making a list of things to do.

And when I wake up,

Oh-oh, oh-oh,

I’m gonna cross off a few.”

— lyrics from Joe Walsh’s “Tomorrow”

Whether trying to grow a new business or keep an existing one running smoothly, one of any manager’s greatest challenges is the effective, efficient use of time.

Readers who took the challenge of last month’s column and did a personal time study quickly realized that it is not the lack of personal time that prevents them from having a life outside of work, but failure to identify, protect and take control of that free time.

Just as the loss of free time occurs subtly, the trap of “not having enough hours in the day” is well disguised. We don’t realize we’ve been snared until it’s swinging us around by an ankle.

As we observed last month, the lack of personal time and an overabundance of work are directly related. The personal time study is a great tool for de-blurring the line that separates them. That blurring increases in direct proportion to the positions we hold, until it’s almost invisible at the higher levels of management and/or ownership.

Last month’s personal time study helped bring that line back into focus – but in order to feel less stretched on the job, do we now need to study just our working time? Sure – I mean, don’t let me stop you. The more we know about how we spend our time, the better we can manage it.

But there is a quicker, easier solution: Strategic Procrastination.

Few cultures are as work-centric as ours, and few cultures frown upon procrastination so severely. Just walk through the business or self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll see shelf after shelf of books with titles decrying procrastination with a fervor usually reserved for TV evangelists.

While I won’t deny that procrastination can be a bad thing, it doesn’t have to be. Done right – and by that, I mean strategically – procrastination can bring balance to your workday, making it more flowing and less frantic.

Procrastination is mainly a product of immaturity. Those at higher levels of management or ownership have largely overcome the youthful tendency of doing just enough to get by.

If you’re like most managers, you have a specific set of goals you hope to achieve each day. In fact, you probably list them. The crux of the problem – the reason you feel absolutely wrung out by day’s end – is that you’re trying to do too much.

You probably already sense when your day is overscheduled. But, if you don’t take positive action to change, can you rightly feel surprised when you’re hanging upside down by your ankle?

You need to shoot some holes in your goals. You need to prioritize and procrastinate.

Try this: Make out your list of things to do as usual. After the list is complete, prioritize each item in ascending numerical order (#1 as most important, followed by #2, etc.).

Next, count them all up and circle the bottom one-third. If you have 15 items, circle #11 through #15. If you’re not taking a lunch break most days, circle half, rather than one-third, of your goals.

Now transcribe the circled items to a separate piece of paper.

You’ve just strategically procrastinated. Those last five items can wait. If putting them off requires rescheduling any appointments, make the calls immediately. But you’re only allowed one postponement, so be sure to designate the appointment as the #1 priority on its new day.

Distribute your bottom third to tomorrow, the next day, next week, whenever you feel most comfortable with each. Comfort is the key.

If you’re skipping lunch often, take note: Studies have shown that most of life’s anxiety, stress and reduced performance is rooted in conditions neatly summarized by this acronym: HALT.

The conditions are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. So when you feel stressed or stretched, stop and think about the cause of your discomfort – and notice which one comes first.

Re-energizing and decompressing – through eating, exercising or connecting with those we care about or simply hitting the sack – is like anything else in life. If you don’t make the time and are not intentional about it, you’re less likely to do it.

It’s an old cliché, but it’s true: Building a business is not a dash, it’s a marathon.

So put a few things off. Doing so in a strategic, thoughtful manner teaches scheduling skills that can dramatically improve your life and your work. G

Anthony Noel owned and operated Noel Custom Woodworking for 15 years. He’s now a consultant helping custom shops with the business of woodworking. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Past articles are available at

‘Ask Tony’

Hello Tony,

I’m searching for a more reliable way to pre-qualify customers.

When you are a one-man shop and you spend three to five hours on a proposal and it is much higher than what the potential customer thought it would cost, you’ve just wasted those hours. You are giving them a very fair price, but they had no idea what it would cost and aren’t prepared to spend that much money.

Every time I’ve asked a customer what their budget is, I’ve never received a dollar figure. The answer is usually along the lines of, “We don’t have a budget in mind, we’re trying to find out what it would cost.” Do I press them on that, since 90 percent of the time they do have an amount in mind, or at least a top price over which they aren’t interested?

I’ve tried pressing by asking what other quotes they’ve received or prices they’ve heard and the answers are usually, “none” or somewhat evasive. Somehow, I think rephrasing the question to “What is the top price you are willing to pay?” won’t work very well, either.

I’ve seen many articles and discussions regarding the problems and pitfalls of giving “ballpark” prices, and I tend to agree with them. I’ve tried both, giving ballpark prices to pre-qualify customers before spending any more time on the project and going in “cold” with a price after spending real time on it. I’ve had successes and failures with both, but I’m not yet happy with either.

I’ve also considered pre-qualifying customers by charging an upfront design fee before I spend any of my time on the job. But I am concerned that it will turn off a lot of customers, since no other shops that I know of do that.

What are your thoughts on this? Any solutions that work well?

Seth Walter

Silverleaf Woodworking

South Windsor, CT

Thanks for writing, Seth. Your query nicely covers the major points in one of the more frustrating issues faced by custom shops: How to pre-qualify customers. Let’s look at each point, then discuss a few options.

• Wasting time on detailed proposals that are far beyond the customer’s budget. No doubt about it, you can chew up a lot of time at the computer or drafting board doing drawings for a job you never stood the first chance of getting, simply because your prospective customer could require defibrillation upon hearing your quote. And that doesn’t even take into account the time you spent measuring the job and discussing their needs.

• “What’s your budget?” Tempting though it may be to ask this question, it can prompt downright distrust on the part of your prospect. “If I give him a number,” they may think, “he’ll just price it as close to that as he can, when maybe it won’t really cost that much at all.” When you press people for such a number, they become evasive to boot, and you’re right, rephrasing it is not a viable solution, either.

• Ballpark pricing. The problem here is also tied to people’s instinct of protecting their interests when considering a major purchase. If you give them a rough estimate, they may think you’re “high-balling” or “low-balling” them – jacking up your price to see if they’ll flinch, or deflating the number to get their hopes up, only to come in with a much higher number after they’ve gotten used to the idea that your project will soon grace their environment.

Of course, neither is your intention. But the more we focus on not wasting our time, the less we tend to look at things from the customer’s point of view, making a workable solution all the more elusive.

• The design fee. Like the ballpark estimate, this also can be a two-edged sword. If you charge a fee, does that mean the customer gets the drawings? If not, how is that fair (again, from their perspective)? If so, you know what likely happens next – they take your drawings, your price and find somebody willing to knock five percent off the number and give them the job instead.

So what’s a woodworker to do? While this issue is always difficult to navigate, here are several subtle approaches to consider in gleaning information about your prospect’s circumstances.

Have they had custom work done previously? This is a reasonable question for a custom woodworker to ask a prospective customer. If they say yes, ask to see it. Take a good look at the quality and (if applicable) installation.

Next, ask why they’ve called you instead of whomever made that project, and remain silent until they answer.

They might say, “Well, just look at it! We were really unhappy with the quality.” Or you might discover that you’re about to quote a job for a total wing nut. “He ripped us off!,” they complain, as you study the beautifully detailed project. “Charged us ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for a 15-FOOT WALL of walnut bookshelves with a library ladder!!”

Mmm. Next prospect!

While some customers refuse to believe what custom work costs, those without any exposure to custom pricing are often even more incredulous. It’s the familiar woodworker’s problem: To inexperienced customers, woodworking is just a hobby. They could do it themselves – in much the same way Tiggers can fly as good as Owl can – only they don’t want to!

How did they find out about you? If your prospect was referred by a satisfied customer, they likely know what your work is worth. Don’t assume that to always be true, however. There still exists a strata of society where it is considered poor form to discuss what they’ve paid – or to ask what someone has paid – for something. That being said, members of that strata tend to run with other members. So, always try to find out where – or from whom – folks have heard about you.

“Would you like to see my portfolio?” Of course they would. And if you’ve got doubts about their ability to pay, that portfolio represents a terrific opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“I charged $3,700 for this 15-foot wall of walnut book shelving and library ladder – it was a real bargain, actually. Shoulda been more like $4,200.”

Go through your photos, name a couple more prices, and watch for signs of discomfort – or a dead faint or impassivity – on the face of your prospect.

“Before I begin drawing, I require a small retainer. It will be deducted from the total if and when we sign a contract.” Keep this tactic “in your pocket,” but remember it’s there if you need it. Make clear it covers ONLY your anticipated time at the drawing board, and DOES NOT buy the drawings. If they accept, be sure to write them a receipt – and to show them that promised deduction when you review your quotation for the total job.

Lose the job, win the war. So, in reply to your last question, Seth, “Any solutions that work well?” the answer, I’m afraid, is not really – or at least, not always. Except this one: Let the job go.

The question I get most often, both at conferences and from consultees, is, “How do I find people who can afford my work?” Counterintuitive as it may seem, the answer is, “By NOT doing work for people who can’t afford you.”

In your query, Seth, you mention that you don’t know of any other shops that charge a design fee. To that I say, “So what?”

You’re not trying to run those shops. You’re running this one. If occasionally asking a prospect to cover your time is what you feel necessary in testing their commitment to doing the job, do it! There’s nothing wrong with getting out the word that you expect to be paid – and paid well – for your hard work.

The only way to cut down on wasted estimating is by ensuring that people who can’t afford you don’t call. Trouble is, there is no way to absolutely ensure that. But by walking away from jobs that are sure losers, you make your intentions clear: “This is not my hobby, this is my livelihood. I’ll do great work for you and stand behind it. But I’m in business to make money, so I’m also going to charge you for it.”

Remember: Your goal is not to sell every job. It is to get profitable jobs as often as possible.

Questions for Tony?

CWB reaches the desks of owners and managers, so we gladly preserve questioners’ anonymity if they so request. Tony reviews his response with each questioner prior to publication. E-mail your question to [email protected]. Please put “Ask Tony” in the subject line. Even if your question is not used in the magazine, Tony will do his best to respond personally via e-mail.

Anthony Noel

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