If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, I’m sure you’ve had times when you’ve been snowed under with work and didn’t have a clue where to begin to clear your backlog. Perhaps you work in a high-stress environment where the work just keeps coming in and keeping your head above water seems impossible on most days.
In either situation, simply making a few systematic changes in the way you work will increase your productivity, efficiency and reduce your stress levels… all in one go.
So what makes me such an expert? Well, my own personal experience and results. And I know, despite being a special little snowflake, that in a world filled with 7+ billion people: what works for me will probably work for you.
As a designer running my own agency, the amount of work I need to get done on any given day is enormous. Add to that several personal projects — and the fact that I’ve written a sci-fi trilogy and stand-alone sci-fi novel with more on the way — and you start to have an idea of how important concepts such as time-management and productivity are to me.
In this article I will detail how I get as much work as possible done on any given day without burning out. It’s a fine balance, but I’m positive my method will work for you.
And anyway… how would you know if you don’t try?
To start off, I’ll go through some basic concepts and then lay out how I put the methodologies to work in a single, streamlined workflow. I recommend you try all the methods and come up with a solution that suits your energy levels, working environment, and personality.
And, if you like these concepts and think they can help you benefit, make sure to stick around to the end of the article, where you can sign up for my free 8 week Productivity Ninja email course!
Concept One: Bulking Tasks
This is an important concept, which is why I mention it first. When you do several similar tasks after each other, your brain goes into a trance-like state, enabling it to double or triple its efficiency at completing the task, as well as the accuracy with which you complete it.
But what can you bulk? Well, just about anything.
- Phone calls
- Reading and sorting emails
- Replying to emails
- Sending invoices
- Receiving payments (accounting)
- Any daily tasks that are similar in nature
So in my instance, I can bulk emails, phone calls, and design-specific tasks like uploading files to a server. By setting aside a chunk of time dedicated to a set of similar tasks, it means my brain will hone in on the function, completing those tasks faster and with less errors.
The same is true of emails or phone calls. Dedicating a block of time to these similar tasks will ensure that your brain is in “email” or “phone call” mode when you are completing the tasks. Your brain loves patterns, and the pattern of starting and completing similar tasks will become second nature.
Concept Two: Reactive vs Proactive
I’ll explain what I mean by the phrase “Reactive vs Proactive” a little later, but it boils down to this: I have a serious beef with emails.
I suppose it comes from my days of working as an insurance clerk where I had up to a hundred emails reaching me in a day.
All that had to be attended to in that day.
But here’s a note about emails: they may be important, but you don’t have to respond straight away.
So try this instead:
Read/check your emails only twice a day. Don’t leave your emails open, but instead check them in the morning (and not first thing), and then again just after lunch, closing your email program in between.
If you missed an important email, chances are the person sending it will call you anyway. Remember, your working day can’t be dictated by your inbox, because this turns your whole day into a reactive working style, instead of a proactive working style. When you are spending all your time responding to emails as they come in, your day has no structure. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the next half an hour.
Instead, begin structuring your day. And step one is simple: don’t live in your inbox.
Does this look familiar? You’re hard at work at that super-urgent Wednesday report. It’s been a crazy week of email after email, so you’ve had to postpone this task to Wednesday morning. It’s due in half an hour.
Now, every five minutes, your little email notification pops up telling you about a new email. And it has just enough info for you to see the name of a client, or the beginning of a dire message. So a report that usually takes you an hour is going on three hours and still not complete.
Never mind your stress levels! Every new email just adds more thoughts of tasks slowly building up, while taking away mental focus from the task you so desperately have to complete.
Seriously: enough is enough.
I’ve found that any time between 9:30 and 10:00 is a good time to read emails in the morning. This allows you about an hour and a half to get stuff done before adding more things to your queue for the day. Then I check emails again at about 2:30 or 3:00.
This way, you can schedule tasks that come from emails effectively, while making sure that you are not constantly interrupted during the day by emails. You can also rest assured that you have in fact read and responded to everything in a timely manner.
Concept Three: Pomodoros
Basically, a Pomodoro is a unit of time in which you focus solely on a single task. You take 25 minutes and focus on just that one task until it’s done. When I say “solely” I mean:
- Turn off your phone, or put it on silent and out of sight
- Close your emails
- Close every other computer application except the one you are working on
- Close your office door AND
- Tell co-workers that you are not to be disturbed for the next 25 minutes
After a Pomodoro has passed, you take a five minute break. You can go get some coffee, go to the bathroom, or listen to a piece of an audio book or podcast. The last option is my favourite, and highly recommended to keep your brain “in the zone”.
When your break is finished, you return immediately to your Pomodoro. Some tasks might take more than one Pomodoro, but you just resume that task after your break, and use as many Pomodoros as possible to get it done.
After three Pomodoros, you take a 15 minutes break. If a task takes longer than a “set” of Pomodoros to complete, then I would recommend splitting that task up over a day or two. Instead, use the first set of the day for this task, and then the next Pomodoro set to focus on checking your emails, returning phone calls, and other “B” level tasks (I’ll explain this below).
You can repeat these “sets” up to 4 times during the day, but I don’t recommend stuffing your day full of Pomodoros as this quickly leads to burnout. Instead, I separate two “sets” of Pomodoros by a block of time when I don’t stick to Pomodoros and my brain can unwind and wander around unsupervised.
To help you stay on time, you can use the timer on your phone, or a free online app. I like the desktop app “Tomighty” because it means I don’t have to have my browser open to set up a Pomodoro. If you prefer a browser extension, then I recommend searching your browser for a “Pomodoro” timer extension.
If you’d like more info on the Pomodoro method and links to the free apps, be sure to sign up for the free Productivity Ninja email course, where I go into tons more detail about this.
Concept Four: Organising Tasks
Another important factor of my workflow is the accurate sorting and scheduling of tasks. With so many tasks (up to fifty for me on any given day), it’s all too easy for something slip through the cracks. I use several free apps and techniques to keep track of what needs to get done — and in what order — to maintain both my sanity and my level of customer service
I don’t know what I would do without this app. It has changed my life. Asana is a free project management tool for individuals and teams or companies. You can set it up in a few minutes and the free version has everything I need and more. You can use it to collaborate with team members which makes delegating (see below) a breeze.
It also reduces your dependency on email. If you set up an automated email system, then you’re looking at almost completely eradicating your dependency on email. Instead, new tasks are automatically sent to Asana, so you can slot them into your schedule without disturbing your workflow.
Using Asana to schedule your tasks is simple. You can create teams such as “Admin” “Client Projects”, and “Personal”. After creating these teams, you can create projects inside each, such as “Accounts” under the Admin team and “ClientNameHere” under Client Projects. Then you can then allocate tasks to each project.
These individual tasks can then be assigned either to yourself or a team member. When they are assigned to you, you can easily arrange them in sequence in your “Today” section of Asana, which means you will only be focusing on those tasks you need to complete today.
The day before — or before you begin work in the morning — take 5-10 minutes to sort out the day’s schedule. You do this by adding all the tasks you have to do to Asana, and then ordering them in a A-E format in your “Today” section, like so:
A – Important and Urgent (completing a certain task in a time-sensitive project)
B – Urgent but not important (returning a client phone call)
C – Important but not urgent (checking emails)
D – Delegate (anything you can pass onto a co-worker to do for you)
E – Eliminate (these are tasks that you should focus on getting rid of entirely)
When arranging these tasks and then tackling them during your day, make sure that you complete all level “A” tasks before moving onto a level “B” task.
Take some of the stress off yourself by teaching skills that only you possess to fellow co-workers so that you can delegate tasks to them. Everyone loves to learn and improve their skills, so don’t think of this as slacking.
Concept Five: Time Management
And now for the crucial step: getting the work done. You probably want to dive right in and get as much done as possible before your brain give out, right? Wrong. Step back. I’m going to take you through a method of time management that’s made an even bigger impact on me that any of these other methods.
Working in Pomodoros
Basically, with my tasks already assigned the previous day, I start the day with an idea of what I need to achieve. So I begin first thing with the most important and most urgent task.
These are the steps I take:
- Open browser
- Open Asana
- Check what the first task of the day is
- Set my Pomodoro timer
- Begin the first task
When the focus music beeps, time’s up. I walk away, usually to make my first cup of coffee for the day and perhaps sit outside for the rest of my 5 minute break listening to an audio book or a podcast.
Then it’s back to my desk, and another Pomodoro begins. I keep at the first task, taking as many Pomodoros as I need to complete it, and then move onto the next one. I try to not do too many Pomodoros a day, so I will do two to three sets in the morning, then break for lunch, have one more set after lunch and then continue with “unscripted” work for the rest of the afternoon.
By following these techniques, I’ve reduced the amount of time I spend working by more than 50%, while increasing my efficiency and accuracy on any given task. As a result, nothing slips through the cracks and my levels of customer service have boomed.
With Asana, I can easily delegate new tasks to other team members, and I don’t have to be in my emails all day, which used to be a major time suck for me.
Have you tried any of these techniques before? What other time management and productivity tips do you have?
The Free Productivity Ninja Email Course
Want more productivity and time management tips? Sign up for my free Productivity Ninja email course below! This two-month course will discuss more techniques to increase your productivity, and every week you’ll discover another technique or tool you can use to become the Productivity Ninja you’ve always dreamed of!
Through the techniques and methods I discuss in each email, you’ll be able to set up your own personalised workflow structure that will shave hours off your working time, while reducing stress levels, improving your efficiency, and making sure you have enough time to pursue your own personal projects.
Here are some of the topics I’ll cover during the course:
- Bulking, templates and other time-saving techniques
- The zen of project management
- Goal setting and motivation
- Hardcore focus mode with the click of a button
- Productivity hacks
- Why you should be tracking your time
Ready? Sign up below and you’ll get the first email straight away!