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– or how to get more done in the same number of hours.
* Updated February 2018
Before I write anything else I should mention that I’m not some time management and productivity expert. Far from it. I’m the guy who once created a really complex looking Excel sheet, took a screen grab of it and set it as my Windows wallpaper.
Every time somebody would walk past my desk I’d sit staring at the screen, frowning in concentration, having done absolutely nothing that day.
I waited for somebody to catch me out. After a week nobody did, so I deleted it and got back to actually working.
I still get things wrong, like wasting an hour on YouTube watching Russian dash-cam videos.
I’m human, and so are you. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll trip up and go backwards.
That’s cool because it’s the only way to learn what works for you.
Filtering out the “noise”
If you’ve ever worked in any corporate office environment you know just how many distractions there are in a given day. From your buddies and bosses dropping by your desk for a chat, to the endless rounds of pointless meetings that achieved nothing more than to organize more meetings. And that’s without people stopping you mid whatever-you-were-working-on to send you off to complete a different project for them.
The way people manipulated your time drove you nuts. In fact, it drove you so nuts that you opted to work for yourself instead, knowing with absolute certainty that you could achieve more in a single hour than you did in an entire day of blue-collar drudgery.
But, for some weird reason, you now find you’re actually less productive than you were in your 9 – 5.
What the hell?
How did it all go so wrong?
You are not alone. Very few people have the natural ability to simply switch off external distractions, get tunnel vision, and do 6 – 8 hours of incredibly productive work each day. That’s pretty much an X-Men power right there, so if you don’t have it then don’t sweat it.
The main reason you’re not as productive as you were in your 9 – 5 is that you are now your own boss. Your 9-5 boss would breathe down your neck if you weren’t working, but the “You” boss doesn’t give you crap when you slack off, does he?
Nope, he’ll tell you it’s okay to binge on Netflix or YouTube for a few hours each day, because you can “…make up for it tomorrow.”
But that means you’re starting off “tomorrow” in a reactive state, panicking to make up for lost time. And that my friends, can quickly become a spiral you can’t easily escape from, eventually driving you back into the embrace of a reliable, safe and utterly boring 9 – 5.
So, how do you fix your distraction, time management and productivity problems?
It’s way easier than you think…
In an ideal world I’d tell you to just shut your social media accounts down because they’re eating up hours of your day. The average person farts around on their social media accounts for at least 2 hours each day, and that’s just the average person – not the Twitter and Instagram addicts!
Those figures are great news for Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, but really, really bad news for you as a self-employed person.
Because every single second you spend on social media is time you’re not being paid for. The only exception to that statement is if you’re a social media manager for clients, and even then it’s too easy for a 5-minute post scheduling task to turn into a 30-minute Facebook session.
So, because we live in a world that’s polluted by social media, you have to find a way to switch it off. Well, you do if you want to get anything done.
I’ve tested a few different tools over the years, and the one that works for me is one called Freedom. It sits in the background on my PC and blocks my biggest Internet-based distractions, with YouTube and Facebook coming in top of that list. I can set it to automatically block these sites for several hours at a time, which is ideal because that allows me to “block out” my time – I’ll cover that idea in a bit more detail later in this article.
It can also be added to other devices or computers, so that’s another plus. I suppose the main reason I like it is because it’s just so easy to use.
Yes, there are dozens of different apps and services that do the same thing, but Freedom works for me. Some of the other popular social media blockers are:
What really surprised me was how often I’d ghost my way over to my second screen and try to open up Facebook or YouTube without even realizing what I was doing.
This was happening several times in a given hour. What horrified me was to hear that the “average” office worker checks out social media 30+ times PER HOUR! That’s literally a quick check every 2 minutes.
Now I’m not a betting man but I’m 99% certain you’re wasting at least 2 hours of your day pointlessly scrolling through social media feeds, watching movie trailers, and/or whatever is “viral” right now.
Because you’re reading this.
Freedom has woken me to to the very important realization that social media is the quickest way to ruin your productivity.
I’m weaning myself off all social media platforms unless I’m being paid to be on them.
You should seriously consider doing the same.
#2 Your “To Do” list is the enemy!
When you’re working for somebody else they help you manage your time by telling you that you need to be in work for whatever time each morning, and not to leave before whatever time suits them.
Your employer sets your work schedule for you, hoping you won’t spend half your day goofing off on social media.
When you’re left to your own devices in your home office it’s WAY too easy to find reasons to not do stuff you should be doing.
Your 30-minute lunch becomes an hour. You decide to walk the dog instead of starting on a client project. Watching that spider weaving a web in the corner is way more fun than finding new ways to market your business.
For some bizarre reason your plan of working from 7am – 3pm each day fell apart within a week. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get back on track.
You, me and tens of thousands of others working from home have the exact same problem. You wind up feeling lazy, a big bit lost, and with no idea how to fix things.
You then go installing time management apps, hoping that they’ll somehow magically make things better.
But….none of them fix your problem.
Maybe you are just a lazy ass, one who has no right working for themselves?
What you’re suffering from is overload, and a desire to get more done in a given day than is physically possible.
What you need to do is “go small”, and focus on fewer things – this is something I learned from a book called “The One Thing“, which I’d absolutely recommend you read.
In fact, your ‘To Do’ list should have no more than three items on it, and those items should be written down on a notepad the previous night.
The night before?
1. You’re giving your brain work tasks to process while you’re asleep – you’ll wake up focused on these tasks as a result of writing them down the night before.
2. Coming up with those three tasks first thing in the morning takes 5x longer, and you still won’t be able to take them seriously until after your lunch.
My ‘To Do’ list is a small, cheap notepad that has 3 items written on each page. I cross them off as they’re completed, and then if there’s still time left in my day, I’ll work on another three items.
Still struggling with 3 items on a list?
Fine, cut it down to 2. If you can’t manage 2 items, then reduce it to one item.
And if that doesn’t work then you have two choices:
1. Get yourself a copy of “The One Thing” and read it several times in a given week.
2. Be prepared to go back to your 9 – 5.
I also use the “Eat The Frog” time management technique on certain projects, especially the ones I’m most likely to “forget about” until the deadline is staring me in the face. Then it’s time for an “all-nighter” and enough caffeine to kill a large horse.
Using the “Eat the Frog” approach is a simple one: Start your working day by completing the task(s) you least enjoy. For me that’s a certain type of copywriting project I get hired to work on. The longer I avoid working on it the closer the deadline looms, and the more reluctant I am to start.
So, my way around that is to outline the content when the order arrives, then do all the research, and then sit down and write the blog posts in one sitting.
This is exhausting, but it’s worth getting those few thousand words out of my way before I do anything else. At least then I can spend the rest of my working day on client work I actually enjoy!
#3 Get a dumb laptop
This is a genius idea, and one that’s really easy to put into action. What I refer to as a “dumb laptop” is one without a connection to the Internet…no matter how hard you try to do that. You’ll also hear people call these “air-gapped laptop”, but it means the same thing.
Basically, you get yourself an old, cheap laptop and then simply uninstall the wi-fi and Bluetooth drivers from it and make sure you don’t have any way of reinstalling them.
What you’re left with is the ultimate Internet block – the hardware on your laptop that allows connectivity is disabled. So, no matter how much you want to go online, you simply can’t.
Then take any research you might need for a given project, go find a quiet corner in your home/office/coffee shop and get to work on it. No, you don’t need to go online to “research” – save everything you need on a USB flash drive so you can work offline.
Most of the people you see “working” on their laptops aren’t actually doing anything. Well, not unless you count Tinder, Facebook and Instagram as “work”.
You’ll achieve more in an hour working on your “dumb laptop” than they’ll achieve in an entire day. Actually, probably more than they’ll achieve in an entire week.
I’m a copywriter and SEO consultant by trade, and my own experience is that eliminating Internet-based distractions (including my phone) results in my productivity and output doubling or tripling.
Yes, it really can make that much of a difference.
#4 Block out your time
You know when you sit down to start your working day, and can’t decide where you should start? So, you go grab a coffee, think some more, and then sit down…staring at the screen, praying for some kind of work ethic miracle to take place.
Yeah, we’ve all been there. In fact, it’s the thing I struggle with the most.
The solution is simple: Block out your time
This simply means that you create a short schedule for yourself, something that says from 9am – 10am you’ll work on Project X. Then take a short break and from 10:15am – 12pm you’ll work on Project Y. From 12:15pm – 1pm you’ll walk the dog, and then from 1pm – 1:30pm you’ll have lunch.
Does that feel too much like structure?
Well, the thing is, if you’re reading this then you’re working without structure…and you’re struggling.
Create a time blocked schedule that works for you. Your schedule could start at 6am, and finish at 2am. Or start at 6pm and finish at 2am.
Find your optimal working hours, and then mercilessly block out your time within those hours.
#5 Experiment with work sprints
This concept ties in with the idea blocking out your hours – it’s the perfect complement to that idea.
What it comes down to is this: You break your working day into 25-minute segments.
This process is known as the “Pomodoro Technique”. And that’s not some fancy scientific term – it literally means “tomato” in Italian. No, I have no idea why either.
So, you block your access to social media, set a timer and then work for 20 minutes with absolutely nothing to distract you.
Then you take a break for five minutes. And then the process starts all over again.
I use a desktop app called Pomodairo for this, and it works like a charm. The reason why is that when you’re working against the clock it keeps you completely focused on what you’re doing. Kinda like being back in your 9 – 5 where there never seeemed to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.
Once you complete three Pomodoros in a row, you then get to take a 25-minute break, but to be honest I’m usually so zoned in at this point that I work through my “break” too.
From a copywriting point of view using the Pomodoro Technique is the difference between me writing 500 words per hour and being able to produce 1,300 words per hour. That’s just the average. Sometimes it can be 2,000 words per hour, depending on the topic.
Pomodario is free, and you can download it here.
Or another option is the Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant for Google Chrome.
I thought about including smartphone apps here, but they’re not something I use. I also couldn’t find any good ones without some form of advertising or “In-app purchases” attached, so I passed on that idea.
#6 Get into your “flow” state
You know those really great moments when you’re working away on something, time is flying by, and you’re producing really great stuff? You actually enjoy what you’re doing because everything just “works”. You can’t explain exactly why, except to say that you’re “in the zone”.
And the weird thing is that’s exactly what’s happening – you’ve entered something called “flow state”.
Where people struggle with this is that flow state isn’t something they can consciously switch on or off at will.
But the really cool thing is that you can, but you’ll need some help.
You can induce a Zen-like flow state by listening to certain types of music or audio tracks. For years I used movie soundtracks to help me tune in and zone out to the world around me. Apparently the best music for concentration and focus is anything without lyrics, and I’d agree. Movie soundtracks did it for me.
But it just wasn’t consistent.
So I tried white noise generators, rainfall soundtracks, etc. They all worked, but I couldn’t rely on them 100%, which sucked because I’d try to sit down and write but my mind would be like oatmeal inside a washing machine.
Then I literally tripped over something called BrainFM and found something that works every time, no matter how much mental noise is going on inside my head.
There’s all kinds of fancy neuroscience behind what they do, none of which I can claim to know anything about.
What I can say is that within 10 minutes of starting a BrainFM session that my thought patterns regulate, and I get focused. And that’s saying a lot because I struggle with depression and anxiety on a pretty regular basis. Yes, the guy sitting here writing this is entirely human. Very much so.
I’m actually listening to a Focus track while writing this – in the upstairs bedroom of a very busy house on New Year’s Day, with several children running around screaming their heads off.
Yes, I’m still able to concentrate, which is nothing short of a miracle.
After writing this article it struck me that I’d left out some important tips, and ones that would be particularly beneficial for people working from home.
So, here they are:
#7 The People Factor
One of the toughest parts of working from home is dealing with family interruptions. If you have kids, then you can expect them to wander into your home office looking for attention. Like this:
Even if you don’t have kids you still have friends, family members and maybe a partner who won’t understand that you can’t just drop what you’re doing to spend time with them. To be honest, one of the toughest parts of running a business from the comfort of your own home is separating your personal life from your “working” life. Coping with a “needy” husband or wife when you’re working from home can lead to arguments.
At least when you’re working in an office your partner/kids/family can’t just turn up during the day. And that’s exactly why some small business owners are forced to lease office space they can go to work from for at least part of their day.
So, what can you do to get around the problem?
You have a couple of choices:
1. Work to a fixed timetable (example: 8am – 4:30pm) each day – you agree to only work and take breaks within those hours. That way you can meet up with people for coffee, but only during your set breaks. Let your significant other know about the schedule, and why it’s important.
2. Gently ask family members (or anyone else) to not just show up without calling or texting first, that you are actually working, and when you get interrupted it means you have to either work late or work longer hours the next day. Be honest with them, but sugarcoat it just a little bit.
3. Put on some headphones, turn off your mobile phone, and lock the door of the office. If people don’t get the message, then let them know that you’ve tried to be reasonable, you’ve asked for co-operation, so you are now ignoring their interruptions.
4. Lease a desk in a business development co-op, or similar, in your home town. Just shop around before you do this because rates can vary from $30 per day to $45 per week. You don’t need anything fancy, and you probably won’t need it every day of the week, so don’t be afraid to haggle, or see if you can share an office/desk with another person.
The irony of all of the above is I just lost three hours of my day because my girlfriend, sister-in-law and my nephew turned up after being out for lunch.
#8 Ban Your Smartphone
Ahhh, the cell phone. What an amazing invention. It allows you to stay connected to your family, and friends all day long via social networks. And this absolutely ruins your ability to be productive for more than a few minutes at a time.
I touched on the idea of smartphones being a distraction a little earlier in this article. But I never explained why.
So, why are cell phones distracting?
Well, apparently it’s because you’re addicted to something called dopamine. This is a “feel good” chemical released into your body when something nice happens to you. Like when you get a text message from a loved one, an email from a friend, or a notification from one of the many social media platforms that eat up more hours than you can imagine.
You stop what you’re doing, check the message/mail/Like/Retweet. And you get a tiny hit of dopamine. The first one is free…and it’s all downhill from there.
Most of you probably kick yourself when you realize how much time you waste on your phone each day, and how that took away from really important stuff, like earning a living.
But, the truth is that you’ve gotten yourself addicted to an electronic device that will quite happily consume 10 hours of your day.
It’s not a question of “Are you distracted by your phone?” If you own a smartphone and panic when you can’t find it, well then you’re addicted.
If you want to get lots more work done in the same amount of hours each day either leave your phone in another room, or just switch it off if you have to keep it near you.
I dare you to try this for one day, and make a note of every single time you pick up/search for your smartphone to check to see if “anyone loves you”. You’ll be horrified when you see just how many times per day you do this.
So there you have it – my guide on how to avoid distractions while working from home.
Just remember, the key to being productive isn’t to work more hours, but simply to get more done in the hours you have available to you.
Oh, and here’s that book I mentioned earlier. Seriously – it’s worth every single cent.