Self-employed means being free, right? Nobody tells you what to do, or when to do it. You decide for yourself. But is it really always as great as it sounds?
Because with great freedom comes great responsibility. If no one else organizes your work day for you, there’s only one person left: yourself. You have to navigate through a real minefield of productivity traps so that by the end of the day you’ve done what you need to do. Otherwise, you’ll carry work stress into the rest of your day. And that’s not good for you or your personal life.
That’s why you’ll find a few simple tricks in this article on how to structure your working day and make it productive.
Structure your day when working from home
As a self-employed person you can work whenever you want—but that’s not always an advantage. Because if you can work at any time, then you’re always mentally ready for it. On the flip side, you’re always on call and can never really switch off.
- Set fixed “office” hours that work best for you. It’s important to know yourself and what works best. Choose the time of day when you’re most productive. That might be early in the morning or late in the evening, it’s up to you. As long as you overlap at some point with your customers and clients, the bulk of your work can be at your own ideal time.
- Set a goal for each day. Plan your day and decide which task you want to do at what time. Horror grandmaster Stephen King always writes 2000 words for his new book in the morning—no more and no less. He uses the afternoon for other tasks such as research.
- Take regular breaks. With all the productivity you shouldn’t forget one thing: regular breaks. Even if time is money and you work for yourself. Because if you are exhausted and unfocused, the quality of your work suffers—and your customers don’t like to see that.
- Make sure your work day actually ends. We all have deadlines and special projects that might take longer than usual. But such situations should be the exception, not the rule. If you’ve done your work for the day and fulfilled your “office hours,” make sure you really sign off and turn off at the end of the day, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.
Keep your work and personal life separate
Years ago when people worked in traditional offices, it was much easier to set work/life boundaries. When you arrived at work in the morning, you’d be at work. In the evening you go home and you’d be at home. Not much room for confusion or interpretation there.
But nowadays the boundary is blurry, and that’s especially true for self-employed people. Especially if you work and live in the same place. Some people feel like they’re at work all day and can never really switch off. Like the New Yorker cartoon with the guy who says, “I can’t remember—do I work at home or do I live at work?”
- Set aside a separate, productive space. It’s tempting to sit on the couch with your laptop on while the TV chatters in the background. So create a place that you explicitly dedicate to your work. Ideally, you should have an office or a workshop at home. If you don’t, it’s not a broken leg. Then you just sit at the kitchen table with your laptop or go to a café – as long as the couch stays free.
- Get yourself into “work mode.” Shower, get out of your pjs, or even use a special “work” coffee mug. Even if there’s no one there to see your outfit, these mental reminders can get you in the right focused mood and subconsciously help you get in the groove. (Check out more Project Management Hack for Self-Employed People here).
- Avoid home chores during working hours. It’s really hard to resist the temptation to multitask with home chores while you’re working. Of course, vacuuming or laundry is also “work”. But not your job. Ban such activities from your working hours and instead concentrate entirely on the job with which you earn your bread.
Distractions are a curse…
Bling! A new email in your inbox. Brrr, brrr, the phone vibrates with a text message. And that song on the radio is really nice, isn’t it? Haven’t heard that one for a long time!
Today there are as many distractions as sand in the sea—and that has real consequences: According to Gloria Mark from the University of California in Irvine, it can take up to 23 minutes to find your way back to your task after a distraction. This adds up to a lot of lost productivity throughout the day.
- Say “no” to your smartphone. Mute it, turn on flight mode, or hide it in another room. Don’t pick it up with every new message. If you’ve worked hard over a period of time – for example, an hour – you can see if you’ve missed something important.
- The same applies to emails. Not every email needs to be read and answered immediately. Check your emails regularly but not constantly.
- Reduces ambient noise. No matter if street noise or the neighbor’s radio – some acoustic distractions can’t be turned off easily. In such cases, noise-reducing headphones can help. Some also like to listen to music themselves in order to create their own productive soundscape. What works best depends entirely on you.
- Clean up your work space. Your desk doesn’t have to look like it’s clean as a whistle, but at least there shouldn’t be anything on it to distract you. Once you’ve paid a bill, file it. In any case, you shouldn’t feel the urge to dig through piles of paper every few minutes just to see that everything is done.
- Forget multitasking – it’s a myth. Studies have found that the human brain is unable to perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously. In fact, attention is constantly shifting from one activity to another, which ultimately reduces memory performance. So concentrate on one thing and don’t try to juggle several.
…but can also be a blessing for creativity
After we just demonized distractions in the previous paragraph, here comes an exception. As new studies have found, “good” distraction can actually help with creative tasks. If you are too focused on a particular approach, you can get stuck mentally. A distraction can help you think of new solutions. It’s no surprise that many famous inventors claim they got the best ideas when they didn’t think about the problem at all—in the bathtub, on a walk, or even while dreaming.
Set up a home office that works for you
Without a structured and productive working day, independence can quickly drift into chaos. It is therefore important to start the day with a plan. How detailed you elaborate this plan and how slavishly you adhere to it is your decision. Which amount of planning works best for you is up to you – after all, you are the boss.