Time Management

Steps to Improve Your Massage Business (and Life)

By Mark Liskey

When I was young, my mom used to tell me I’d be late to my own funeral. Unfortunately, my time-management skills didn’t improve as I got older. In fact, my chronic time-management problem eventually caught up with me in my massage business. Specifically, I was on the verge of losing clients because of my habitual lateness. My massage work suffered because it was difficult for me to provide a start-to-finish relaxing experience when I began the massage revved up from rushing around. I also fell behind on vital business tasks, like billing and collections.

I needed to do something, but I didn’t have a lot of extra time to read self-help books or extra money to invest in a coach or a psychologist. So I ran my own experiment. The results? Well, I’m still not a poster child for Dale Carnegie Training, but I’m able to get a better handle on my schedule by working toward establishing a few new habits that allow me to focus on my clients’ needs and run my business better.

A Dog Named Pearl—My Impetus to Change
My time-management problem reached critical mass when my brother-in-law’s dog, Pearl, got sick. Pearl was my brother-in-law’s pride and joy. When my brother-in-law died suddenly, Pearl became the family dog. She went to live with my wife’s other brother while my wife and I provided health care and additional support (including lots of hugs and rubs). When Pearl was diagnosed with cancer, I started taking her for a walk during the day, because her medicine affected her bladder control. A walk a day was barely manageable for me, and as her illness progressed, she needed more than one walk a day.
One busy day, 20 minutes before my next client, I remembered that I had forgotten to walk Pearl. The trip would take me 30 minutes. That meant I was going to start 10 minutes late with my client. As I raced to get Pearl, all the unfinished business I needed to get done—like billing and $4,000-plus in collections—raced through my mind. My schedule was out of control and my practice was suffering from the effects. I needed to do something.

Experiment Step #1
Transfer My To-Do List to a Day Calendar
As I reflected on the day’s events, I realized I had always made lists for the day, week, and month. Walking Pearl was on my list, but it was never entered into my calendar as an actual, scheduled event: for example, between 1:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. I will take care of Pearl. In fact, my to-do list was not in my calendar at all, except for recurring events like paying a bill.
That night, I transferred my to-do list for the next day into my day calendar, including noting an email I had to get out for a massage class I was teaching. I instantly felt less stressed knowing that everything I needed to do was scheduled in. Why didn’t I do this years ago?
It seemed like such an easy fix, but as the day went on, I started to get behind. I forgot to schedule in daily activities, like washing sheets. The further I got behind, the more I panicked. My anxiety level shot up, and there was a reality that I could no longer deny: I had no idea how long things took. Part of my time-management problem was a product of magical thinking.

Experiment Step #2
Stop Magical Thinking
Magical thinking is thinking that is not based in reality. With time management, this means I consistently think I can accomplish more things in an hour than are actually possible. The first day of the experiment, I accomplished 20 percent of my to-do list. The next day, I planned less to do and I accomplished 80 percent of my list. My stress level went way down. However, anxiety from a different source surfaced.
A realistic projection of how long something will take means I can accomplish less than I thought I could when my magical thinking ran the show. This realization was a little depressing. But, as I continued transferring my to-do list into my day planner and allotting more time for tasks, I was able to check more things off the list, like billing and collecting that $4,000! In addition, as I got better with the to-do list/day planner merger, I became more efficient with my time. And better time efficiency ultimately meant I could get even more things done.
As days turned into weeks, I got better at estimating how long tasks took. A feeling of anxiousness from remembering what magical thinking produced—a schedule that doesn’t work—kept me on track for the most part. However, there still were times when I’d overschedule. The difference now was that I knew I couldn’t get it all done, no matter how much I wished I could.

Experiment Step #3
Prioritizing seemed to be a natural outgrowth of controlling magical thinking. When I underestimated time for projects, like the email I wanted to get out for my upcoming massage class, I would go back and prioritize the to-do list that was in my schedule for the day. Less urgent items would be rescheduled into the next day or week—or, if I was really ambitious (or desperate to get things done), I could do them at night before I went to bed.
Two months into the experiment, I was pleased with the results. Through merging my to-do list with my day calendar, having a more realistic understanding about how long it takes to get tasks done, and prioritizing and adjusting, my stress level decreased dramatically. However, the sicker Pearl got and the more time I needed to spend with her, the more time-management challenges I had. But with the challenges came more opportunities to learn.  

Always Transfer your List to the Day Calendar the Night Before
One night, I went to bed forgetting to transfer my to-do list to my daily planner. The next morning, I didn’t have time to transfer the list to the calendar because I got up too late. All day I ran back and forth between offices, having to use any potential productive time foraging for food and doing laundry. The day was unproductive, and I was frustrated and stressed. I quickly learned my lesson about how preparing the night before sets the stage for a productive day, including deciding when I should get up.

Write Everything in the Day Planner
I also learned that some items on my to-do list never make it to my day planner. These are usually things I don’t want to do. For instance, in our new office we have an air-conditioning issue in our lobby. The issue: there is no AC!
Last summer, our lobby was unbearable. The landlord had avoided our request to address the problem, and I needed to talk to him. Somehow that talk never made it into my day planner until my wife provided me adequate impetus to do so. Soon, other things that hadn’t made it to my day planner, like collecting on overdue bills (not my favorite thing to do), started to pop up on my radar. I was amazed at the number of important business items that never made it to my to-do list or day calendar simply because I didn’t want to do them.

Schedule in Catch-Up Time
I also learned that catch-up time—blocks of unscheduled time—is a good thing to have in my schedule. If I underestimate a project, I can use some of my catch-up time to finish it. Catch-up time is also good for to-do items that I forgot to put in my schedule the night before. And, psychologically, catch-up time prevents me from trying to schedule every minute of the day. An overscheduled day is a stressor because there is no margin for error.  
However, catch-up time can be tricky territory for me. Theoretically, I could do anything I wanted to do in the catch-up time. This means I could tackle easy tasks instead of hard ones. I started to reward myself with free time within the catch-up time when I accomplished tasks that were difficult for me to get done.

Be Flexible
At first, I started to freak out when Pearl needed more walks because to-do items needed to be moved in my schedule in order to create time for Pearl. I worried that if I pushed the to-do items too far into the future, they might get lost.
In turns out that my fear of not finishing the task because it was bumped to a future time was based on a memory of old me. Old me stunk at estimating time to complete a task. And, as the unfinished tasks piled up, old me would stop looking at his list because it could become overwhelming.
My daily schedule now is constantly in flux. This is a common scenario: one project gets completed, but another takes longer than I think, so it gets bumped in my calendar to the next day or a time that makes sense for me to do it. It may sound like this creates more stress, but for me, knowing that nothing is lost and everything has a time slot reduces my anxiety.

Experiment Results
A Work in Progress

For me, there is no turning back. I don’t ever want to return to my pre-experiment scheduling chaos. In fact, my time-management experiment has turned into a time-management project. The lessons from my experiment are being reinforced into habits. I continue to transfer my to-do list into my day calendar before I go to bed and I watch for magical thinking when I schedule to-do items. I also prioritize tasks and create catch-up time in my schedule while remaining flexible, knowing that any task that gets moved to a future date won’t get lost.
If you’re thinking about starting a time-management experiment, the most difficult part may very well be finding the motivation to start. I strongly urge that you don’t wait until all hell breaks loose, like I did when I desperately needed to find time for Pearl.
As a postscript, I’m sad to say that our Pearly Girl died. I sure miss her and our walks. But I’m glad I figured out how to better manage my time so that I could be with her through it all while keeping my clients happy and running my practice more efficiently than I did in the past.

Mark Liskey is a teacher, business owner and massage therapist of 24 years. Recently, he launched a free, online resource for MTs who want to make more money, stay out of pain, and create the massage lives they want (www.makethemostofmassage.com).