Was I productive today? I might have been…if my car hadn’t broken down, my phone bill hadn’t taken an hour to query (honestly, who charges for voicemail?), my client hadn’t asked me to “Just do this quickly”.
10-years ago, that might have been a typical day for me, interspersed with a solid 7-hours of work.
I’m a freelancer. That means I’m responsible for managing my own time. Initially, before I learned how to manage my time effectively, I’d spend my days attempting to fulfil my work obligations whilst wrestling an endless stream of distraction.
Sometimes, distraction came from outside: Susie from next door needs a parcel taking in; the dog’s thrown up on the carpet again and it’s the sticky stuff; for the 5th time today, fake BT’s ringing the landline to tell me my computer’s been hacked, etc., etc., etc.,
Other times, distraction was self-manifested. I’d find reasons to procrastinate so I could spend time playing in the dark playground. After all, what’s more appealing? A quick (umm, more like 45-minutes) Facebooking or an hour of admin work? Before I had time to stop and think about what I was doing, I’d be halfway through baking a cake instead of dealing with Debbie from accounts.
The onslaught of distraction and the endless excuses can seriously hinder productivity.
For success as a solopreneur, I knew I had to get a handle on it. I spent time researching the various barriers to productivity, and for me, it boiled down to two things:
- Managing other people’s expectations
Understanding the issues meant I was able to come up with workable solutions. In the decade that I’ve been flying solo, I’ve learned a few things to help boost my productivity. The rest of this blog explores some of the key things I’ve discovered over the years as a grade-A procrastinator.
How to work smart – Productivity top tips
1. You Have to Set Sane Working Hours
My working hours are set like a typical office workday: 9am to 6pm, no weekends. I’ve very strict about this and I rarely work outside of those hours; if I do, it’s with appropriate compensation.
Why are sane working hours important?
Working too hard leads to burnout. Not only will you feel terrible, but the thing you’re hoping to achieve by working hard (i.e. success) is the very thing you lose by working TOO hard.
You can’t succeed if you burnout.
Learn to spot the signs of burnout and take steps to manage it, such as implementing the tips in this blog.
Tip: remember that working sensible hours is conducive to success but working too much is counterproductive.
2. Determine How Long It Takes to Complete Tasks
One of the reasons you might be working insane hours is that you’re miscalculating the amount of time it takes to complete various tasks.
Look at your typical day, and the typical tasks you complete in that day. Then, take out your stopwatch and time how long it takes you to complete each task.
E.g., I know that it takes me 1-hour to write 100-words that are worth reading. That means a 500-word blog will take me 5-hours.
By calculating each task, I can plan my day better. If I have two blogs to write this week, I know that I need to dedicate roughly 1.5-days that week to my blog. I can pen this in the diary. If I have eight blogs to write this week, then my diary is full and I can advise my clients that I have no further availability this week.
It allows me to manage my time, but most importantly, MANAGE OTHER’S EXPECTATIONS.
Tip: Use a diary to schedule your days. I like to add 10% to my expected timeframe because it makes room for unexpected events, like the dog throwing up from both ends. Don’t forget to factor in travel times!
3. Learn the Importance of Saying “No” (It’s Good for Everyone)
How do you manage people’s expectations?
You adopt a realistic attitude concerning the amount of work you can manage and you convey this to the people around you. You learn to say “NO” to people by having the rationale for asserting your position, i.e. that it doesn’t fit in with your schedule.
Saying “no” can often make us feel guilty. But, just like burnout, it’s counterintuitive to say “yes” all the time.
Saying “yes” too often leads to burnout. Burnout results in saying an emphatic “NO” to everything anyway, except lying on the sofa in your PJs for months on end…if you even make it to the sofa. You’re doing everyone a favour by saying “no” from time to time, because it allows you to continue to be productive.
“No, I can’t fit you in this week – I’m free next week if that’s any good?”
Notice how setting sane work hours and understanding the length of tasks allows you to schedule your time so you can manage other people’s expectations of your time.
“No, I don’t just have 5-minutes for a cuppa. I work during the day.”
Tip: To alleviate the guilt of saying “no”, remember that saying “yes” too often inevitably results in a semi-permanent “state of no”. Everyone’s better off if you say “No” when you need to.
4. Learn to Manage the Monkey Mind
Ah, procrastination. The bane of my life. Maybe it’s because I was born in the Chinese Year of the Monkey, or maybe it’s because I’m a master at finding excuses to do fun things and ignore the “To Do” list.
Whatever the reason, my monkey mind – the part of the mind with the endless chatter, that’s always looking for stimulation and hates anything that doesn’t provide instant gratification – is a rascal.
When I need to sit down to work, everything that isn’t work suddenly becomes intensely interesting:
- Rational Me: “Hey, Me. How do you feel about starting that blog now?”
- Mind Me: “How about we wax our upper lip instead?”
It doesn’t have to be nice. It just has to be “not work”. As long as it isn’t work, it’s appealing.
How do I overcome this? Besides the drive to make sure I pay my rent on time, several techniques help me…
Techniques to overcome the Monkey Mind
This is a productivity technique where you break the time you spend on a task into chunks. If I’m writing a blog, I might set a time for 50-minutes. I then work 50-minutes, then take a 10-minute break.
This works because it gives me something to look forward to (a reward for completing the task) and it makes the task appear less daunting, “It’s only 50-minutes”.
It’s especially useful for complex or boring tasks.
There’s a fantastic app called Get Cold Turkey that incorporates the Pomodoro technique, and which I use whenever I do computer work. It blocks online distractions and apps for set times.
I think it’s directly implicated in at least 1.5k hours’ worth of non-procrastinated hours in the 10-years I’ve used it. It normally goes something like this:
“I think I’ll just check Facebook quickly.
Oh, that’s right, I can’t!
May as well carry on working instead.”
Mix up tasks.
Another thing that’s sure to set the monkey off on its screeching rants about boredom is the repetitiveness of tasks. It’s difficult to sustain attention on things that are repetitive. It’s boring.
By mixing up tasks, and thinking of new ways to achieve goals, you bring diversity to your workday and this helps it feel more interesting. The more interesting it feels, the more you’ll be able to sustain attention. The more you can hold the line, the greater your productivity and the more likely you are to achieve your goals.
How to Work Smart
To become more productive as a solopreneur, you need to take responsibility for managing your time and motivation. You need to understand your shortcomings and find ways to manage them. For me, that was about learning how to manage other people’s expectations and learning to manage my propensity for procrastination.