It’s very different from being an employee, where there are plenty ‘positive constraints‘ to keep you on track – turning up on time and being accountable to your boss are the things that stop you getting fired. You can’t fire yourself when you’re self-employed, so it helps to develop a few tricks to keep yourself on track.
We can’t manage time, but we can manage our attention – it’s our most valuable resource and the key to getting more done in a day, so it makes sense to reduce time-wasting distractions and focus on the things that really matter:
1. Know your enemy – what are the things that distract you (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, noise, hunger). Put your attention into managing these – switch off the wifi, close your browser, unplug yourself for 20 or 30 minutes and allow yourself to focus on a task without interruption. This is great for creative and detailed work.
2. Defend your sanctuary – set clear boundaries around your time, attention and environment, especially if you’re working from home and have to share your space with family.
3. Batch tasks that need a similar mindset – eg invoicing and expenses is a detail task. Look at the structure of your working day or week and balance these with creative tasks, errands, emails and phone calls so that you have a pick’n’mix to keep energy and attention levels high.
4. Develop a morning routine – use the first 30 minutes of your day to get an overview of what needs to be done. Then get on with it!
5. Practice sequential mono-tasking, not multi-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time, then rinse and repeat – you’ll get more done than if you try and scatter your attention over several tasks.
6. Work in dashes – this is good for big overwhelming tasks or something you’re resisting. Try the Pomodoro technique of 25 minutes uninterrupted work followed by a five minute break.
7. Tame your email – we can spend up to 40% of our working day dealing with email so don’t be afraid to switch it off – the world won’t stop spinning if you unplug yourself from incoming mail, and it’s one of the most effective ways to control distractions. Dedicate specific slots in your day to check and reply to messages and make technology work for you – create labels, filters and rules to sort incoming mail and save you time. Search the ‘Help’ section of your email client if you don’t know how to do this.
9. Get the details out of your emails – put dates in your diary or print out information that needs to be stored in project files. Using your inbox as a filing cabinet means valuable time is wasted searching for information that could be more easily retrieved with a simple storage system.
So remember, you can’t manage time – to be more productive you have to manage yourself and your attention. Take regular breaks, keep hydrated and get out for a walk and some fresh air during the day. And most importantly, give yourself a deadline for completing tasks to avoid the curse of ‘Parkinson’s Law’ where tasks expand to fill the time available for their completion!