The physical setting
For Ebbs, “to live in chaos was to live in a prison. Order freed the mind for other things.” Try to give yourself room to work comfortably, and consider ergonomics: make sure your monitor is big enough, your references are conveniently at hand, and your space is set up to minimize distractions. “It’s hard to get into a working groove if your physical setting isn’t right.”
Your work routine
Keep an activity log—one that goes beyond tracking work time. What are you really doing with your time? Figure out what time of day is your most productive, and build your routine around it. Identify “productivity pits” that eat away at your time, and adjust your routine or physical environment to eliminate them.
Ebbs subscribes to the “only handle it once” view: if you’re going to read email, read it once, answer it, and archive it, rather than reading it and leaving it for later, when you’ll have to read it again. When you submit your index, submit your invoice at the same time. Enter your receipts as soon as you get them, and file them.
Shere’s activity tracking is quite detailed: she keeps a spreadsheet that includes
- project title
- invoice date
- number of pages
- time spent (she uses a punch-in, punch-out clock)
You may also consider adding in a column for how long it takes a client to pay you and one for how much you enjoyed the project.
“Even if you’re a procrastinator, you’re probably not a procrastinator at all things,” Shere said. Figure out what topics you like working on; you’ll be more productive if you truly enjoy your work.
Do the math: annual earnings = earnings/hour × hours/year
How much do you want to work? Make your projects worth your while, or don’t do them. If you feel you’re being underpaid, you’ll feel resentful, your attention will wane, and you’ll end up spending more time on the project, not less. Learn to say no. If you take a project at a cheap rate, you’re really subsidizing that project.
Learning how to make yourself better and more productive, which will free up time for you later. Learn how to use software to its highest capability. “I’m not usually a fan of absolutes,” said Ebbs, “but I can guarantee that 100% of you aren’t using your software to its maximum capability.” Use macros and other timesavers.
Be attentive to how you feel about your work and your work day, said Shere, and recognize where problems, frustrations, and weaknesses might be coming from. Shere uses the Pomodoro technique, devoting twenty-five-minute blocks to focusing on a single task, then taking short (five-minute) or long (ten minute) breaks. “Breaks are not optional,” she said. “Build them in and track them.” Make your goals and changes small and specific, and you’ll be more able to make progress.
“Don’t turn what should be joys into chores because you’re not managing your time well,” said Ebbs. Can you ask for help or delegate your obligations? Would it be more efficient to hire someone to meet them? Learn when to say no to these obligations and interruptions, even if it means screening your calls or closing your door. Figure out which activities are non-negotiable, and schedule them in. “A short pencil is better than a long memory,” said Ebbs. Writing things down will free your mind to focus on other priorities.
“We choose how to spend our time,” said Ebbs. “It’s not true that other people have more time. Everyone has 24 hours. No one else is stealing your time. If your time is being stolen, it’s an inside job.”