Spending time with Aaron Stokes 10 Tips on time-management
by Ian Johan-Gomez
Aaron Stokes is the epitome of the busy and successful entrepreneur. Not only is he the owner and operator of six repair shops and a rental car company, but he is also an active family man and the host of the popular radio show “Fixin’ Cars with Aaron Stokes” on Nashville’s 99.7 WTN. He is the founder of Shop Fix Academy, and travels frequently to speak at events and venues throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. Recently, we were able to interview him and ask him the question we all are thinking: how does he do it ALL?
Tip 1: Establish a Morning/Evening Routine That Works for You
Aaron’s routine is busy but pretty simple. He gets five and a half hours of sleep every night; he goes to bed between midnight and 1AM and wakes up between 5 and 6AM. He showers at night, eats breakfast in the morning, and listens to an audiobook on the way to work. In the evening, he exercises and spends time with his family before dinner, and then works and reads before bed. Rinse, and repeat. He acknowledges that this routine may not work for everyone but setting up a routine definitely makes your life run smoother.
“To avoid wasted time between switching tasks, Aaron has implemented a system at his repair shops with a two-stage counter: the first counter is for interacting with customers, and behind a wall is the second for his employees to do all their paperwork. ”
There is one routine that Aaron highly recommends: creating a to-do list. Part of his nightly routine is to write down tomorrow’s to-do list. He divides his list into three separate parts: Stuff to Check (which includes bank accounts, emails, etc.), People to Call, and Projects To-Do (he prioritizes the important tasks with asterisks***). He says that while he uses Google Calendar to keep track of tasks that comes up during the day, he likes to consolidate all his tasks on a piece of paper, so he can get the satisfaction of crossing them off when they’re done.
Tip 2: Make Time for your Family
Despite all the work, Aaron makes sure he still has time for his family. He dedicates the time between work and dinner to his children and isn’t afraid to involve them in his work life: “I include my family in just about everything… my last conference I had 200 people and I was teaching at the pulpit and my sixteen-year-old daughter was laying on the floor doing her Spanish homework…she just wanted to hang out with her dad.” Creating a routine and incorporating your family into your work life can give you the time you might not think you have to spend time with your loved ones.
Tip 3: Trim the Fat – Remove Socializing from Work
Even if you decide to involve your family in your work process, you should still separate your social life from your work life. It’s all about trimming the fat from your business and focusing on getting the job done. Avoid hiring your friends if you know that you won’t be able to focus on work. If you are friends with your staff, don’t waste important work time socializing. You can talk about nonwork-related topics once all the work is finished.
Tip 4: Don’t Try to Multi-Task, Separate Each Work Environment
No one can multi-task. There is a common misconception that women can, but in reality, they’re just quicker at switching from Task A to Task B.
What Aaron did to combat the temptation of multitasking was to physically create separate work areas. When he was running three shops, he had four desks in his office: his main desk, and then three accounting desks (one for each shop). Each desk had all the stuff he needed for each shop, and he would sit down at each desk and do all the tasks needed for that shop (enter in his day-in, order all his parts, check his email for that shop, etc.) before moving on to the next desk/shop. It created a separate environment for each shop that allowed him to focus and get the job done right for each location. “I stick with a project until it’s done,” he says, “at the end of the month, instead of having only one and a half of ten projects done, I’ll have probably have five of ten projects done, because I stayed with a project until…I could pull it off my desk.”
Tip 5: Build an Effective Time Management System for the Shop
To avoid wasted time between switching tasks, Aaron has implemented a system at his repair shops with a two-stage counter: the first counter is for interacting with customers, and behind a wall is the second for his employees to do all their paperwork. This allows the employee to smoothly switch between customers and paperwork and waste less time refocusing and saying, “Where was I?”.
Another huge time waster that Aaron has found when working with shops is the lack of communication when it comes to providing clear direction. A lot of time is wasted with little conversations between you and your employees about what repairs are going to be happening that day. It also creates the bad habit of the employees constantly going to you and asking, “What’s next?”, which effectively reduces your duties down to nothing more than direction giving. A way to get rid of these conversations and to open up your time is to create a board system. The board system eliminates the need for these little conversations by providing clear direction and priority to the employees. Plus, instead of having to interrupt a working employee, you can simply look at the board to see what’s going on.
Aaron also recommends creating a system for your busy days: “A lot of the time, shop owners are recommended to create a system for their everyday work. I’m not so worried about that. I’m focused on the four busy days a month, when the wheels are coming off the bus. When you don’t have time to do a certain activity, let’s create a system for that.” When you’re having a busy day, don’t get overwhelmed – lay out a system that will get you to the next level and help you boost your sales.
Tip 6: Prioritize – Keep Tasks Important, not Urgent
When setting goals and creating task lists, it’s great to have prioritization, and it’s good to have important tasks – this shows that you’re delegating the non-important tasks and lets you look at the bigger picture. However, if you ignore these important tasks, they become urgent. Don’t let these tasks become urgent. When they become urgent, you’re forced to dedicate all your time and attention to that particular task, and you’re unable to do your tasks in the order you’d like. This gets you backed up on your other tasks, which then have the potential to become urgent themselves. You’re left with the constant high-stress situation of putting out these urgent fires, which prevents you from focusing on shop growth.
About Aaron Stokes:
Aaron’s drive for success started young. At age 11, his father left, and, as the oldest, Aaron had to assume the role of father figure of the household. With only an eighth-grade education, he began working full-time at a horse farm at age 15. He didn’t start his journey in the automotive repair industry until 1999, when he opened his first shop in a one-car garage in Franklin, TN. He soon transferred to an old barn, and it wasn’t until five years after that that he decided to move to a larger location. He quickly expanded to more locations, eventually growing to the six shops he has today. During this automotive repair boom, he created the rental car company, the radio show, and ShopFix Academy. He uses the latter to help other repair shops increase profits and stimulate shop growth. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children.
Tip 7: Don’t be Afraid to Say No
Aaron is blunt, so he doesn’t have a hard time saying no, but he realizes that it’s not the same for everyone else. He recommends that, blunt or not, be polite, and try to see if this extra task is worth your time. If it’s something that’s flexible, see if you can schedule alternative times to fit around your schedule. Make sure to provide options to show the person asking that you care about their offer. But if it really just doesn’t work out, politely explain your situation and decline.
Tip 8: Learn to Delegate
Sometimes you have to delegate. Aaron recommends looking to your employees for help. First, ask yourself, who has time for it? And if there are multiple answers, start narrowing down your options based on competency, ability, and how much you trust them.
Tip 9: Find Quality Employees
It’s what every shop owner wants: quality employees. So, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when you’re searching for the right hire.
The first thing is to avoid people who show up thinking they’re presenting themselves as “good enough”. If they are late, unkempt, underdressed, it’s a sign that they’re either only willing to put in passable effort or that they don’t think the interview is important. You don’t want that. You want above-and-beyond effort. Once you weed out these “good enough-ers”, you start getting to the more quality candidates. These candidates provide a different type of challenge: the higher caliber the person, the more they will interview you. These candidates tend to have the luxury of multiple job opportunities, so they want to make sure you are a good employer. Keep this in mind when interviewing by presenting your best self as well. For example, don’t be ego-driven when interviewing.
Knowledge is power – but it’s not everything. Never be afraid to test their knowledge by asking technical questions; their responses will give you valuable insights regarding their ability and their confidence. Don’t overvalue their knowledge, however; if someone has less knowledge but no bad habits, keep them in mind. It’s easier to learn than break bad habits.
“Knowledge is power – but it’s not everything. Never be afraid to test their knowledge by asking technical questions; their responses will give you valuable insights regarding their ability and their confidence.”
One question that Aaron likes to ask during an interview is whether a person has a messy desk or a neat desk (and he tells them there are no wrong answers). Most of the time, people don’t like to admit that they have messy desks, so they tend to say they have clean desks. What they don’t realize (and what Aaron looks for) is that clean desks usually mean they’re better at managing, while messy desks means they’re better at selling. While both types of people work in his company, sometimes he’s looking to hire someone who’s better at paperwork, and sometimes he’s looking to hire someone who’s better at selling.
He also recommends looking at the bigger picture: “A lot of people get hung up on like, ‘Oh I hired this service advisor and I want him, blah blah blah, but man is he always late to work…’ and I ask them how much he sells and they say, ‘Well he sells likes a million and a half dollars a year’ and I go, ‘Then who cares? Hire him two secretaries then.’” If a person is valuable to the shop and a messy desk person, you can always surround them with clean desk people.
Tip 10: Take Time for Personal Development
Good leaders attract quality workers. So, before you start looking for quality hires, make sure you’ve taken the time to develop yourself as a strong leader. Get ahead of the game and once you do, normalize this behavior. Shop owners commonly find themselves stuck in the rut of trying to be the “hero”. They continually set themselves up to be put in stressful situations that require them to fix things last minute. It becomes a habit, and the difficult part is breaking this habit, reducing the stress, and preventing these situations from ever occurring. “At the end of the day, most shop owners are just trying to get away from pain. It’s not even them trying to be happy; they’re just trying to pay bills, so they can outrun the pain.” Once you get away from this toxic cycle of pain and stress, you’ll have time refresh and reprioritize. Instead of thinking of this effort as ‘exceeding your expectations’, make it your expectation. And once you’ve started succeeding, don’t be afraid to treat yourself: take the time to dress a little nicer, do your hair better. Start investing in better equipment and cleaning up the shop. Provide a good foundation for others, and watch your shop start to grow.