Productivity and efficiency: two of my favourite words. When my old philosophy professor used to tell me off for saying “Have a good day!”, I switched to “I hope your day is pleasant and productive!” because to me at the time productive = good.
Efficiency pervades every aspect of my life. From my morning routine to the way I structure my working day, and even when and where I see my friends, I’m constantly seeking ways to make myself run more efficiently like a Borg drone grasping for knowledge.
2015 has been a year of subtle yet important changes. I now have more of a working routine than I’ve had since I first started freelancing again, and I’ve managed to get far more done than I thought was possible. The difference between this year and previous years when I’ve also managed to do lots of things, though, is both simple and surprisingly evasive.
I’ve always worked hard, but I haven’t always worked well.
I have been no stranger to hard work ever since I was a teenager, getting up at 4.30 to do a paper round and a cleaning shift before school, staying on for an extra cleaning shift after school, working in a cattery at the weekends, and somehow managing to fit around all this both a good academic record and the requirements of the religious cult in which I was brought up.
The workaholic obsession continued into my adult life, until I gained some perspective and started focusing on what worked for me, rather than how I could work for other people.
Nowadays I work well – better than ever before, in fact – but I don’t work so hard that I feel like I’m going to collapse half the time. I’m pretty sure that the second part of that sentence causes the first half.
So, how did I do it?
How does a workaholic reform to the extent that they manage to get the results they require whilst learning to strike a balance between making money and doing the things they love?
There were a few things that helped me. Perhaps they’ll help you, too, so I’ve listed them below. If you have any to add, leave me a comment!
Working from home
This has helped my efficiency no end. In an office, it’s much easier to get distracted. In my old job, my direct reports were constantly talking to me, asking questions, and whilst I enjoyed their company, it didn’t make for the most productive of environments.
I used to get pulled into frankly unnecessary meetings for big chunks of my day, especially when I was managing the UK & International Operations teams. This meant that by the time I got back to my desk, the working day was almost over and I’d frequently end up staying late into the night (and on many occasions, sleeping at the office. I wasn’t good at balance in those days.)
It’s much easier to be in charge of the structure of your days when they’re happening in your own home.
Working at home means I don’t have constant interruptions. Having clients who aren’t in the same building means I’m not constantly in meetings. I have one afternoon a week (Mondays) on which I do all my client calls, and then if they want to talk to me again, they have to wait until the following Monday or send me an email.
Focusing on the important things
This is something I learned from religiously reading all of Ash Ambirge’s blog posts and newsletter updates. If you don’t read her stuff yet, I recommend it. It’s changed the way I do business, and I’ve only taken advantage of the things she posts for free.
The concept is pretty simple:
What do you actually need to get done?
What do you really want to get done?
What do you sort of want to get done?
What do you not ultimately care about?
The ‘need’ thing is there because there’s stuff like tax returns, admin and (if you’re me) phone calls: the parts of business life that are necessary, but which you hate doing.
Beyond that, though, it’s important to work out what your own business goals are and stick to them. And that includes stuff like building for a future life. Want to be an author? Then “write 1,000 words a day” could fall under question #2.
And then there’s the stuff you really don’t like doing, but you’ve taken it on because you’re a freelancer and you need the cash. I kept doing this with PR work, which I hate, but which just kept coming my way.
Lots of people will tell you to never take on these projects, because ultimately they’re unsatisfying and you’ll hate them and probably not do the best job of them anyway. I’d say that’s unrealistic. There will be times when you’re desperate for rent money, and you’re going to do it whether it’s a good decision or not.
So, fine. Do it. But try to do less and less of it as time goes by, and eventually you’ll be able to *poof* disappear the demanding, irritating clients and close down your PR business once and for all! *jumping up and down emoji*
Setting time limits
This was actually something that sprang out of therapy in 2013. As part of a CBT series, I had to structure my day into 45-minute chunks for two weeks.
This was a challenge, but it was a good one.
Why? Because I discovered just how much I could get done in 45 minutes. I had little alarms that went off when I had to switch tasks, and the knowledge that I only had a set amount of time meant that I discovered I could work really well, if I limited how much time I spent on things.
I no longer do 45-minute chunks throughout the day, but I do still structure my time. My mornings are made up of one type of work, the middle of the day another, the early afternoon another, and the late afternoon/early evening another still. It means I get to switch things up, not get bored of what I’m doing, and take advantage of where my head’s at during each part of the day.
Which brings me to my next point…
Work with your brain
There are loads of posts out there from morning people saying we should all get up at 5am and do all our work then, because “that’s when we’re most productive”. Equally, there are loads of articles by night owls that recommend staying up late because “that’s when we’re most creative”. And then there are the posts by people who have other commitments in the mornings and evenings – family stuff, for example – who recommend doing as much as possible during the day.
The thing is, you have to find what works for you.
I hate mornings, for instance. If I had to talk to anyone, or do something that required my full attention, I’d be terrible.
But I have discovered that I’m quite good at the more mindless tasks first thing in the morning. I can get up and trot out 1,000 words at 5am, because I’m not thinking critically enough to spend half my time wondering if this is quite the right word to put in that sentence. I can also do admin, social media scheduling and other basic tasks early in the morning. So now I do. Curled up in an armchair with my coffee, I get all the boring crap out the way before my brain realises what I’m doing.
I’m better at things that involve people in the afternoons. By that point, I’ve fully woken up and I’m usually feeling like a break from whatever I’ve been working on in the morning.
In the late afternoon and at night, I’m better at creative or intellectual stuff. Anything that involves thinking hard about things and coming up with solutions. I use this time to write academic papers, plan schedules and solve problems.
Your brain might work differently from mine. The point is, find the times of day when you’re best at doing different things, and then take advantage of them.
Realise that “better than” is better than “perfect”
I’ve always striven for perfection, and I’ve never achieved it, because that’s impossible.
In the past year or so, however, I’ve learned to strive for “better” rather than “perfect”, and this means I’ve managed to get a lot more done. And I’ve had more fun doing it.
For example, rather than “I want to write a novel NOW!”, and then being disappointed that one didn’t just appear in the space of about a week, a couple of years ago I thought “I want to write 1,000 words a of fiction day”, and I’ve stuck to it, and now I have a novel ready to be edited and submitted.
Whatever your goals are, breaking them up into manageable chunks will really help. Even if it feels more boring than magically whisking something into existence.
This quote pops into my head every so often and spurs me on:
Say no to more things
It’s hard to do, especially if you’re naturally a bit of a crowd-pleaser. But “no” is an important word to learn, because otherwise you’ll end up buried in work you don’t really want, overstretching yourself, and probably for not enough money.
I learned this lesson the hard way, and I learned it over and over again. Hopefully you’ll be more sensible than that. 😉
Say better yeses to other things
Once you’ve got your nos out of the way, the yeses become easier too. You’re no longer a harried, rushing mass of desperation and busyness. Instead, you’re a calmer, more human version of yourself.
You learn to say yes to the right things, for the right reasons.
Rather than “Yes, fine, I’ll do it” with an underlying meaning of “Because I feel like I have to and I don’t know how to refuse”, you’ll end up saying “Yes please, I’d like to do that, and here’s how” with an underlying meaning of “…and I know I can fit it in, because I’ve structured my day more sensibly.”
Not all of this will come at once. And I’m sure there are other things I don’t know about yet, that I’ll learn over several more years of trying and failing and trying again and making mistakes and keeping going and trying and – finally?