When I worked in a corporate job, I wouldn’t say that I was a slacker, but I also wouldn’t say that I cared whether or not I wasted time at work. My clients were happy, I met deadlines, but I also ran errands, made personal calls and took advantage of the freedom I had by being in outside sales.
Everything changed when my new boss made us fill out time sheets or what the sales staff called “creative writing.” That’s when I realized I was never going to be as productive as my boss expected me to be, especially when he required us to make 16 face-to-face sales calls per day. How was I supposed to run errands on that type of schedule?
I quit, started one of several businesses I’ve had since then, and never looked back. Soon I realized, as have other entrepreneurs, that working for someone else isn’t as motivating or rewarding as working for yourself. But when you work for yourself, time is precious and any time you waste during the workday is money out of your pocket. If you take the time to consider what your work habits are costing you, Time is Money takes on a whole new meaning. Consider the following ten ways to improve your productivity.
1. Focus on what’s important.
Are you working on something you need to finish today or could you handle it another day? Throughout the day ask yourself if what you are doing is the best use of your time. You don’t have to do a self-check more often than every three hours because, well, you’d be wasting time.
2. Determine your best time of day and schedule important tasks for that time.
I used to say that I was a morning person, then I was an afternoon person, and now I’m a “work whenever I can” person. Between my sons’ and my clients’ schedules, I need to be flexible. Concentrate on important tasks during the time you feel more productive and leave the less important tasks for when your energy level is low.
3. Be willing to work around your family’s schedule.
When my sons were little, I worked whenever they napped. Fortunately, not unlike their mom, they loved to sleep so I was able to make a large dent in my to-do list every day. A friend of mine who is a graphic designer works when his sons go to sleep at 8:00 pm and finishes his “workday” at 4 am. He sleeps for a few hours, has breakfast with his kids, and then goes back to sleep until about 11:00 am. When his children came home from school, he’s available to spend time with them.
4. Avoid multi-tasking and stay focused.
It’s easy to start one project and then bounce to another without finishing the first. I used to be the perfect example. At the end of the day I was exhausted, but I hadn’t accomplished as much as I’d hoped I would. Finally I made myself focus, stay on task and accomplish a certain amount of tasks every day. Some days I’m more productive than others, but overall I’m more productive than I used to be.
5. Use a list to track tasks.
Why try to remember a task when you can enter it on a list and forget about it until the day you need to handle it? Whether you use your Smartphone, your computer, or even a paper-based system to record tasks, keep your list in one place. Some people get in the habit of using scraps of paper or sticky notes to remind them of what they need to do but that system has a few drawbacks. First of all, your mind will stop seeing the sticky notes or new notes will cover old notes. Secondly, notes are easy to lose and the one task you need to handle by the end of the day may be on a note stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
6. Limit the number of times you check e-mail.
Like a surgeon who needs to be reached 24/7 in case he or she needs to perform life-saving surgery, I thought I needed to be on call in case an important email came in. When I realized the only emails that came in at night were spam and no one was going to die if they couldn’t reach me, I quit checking my email so often.
Unless you’re working on a time-sensitive project, cut back on the number of times you check for messages and turn off your email alert. Otherwise you’ll be distracted all day, especially when you’re working on important tasks. Some efficiency experts recommend that you avoid checking email first thing in the morning, but I disagree. I work with clients around the world who are in different time zones so my early morning emails may be end-of-the-day emails to them.
7. Keep the supplies you use often within reach.
When you have to leave your desk to find supplies or files you waste time and get distracted easily. Let’s say you need supplies from your garage and on the way to get them, you stop in the kitchen to get something to drink. You pour a cup of coffee, head back to your home office and then a few minutes later you realize you forgot to go to the garage to get the extra supplies. You can keep repeating the same exercise or store supplies near the place where you’ll use them.
8. Keep clutter under control.
When you work from home, less is more, especially when you have limited home office space. Before you bring one more thing into your home office, decide whether it will help you grow your business or merely waste already-scarce office space. Also, ask yourself whether you have room to store the new item and whether you’ll be able to find it when you need it.
9. Don’t skimp on equipment.
You may think you’re saving money by buying a computer, printer or scanner that’s on the low end of the quality scale, but consider how much time you’ll lose when that piece of equipment quits or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It’s important to make sure you have all the equipment you need to run your business, including a fast computer, an All-in-One machine (scanner, printer, copier and fax), and a reliable backup system (or cloud storage), for starters. The key to saving time and money on equipment is to know what you need, what you can do without, and where to find technical support.
10. Let everyone know you mean business.
When I started working from home years before it was cool to work anywhere other than in a corporate office, I made it clear to my family and friends that I was starting a business and not available to wait for the refrigerator repair person or sit by the front door waiting for deliveries. I thought everyone understood what I meant. They didn’t. For months, my family and friends asked me for small favors. At first I helped out, and then three weeks later I figured out I was spending more time helping others instead of growing my business. After I took a more direct approach and said no before I even heard the request, my friends and family quit asking.
Old habits are hard to break and adopting new habits takes time. By taking it slow and changing one habit at a time, your new habits should outweigh the old ones.