02.25.13

4 Totally Weird (and Crazy Effective) Time Management Tips

I’m convinced that working from home makes you really weird. Or that people who are already really weird are better suited to working from home. Or both. Yeah, probably both.

(Spoiler alert: If you somehow still believe that I’m not The Craziness, then I’m sorry, but this post is about to completely change your mind)

You see, being home alone all day, every day, leads you to develop habits that people whose jobs require them to do things like “leave the house” and “wear some fucking pants” never have to deal with. Because here’s the thing: When you’re alone all day, there’s no one to tell you what to do. And, more importantly, there’s no one to compare your schedule and behaviors with so you just keep getting weirder and weirder without realizing that maybe it’s not normal to spend your lunch break eating green beans in the bathtub.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge about working for yourself: managing your daily schedule. In other words, figuring out how to prioritize your tasks so that you don’t wind up watching E! True Hollywood Story all afternoon and then working until midnight on Saturday because you procrastinated every single day of the week. When you work from home, it usually means you don’t have to work during specific hours and you don’t have to attend regular meetings and no one is checking up on anything you do, which means you need to learn the best ways to manage and optimize your own time. And, surprise surprise, that’s pretty fucking difficult.

I’ve been self-employed for just over three years now, and to be honest I’ve gotten so used to my quirky little daily schedule that I don’t even realize how weird it is anymore. Fast forward to last week, though, when I was on a call with one of my awesome 1-on-1 clients, helping her work through questions like, “What’s the best way to integrate my personal and career goals?” and “How can I create a schedule that lets me get more of the important stuff done while getting rid of the nonsense?” and I started telling her the behind-the-scenes details of what my typical workday looks like. It was then, while describing my peculiar time management techniques, that I realized that, actually, this isn’t how most people behave. Which makes me think that either a) I really am batshit insane or b) I’m totally onto something. It’s a fine line, you know?

4 out-of-the-ordinary time management hacks

1. Only check your email while you’re standing up
Perhaps the number one drain on productivity is email. I used to keep my inbox open all day and respond to things as they came in – but guess what? I never got anything else accomplished. Now, I only check my email a few times a day and when I do, it’s while standing up with my laptop perched on a small counter in the kitchen. That counter is the perfect height for a make-shift standing desk, and by only checking email from that one specific spot I’ve managed to train myself not to click over to it when I’m doing other types of (more important) work. And it’s not just email – I’ve designated different areas of the apartment for all different types of work, and by sticking to that over and over I’m automatically primed for what I need to do when I work from each place. For example, I always write my blog posts and newsletters from the same seat at the dining room table. I use another seat at this same table for administrative and bookkeeping work, I only sit on the couch when it’s internet play-time (aka non-work stuff), and I take all phone calls from the small desk in my bedroom. This probably isn’t how most people typically operate, but I mean, since I only check email while standing up I’m that much more likely to answer it quickly and efficiently because, uh, I REALLY WANT TO SIT THE FUCK DOWN, you know??

2. Eat at the same time every day
The fewer decisions you need to make on a daily basis, the better. Wasting time on trivial stuff like what to wear and when to exercise and what to eat draws on your decision-making reserves, which, like willpower, have a very finite cap. Making decisions – any kind of decisions – requires a certain amount of time and energy, and if you want to be able to save more time and energy for the things that really matter, that means spending less time on the things that don’t. With this in mind, I operate under a web of self-created systems that are designed to eliminate decision-making fatigue. For example, I eat a mini meal at the same six times each day (7am, 10am, 1pm, 3:30pm, 6:30pm, and 9pm), and I eat roughly the same type of meals each day. I’ve found this to be perfect for ensuring that my blood sugar and energy levels remain stable, with the added benefit that I’m never wasting time by trying to figure out when and what to eat. Do I stick to this super rigidly every day? Of course not. But it’s a formula I follow more often than not, and it works for me. And that’s the key: your self-created systems have to work for you, and as soon as you find something that helps you conserve your energy by making fewer decisions, you’ll notice the overflow of energy into the more important areas of your life and, all of the sudden, you’ll find yourself being more productive than ever.

3. Master the art of the 1-hour time slot
It has taken me years – actual YEARS – to teach myself what an appropriate daily to-do list looks like. In the past, I’d make lists of all the things I was going to get done on a given day and, of course, the list was wildly unrealistic. I never even came close to accomplishing everything on it, and I’d end the day feeling like shit about not meeting my goals. The trick, I’ve learned, is to think about my day in 1-hour time slots. If I’m going to work from X time to X time, that means I have a set amount of 1-hour time slots. The benefit of thinking of your workday by hour is that it’s a lot easier to be realistic when you’re making a to-do list for an hour than when you’re making it for the whole day. Asking yourself, “Can I accomplish this task/action step in an hour?” is a much easier question to answer than, “What do I want to get done today?” and I’ve found that by dividing my day’s worth of hour-long time slots up by project and batching everything for each project together, I’m able to a) set much more realistic daily goals and b) end the day feeling fulfilled and productive.

4. Put your legs up the wall
In the past few months, I’ve been practicing what I now feel is the single most effective time management technique: transition activities. A transition activity is exactly what it sounds like – it’s an activity you do to help you transition from one thing to another – and including these activities throughout my day has revolutionized my daily schedule. Last week, I talked a lot about the concept of rest and how getting quality downtime is what separates people who are successful from people who aren’t, but that doesn’t just apply to taking a day or a weekend off. I’ve found that, instead, the best way to integrate quality rest in my life is to do it on a frequent basis, multiple times a day, which is why I now include regular transition activities between tasks. For example, after doing two solid hours of work, I’ll take five minutes and put my legs up the wall while closing my eyes. After lunch, I might take a 10-minute walk before checking my email and getting back to work. Between 1-hour time slots I’ll get up and make a cup of peppermint tea. At the end of the workday, I might listen to a podcast while tidying up the apartment to help me transition from “work mode” to “rest of my life” mode. And, after a few months of doing this, I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter what the activity is, it just matters that I give myself small, regular breaks instead of trying to power through and do more and more and more, all day long.

And I know what you might be thinking: “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR STUFF LIKE THAT,” because that’s exactly what I used to think. But guess what? YES YOU DO. Because giving yourself 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there helps prevent burn-out, which in turn makes you much more productive than if you just forced yourself to check your email again and again for those 20 extra minutes.

And hey, an extra 20 minutes is totally enough time to eat a bowl of green beans in the bathtub, right?

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

christa February 25, 2013 at 8:52 am

i am truly awful about taking breaks at work. i’ll get here at 8 and look up after what seems like 5 minutes, and it’s 11:30 and i have to sprint down the hall because holy shit i have to pee so bad, but why am i just now realizing it?!
my colleagues might think it’s weird if they walk by my office and see me putting my legs up the wall. but then, they’ve seen me booty dancing to ‘my humps’ in my office, so i figure they’re immune to anything else. why not!
i miss working from home sometimes – you’re right, you can be as weird as you want there!

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Katie February 25, 2013 at 9:01 am

Transition methods: YES, YES, YES. Since I have 2 main jobs, but both are often done from the same office, I need a bit of transition time for me to “commute” to the next job. Some days, I decide to bring a change of clothes to the office so I feel like I’m dressed differently. Other days, I’ll move the desk to face a new direction so it’s a new perspective.

Good stuff from you (again!), Nicole!

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Kirby February 25, 2013 at 10:09 am

I like the idea of the one hour tasks. I’m often over ambitious with what I think I can accomplish on the weekend. I don’t think of my tasks in terms of time.

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MB February 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I have the same problem. (One Friday afternoon, I made a list of everything I hoped to get done over the weekend. When I started considering the time involved in each task, I realized I was trying to squeeze a week’s worth of task into two days! (That doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly figured out how to pare down my to-do list, however…I still often overbook my weekends!)

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Thekla Richter February 25, 2013 at 1:34 pm

I really love your point about transitions and rest. Both are so important and task-switching is yet another thing that can take a lot of your decision energy. Creating rituals around it can ease our minds into it with less resistance.

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Jo-Anne February 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I am a big fan of setting time limits for doing stuff like checking email, blogging and housework otherwise I would spend so much time doing one thing and not get enough done during the day………

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Jena February 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I love this post so much, I’ve been struggling with time management for a long time. I’m actually trying to make the transition from working out of home to working from home, but the thing is I have no real idea of how to even start doing that. I’m trying to balance between my out of home job and what I want to be doing at home, but since I work at night – and I’d much rather work during the day on most days, I’m having trouble getting the time to fit everything in.

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Tami - Teacher Goes Back To School February 25, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Legs up the wall is pretty much the cure for all that ails you. I try to do at least one restorative yoga pose and day and it makes a HUGE difference in everything I do.

Taking time for yourself is key for productivity and sanity.

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Anna {Herbivore Triathlete} February 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I am the master at making humongous to-do lists and then feeling like shit when I don’t get everything done! I’m working on it and getting better though, it’s difficult to rewire my thinking after so many years of doing things this way.

I like you, eat 6 mini meals per day, at almost the same times (freaky right?) and have found this to be perfect for me. I’m never hungry, my blood sugar stays stable and I never have that “holy shit I ate too much” feeling.

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Joanne Tombrakos February 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm

This is laugh out loud funny….and oh so true for anyone who has ever worked from home. The whole managing time thing became such a challenge for me, I too block out everything in one hour time slots, with the help of a kitchen timer. Something about the ticking sound soothes me. In fact I wrote an entire ( albeit, short) book on the subject called It Takes An Egg Timer, A Guide To Creating The Time For Your Life.
What really got me was the putting your legs up the wall part. I do that too!!
Thanks for a productive, true, and very funny read.

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nikkiana February 26, 2013 at 6:42 pm

You have no idea how comforting I found this post. There are so many times throughout my phases of work from home career when I’ve been working from home that I get wrapped up in this whole notion that I’m somehow “doing it wrong” because I’ve developed my own strange routines for getting things done.

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Vincent Churchil March 5, 2013 at 8:56 am

Standing up stuff is really interesting, not just because its funny, but it makes sense too. We stand up sometimes to relax and that time too can be utilized to manage time. To make the task simpler and understandable, we started using Replicon’s timekeeping software for tracking and managing time.

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Clare March 16, 2013 at 8:09 am

It’s an inspiration to find a post like this. I always used to break up my work hours into hourly chunks whilst working at University since I had set goals from Lecturers but being self-employed now, I’ve slipped out of the habit. It’s inspirational to know that these methods work and that what I was doing in University, was the right way of working. I’ll most definitely try and practice these methods to help my daily workflow in the self-employed situation I am in now. Thank you.

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Rebecca March 18, 2013 at 10:40 am

I have to say I am complete shit at time management (today being case IN POINT!). But I AM very glad I found this post. :) I think the email thing alone might be worth its weight in gold, since that’s a huge time suck for me and I haven’t found a way to nip it yet. I’m not sure I can do it standing up (imac on a desk) but I am sure I can find a way to make it less comfy, and therefore far easier to a. not do so often and b. quit it and walk away as soon as I’m done. Thanks for the rad ideas. :) Cheers!

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Taylor May 12, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Do you mind sharing what types of meals you eat? I find food planning to be endlessly exhausting.

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Saoirse O'Mara May 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Thanks so much for this blog post! There is just so much truth in it, with the energy drainers and overworking from home. Oh, and the weirdness too, of course. I think it took the shop right across the street about two weeks to get used to me coming in in my pyjamas at three in the afternoon and absentmindedly greeting them with “good morning”.

I might try the legs on the wall, since the different areas for different tasks is a bit difficult if you’re living in one single room with a tiny bathroom attached (with two people!).

All the best to you,
Saoirse

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Nikki Creed May 27, 2013 at 9:54 pm

you made me laugh Nicole !
I could relate to so many of the ‘weird stuff’ as i too work from home !!! In particular I have been practising the 1 hr time slots (or sometimes 30mins depending on what it is) which is working so much better than before. And I loved yr solution to the email interuptions by checking them standing up…. never thouught of doing that !
thanks for sharing

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Rachel June 16, 2013 at 8:15 pm

I’ve been happening upon your blog for maybe about a month now. Hitting it every once and a while and liking what I see. This post is the one that is getting me to add you to my RSS feed. Because the idea of eating green beans in the bathtub is perfect and lovely and made me laugh so hard I don’t even know what to do with myself. Awesome.

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Frances@Lila June 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I adore putting my legs up the wall. Last weekend I worked a bunch of hectic weddings (I’m a florist) and when I got home on Saturday night, I lay on the floor with my legs up the wall and said to my husband “I seriously don’t understand why more people don’t do this every day – it’s sooo good.”
A lot of times in my Ashtanga practice I will do legs up the wall (or “viparita karani” technically) as my savasana because it helps me relax so much. It’s great for varicose veins too.
:)
Great tips!
F

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Erin August 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

I was also thinking before I read your post that food and planning meals really takes so much of my time. Small meals work for me and I too was wondering what you have on a regular basis?

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Ona Mangino September 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it tough to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any tips or suggestions? With thanks

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Maame - esi October 17, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Hi Nicole
A really useful article
On summary small changes with huge results
The ‘to day ‘ list is amazing made a significant difference already

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PEARLSPEAK November 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm

brilliant. loved these ideas, especially as I navigate how to optimally manage the time I spend working from home. thanks for sharing your tricks! ; )

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Danielle @ LabelsAreForTinCans December 8, 2013 at 3:04 pm

We are like the same person! Haha I totally have many of these habits (work from home a lot because I am a grad student).

I live in a studio so designating certain areas of my place to specific types of work is key for ever getting anything done! I will totally be trying some of these other tips out this week :)

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Halee January 23, 2014 at 11:25 am

Thank you so much for this. My husband joined the military almost two years ago. We got stationed overseas. This is my first time being unemployed. Staying home all day was driving me crazy. So, I decide to be totally original and start a blog. But even still, that only helped a little. I am trying to be more proactive, and schedule out my day instead of hitting refresh on my blog stats.
You make a lot of great points. Putting my legs up on the wall is the one that really stood out me. This is something I really need to take action on.
Again, thank you for the great tips.
Oh, and eating in the bathtub is not weird… I ate spaghetti just yesterday, and I feel no shame. -H

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Jenna March 6, 2014 at 10:19 am

I love every single one of your tips. Came across your site via The Daily Muse. I employ a lot of these same ideas when not at my workaday job, when I’m home doing my creative work. One of my transition tasks is dishes. Works perfect between writing and reading, or vice versa. I sincerely enjoy the way you write, and laughed out loud a few times. Great post!

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ChubChub April 5, 2014 at 1:48 am

You have coined a phrase I’ve been grasping at for months – decision-making fatigue. YES!

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