. And the growth of his business would be the reward for all his effort.

Periodically over the next two years, we'd see one another at a seminar and talk about how things were going. He told me that his one-person shop was now employing a full-time installer and a full-time apprentice and he had more work than he could possibly handle.

But a year had passed since I last ran into him. So when he called to set up a meeting to talk, I was surprised when I walked into the restaurant and found a very different looking person. Tom looked exhausted. He did perk up when he started by saying he was making money and the business was growing faster than he ever thought. But his face quickly sank back when he confided that although he was grateful he didn't know if he could go on this way. There were just so many hours in the day and they all seemed to be spoken for.

He felt like he was being pulled in many directions. He didn't know what he should be doing first with the precious little time he had. The thought that he might need to add more help had occurred to him. But, he was sharp enough to know that it might not make things better, and that's why he wanted to talk.

"It's always great to have more help," I said. "But only if you have the time to hire correctly, explain what is expected, how it will be measured and then spend the necessary time training. Plus, you have to be willing to delegate tasks. Sometimes more help can create a burden during a slow down in the economy or cause personnel conflicts."

We started with how he spent his typical day. Naturally, he was up very early each day working on plans, getting the crew out, working with the crew, chasing for materials, giving price quotes, returning calls to customers and staying up late to pay the bills.

Tom assumed that because I was part of a larger company that I was less overwhelmed. But that isn't necessarily true. At even the biggest companies, the owner has to decide where, when and how to focus his attention, energy and resources. By being unfocused or unable to complete successful planning and implementation, the company suffers. Working on the right things vs. the wrong things makes all the difference to success.

Get Your Priorities Straight

So I told Tom what I do to make sure I am working on the right things. I told him I always start by looking at my priority list. My priority list is somewhat like a to-do list with more detail. I list all my current projects, projects we need to do and ones we'd like to do. It looks more like a table or chart. And it is always changing.

There are six columns across the top. I start with "What it is we need." This is where I define exactly what it is we want. Next, "Why we need it." Here I try to make sure that I can justify the importance of doing this project. Then, "Priority & Group." I number the priorities from one to five with one being the highest priority and five being the lowest.

But I add a little something extra: The letter A (for answer the phone), R (for making it ring) and B (for both). An "A" means that this project is designed to address a system that helps us perform before a customer even calls. It's the business-systems side of the business. "R" is for what it takes to make the phone ring - the marketing side of the business. And "B" means the idea addresses both.

The next column is "Who will do it." Here I identify who is responsible and involved in seeing the project to completion.

"What it will cost" is the column I use to give our best guesstimate. Sometimes it is money, sometimes it is time and sometimes it is both.

And finally, the last column is "Status of Project." This is my way of tracking the progress and feedback on the projects' priority.

With the chart, I measure how I am spending my time each day and where I need to change things to reallocate my time and effort to accomplish the high-priority items.

I ask myself how I can free myself up. It may mean more delegation, more help or outsourcing the project outside the company. This helps deal with jobs that can be done by others while I focus on fixing what's broken or needed to develop our business.