There are about a billion different time management tips articles for small business owners out there. But few, if any, address the unique challenges of doula work. If you’re a birth doula, getting called to a birth can be a huge wrench in your time management plans! Even postpartum doulas have an element of flexibility needed to make their business work. With serving your clients, running your business, and other obligations and family time, fitting it all in can be a real challenge!
Find your most productive time
There’s a ton of advice about getting up early. If that works for you, more power to you! I have learned through sad experience that does not and never will work for me. My most productive time is from 6 pm until about 10:30. Sometimes when I’m on a roll I can go as late as about 2 am, but I only do that when I’m not on call! Don’t feel like you have to fit into someone else’s high productivity time.
Find chunks of time for bigger tasks
Once you know your most productive time, find a way to regularly preserve a chunk of that time so you can use it for what needs to be done. There are many ways to do this, one that worked for me was setting aside one evening a week for my time to get stuff done. My husband and I each took an evening, actually. I would get Tuesday evenings, he would get Thursday evenings. Most of the time I used the time for business work, but sometimes what I needed even more was time with friends, so on occasion I’d use the evening for dinner with friends.
It’s easy for people who are not on call to say you should focus by turning your phone off. That doesn’t work for doulas who work on call! What you can do is set clients as your favorites and turn off notifications from everyone except your clients. Depending on the kind of phone you have, the specifics vary, but every phone has some way of allowing only certain contacts to ring through when you’re on do not disturb. This is great for sleeping, too!
Isolate yourself so you can work. Go to a room with a door that closes, and close it. Instruct your family to leave you alone except for dire emergencies. If necessary, leave the house. Go to a library, park, coffee shop, anywhere you can get stuff done without interruption. I can get more done in 2 uninterrupted hours than I can in 8 hours with the kids around. This gives me 6 hours to focus on family! That perspective helped rid me of any guilt for leaving my husband to deal with the kids while I worked.
Sometimes focus comes easily to me. Sometimes, I struggle! When I struggle, I find it helpful to use a modified Pomodoro technique. For me, when I’m struggling, even 25 minutes is too long. I set a timer for 10 minutes and just get started. Usually by the time it goes off, I’ve gotten in a groove and I’m ready to keep working. If not, I’ll switch to a different task for a bit and come back.
Another thing I do is have a notepad nearby. I often get new! exciting! ideas! for other things while I’m trying to get one thing finished. Rather than let myself get distracted by the shiny new ideas, I write them on my notepad and get back on track.
Some people focus better with music. (With or without lyrics. I like movie scores!) Some with silence. Some use headphones or earbuds, some do better with a TV show or movie in the background. Find what works best for you and do that.
Keep a list of smaller tasks for when you have a small amount of time
I keep a list of smaller things that will take 5-20 minutes to complete that I can do when I find myself with a small amount of free time. This might include following up with a colleague, reading an article I had saved for later, writing a thank you note, or ordering supplies for my birth bag. Lots of household things make it on this list, too. For a while I tried having two lists, one for stuff on the computer and one for everything else, but that was hard to maintain and I went back to one list of “short stuff” I actually get a lot done in those short gaps in my schedule when I might otherwise just kill time on social media.
We all know the analogy of the rocks and putting the big rocks in first. It’s corny, but also somewhat true. Each day, or each week, know what’s most important to accomplish that week. Factor in deadlines, return on your investment of time and money, and your long term goals. Whatever is your most important thing to get done, write it down and keep it somewhere you see it regularly.
Sometimes we have big dreams and we want to do it all NOW. Remember that prioritizing can also mean doing less. It can mean that you don’t add a new service line until next year. It can mean you don’t do massage therapy school AND add childbirth education AND placenta encapsulation certification all at once.
Plan to be done early
I like to joke that doula work pretty much cured me of procrastination. You can’t put things off to the last minute when there’s a chance you’ll be called away to help a client at the last minute! I used to be a terrible procrastinator, but now I aim to be done with things 2-3 days before a deadline. This has made me more reliable in other areas of my life and boosted my professionalism.
That said, sometimes I am the most productive when I’m procrastinating something and get into a “but first, I’ll just do this real quick” mode. Sometimes I give in to that and ride the productivity wave that comes with procrastination. As long as it doesn’t cause me any problems or waste down the road, I accept that I can be flexible.
You don’t have to do it all yourself, and sometimes it pays to pay someone to do tasks for you. Hire a personal assistant, web designer or bookkeeper. Pay for a social media scheduling service or organizational app. They key is to choose to spend on what brings the biggest benefit. Maybe it is a time saver (paying a web designer to get a site up in a week versus taking 6 months to learn and do it yourself) or getting rid of tasks you hate (I pay someone to do my taxes. So worth it.)
If you decide to practice in a partnership or group, you can divvy up tasks that way, too.
Take Time to Plan
I like to take a half hour or so on Sunday afternoon or evening to plan out my week. Everyone has a different way of planning, you will want to find a system that works for you. Maybe that’s a digital calendar and organization system, maybe that’s a paper planner. My system has evolved over the years, and continues to evolve as the things in my life have changed. I find taking a few minutes once a week to step back and plan ahead, check in with my long term goals, and have a plan for the week makes a huge difference.
Use Your Calendar – but be flexible
There’s a school of thought that instead of a to-do list you should use your calendar, and schedule a time for each thing on your to-do list. I like the idea, in theory, but unpredictable schedules tend to make that not work as well for doulas. So I do it a little differently. I calendar my chunks of work time (discussed above) and occasionally what I plan to do during that time. I *also* schedule blocks of unscheduled time, usually on Fridays or Saturdays. I know, that sounds weird. But that time is where I’ll reschedule stuff if I am at a birth, or use as overflow time if tasks take longer than planned. And if neither happens, I use that as my creative time. I grab my camera and go somewhere to take photos as a reward for a productive week.
Stop chasing balance
We’ve been misled into thinking that there is a mythical perfect work/life balance. It doesn’t exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in any sort of permanent way. Balance is not a state of X hours on business; Y hours on family. It’s much more dynamic. Some weeks your business will require more time than your family. Some weeks your family will need more of you. Instead of trying to find balance, think of it as something that evens out over time, and worry less about balancing everything.
I’ve owned and run a doula business for 20+ years, and one thing I wish I had known when my kids were little is that they would benefit from my example. My daughters saw me build a business. They saw me earn money. They saw me travel to speak at conferences, they saw me further my education. And now as adults, they are doing the same things and building beautiful lives for themselves.
Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough time to do everything that needs to be done when you are in business for yourself. Managing your time well can help you accomplish more and manage what you do.