This Past Year Was Somewhat of a Rollercoaster.
It was the most profitable year in my 10 years of working for myself, but it was also the most taxing on me physically and mentally. A few months back, I began thinking about the good and the bad, what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to wash my hands of in 2020.
There are only so many hours in a day. I used to think working 12-16 hours was the key to growing my business, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Being burned out and exhausted both creatively and physically is not a healthy business plan. I am thankful I learned this through experience, and plan to never go back there. I decided to do an audit of sorts of how I was utilizing my time and what I was focusing on as far as work. I realized that on any given 12 hour work day I was only productive about half the time.
Dwelling on social media, trying out the latest apps and tools (and always going back to what I’ve been using), reading blog posts on how to be more productive, looking at what other designers and developers are doing, etc. These distractions not only ate up a good portion of my time, but also lead to an unhealthy habit of being on my laptop for 10-12 hours a day. I finally realized, when fully focused on what I need to get done and setting a block of time to do it, I can accomplish in 6-8 hours what I used to spend 12 hours on.
So How Do I Plan to Work Less and Be More Productive?
I decided that moving forward I need to focus solely on the work I need to get done for my clients, my business needs, and forming relationships with new clients. I made a promise to myself to never again work more than 8 hours a day. The idea of working less to get more accomplished and make more money sounds strange, but over the last few months I’ve realized it works.
During this process of creating a roadmap for 2020, I was recommended a book to read by my friend Brian Gardner called Company of One by Paul Jarvis. Brian is someone in the web design and development community I have always looked up to, so I figured it had to be good. After binge listening to Company of One on Audible, I felt as if it was written for me.
It is an amazing book for anyone who works for themselves or owns a small business and is caught up in the my business needs to scale mentality. Company of One explains how, with real life examples, keeping your business small and niching down can not only increase your revenue, but help you live a simpler and less stressful life.
What To Do With Your New Found Extra Time
I chose to spend more quality time with my family, exercise regularly, plan my meals better, get outside more. Basically all the things I should have been doing since day one. I have been very fortunate in my 20 year career and still to this day love what I do. The difference now is although I love my job, I am not letting it be the priority in my life anymore.
I simply do not want to be the person who looks back one day and thinks, I should have worked less and enjoyed my family and life more. My kids are growing up fast, too fast.
If you are self employed or work remotely, there is a good chance you can relate to what I described above. So what have I been doing, and what can you do to live a healthier life with less stress while still being productive and financially stable? For me, the answer was to plan and schedule everything.
Know What You are Doing Every Hour of Every Day
I mentioned earlier I used to work 12-16 hours a day. What if you could work half that time and get the same amount of work done. You can. Let’s say you have an open ended day and sit down to work with no plan, you might start off on social media, jump from job to job, check your email constantly.
What if you blocked out 8 hours to work that day and got in a habit of mentally clocking in and clocking out. Imagine your business is just like an agency or any business that has an opening and closing time. Unless you plan out your day and block out your work time, and what you are working on in that time, it is really easy to wander and add unproductive hours onto your work day.
I schedule everything now, including when I am exercising, when I work, when I am off and simply “daddy”…everything. My personal preference is to write my days schedule down with pencil and paper, something about writing it down makes my schedule seem more mandatory. But if using an app to plan your day works better for you, do that.
The key is to be accountable to the schedule you make, and not let the distractions and freedom of working for yourself get in the way. Everyone is different, you need to find out what works for you. As far as myself, I’ve simplified the way I work and limited the tools I use. I’ve taken a minimalist approach to my life and I apply that to how I work.
The Tools and Actions I Use to Plan My Day and Get More Accomplished
My Moleskin Daily Planner
Like I mentioned, pencil on paper is how I like to schedule my day. My Moleskin planner has one day per page, with 8am to 8pm down the left side with a rule every 30 minutes. I sit down with my wife every Sunday night, look at what appointments we have that week, what the kids have going on (school, soccer, gymnastics, etc.) and I plan the week ahead. Each day, I open my planner and know exactly what I’m doing.
If I have exercise written down from 8-9am, I can mentally disconnect myself from work knowing my “office” doesn’t open until 10am (giving myself time to shower and eat). This means not even looking at my email until 10am. Personally, checking my email outside of my planned work time tempts me to reply to my clients, especially if there is a fire to put out. If I were to check my email before I was about to exercise, and saw one of my clients needing my help asap, there’s a good chance I am skipping my workout.
Trello is a free online project management tool I have been using for years. I have wasted quite a bit of time trying out other tools but I always end up coming back to Trello. In my opinion it’s the perfect tool for planning my projects and also gives me the ability to include the designers and developers I collaborate with when I need to.
I use Zapier to connect Trello to other apps I use to streamline my workflow. If I have an important email I want to address later, I give it a star in Gmail which pushes that email to a list in Trello. Another example is I have Zapier set up to push all of my Google Calendar events, such as meetings and appointments, to another list. I check Trello at the beginning and end of each work day to make sure all my deadlines are met and that I haven’t missed anything.
Checking Your Email is a Time Killer
As I said above, checking your email and seeing a client who has an emergency can put you into a state of panic. The typical reaction is stop what you are doing and jump on your computer to be the hero. Now imagine you check your email every hour, think about all the times this sabotages what you are supposed to be doing. I personally did this for a long time, and finally realized what a time killer it is.
I’ve gotten in the habit of checking my email at the beginning, middle and end of my daily work block. On shorter work blocks such as 4 hours, I will only check it at the start and the end. Outside of my work schedule I make it a point to not to look at my email, because it will most likely trigger the feeling I need to get back on my laptop and be the hero.
Set Boundaries With Your Clients
The whole concept of why I schedule my work time is to define when I am mentally clocked in or out. I used to answer emails and phone calls at all hours of the day, and this is a huge pitfall of working for yourself. If you answer a phone call at 8pm from a client or answer an email at midnight, your clients will assume because you work for yourself that this is ok.
I did this for years and found it was my fault that I never set boundaries with my clients, and I gave them the impression that I’m always available. Treat your business as any other business and set a certain time you are available to talk, and don’t feel obligated to reply to every email outside of your scheduled work time. Think of it this way, if you wanted to make an appointment for an oil change or a hair cut, would you expect the business to answer the phone or reply to your email after they are closed? Your business should be no different.
If you work for yourself or are thinking of one day leaving your job to start your own business, I hope this article gave you some ideas to simplify your workflow, make your day less stressful and enjoy life more. The key is to be accountable to yourself and stay focused. Don’t let work define who you are, set limits and focus on your work only when you are working. Outside of that, focus on taking care of yourself, spending time with your loved ones and living life.