In a previous post I explained why multitasking is impairing your productivity and efficiency and suggested turning off notifications on your devices.
I know this may be easier said than done. We don’t want to miss important calls from a prospective customer or an urgent question from a team member. So, how to go about it?
Here are 3 steps that’ll help you work around this problem:
Ask yourself the question: What is the time of day with the least calls or disruptions? This could mean dealing with kids at home, answering calls from your team or customers, you name it.
This time with the least disruptions is your focus time, time to work on your complex and important projects or tasks. Turn off notifications on all your devices or set them on flight mode, turn off everything that would distract you, and yes, that means TV and radio, and get to work.
Everything that will land in your inbox or on your voicemail will be attended to after your focus time.
Last but not least, don’t allow anybody to “steal” this time from you (emergencies excluded of course). Inform your team, your colleagues, or your family that you’ll be offline for x-amount of time and available afterwards.
I know, it’s far more difficult with kids. But even with kids there are periods in your day during which they won’t need you. Maybe you have to be more flexible. Maybe you have to limit your focus time to 20 minutes instead of one hour. Whatever time you can carve out make sure you use it well.
Remember, there is no such thing as perfect, but there is always the best we can do.
We made it to part 3 (here are part 1 and part 2), the part that is in fact a constant work in progress: developing and cultivating good (work) habits. Especially during very busy times or at times when motivation is a little low in supply, they can be a lifesaver.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
Since we’re focusing on good work habits, that’s exactly what we’d like to achieve. We aim for minimal effort to get something going or help us getting over a hump. Yes, I do realize that habits also have a dark side, but for the purpose of this blog let’s focus on the positive ones.
How do you go about cultivating good work habits? As the word “cultivating” implies, it takes time, effort and experimentation. You start off with a strategy or idea and over time you learn if it’s working for you or not. You may get tips from others, observe others how they do something or deal with a situation, or you read about it. In some cases, you’ll know right away what won’t work for you. Perfect. This saves you time, so don’t even bother. In other cases, you have to try to find out if this suggestion suits you, and tweak it a bit to make it yours.
What it actually comes down to is that you really have to get to know yourself, the flow of your day, situations that may throw you off, and all the other little sneaky things that keep you from doing what you should or need to do.
Cultivating good work habits isn’t a skill, it’s a practice.
Planning Your Day
One of my most crucial habits is planning my day. My preferred way is to plan the next day the night before. Sometimes that doesn’t work, so I do it before I start my day in the office. I noticed, however, that when I do it the night before I get up in the morning and already have a plan. It just feels good to visualize the day ahead, know where I have to be when, and what I would like to have done by the end of it.
Insights & Actions
In one of my previous blogs I mentioned that at the end of most days I take a moment to check in and see what worked and what didn’t. I call it “Insights & Actions.” By doing so I discovered what my most productive environment looks like, when I’m getting things done, but also when I struggled to finish or do my work. I include these insights in my planning.
The Most Difficult Task
If I have something that I find difficult to do, I try to get it out of the way as early as possible in the day. Good-bye procrastination. By getting it done right away I feel good about having tackled a difficult task, but, maybe even more importantly, I also avoided allowing it to become a “bigger” problem, at least in my head. A win-win!
I have also started using my calendar in a better way. Why do I mention this? Stay with me, I’ll explain. To keep track of my tasks I use Microsoft To Do. Each morning I go through “My Day” and check the things I plan on doing. That includes quick things like calling someone or checking on the status of something, but it also includes all my projects such as redesigning my website, doing research for and writing my next blog. What it doesn’t show is the amount of timeI may need for the individual tasks. That was a BIG problem for me. The number of tasks I wanted to tackle per day was simply unrealistic. After I started blocking chunks of time in my calendar for the bigger projects, I got much better at estimating what I can accomplish each day. A tiny change with a huge impact.
Dressed for the Occasion
In order to be able to focus on your work, it is helpful to have everything ready before you start. Like a chef who prepares his workstation and has all ingredients handy before he starts cooking, putting everything in place for the work you intend to do avoids distractions. I’m talking about files, documents, notepaper, pen, something to drink, you name it. It’ll cost you precious time, for example, if you have to search for a specific document in the middle of your work. The same idea can be applied when you are finished with something. I still remember that I was turning my office upside down in search of a document I hadn’t filed away after a conference call. I had buried it under a pile of paper totally unrelated and it took me quite some time to dig it up again.
The Myth of Multitasking
Multitasking is an interesting concept, at least when used in connection with humans. Women are supposedly much better at it than men. Unfortunately, this is a myth. Multitasking is a concept from the computer world and should stay there. We, as humans, usually do a lousy job if we try. We either sacrifice our attention or the quality of our work if we attempt it. What does this have to do with good work habits? It’s simple. If you work on a complex task or need to focus on something a good work habit is to eliminate distractions.
Lack of Motivation
What can you do if you lack motivation? Do you need a break? Would calling a friend help you? You most likely know other solopreneurs or “home workers.” Go ahead, call someone and ask for a little pep-talk. If you can afford the time, do something else on your To Do list. I’m sure there is something on it that’ll kick you into gear again. Move your body, exercise, take a walk around the block, do your laundry, turn on music, do some jumping jacks.
A friend of mine rewards herself with a good book, a coffee, a movie, something fun after she has finished a specific task.
And sometimes you have no other choice but bite the bullet and do it, whether you feel like it or not. Sounds familiar? Then you may know Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art.” If you don’t know it, it is “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” according to Esquire.
Before I come to the end, there is one more habit I’d like to mention: batching. Batch similar tasks. It’s much easier for the brain and needs less energy. As an example, don’t pay invoices or enter a payment each time you receive one. Wait until you have a couple, and do them all at once. If you have to make a bunch of calls, schedule a time to do them all. If you need to find images for your blog and/or newsletter… you get the idea.
Now let’s wrap this up for today. I mentioned a couple of habits you may consider trying out. If you do, be consistent. Give it some time (I’m not talking about days, I’m talking about weeks!). Ask yourself along the way, what works and why and what doesn’t and why. These answers will hold the information you’ll need to find and cultivate your own best habits.
A good time to look at your habits and routines is when you or your business undergo change. The questions to ask are: Do these routines or habits still serve and support me? Is there a better or easier way to do it?
And with this, I am turning this over to you. Do you have proven habits or routines you swear by? Please let us know.
In part 1 of this two-part series “Make Working from Home Work for You” I talked about
The importance of your workspace and work environment,
Suggestions on how to combat loneliness while working from home
And some essential tools and/or technologies for your home office
This week I’ll cover the more subtle problems of working from home. The ones that we face every day, that are easily overlooked, and that may cost us dearly, even if we don’t want to admit it. Here they are:
Knowing your goals and planning your days
Building your own good work habits
Knowing Your Goals and Planning Your Days
It sounds simple enough and straight forward: know your goals. But more often than not that is exactly what many, especially solopreneurs and creative people, tend to lose sight of in the course of their everyday work. There are so many ideas, so many things to do. We better roll up our sleeves and get started. Or should we?
Getting caught up in the everyday happens fast. It’s the little things that sneak in and eat our time. Think of your email inbox. You may be expecting an important email. You look for it and you respond, but that’s not where you stop, or do you? I at least didn’t. Without even thinking I continued with the remaining emails and, two hours later, am surprised that the morning is gone despite the fact that I wanted to do something else.
Whatever your little sneaky time thieves are, stop them. The only way to do so is to know what your goal(s) are. If you don’t know, you won’t make the time. Write your goals down, vet them and make sure they align with your business and values. Break them down into projects, break the projects down into manageable tasks. It’s your roadmap to bringing your ideas and goals to life. Keep this list close and check it daily to make sure you’re staying on track.
That brings me to part two: planning your days. My daily planning is divided into two parts: part one is meetings, conference calls, etc.; part two are the “non-negotiables.” I don’t think I have to explain how meetings and calls end up in my calendar. But I’d like to spend a couple of words on the “non-negotiables.”
Non-negotiables are appointments I make with myself. These are time blocks I dedicate to projects I’m working on. Every day I pick at least one of my major projects and dedicate a certain amount of my time to work at it. I choose a time that allows me to bring the most energy and best circumstances to this work. That could mean picking a time of day when I’m usually undisturbed and which is quiet, or I arrange it that way (thanks flight mode). I set a timer that reminds me when “my time is up.” This way it’s up to me to continue or just finish what I’m working on.
Another equally important non-negotiable, for example, is my daily Yoga practice and meditation and my martial arts training twice a week.
Lastly, if possible, I reserve Fridays for “housekeeping” stuff that I didn’t get to during the week, planning the week ahead, bookkeeping… you get the idea.
What I found by putting everything in my calendar is that I get a more realistic picture of the use of my time. If I need much longer for a particular task, I adjust my calendar entry and keep it in mind for future time approximation. Very helpful.
Having said that, I don’t plan 100% of my day. I always leave generous blocks of time empty. Don’t be a miser here. You’ll thank yourself when life throws unexpected stuff at you. If it does, at least you have the flexibility to deal with it without feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. Or, as a best-case scenario, you have some additional time on your hands. I’m sure you have no problem coming up with something to do. There’s already enough stress and “catching up” in our lives; don’t add to it.
This is the perfect segway into the next topic:
I know it from own experience, heard it from peers, and read quite often about the fact that we as entrepreneurs or solopreneurs tend to forget to take breaks. The moment we have a free minute we start thinking what we can do to get another action item off of our To Do list.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with working hard to build or grow your business. Working hard only turns into a problem when you forget to take care of yourself, your family and your friends.
Like a battery needs time to recharge, your body and brain need time to recharge as well. Without rest you can’t expect to be at your best. You need enough sleep, food that energizes you, exercise that keeps you in shape. I know, you’ve heard it before, it’s old news. But especially in difficult and demanding times, when we actually need it the most, we readily throw these basics out the window.
We scarify time with our partner or with our kids for our business. We don’t take the time to be with friends. For a little while that’s not a problem. But it may turn into one if you stretch this time out too long. Your relationships suffer and so do you.
Step away from your desk and have a coffee or lunch with a friend or your partner. Play with your kids for a while. Call your mom and have a quick chat. It’ll take your mind off work, you give yourself a break, you reconnected with a friend, or it’ll make you feel good for having spent time with your kid(s). The result will be to return afterwards with more energy and often new ideas.
What is even more worrisome is sacrificing ourselves, or more precisely, not taking care of ourselves for the benefit of spending more time in and on our business. We tend to forget that self-care is the fuel for our body and our mind which in turn impacts our performance. It’s the little things during the day that you could do.
A no-brainer for me is not to have your lunch or any other meal at your computer or desk. It’ll ensure that you know what and how much you’re eating, a plus for those amongst us who watch their weight, and you can “check out” for a little while. You may want to leave your phone at your desk to resist the temptation to check for emails, text messages, social media and the like. Enjoy your food instead and take a break.
Exercise. Whatever you enjoy doing, the operative word here is enjoy, do it. No excuses. Go to the gym, go for a walk, work in your yard, dance, practice yoga, whatever rocks your boat. I love my Taekwondo classes and Yoga. There is no better way for me to clear my head or work out any frustration (pun intended). Especially when I’m struggling with a difficult problem stepping away from it, doing something totally unrelated, gets my creative juices flowing. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and in the middle of that conversation, for no reason whatsoever, an idea strikes you that’s unrelated to the conversation but the solution to a problem you’ve struggled with? Has that ever happened to you?
Even if you can’t take or afford a vacation, there are so many things you can do without spending a lot of money that provide a change of scenery or a new experience that’ll help you recharge, feel more energized, and get your creative juices flowing. Your work and business will thank you for it.
Let’s take a break here. I thoroughly underestimated how much I would write about “knowing your goals and planning” and “taking a break.” I’ll move “building good work habits” to my next blog. I hope you don’t mind.
If you have any experience or suggestions to the above, please share it. I’d love to learn more and I’m sure others appreciate a reminder, a suggestion or word of wisdom as well.
Last year I wrote a blog about working from home. I described a couple of situations that may arise testing your productivity and ultimately your success. Since then I dug a bit deeper, did some research, and had more conversations with people who have first-hand experience on the work-from-home front. I learned about their set up, their tools, what kind of problems they deal with, how they avoid distractions, how they stay motivated, and what they learned along the way to stay productive and, yes, happy as well.
Since there is quite a lot to cover, I decided to split this topic into two parts. Part 1 will focus on:
The importance of your workspace and work environment
How to combat loneliness while working from home
What tools and/or technologies support you
And part 2 will focus on:
Knowing your goals and planning your days
Taking breaks is important but easily forgotten
Building your own good work habits
Of course, it very much depends on your personality and your type of work, what problems or challenges you may face. So, let’s have a look and talk about ways to deal with them. The following suggestions may not be the (ideal) solution for you, but I hope they’ll inspire you to try and test them, experiment with your own ideas so that you’ll find out what works best for you.
1. The importance of your workspace and work environment
For some it is a no-brainer, for others it may be a revelation, that your workspace and work environment should support you, inspire you, and make you want to spend time there. It should be designed for the work you want and/or need to do and be free of interruptions and distractions. It should allow you to concentrate, be free of distractions and have undisturbed video conferences, phone calls, or whatever you need to do on a regular basis. Everything should be right at hand so that you can focus on your work instead of tools, technology, materials etc.
You don’t want to go chasing for a quiet space or a stable internet connection shortly before an important video call. This would be stressful and may have a negative impact on the conversation you’re going to have.
2. How to combat loneliness while working from home
As much as you may love not having to commute, at times you may feel very lonely working from home. There is nobody to chat with, go to lunch with, bounce an idea off, have a cup of coffee with when you are stuck, or ask about a movie or a game.
The typical recommendation to this problem is a coworking space. Yep, that may be one solution if you find the right coworking space. Right in terms of location, right in terms of people, and right in terms of how much it cost. But there are other options.
Another very common suggestion is the café. However, this comes with a caveat. Usually cafés are noisy places with lots of distractions. If you can’t block out the noise and distraction you won’t be very productive (noise-cancelling headphones come to mind). You also may fight over the few power outlets or feel guilty because you sit there for several hours and only consume a café latte. In short, you trade one evil for another. If you happen to know a nice, quiet café ignore what I have just said.
Moving to the next option. One article I read suggested to start a Meet-up group and arrange coworking days once or twice a week at a convenient location. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like an idea worth pursuing. The issue here could be finding a suitable location especially if we are talking about a group.
This brought the idea to my mind that you could ask other home workers if they would like to “co-work” once or twice a week. Two or three people are much easier to accommodate in a café. If you have found the right people for your co-working day(s) you may even invite them to your home if you have enough room.
Have you considered checking out your local library? It’s a quiet place, distractions are at a minimum, and libraries have desks or tables to work at. Could that be an alternative to working at home?
If you have any other ideas, please share them so that other “home workers” can benefit from them.
3. What tools and/or technologies support you
Tools and/or technology are also a big part of supporting you when working from home and connecting with the world. It is no secret that there are a myriad of tools, apps, and programs out there with the intention of making your life and work easier, faster and more productive. And that is why a word of caution may be in order. Don’t fall into the trap of having to try each and every one. Before you make a decision, if that decision is up to you, take some time to gain a clear picture of what kind of tool is really useful for your particular situation. Don’t be afraid to ask others about their experience and why they chose one app, program or tool over another. If you have narrowed down the options, do your own research, look at You Tube demos and check out trial versions if available. Then, make your decision. It may take a bit of time to find the perfect solution, but it will pay off in the long term.
As a simple example, some people love an electronic calendar that synchronizes with their phone, others still prefer a paper version. If you have a choice, pick the one that you feel most comfortable with and that’s easy to use. Just because something looks nice, is new and fancy doesn’t mean it’s meant for you. I’ll come back to the calendar in part 2 of my blog. It’s a simple but also important tool when it comes to your planning.
After this short detour, let’s get a little more specific. I do believe it’s a no-brainer to have a reliable phone and computer. Remember, it’s your work that’s on the computer and you don’t want to lose any of it just because it dies at a critical moment.
A stable internet connection is also mandatory, especially if you make video calls.
Since we are talking about video communication… It’s one of the most recommended services and tools for “home workers”. I don’t know anyone who is working from home who doesn’t use a video communication tooI/service. It doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings, but it certainly makes working together much easier. You can have team meetings, client meetings, share your screen, record conversations, give presentations, or simply reach out and have a chat with someone to keep in touch with. Especially if you’re working in a team that’s scattered all over the country video communication is always mentioned as being a vital tool. Team members feel more connected and build stronger relationships which usually translate into better cooperation and work results. I couldn’t agree more.
There are a couple of video communication tools/services that I used over the years. I’m now mostly working with Zoom because it is well known, has a calendar add-in for scheduling purposes, has a recording option, is easy to use, and it works. Other tools/services are Skype, WhatsApp, JoinMe, Telegram, Duo, Facetime, to mention just a few. Depending on your needs, pick the one that works for you.
How do you keep track of your action items and projects? Do you know when you should reach out to a client or customer and follow up on a proposal? Are you part of a team that needs to stay informed and on the same page or are you a solopreneur and keep all threads in your own hands? Like with video communication there are many tools to choose from. Some are more designed for one-person use and others are designed for teams.
Most of the time I keep control over my action items and use a simple task manager such as Microsoft To Do, Wunderlist, Things, Todoist. They are intuitive and simple to use, exactly what I like about them. I have them on my phone and on my desktop, which allows me to add action items whenever I need to. No lost notes anymore, everything is in one place and always accessible.
If you prefer a paper version you could use the Bullet Journal method, Filofax, or any of the systems available in office supply stores or online. The market for analog productivity tools has exploded over the last couple of years and offers a huge variety. Every single one claims it will help you get better organized and keep track of your work and tasks. It sounds a little bit like a miracle cure. Keep in mind that it’s still up to you to use it and make it work aka keep it easy and simple.
If you are part of a team determine what exactly you would like a cooperation management tool or project management tool to do for you and your team. This is not my strong suit and I only know a few such as Trello, Asana, Basecamp and ZOHO. But if I had to decide which one to use, I would ask around, watch online demos, and test-run the ones that fulfil my requirements and are easy to use.
I know I said it many times, but ease of use is always the highest priority for me. I want all the tools, programs and apps I use to support me and make my life easier – not the contrary.
If you have found a system, tool or app that works for you, keep it. There is truth in saying never change a running system. Except if you absolutely have to.
Having said that, change is the most reliable constant in life. Your work or work environment may change. That’s a great moment to check in with your habits (more about habits in part 2 as well), tools and systems. Do they still serve you or is it time to have a closer look and make some changes?
That’s it for today. If you have any wisdom to share, please do so. I’ll continue with part 2 of “Make Working from Home Work for You” in two weeks. Until then,