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As a solo myself – web developer, writer, and aspiring novelist – I’m fascinated by the nexus of the solopreneur (I call us “Couch Warriors”) experience and the question of increasing productivity.
How we get our stuff done, why we don’t get our stuff done, how we make our choices about what gets done and when, why sometimes it seems so perfectly impossible to get it all done when others seemingly breeze through even busier and more jam-packed-with-stuff-to-do days … these are topics that endlessly intrigue me.
That fascination led to my creation of the Pajama Productivity site a few years back. It dawned on me that the Couch Warrior experience, by its very nature, creates an intensified set of obstacles to getting our crap done. Simply put: we’ve got it harder than your average cubicle dweller.
However, we also have some unique tools and assets that your average cubicle dweller lacks.
The stakes could not be higher.
Most of us choose the “solo biz” life because we can’t imagine ourselves being truly happy and fulfilled doing anything else.
Yet if we don’t get a handle on our own productivity demons – if we cannot get our crap done – then our businesses will fail. We might get a second chance, but odds are we won’t get a third or a fourth. It’s an unforgiving digital world, after all.
Simply put: If you can’t manage to get your crap done – to become truly, ruthlessly productive – then you’re toast. Hang it up and polish up the resume, my friend, ’cause you’re on your way back to W-2-ville.
But if we can manage to dig ourselves out of procrastination and overwhelm, and somehow find our productive stride? All those lovely dreams actually stand a chance of becoming reality.
Believe it or not, getting from panicked to productive isn’t all that rough a trip. I’ve made a bit of a study of all of the advice that’s out there – the various systems and programs, the books, the blogs – and it all basically boils down to three major areas: mindset shifts, setup and strategy, and tactics and techniques.
I. Mindset Shifts
The foundation of any personal change begins with the stories you tell yourself. Your chance of success dramatically increases the more willing you are to think differently.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’ll have to do different things, and you’ll have to do familiar things differently, if you want different results. Some of these things may not feel all that awesome at first. Do them anyway.
- Understand that all productivity advice is going to end with the last step being “do the work.” There’s no way around it. At some point, you’re going to have to do the thing you’re trying to figure out how and when to do.
- Recognize we all have the same 168 hours every single week. Stop lying to yourself that “you just don’t have time.” That’s not true. If it were something wicked-fun or crucially important, you’d find the time. There’s no difference here.
- Get crystal clear on your ultimate vision. Productivity is all about creating something. What is it that you want to create? Make that vision compelling and detailed.
- Also get crystal clear on your whys. Willpower is weak medicine. Compelling “reasons why” something must get done – that stuff works, and keeps working.
- Stop thinking from the ground up. Instead, reverse engineer your vision into goals and then reverse engineer your goals into tasks and habits. Tasks are things you do once. Habits are things you have to condition yourself to do repeatedly. This process is what helps you get clear on your real priorities.
- Build your walls one brick at a time. Think about consistent, regular, mindful action. Even if it’s imperfect, it beats the crap out of the equivalent of an all-nighter sometime in the future.
- Forget about “work-life balance.” There is no such thing. It’s all your life. Moreover, even if it were possible, it’s not some static state that you achieve once and then just maintain in perpetuity. Think about those balance boards in the gym; you’re constantly shifting, adjusting, and compensating.
II. Setup and Strategy
Now you can focus on practical productivity matters. We’re still working on a big-picture level here, but now we’re taking more concrete actions to set ourselves up for success, rather than failure.
- Invest in the best tools you can afford. Upgrade when you can as needed. The wrong tools will waste your time.
- You are your most important and valuable asset. Treat yourself accordingly. This includes the big three (nutrition, exercise, and sleep) but also includes things like spiritual needs and mental needs (in terms of both continuing your professional education and taking breaks regularly).
- Track your time and energy for a month, at several points during the day. This will give you critical information you can’t get anywhere else — i.e., when you’re most creatively energetic and alert, when you usually experience an energy slump. Use that information to schedule your creative work hours and your routine administrative tasks appropriately.
- Plan a year out in advance if possible. This helps you keep on track with big projects/plans/launches. Put it all on a big wall calendar that you can see at a glance.
- Create a mastermind group. You don’t need to spend thousands to join one. Just look for digital acquaintances in similar but not directly competitive niches. Arrange to meet by phone on a conference line or a Google Hangout twice a month. Each meeting, you can dedicate the bulk of the hour-long meeting to a “hot seat” and rotate so everyone gets a turn over the course of a few months. At the beginning of each meeting, start with a quick 2-minute check-in from everyone, and end with a quick “accountability commitment” round. Keep each other accountable. Create a Facebook group page for your mastermind group to check in with each other in between meetings.
- Think in terms of systems wherever possible. Marketing systems, work task systems, finance systems, email systems – try to identify every task or sequence that you perform more than once, and decide on one series of consistently-taken steps to follow for each. This helps you perform more efficiently, both intellectually and physically.
III. Tactics and Techniques
Now that you’ve created the optimal conditions for increasing productivity, begin to incorporate the following tactics and techniques. Use what works best for you.
- Master the art of processing quickly. There are only four options for any particular task: do it, delete it, defer it, or delegate (outsource) it.
- Keep one list of tasks. Whatever you put on that list becomes a commitment, so don’t go adding things thoughtlessly. Instead …
- … Keep another list just for ideas. Use Levenger’s Circa notebooks, moleskine notebooks, or go digital with Circus Ponies’ Notebook, One Note, or Evernote. Periodically review and choose to transfer one or some to your commitments list.
- Use automation judiciously. BufferApp and other social media tools with automation/scheduling features can save a crap load of time, because …
- … Chunking your schedule helps you become more efficient. Don’t set a goal of “I’m going to research, write, and publish this blog post today.” Instead, try “Today, I research and outline the whole week’s worth of blog posts, tomorrow I’ll draft them, and the next day I’ll set them for publication and shares.” Chunking takes advantage of your brain’s natural tendency to get into a groove or pattern. Switching tasks takes time.
- Use the 2-minute rule. When something comes across your radar, ask “can I do this in two minutes or less?” If so, do it right then and there – you don’t even need to add it to the list (although if you want to, it can provide a nice psychological boost to add an item and then immediately mark it DONE).
- Create and use editorial calendars for all your blog and social media networks.
- From your tasks list, choose 3 “MITs” (Most Important Tasks) every morning to focus on. A good time to do this would be during your regular …
- … Review/Preview sessions. Every morning, preview the day ahead and choose your 3 MITs. Review briefly at the end of the day, and make notes for the next day. You can also do an extended version of this on a weekly basis, which can radically reduce the risk of missed deadlines and last-minute overwhelm.
- Schedule CEO time and make it non-negotiable. We all wear multiple hats as couch warriors. The CEO hat is the top-level vision-setting hat. Schedule some time regularly to put that hat on and raise your game. Think long-term about your business, your vision, your goals. Sketch out new ideas. Come up with new service/product lines. Then later you can switch to your “middle-manager” hat and figure out how to turn those new concepts/ideas into reality for growth.
Now Go Do the Work
The one major takeaway I can offer from my study of productivity is this: It is possible to get it all done , if you strategize and build in accountability steps along the way. You have to be willing to adjust and adapt, and to be brutally honest with yourself about your real obstacles and goals. And having some like-minded help along the way can be invaluable.
Just remember: all this productivity stuff is secondary. Your real goal is to produce something awesome. Don’t let “time management” or the quest to be more productive detract from that goal.