Entrepreneurs, freelancers, and even cubicle dwellers fight a common enemy – time management. Ever get to the office, open your email, blink and your day’s gone? Me too. That’s why I started a quest to find ways to save my day. Here are 5 tools & habits to help you in your battle to save your day.
1. Hey Superman, Where’s Clark?
If you’ve got even one entrepreneurial bone in your body, you’ve probably experienced those 48-hour hauls of straight coding to beat a deadline or all night design sessions to please a client. As invincible as you feel right now, it’s important to remember that your body does have limits (not to mention the fact that taking breaks might have given your body enough rest to finish the coding in 24 hours instead of 48). Sure we all know we should get up and send some blood to our legs every now and then, but does it happen? Regularly? Taking a moment every so often, (dare I say, hour?) to not work, will actually increase your productivity. But how to remember to pause…
Enter “Awareness” – http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/awareness/id435317534?mt=12
There are a plethora of screen-locking, pop-up generating, flat-out-annoying applications out there ready to remind you (and sometimes force you) to walk away from your 32” monitor for a few minutes every hour. The other day, a coworker suggested I check-out an app called Awareness – it’s designed to play the sound of a singing bowl (What’s a singing bowl? Checkout the video on the Awareness homepage.) every hour that you don’t take 5 minutes away. It recognizes keyboard and mouse use, and resets the timer if they sit idle for at least 5 minutes (timing is editable in the preferences). I love this app because if I’m in a groove, it lets me keep plowing through as the gentle humming dies down slowly. The bowl sound then rings again in another hour, helping to gently pressure me into thinking, “Man, I’ve already spent 2 hours on this… 3 hours… OK! 4 hours, that’s it I’m getting up.” It also helps me realize I’ve spent an entire hour on email and gotten nothing on my priority list done. Which, speaking of email…
2. Achieve “Inbox Zero”
The same friend who recommended Awareness also recommended I try out Sparrow email. Sparrow comes in a free ad-supported version and a paid ad-free version. I’m using the free version right now and love it. It’s designed to simplify Gmail beautifully to help “to get to inbox zero.” From my reading through the discussion forums in their support center, Sparrow can also support IMAP & Exchange, so Yahoo users are in luck, however it’s really designed to integrate seamlessly with Gmail accounts. What makes Sparrow special (and a great time-management tool) is its ability to push you through email quickly. The design of the windows, quick replies, and conversation view help me plow through my inbox much faster than when I’m staring at my clunky Gmail page.
3. Schedule Email Time – Instead of Letting Email Schedule Your Time
The problem is, just using a fancy, well-designed email application doesn’t necessarily save your day. So try this: schedule your email time. Seriously. Open your calendar app, set a recurring appointment no more than 3 times per day, dedicating 20 minutes with your inbox. In that 20 minutes, don’t let those emails send you running into a project. If an email reminds you of something you need to work on, open a new browser tab related to that project, then continue through your email. Then at the end of 20 minutes you’ll have a few tabs needing action and can prioritize your time looking at all of them, instead of responding to needs as they come in. (Which might leave your most important clients with the last 5 minutes of your day!)
The goal is to get through as many emails as you can in that 20 minutes. Don’t get distracted by fancy offers from AppSumo or bill reminders that lead you into catching up on your finances for an hour. Treat this as a dedicated appointment on your schedule with a client – email gets all of your focus for 20 minutes. That way email doesn’t get most of your focus all of your day.
4. Name Your Days
My brother taught me this trick. He’d look through what he had to do, then look ahead at his week and name his days based on his 5 biggest priorities. So if you’re a freelance photographer, maybe you’d look ahead and say
- Monday is “Marketing Monday”: time to catch up with my social followers, update my ads around town, in Google AdWords, etc.
- Tuesday and Saturday are “Photo-shoot Appointment Days”: go out and take some pictures!
- Wednesday is “Super Editing Wednesday”: just you, a gallon of coffee and Photoshop.
- Thursday is “Catch-up Thursday”: have more editing? How about a client that couldn’t do Tuesday or Saturday? This is the day for the extra stuff there wasn’t time for or that got added in later.
- Friday & Sunday are days off. Crucial to your sanity & longevity. See suggestion #1.
It’s important to leave some flexibility. Obviously, you don’t want to turn down business if the only day they can meet is Marketing Monday – take the appointment if necessary. But running your week with this structure will help guide your responses in conversations from something like, “Uh, ya we can meet whenever” to “I can do Tuesday, what time are you free?” See how much more professional that sounds? Plus, you just defended your focus time.
5. Focus on the Focus
A clean desk is a happy desk. Well, for most people. Some of us need a little bit of clutter to avoid distraction. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but, at least for me, it’s true. If everything is too orderly, I find myself staring at the wall for hours. Hence, high school homework being such a drag for me back in the day.
The point? Find your focus groove. Are you active and extroverted, needing something else going on around you so you can focus? Make the local coffee shop your office. It helps me tremendously to have that buzz around me, as long as it’s a buzz that doesn’t need my attention. Working from home doesn’t work at all for me because at any point a family member might have a question or need my help with something or just want a hug – all things I love doing, which means I gladly walk away from the project I was working on. Maybe a dead-quiet office with an empty desk, a single pencil and yellow pad are your best focus weapons. Whatever the case, figure out what environment contributes to your productivity the best, and hang out there 95% of your working time.
A little tag on suggestion #5 – music. Do you work better with it on or off? Loud our soft? I’ve read that if you do listen to music while working on any project involving writing or reading, instrumental music is the best option as there are no triggers to the linguistic part of your brain. However, some studies have shown that exciting, fast paced music helps people perform at higher levels than normal. Just be aware that music might feel good to have on while you work, but might actually be slowing you down.
Scott has a business degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with an emphasis in entrepreneurial studies. He works remote full-time (from various offices – home office, work office, Starbucks, his Jeep, etc.) trying to get the most out of his day as he spreads the word about HireAHelper and how much money they can save people who are moving. Help him spread the word by connecting on Twitter @hireahelper.
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