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 coaching 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?