In 2014, I quit my job.
I quit because I was tired of office politics, tired of not being able to implement my best ideas, and tired of the low pay. (I knew I could make more freelance writing.)
But most of all, I quit because I was spent.
I’d had it with the long days and the mandatory Saturdays. I’d had it with being so bored I couldn’t stand it. With forcing my sore, tired eyeballs to stare into a computer screen to appear busy, even though the best thing for my productivity would have been to take a break. At the time, I was living in a fascinating country (India!), and I wanted to actually explore it instead of being chained to a desk in the middle of a relatively unexciting city six days a week. And, no, switching out my office chair for a brightly colored bean bag didn’t make the fact that I had to sit in front of a computer for hours any more bearable.
So I quit.
When I quit my job, everything changed. I traveled around India, did freelance writing occasionally, and absolutely lived my dream. Then I moved to another country and did the same thing.
But a year and a half after quitting my job, when I officially started my LLC, I couldn’t help but laugh—because there I was, chained to a desk, again. Granted, it was way more bearable because I was doing it by choice instead of acting out of fear of losing my job. Still, I was putting in hours and hours and hours of hard work, sitting in a chair at a desk, and pasting my eyeballs to a computer screen until they were red, white, and blue as the American flag.
I knew starting a business of one would be hard, and that this phase would only be temporary, but I still felt like I was back at square one. I couldn’t afford to take off in the middle of the day for a meeting or a doctor’s appointment. More times than I care to admit, I only saw daylight through my apartment window and never actually stepped outside. In fact, at one point, I lived directly on the beach (during perfect weather, no less) and didn’t go out to it every single day—not even for a 20-minute break.
I knew something had to give, but I had no idea what.
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone: around 55 percent of freelancers work at least nine hours per day. With that knowledge in mind, I started looking for advice and communications on how to break out of this tied-to-a-desk curse that most freelancers work to escape.
Almost as if it were a revelation from the gods, I took the hint to start tracking my time. At first I thought that was silly, because I already knew I worked all the time—but for some reason, I decided to give it a shot. I downloaded the Freshbooks widget, added in some projects and tasks that represented the work I was doing at the moment, and started tracking the time I spent working. Time spent making lunch, surfing Facebook, and thinking about work didn’t count.
The results were a little shameful.
I’d spend days working from the time I woke up until past nightfall. I was sure I’d spent 9-10 solid hours working on any given day—until I logged into Freshbooks to see my totals and realized I’d barely worked 5.5 hours.
Only 5.5 hours? What the heck happened to that other 3.5+ I’d sworn I’d spent working?
I’d wasted it.
I’d surfed Facebook in between projects to reward myself with a break, and what felt like 5 minutes was actually more like 50. I’d sat and thought about the work I was going to do next, but took 20 minutes before I made any actual action towards getting it done. (It turns out I wasn’t alone in that, either: according to The New York Times, Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes approximately 25 minutes for a person to return to their work after an interruption.)
So I decided that if I was only capable of working 5.5 hours per day, I’d work them all up front with minimal breaks and interruptions. At least that way I’d be more productive with that 3.5 hours of personal time I’d just straight-up wasted.
With that in mind, I got it together and tried a handful of different productivity techniques. Since then, I’ve latched onto three that have helped skyrocket my productivity, get more done in less time, and—more importantly—achieve the ultimate goal I had in working for myself, which was to not be chained to a desk 24/7. If you’re burning yourself out working long days with no end in sight, here’s my advice:
In an article for Forbes, Jean Chatzky tapped into a major reason many freelancers might feel like they’re working longer hours than they actually are—the long-standing misconception of multitasking. In summarizing Earl Miller, who is a professor of neuroscience at MIT’s Picower Institute, Chatzky explained that “the urge to multitasking is genetic… Our brains evolved in a very different environment from the Information Age we’re currently living in. It used to be that hearing a rustle in the bushes could lead to either danger or a potential food source, so it made sense to break focus on a current task in favor of seeking new information.”
Today, however, many of those instincts are less important—and instead of helping us, as Chatzky wrote, multitasking in the modern world most often causes us to “squelch [our] creative juices,” “sabotage [our] ability to do good work,” and inhibits our productivity. “When you multitask, what you’re actually doing is trying to switch back and forth between multiple attention-demanding tasks,” she said. “Every switch requires the brain to re-orient or re-familiarize itself with the task at hand—and that takes up a lot of time that could be spent working.”
One solution to the problem of multitasking and managing distractions in this age of constant interruption is finding a time-management solution that forces you to work in focused bursts. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for interruption, I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique to be incredibly effective. (In fact, it helped me get 1.5 hours of work done in 50 minutes just now.)
The basic premise of the technique is to work in bursts and take short, frequent breaks. Because I sit down to work for only 25 minutes—one Pomodoro—at a time, the pressure is totally off to feel like I have to complete a big project in one go. But at the same time, I feel like I have to have something to show for the 25 minutes I did spend working, so I get into crazy, over-productive grooves during almost every single Pomodoro I do.
By finding a time-management technique that forces me to focus, I’ve found that I can get six solid hours of work done by the early afternoon, then decide what I want to do with the rest of my day. Do I want to go out and enjoy the weather? Do I want to run errands? Do I want to get ready for a hot date? Or do I want to work on an internal project to grow my business even more? It’s all up to me.
When you work from home—especially if you’re relatively commitment-free like I am—there’s really not much to tell you when you have to start and stop working. I don’t have to worry about a child’s school times, and unless I’ve invited someone over to eat with me, I don’t have to have dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m. So knowing that I can give myself a break to clean my kitchen, take a shower, surf Facebook, or go to the grocery store when it’s not busy is really tempting.
After all, I can just work later. I mean, who says that I have to finish at 5:00 p.m.? I can totally keep going until 10:00 if I feel like it.
You can see how slippery the “work late” slope becomes.
Here’s the thing: according to Parkinson’s Law, the work you have to do will expand to fill the amount of time you have to complete it. And if you ask me, there’s a reason it’s called a law and not just a theory. If I have five hours to write three paragraphs, I won’t just write three paragraphs and then find something else to do. Instead, I’ll do some research for those paragraphs online, get distracted by Facebook, outline the paragraphs, write a few sentences, get sucked into the hole of the internet again, give myself a break from all that “research,” then finally finish those three paragraphs with only five minutes to spare.
Keeping myself to a hard stop time every single day has really helped with this.
Of course, I had to force it a little at first—committing to go to friends’ meetups or slotting an evening yoga class into my calendar if I truly had nothing else to do—but it worked. When I have a hard stop time in mind, especially if I’ve got a lot of work to do that day, I hustle like crazy to make sure it happens.
There’s this thing called decision fatigue, and the basic premise of it is that the more decisions you have to make, the lower your ability to think and make decisions becomes. It’s the reason Mark Zuckerberg wears the same outfit all the time—he knows that if his outfit isn’t a decision he has to deal with or think about, he can preserve his brain power for more important work.
When I started planning my daily tasks out every time I booked a project, I realized that I was helping increase my brain power. Before, I’d just have a set of deadlines, look at what had already been done for them, and then decide on the day itself how my time would be best spent to meet those deadlines. But now, when I get a new freelance writing deadline, I put it into my calendar, figure out how much time I have to complete it, and then decide what I need to do on a day-by-day basis to make it happen on time.
Once I put those things into my calendar, I no longer have to think about how I should spend my time one day, because I know when I wake up that my to-do list is already there for me, sitting in my calendar. I don’t finish one draft and then poke around my calendar and files to decide where my next hour or two would be best spent, because that decision has already been made. Every day, I complete the items on the to-do list, and then I’m done. And I don’t have to worry about the next day, because I know those tasks are already sitting there for me in my calendar.
In this way, I can be productive without having to put energy, time, or thought into my productivity—which, yes, means I get more done in less time.
By putting these few productivity systems in place, I find that I have much more time for myself. I don’t find myself working at my home office desk for hours on end just to be successful in my business, and I don’t feel like there’s not enough time to do things for myself or to have a social life in the middle of the week.
Instead, I can take a long weekend trip if I want to. I get to trust my productivity systems, know I’m being more productive, feel more productive, and see the impacts this new level of productivity has on my business and my personal life.
Once I finish this article and my current Pomodoro is over, I’ll take a longer break to eat lunch, and put in another hour or so. Then I’ll head out—I’ll take an afternoon business meeting that represents a huge opportunity, buy my groceries for the weekend, go to AT&T to replace my broken cell phone, then hang out with some friends. It’s not a full work day for me by any means, but because of my new approach to my workload, I can afford to take it. It’s the kind of half-day work that would never have been possible for me in the earlier days of my freelance career. That is, unless I also wanted to spend a Saturday working. (Which, no.)