The problem with most productivity hacks and systems is exactly this: You spend far too much time tinkering with tools and creating a bloated, abstract work methodology instead of reserving valuable energy for the work itself.
This is especially challenging for freelancers because we fear what might happen if we don’t have our hands on the reigns. The truth is, it’s an unnecessary distraction to obsessively plan or structure how you approach your work.
I’ve long struggled with this question myself:
As a creative community, why do we devote so much energy to hacking focus when all we need is simple, repeatable processes that empower us to be fully present and confident in our work?
What I’ve realized is that while most of us hesitantly accept failure as an inevitable stop on the journey to success, we’re not inherently okay with it.
For all the chest thumping about failure in the creative and entrepreneurial communities that would seem to imply a confidence in accepting its presence and pushing through to eventual success, there is an underlying insecurity that drives us to bulletproof our processes anyway.
Sure, you need systems in place to create consistency in your business. You’ll need a basic suite of tools to help streamline these systems. And you’ll need a simple, repeatable process to ensure you focus on growth activities first and foremost.
Step one in simplifying how you work: Don’t recreate the wheel. Improve on it.
I’ve been relatively hesitant to emulate other people’s career advice on rituals or routines, no matter how famous or successful they are.
But observing the rituals and routines of successful people can teach you how to identify effective patterns in their processes that you can apply to your own productivity.
The Productivity Tricks and Daily Habits of Famous People on Lifehack is a good example of distillation vs. emulation. The author begins with a caution:
While not all these tips, tricks, and rituals will work for you, they help to shed light on what some of our most beloved cultural icons and historical figures are willing to do in order to stay on top of their demanding workloads.
Perhaps in Stephen King’s daily ritual of producing 10 pages of writing, we can learn the power of starting small and the value of repetition in gaining confidence and momentum.
Sylvia Plath’s habit of waking before the birds can teach us about the importance of starting early, working with fewer distractions, and creating space for our most important priorities before the chaos of the day settles in.
One of my favorite real-world examples comes courtesy of Jason Zook, who has a habit of purchasing a domain as his first step to solidifying an idea. It’s low cost, low risk with a potential for high return. This ritual creates an immediate connection to the idea that has practical implications, and Jason is more likely to follow through as a result.
What all the examples above demonstrate is that there is no one method or perfect approach, but that there are certain fundamentals that contribute to effective focus.
These fundamentals are not all universal by any stretch, it’s really more about creating the foundation and right mindset and filling in the gaps from there.
More importantly, it’s creating parameters for focus that can then be refined through experimentation.
Here are a few fundamentals to consider.
An open-ended day with a big block of hours to play in the sandbox is a lot sexier on paper. In reality, it’s far easier to get sucked into wasting those hours without parameters to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
A few limitations to include upfront:
It may be a bit overhyped these days, but a morning ritual is still powerful in setting the tone for the day. I wake up at the same time, seven days per week, and I follow a simple, mindful routine of sipping coffee and reading followed by a bit of stretching before I reach the desk.
It prepares my mind and body for the work day, but also serves as a trigger to tell my brain that the work comes next.
This is a simple process of identifying your top two or three tasks for the day, followed by a quick check-in on email and social media. Time is fluid, so simple rubber stamping that you won’t check email right away before attacking the work is missing the point.
You have to get in the habit of being able to not only make the time for what influences growth but to also be able to confidently identify which task deserves top billing.
For me this follows two criteria—what scares me the most and what is most significant to influencing immediate growth.
In 99U’s The Secret to Time Management? Focus. Focus. Focus., Laura Vanderkam cautions creatives to “beware of fake breaks” that feel like a break but don’t necessarily create healthy mental space needed to recharge between tasks.
I’ll often take a short, 10-minute walk, play with the dog, or do some additional stretching during break periods to completely separate my mind from the work.
Leo Baubauta of Zen Habits has long been an advocate of batching smaller tasks, which is essentially grouping similar tasks and doing them in one chunk of time to avoid being distracted by them throughout the day.
Again, the point of productivity is to help you stay aligned with priorities and organized so that you can execute confidently. Anything in excess of this is really just structure for the sake of structure.
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