Staying focused on your work has always been difficult, especially when you’re working from home. In the past, distractions have tended to come from outside the office, bedroom or wherever it is that you work in the form of screaming kids, noisy neighbours or the sudden urge to start vacuuming the house for no apparent reason. These days, the biggest distractions of all stare you right in the face. They’re “inside” the computer that you sit in front of for hours each day.
I’m talking about the constant disruptive force that is the internet. Social networking sites, particularly Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, provide a constant distraction when working from home, not to mention all the websites and blogs that you check on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. As if that wasn’t enough, you’ve got people emailing you comical YouTube videos and trying to Skype you while you’re hard at it.
We know that being productive can be very tricky, especially when you’re not being paid by the hour. That’s why we’ve come up with 15 tips to keep you immersed in your work, improve your productivity and get you paid more in the process.
1. Create a Good Schedule
Image: Peter Kaminski
If you want to stay organised and productive, having a tight schedule is an absolute must. Make sure you include everything or it’ll soon break down as you try to catch up with tasks you’ve forgotten. Remember, a schedule is more than simply a to-do list. As well as specifying each task you have to carry out, it sets you a specific time slot (and time limit) in which to do it in.
Arrange your schedule so that the most important and pressing tasks are carried out first, stay focused on targets and always include deadlines. Importantly, you mustn’t forget to set aside time in your schedule for rest and relaxation, which includes checking social networking sites, doing a spot of online shopping, reading blogs, listening to music and whatever else you normally do online.
2. Write To-do Lists
Image: Jayel Aheram
In addition to a schedule, write regular to-do lists to ensure you keep on top of all your commitments. Make a new to-do list each day, which outlines everything you want to achieve. Put the most important tasks at the top of the list and don’t rest until everything has been crossed off. Make to-do lists the old fashioned way, on a scrap piece of paper, or make them online for free using browser based to-do list apps like Remember the Milk or Ta-Da Lists. This way, you’ll never lose a list again!
3. Limit Email Checking
Allocate time slots throughout the day for checking your emails. Don’t check and respond to each email you receive individually or you’ll never get anything done. Check your emails first thing in the morning, once during the day (perhaps after lunch) if necessary, and once at the end of the day too.
4. Get a Workspace
Designate yourself a workspace. If you’re renting a space in an office this isn’t going to be a problem, but if you’re working from home, the temptation to set up camp for the day on the living room sofa can be very high. Once on the sofa, watching videos on YouTube is going to be preferable to getting some serious work done. If you’ve got a spare room in your house then use it as an office. Otherwise, clear a space for yourself in your bedroom or living room and surround yourself with any equipment and paperwork you might need.
For those with limited space (which happens to be a lot of us) it can be hard to separate our home social life with our working day life, especially if you’re trying to relax on the sofa in the evening with what is typically your “workplace” only meters away from you. Try rearranging your room to make the most of the space, and use double-sided bookshelves and separators to separate the working side of the room from the relaxing side of the room. It’s hard, but with a little bit of commitment it can be done.
5. Establish a Daily Routine
Get yourself into a daily routine and stick to it. This means going to bed, waking up, starting work and finishing work at roughly the same time each day. Work out when you’re going to be least distracted by phone calls, friends, kids or anything else, and make this your normal working day. For the vast majority of people, this is going to be roughly 9am to 5pm. Try to stick to a good amount of working hours; 7-9 hours, 5 days a week is usually a good amount of time.
6. Make the Most of Any Free Time
On some days, you’re just not going to be very busy and on others you’re going to finish a task with a few hours to spare, leaving you time with nothing to do. Rather than finish work for the day, stay productive. There’s always something useful you could be doing. Check on your bank accounts, invoices and expenses, organise your paperwork or simply give your workspace a bit of a clean and dust. You’re certainly not going to want to do these things when it’s hectic!
7. Ban Social Networking
Social networking sites are the bane of a freelancer’s existence. Most people have a love/hate relationship with them at the best of times, but freelancers will find them particularly damaging to their bottom line. Unless your work is tied to Myspace, Facebook or Twitter, ban yourself from checking them altogether while you’re working. As I said earlier, set aside time in your schedule for them or reward yourself with 20 minutes of social networking for completion of a professional task.
If you need to check a social networking site on a regular basis (blogs owners for example tend to do this on a regular basis) then this is fine – but don’t get distracted! Go onto the site (or open the application), do what you had to do and exit. Avoid getting distracted by things that you won’t help you get professional tasks completed – if you see something that you would like to read in your personal rewarded time, go back and visit it later.
8. Take Regular Breaks
Image: Thomas Hawk
Don’t forget to rest and take regular breaks throughout the day, especially if you’re working on a computer. Forgoing breaks can lead to RSI and low mood. Taking a break, however, means getting away from the computer altogether, not having a 5 minute glance at Facebook. Treat yourself to a tasty, healthy lunch – it’s one of the benefits of working from home – and try to get outside for at least half an hour each day. If you can fill this half hour with a run/jog/walk then you’ll feel all the better for it and your productivity will improve too.
9. Get a Business Phone Line
If you regularly use the phone for work, I strongly suggest getting a line that’s solely for business use. Not only will it remove distractions and improve productivity, it’ll help you keep tabs on your business expenses. It can be costly to have a proper phone line installed, but getting a Skype phone number is really cheap. If you’re going to be on the computer most of the day anyway, then using Skype might actually be preferable.
Alternatively you could buy a cheap mobile phone for business use – you don’t need an expensive one, as it’s primary purpose is to replace a traditional office phone – that means you don’t need to be able to check your emails or social networking sites on it. You can have an expensive personal phone for that!
10. When You Finish Work, Stop Working
Once you’ve come to the end of your schedule and crossed off everything on your to-do list, it’s time to relax. Stave off the temptation to check your emails every hour throughout the evening and take business calls- you don’t want to over-exert yourself. Get away from the computer and take your mind off work to be at your most productive the following day.
11. Do Your Research
You need to stay abreast of the latest developments in your line of work. Make sure you know exactly what’s happening in your industry – you’ll feel more of an accomplished professional and this will really shine through when you’re meeting clients and applying for jobs. Everything you could possibly need to know, you can find online, by reading online journals and following industry-specific blogs and forums.
12. Use the Best Apps Available
Image: LevelTen Interactive
There are tons of online tools and apps designed to make your working life that little bit easier, boosting your productivity. Many of these apps are browser-based and free, meaning that you can access them from any computer without installing or downloading anything. Try Dimdim for web meetings, 30 Boxes for a calendar, 280 Slides for presentations, MindMeister for brainstorming, and Dropbox for storage.
13. Network and Collaborate
Image: D’Arcy Norman
Most self-employed freelancers are self-motivated and enjoy working alone. This doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t benefit from the help and advice of others. It’s important that you get out there and meet people who are doing similar things to yourself, so you can share tips, collaborate on projects and get more work. You don’t even need to leave the comfort of your executive chair to do this. There are hundreds of online communities and forums brimming with people in the same situation as you.
14. Critique Yourself
Even if you’re completely satisfied with the work you’re producing, there’s always room to improve. Nobody is going to analyse your performance but you, so take time to look back each month and find ways of improving your productivity. If you’ve been distracted too heavily by social networking, for instance, make sure it doesn’t happen again the following month. Although you should give yourself praise for a job well done, you should constantly be striving to increase efficiency.
15. Invest in Good Office Furniture
While largely unrelated to a “Permanently Connected World”, this last tip is vitally important. Working from home is a rather sedentary pursuit and if you spend most of your day at a desk, you must invest in a good quality chair. There’s nothing worse than chronic back pain at ruining your productivity. Executive chairs can be stupidly expensive and often unnecessary. Just make sure that you’re sitting comfortably in a proper chair and not slouching all day.
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