Web entrepreneurs, especially those who work outside the confines of the traditional workspace, often have trouble managing their time.
This article proves 10 time-tested methods to get more work done than before AND free up the time we tend to ‘borrow’ from outside our work schedule.
These suggestions are work well for bloggers, entrepreneurs and especially anyone whose work routine needs to be flexible because of their family / social circumstances. The key is to integrate these habits into your daily routine, otherwise it’s not going to bring you any results.
These are general habits that set the foundation for increasing productivity and using your time effectively.
1. Time & Task Chunking
There are two things you must start doing right now:
- Think of the time available to you in ‘chunks’ or ‘blocks’.
- Group related tasks together, and assign them time chunks.
Working on related tasks in the same time chunk makes it possible for you to get through those tasks faster than you would otherwise as your mind becomes attuned to doing a specific type of task. You might have heard the tip on writing your blog posts for the week / day in one go – this works because once your writing juices get flowing, it’s easier for you to write that second and third article for the day / week.
Why time chunks? I’ve discussed in detail later, but in essence the idea is to a) break down your work day into manageable time periods (input, output or just processing) and b) help you concentrate better on your work.
2. Smarter Email Management
Ideally you should be checking email just once a day – however in practice this is a difficult habit to adopt from the start, so I recommend restricting yourself to 2 checks – once in the morning to deal with the urgent stuff and once in the evening to answer emails, etc.
Daniel has more on effective email management. A great tip from the article is to NOT read your emails unless you’re ready to deal with them (reply, take an action based on it, etc). Usually what happens is that we tend to read an email once and then don’t take action on it for a few hours (or days). That leaves an open loop in our work cycle – either you’ll keep being reminded of unfinished business by looking at that unattended email or you’ll have it floating around in your head.
Only read an email if you’re ready to take immediate action on it. This is why I suggest splitting your email checking time into two steps – urgent and regular processing. Scan email headlines to pick out urgent matters and discipline yourself to leave the rest for later, when you can go through each email and deal with it there and then.
A last word on email – learn to write emails that deal with such simple follow-up questions as ‘what if this happens?’ or ‘how do I do that?’. Close possible loops by discussing alternative scenarios and solutions, as well as providing references in advance in case someone needs to know how to do a particular task.
3. Say No To Feed Abuse
Earlier this year I wrote an article on Search Engine Journal on why you should dump 90% of the feeds you read. At that time, I was spending 2-4 hours every day just browsing through feeds, and at the end of it I’d have so much in my head that I would find it difficult to sift through the unimportant stuff and focus my thoughts on the important, bloggable material.
Since then, I’ve dumped my feed reader altogether. I now rely on 2 types of news sources – editorially-aggregated news (a good example of this is the Search Engine Land’s SearchCap) and my network of contacts who end up emailing / IMing me the the hottest news. I wouldn’t make a living as a news blogger this way but in terms of ‘winning back’ time that can be invested elsewhere, this approach is an absolute must.
You don’t have to dump your feed reader, but cut down to reading aggregated roundups of your niche (and if there isn’t anyone doing that currently, that’s a perfect opening for you in that niche).
4. Downtime = Networking?
Schedule some downtime for your self during the day – afternoon is a good slot, so is late night after you’re done with everything else (including planning for the next day). By downtime I’m not talking about taking a break, I’m talking about indulging yourself in IMing and random web browsing – putting aside time for IMing is one way to get the most out of the exercise, especially because the short time forces you to do the important things first (including networking, of course).
Some people will disagree with this approach, and I admit that I’m quite often online all day, if only because these days me and Ryan are coordinating a few Perf projects. In such cases I’m only available to chat for one or two people and with everyone else, I’ll have to wait till the important stuff gets done first. It’s hard but it’s the only way to eliminate the distractions that get in our way and stop us from getting work done.
5. ‘Heavy Lifting’
Set aside time daily for some heavy lifting – i.e. intensive work. You don’t have to do this at the same time every day (although in terms of building your rhythm and improving productivity that surely helps) but you should allocate the same amount of hours to it every day.
The ideal solution for me is to have two ‘heavy lifting’ chunks – one in early / late morning and the other either late afternoon or early evening (never at night). This allows me to start the day off by getting a good chunk of my work complete, and before the day is over I’ve done everything for that day, giving me time to enjoy the rest of the day and obviously plan for the next day ahead of time as well.
6. Input / Output / Processing
I’ve started thinking of a typical work cycle as 3 distinct phases.
- Input: Any task that involves the intake of information. Browsing, feed-reading, etc are input-oriented activities.
- Output: Any task that involves you producing something – blogging, programming, designing, etc.
- Processing: When you’re dealing with ideas, knocking off action items, planning for the next day or evaluating progress.
In practice, you want to limit your inputs to the ‘absolutely necessary’ and maximise your output. Most of the time we spend our day the other way around – reading a lot and doing / writing very little. In terms of achieving your goals, that’s a brain-dead approach – why would take up any habit where you’re deliberately limiting the amount of work you can get done?
Sometimes people don’t segregate processing from their input / output states. I disagree – it’s vital that you set aside time for processing your inputs as well as for planning what needs to be done in the future. The processing phase is key to giving your perspective on what you’ve done, what you want to do next and how to get that done.
Like the concepts earlier, thinking of your work cycle in terms of these 3 phases will help you focus on why you’re doing certain tasks and therefore help you get the most out of your time.
WHEN WORKING / HEAVY LIFTING
The 6 tips mentioned above concern basic habits. From #1 and #5, you’ll remember the concepts of time chunking and heavy lifting. The rest of this article concerns tips on how to make the most out of your working time, especially the time when you need to be 110% productive.
7. Stay Offline
Turn off your browser, your IMs, etc. If you’re blogging and need access to feeds, open all the required web pages in your browser and then disconnect.
There are two major problems when you’re online and blogging / writing / programming / strategising at the same time: one, you have the option of distracting yourself, and two, you’re leaving yourself open to the possibility of being distracted by someone / something else (a news item popping up in your feed reader, an email).
I can hear you saying – ‘what if its important?’ Sure, it probably is, but you’re smart enough to know that the work you’re supposed to be doing is certainly important, while something that you might miss in those 3-4 hours is most likely not important. You’re most likely not missing much by going offline, but you’re definitely losing a lot by dividing your attention.
Of course, there are obvious exceptions. However for 95% of us, those exceptions are just theoretical (we’re not as special, essential or important as we like to think).
8. Turn Off Your Phone
I don’t know about you, but phone interruptions are the worst when I’m blogging. Whether it’s a message or a call, even the one minute it takes to shift focus from one thing to the other and then bringing it back can have you lose your momentum, pushing you back by 5-10 minutes or more.
Turn your phone off, or at least on silent and train yourself to ignore the phone. When blogging, check your phone between blog posts if you absolutely must, not during.
What if it’s an emergency? Like I said earlier, our imagination paints the world far worse than it really is. In case of an emergency and especially if there is a real need for you, the person looking for you will find a way to contact you. In any case, keeping two numbers (one for social and professional contacts, one for close friends and family) allows you to turn one off and then you can decide to ignore the second one. This only works if implement it properly and make it clear that the second number is only for emergency use. Drastic, yes, but since you’re only going to be doing this for a few hours each day, it’s worth it.
At the end of the day, us ADD-affected entrepreneurs need every little bit of help they can get.
9. Be Alone While Working
Admittedly this is more of a personal issue – I feel that I cannot work at my best, with full concentration, if someone else is around in the room. From getting distracted by what they’re doing to feeling the urge to strike up pointless conversation, I tend to get very little done when there are people around.
To get the most work done, find a quite spot where you can be alone. If that’s not possible, try ensuring that your immediate physical area is clear and free of distractions.
If all else fails, chain yourself to the desk and lock yourself in the room until you get work done.
When faced with a project, nothing ruins it more than having a deadline far into the future. Break your projects down into smaller, bite-sized tasks and set impossibly short deadlines for getting them done. You’ll find that not only do you psychologically motivate yourself into getting things done quicker, you’re probably doing less work than you would if you approached it as a large chunk and set aside weeks or months to get it done.
Process each project, break it down, and get it done as quickly as possible.
(Bonus) 11. One Thing At A Time
This part is especially for those people who claim to be multi-taskers. I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing as multi-tasking.
- If you plan your work in advance, you’ll never be rushed enough that you need to do 2 things at the same time.
- And if you concentrate on one thing and get it done before moving to the second, you’ll get both of them done faster than if you tried to ‘multi-task’.
If you’ve lived all your life multi-tasking, it’s possible that you’ve achieved some success because of that approach. Unfortunately, multi-tasking is an emergency, short-term response to a failure of planning and a product of panic. It slows you down, and as a long-term strategy it’s just stopping you from planning your tasks properly.
Multi-tasking forces you to be inefficient and unproductive. Don’t fall into / stay in this trap.
Summing It Up
I hope you found the above tips useful. Following any one of these tips will immediately boost your productivity, but when you start applying several of them together is when you will see the real benefits – these tips were far better in tandem than they do on their own.
Comments are welcome.
Also read: 10 Tips for Razor Sharp Concentration.
This article was originally written on 21 Dec 2007 for Performancing.com.