The Secret to Getting More Done When You Are Your Own Boss
Staying focused and productive when there’s no one around to hold you accountable can mean the difference between success and failure.
Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
Instead of writing this article when I had originally planned to, I folded my laptop shut and took a walk. I thought about what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it and who I would need to contact to help me accomplish this goal. I let my mind wander and not focus on the deadline and word count looming in the not-so-distant future.
Then, I grabbed a coffee, a seat at my co-working space and listed out the micro-goals I’d want to set for the day: Email experts, start an outline, condense my jumbled thoughts and research into a document no one will ever see, which somehow lowers the stakes of the task and makes me more mentally open to writing. These micro-tasks, which I can check off my to-do list with ease, feeling accomplished and ready for the next, larger one, are my favorite tactic for staying productive.
I wouldn’t be a full-time freelance writer if I didn’t love to write, but just as in any job, the skills and tasks and projects and assignments can become overwhelming, stressful and procrastination-inducing. Staring at the same screen during all daylight hours every weekday is exhausting, especially when a batch of looming deadlines for long-term projects hover in the future.
Everyone has their own tactics for maximizing productivity. I have a friend who is a digital assistant, starting work at five or six every morning so she knows she’ll be done shortly after lunch and can reward herself with an entire afternoon doing whatever she wants. Another friend, an entrepreneur, works a full-time job, and struggles to stay on task for her budding company after official business hours. And yet, she has found small tricks to work her passion project into a reality.
So even though everyone works differently, there are a few tactics, culled both from experts on human psychology as well as my own experience as a full-time freelancer, that really will help you boost your productivity and use your time efficiently.
Pick a dedicated workspace
Your bed is not your office. Neither is your bathtub or your favorite place on the couch to watch TV. Assign a specific workspace in your home, be it an entire extra room to use as an office, a corner of your kitchen table, a small foldable desk in your bedroom or a window ledge that can double as a laptop stand (in New York, I’ve seen my share of creative home office solutions, including a bedroom closet-turned-business center).
Having a place to work puts you in the mindset to focus and work. Viola Drancoli, a clinical psychologist based in New York has seen her clients “boost productivity by creating an environment that fosters space to think and creativity.” She advises de-cluttering, organizing and cleaning your workspaces to “think about and actively create the atmosphere you spend most of your working hours in.”
Hide that smartphone
The urge to see what’s new on Instagram stories or who liked the most recent article you shared to Facebook is real— social media has been proven to boost dopamine, also known as the happy chemical, on our brains when we get an alert or notification. But that inconsequential like isn’t helping you get your work done. And the temptation is taking away from your productivity.
“Having your phone in sight while you work reduces the cognitive resources that you can dedicate to the task that you're working on, a phenomenon known as brain drain,” says Itamar Shatz, a PhD candidate at Cambridge University and author of Solving Procrastination. “Essentially, even if you're not actively using your phone, simply knowing that it's there causes you to dedicate some of your mental resources to it, which reduces your ability to focus and work on the task at hand.”
Shatz points to research suggesting that the more distance you can put between yourself and your phone, the better. Put that phone somewhere you can’t see it, like a drawer or bag. “Furthermore, the more distance you create from it the better, so if there's a complicated task that you need to focus on for a long stretch of time, you could benefit even more from putting the phone in a different room entirely.”
Tackle big tasks first
Kicking off your day by checking off all the smaller to-dos on your list? Maybe give yourself a bigger challenge once the caffeine kicks in. “Research has shown that some changes in daily routines may help us deal with this permanent source of stress,” Dr. Drancolia says. She suggests moving important decisions to the beginning of the day to avoid “decision fatigue,” that is, the tendency for the quality of our decisions to decrease the more decisions we make in a row. Prioritize your most important task of the day, complete that one and keep riding on that momentum.
Stick to a schedule
Use one calendar and be consistent about it. Drancoli recommends scheduling every task or appointment on the calendar to “free up cognitive resources to tend to the ‘live feed’, the unexpected events, emails, etc. that pop-up during the work day.
For those who are not accountable to a manager or specific business hours, set them—you’ll stay on track and know when to quit working. “Having limits and setting boundaries is extremely important when it comes to work,” says New York-based psychotherapist Lucas Saiter. “Without them, work can start seeping into personal life, which ultimately results in a huge productivity loss.” An ultimate goal, like dinner plans or movie tickets, can help prevent procrastination and keep you on track.
Take short breaks
Designating some time to not work can be the best key to actually accomplishing the work you need to do. As a freelancer, I’ll take breaks at natural stopping points to shop for groceries, drop off my dry cleaning, work out and run other errands that I typically wouldn’t look forward to, but see them as a nice reprieve in my day of solo screen staring.
Drancolia encourages her clients to set a reminder on their phone at least once a day at the same time to check in with themselves for thirty seconds. “How are you sitting and breathing? Are your jaws tight? Your shoulders raised? Do you feel tense? If so you are probably overwhelmed,” she says. “Get up, get some fresh air, stretch. After a few weeks those check-ins become a routine. Mindfulness increases productivity.”
Schedule longer breaks
A few seconds of stretching or a trip for a coffee refill may be a nice reprieve, but take some serious time to reboot after working on a longer project or if you’re just feeling stuck. “Daydreaming fosters creativity, let your associations come up with out-of-the box solutions to problems that seem overwhelming,” Drancoli says. Going for a walk or just sitting outside can free up some brain space to forge through the rest of your day.
Make time to declutter your digital office
Most of the work you do is likely on a computer, meaning you don’t have ancient file cabinets amassing clutter, but your overpacked hard drive can still stress you out and distract you. Drancoli recommends dedicating time to clearing out your desktop, e-mail box, old documents and anything else you no longer need on your computer. This tactic helps you focus on what’s relevant when it comes time to work.
“Productivity is often compromised by an overwhelming amount of external stimuli, which makes it hard to focus and feel as though we make progress, which in turn decreases motivation and increases procrastination,” she says. “As widely discussed in the neurosciences, we are bombarded by information overload and we often attempt to deal with it by multitasking, which means increasing stress and decreasing productivity.”
On Fridays, when my week wraps up, I delete anything out of my downloads folder and Google Drive I’ll no longer need, ensure my calendar invites for the upcoming week are relevant and necessary and toss out any to-do lists that are mostly checked off, carrying over any pending tasks to the next week’s calendar.
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