Due to the primary nature of my vocation, but more especially because of the way I established and kept my software company, I tend to do a lot of work behind a bank of computer screens alone in an office. As a self-employed professional, my livelihood (and really, the livelihood of my family) depends on my ability to maintain a certain level of productivity despite persistent distractions from the Internet, the real world around me, and even my own mind wandering off onto undirected brainstorming tracks. Here are 5 of the tricks, 5 keys I use to maintain productivity in isolation.
OCD the Office
I find it’s important to work in an environment clear of clutter. Clutter, meaning the “fill” or littering of “things” in a disorderly manner around your workstation, is the first sign of a disorganized worker. And a disorganized worker is a less efficient worker. Is it the clutter that leads to inefficiency, perhaps because of the myriad distractions around you or the time required to find any particular thing out of the things, or is it rather that imprecision leads to both clutter and inefficiency? I don’t know the causal connection for sure, although I have my theories. However, I’m confident there’s a high correlation.
To improve your efficiency, de-clutter. When working, I often if not always find myself needing to spread out a set of papers or have multiple programs open simultaneously. The key is to keep this spread constrained to the project at hand. When done, either when the project is completed or when moving on a different type of work, clean-up your desktops (both virtual and physical). If done as a normal pattern, the clutter never piles up.
Track Work Time
This is a really simple and yet powerful way to develop efficiency through focus improvement. Find some easy and convenient way to track your work time. There are a host of free computer programs out there to help, but you could use something as simple as a spreadsheet or a piece of paper. It doesn’t so much matter as long as you’re tracking what you do and for roughly how long. Be honest with yourself. Nobody is reviewing your work log except you. So if you got distracted with Facebook for the past 45 minutes, log it.
After you’ve mastered this habit and have collected a couple weeks worth of daily activity logs, review them. You should see patterns, some good and some poor. With this data in hand, you’ll be able to change poor patterns and expand good patterns.
Remove Distractive Opportunities
If you get distracted with social media, instant messaging, news or financial market data (this one is my nemesis), or even email, remove the distractions. Now, that seems rather too simplistic a bit of advise, but here’s what I mean: Back when I was working in the corporate shared office environment, my Overlords mandated I used Outlook. By default, Outlook will pop-up a little message that read, “Hey, you have email from so-and-so, and here’s the subject line and first few words of the email.” This is the same pattern we in the movie industry use for previews to get people to go see a film. Outlook was advertising a distraction to me. As a manager, I got a lot of emails every day, which means I got a lot of advertisements for distraction all during the work day. Is it no surprise that I like many others found it easier to get real work done early in the morning or late in the evening when most others were offline?
Create a Comfortable Workstation
Back when I was working for my corporate Overlords, I often found myself in a cubical with minimal desk space. Even when I had offices, they usually didn’t include much desk space. If I was lucky, I’d have one small whiteboard on a back wall somewhere. I might have only one monitor. At one company, because I was a manager, I used a laptop and virtually nothing else. I worked under florescent lights. To spend any significant amount of time doing real work meant being hunched over a small keyboard. My upper back would hurt. My wrists would hurt. My brain would hurt.
Fast-forward to now. I have a huge bank of monitors wrapped around me, but they’re all at exactly the right height so my back and neck can remain straight all day. My keyboard is designed to keep my wrists at a natural angle. The lighting in the office is soft and unflickering.
Before I started working out of my home-office, I suffered from frequent severe headaches. It would be a real struggle to work more than about 9 hours a day, and those last couple of hours would be almost worthless. Now, I get really bad headache quite rarely, and I can work 12-hour days where the last 2 hours are as productive as any of the others.
Schedule Work Off To-Do Lists
This is a trick I picked up from Lifehacker, I think. Despite not using Gmail except only very rarely, I started using Gmail’s Task List a couple years ago and have grown to find it impossible to live without. I even got my wife hooked on it. Using the canvas view, it’s insanely easy, intuitive, and fast to use. It just works and gets out of your way.
There are many different ways to organize tasks, but here’s what I do: I have a “Today” list (which, shockingly, contains tasks I expect to complete that day). I have a “Tactical” list that contains sets of tasks organized by week. As in, what I expect to complete this week, next week, and so on for about 4 weeks in advance. And finally, I have a “Strategic” list that contains longer-term goals, things like 1-year and 5-year goals.
Each morning, I review my Tactical list and build my Today list. The Today list is never more than about 20% bigger than what I think I can actually accomplish. I want to push myself but not overwhelm myself.
Then, and here’s the key part of the trick: Each item in the Today list gets a time slot for the day. I’m going to work on “answering all my email” from 1:30 PM to 2:15 PM. Simple, right? The beauty of this approach is that now I can give myself permission to close my email client if it’s becoming too much of a distraction. I’m not going to answer email all across the day, which results in breaking up my work-flow and destroying any hope of efficient productivity.
I’m sure there are many more tricks I use not listed here, and I’m sure there are even more I haven’t thought of yet. But these are certainly the big ones for me. And hey, this is a blog, so you get what you pay for, right?