When you have a “real job” your productivity is driven largely by external demands, appointments and deadlines. When you start working for yourself it’s entirely up to you to drive your own productivity; on one hand it’s great to be free of those external demands, on the other it’s harder to maintain momentum without them. So I’ve been reading up on productivity, the consensus is that there are three elements to high productivity.
The Productivity Map
1 Clear Goals and Priorities
The first step is knowing the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve, defining what are the important steps you need to take to reach that. With your priorities defined you can move to planning.
I have a month by month set of goals, which can be broken down into activities to be completed each week, and from that I can build a daily plan.
Knowing your priorities will also help you say “no” to all those requests that can derail your good plans, here’s how Kristin Muhlner, CEO of NewBrand Analytics thinks about saying no to things at work.
This is about sustaining focus on results over the longer term, not about boxing yourself into a single path. If it turns out that priorities need to change, then change them. But make the decision and then change, don’t just drift onto a new path.
Set out a plan for your month, week or day. Find a system that works for you and stick to it.
There are all sorts of techniques out there, from productivity planners to the Pomodoro technique, to Get Things Done or the Seinfeld method.
Which method you use will depend on your personality and your business needs. Back when I had a company job the Get Things Done method worked because there were enough external deadlines to drive me forward.
If you need an easy way to time activities Google spreadsheets and calendar offer a free add-in that will help, I made a timesheet video guide on how to set that up.
I now use an adaptation of the productivity planner and I plan a week’s overview and then plan priority tasks per day in 30 minute chunks. I do a weekly review and plan session on a Friday morning which lets me relax over the weekend with the feeling that everything is under control (ha!).
3 Monitor Progress Honestly
Productivity is about what gets done, not just following a timetable so you need to monitor your output. Be honest with yourself, and remember that part of this is to refine your planning process. Look at what got done as well as what didn’t. Acknowledge any disruptions that put you off your game.
I check at the end of each day what I got done, and make adjustments for the following day. On Fridays I review the week and give myself an arbitrary “productivity score”.
I have a wide optimistic streak which has a big upside, but the downside is I tend to somehow thing I can do five 3 hour tasks in a day so right now part of my monitoring is around the time taken to complete tasks so that I can get better on these estimates. I am timing the writing of this post, for example, it’s not strictly necessary but in creating estimates for a client accurate time estimates are important so it’s a good skill to learn.
The Procrastination Trap
Ellen DeGeneres gives a perfect example of what procrastination looks like, I’m sure you’ll recognise it.
If you watched it you may be one of life’s natural procrastinators, welcome to the club. There are lots of reasons we procrastinate, sometimes we talk ourselves out of the hard tasks, sometimes we just get distracted – like a cat seeing a lazer light.
Setting goals and monitoring them honestly will help you build productive habits that will edge out the procrastination habits. But there are a couple of things to do in addition to this.
1 Remove distractions
Close email and social media sites, and remove notifications. There’s nothing more likely to distract you than that little flag saying “read me, you know you want to”. Checking email/status updates is a known productivity killer.There are lots of tools to help you focus when working online.
I’ve taken the simple step of putting all my work stuff into one browser (Chrome), and all my personal stuff into another (Firefox). Of course I can still fall down an internet rabbit hole, but it is a psychological help.
2 Listen to music/Don’t listen to music
Whichever helps you focus, I know lots of colleagues who find listening to music lets them focus. Sometimes it can also be a welcome way to block out office noise in open plan offices.I prefer not listening to music, but sometimes it can help my concentration if there is a lot of other background noise.
3 Tackle the hardest/easiest thing first
Some advice suggests that you should plan to start with the easiest task or a pleasant part of the overall task. Maybe that will work for you – try it.
I prefer beginning with the hardest “biggest” task, and plan the easier or more fun tasks as a “reward”.
4 Reward yourself
A reward could be a break, a walk outside, 10 minutes of facebook time, a good cup of coffee, a trip to the gym. It could also be one of the more pleasant tasks you need to do, for example, some online research for a conference to attend. Once you’ve defined your reward you can tell yourself “I’m going to finish this blog post by 11am and then I’m going out for coffee”, it’s a good way to trick yourself into focusing.
Productivity is about outcomes, but the way that we get there is by having a system that works and building productive habits. All the research I’ve found states that you need to maintain your own health, know your own goals, plan tasks against goals, monitor output, and break the procrastination habits. For me it’s a work in progress.