When I left my job as an executive and made the switch to small-business entrepreneur, I faced the challenge of time management. Suddenly, the hour-by-hour structure to which I had grown accustomed was replaced by a lot of free time. But this extra time was not an indication of less work; rather, the success of my company was dependent on doing more work and using more complex skills.
More and more of us are moving away from the traditional 9-to-5 workday toward a flexible schedule that allows us to work on our time, at our pace. This article shares the ways in which I’ve learned to add structure to a schedule that is inherently flexible.
Reflect on the Big Picture
No matter who you are or what you do, having a tantalizingly juicy goal will keep you moving forward. Why? Because these juicy goals are just as exciting to think about as they are to achieve. Your goal drives the rest of your decision-making. Reflect on this goal every so often to make sure you are moving closer to achieving it. Feelings of burnout can be a sign that you have stagnated from your goal, or that your goal is no longer meaningful to you. If so, you may want to consider a little personal re-branding to set you up for more meaningful success.
Know Your Motives
Knowing what you want to achieve is an important first step, but knowing why you want to achieve it will inspire action that propels you forward. If you’re able to articulate your motivation, you’ll be more likely to follow through when things get hard. I encourage you to think about what intrinsically motivating factors drive the ‘why’ behind what you want to achieve. Does your response align with your big-picture goal? Apply this motivation technique to any area of your life to achieve your greatest success.
Get Specific with Your Tasks
It’s hard to dive into a task that seems overwhelming. I make excuses like, “I only have an hour, so I guess I will wait to start when I have more time.” In reality, sometimes I only ever get an hour at a time. One of the most effective methods for negating this thinking is to break things into smaller, actionable items. A good rule of thumb is to split the project into 15-30 minute tasks, so even when you only have an hour, you can still move forward. Cross off each action upon completion so you always know what’s remaining and what’s already been done (I love crossing things off because it gives me a sense of accomplishment).
When you manage a flexible schedule, time is your most valuable resource. Time-blocking helps you optimize your time so that you have the most productive day ever. It forces you to focus on your top priorities for whatever amount of time reflects their importance.
For example, I set aside time every Monday to time-block my schedule for the coming week. After I identify the non-negotiable elements, I block out time for deep, focused work, which I schedule during a time when I can be alert- and distraction-free. I like to physically block out chunks of time in my Spark Planner, but you can do this using a standard notebook or your Google calendar. Finally, I make sure to let people know when I am and am not available.
Find Your Rhythm
Along with getting a good night’s sleep, I also create mini-rhythms during the day to keep me alert and focused. The Pomodoro Technique is a great tool to help you develop mini-rhythms within your routine. It’s simple: 25 minutes of deep-focused work, followed by a 5-minute break. It means that you have to commit yourself to the task at hand: no checking email, phone notifications or snack breaks! This technique also requires use of a timer (checking your phone or the clock could be considered a distraction), so I use the Essington Timer for keeping track of my time.
I get the most done when I don’t have too much dead space in my schedule. Why? Because I’m better at prioritizing my time when I know that there are constraints. I’m also better at scheduling my day in advance when I know that it’s crunch-time. That way, I’m able to move seamlessly from one task to the other without having to waste time figuring out what I should work on next.
If you’ve moved from a crazy structured schedule to a more flexible pace, as I did, you might find that you have extra time in your schedule. To avoid wasting that time, start a side project that keeps you feeling busy. Filling in those empty parts of the day will help you build structure into your flexible schedule. The side project will ideally be related to your job, but you can also do something that is creatively fulfilling or that challenges you intellectually. Focus your efforts on something that helps you grow.
Recharge Your Batteries
You can’t run on fumes, Knowing when to take a break can be especially challenging when you are responsible for designing your own schedule. In fact, taking time off usually results in better productivity during your workweek because you’re fresh and well-rested. If you have a unique schedule due to your work, make sure you add in scheduled breaks that are long enough to allow you to fuel your body and soul, spend time with your family, and catch up on sleep.
Make It a Habit
It’s not enough to have one really productive day. Make productivity a habit that you can practice every day until it feels natural. Trying to implement every tip on this list at once might be hard to sustain; instead, try a handful. Once they start to flow with your work schedule, try implementing a few more until you’ve streamlined your productivity. Remember that it takes time to form a habit. I’m a big believer that small changes can result in a big payoff.