“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”
Have you heard this quote from Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip by American cartoonist Bill Watterson? As a Freelancer and Virtual Professional, I often feel like I never have enough time to do nothing. I love to just daydream, watch a sunset, putter around, and recharge.
But if I look closely at how I’m using my time during work hours, I notice that I’m often doing nothing when I want to be doing something. As I sit down to write this blog post, I find myself staring into space, thinking about another project on the go. Or in the middle of writing, I’ll hear an email notification, and all of a sudden my attention has shifted to answering messages that aren’t always urgent.
Although I have been doing something, by the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.
If you’re in this boat too, remember that it’s not always a case of being lazy or irresponsible with our time. Sometimes we’re unproductive because of how much we care about our clients. We get distracted because we want to respond quickly to emails, and we daydream about other projects because we want to do them well.
In any case, here are some tips and strategies to help you optimize your daily schedule so you can get work done:
1. “If I had nine hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening my ax.” – Abraham Lincoln.
Many activities in life include a warm-up or a “sharpening” of tools. If you play sports or a musical instrument, there’s a period of time where you limber up so you can safely and proficiently accomplish great things.
It’s interesting then that in our businesses, we often hit the ground running before we’re even out of bed. In an article titled “5 tips for optimizing your crazy workday, from a productivity expert,” Courtney Connley shares advice from productivity expert Julie Morgenstern. To start our day off right, Morgenstern recommends “ditching” the smartphone and using a traditional alarm clock to wake up. Doing so can help us “create an enriching morning routine that does not immediately begin with work” instead of reaching for our smartphone and checking emails as soon as we’re awake.
Since YOU are the most important tool in your business, easing into the day with an “enriching morning routine” will make you sharp and ready to accomplish your tasks. This routine may vary, depending on your individual needs and preferences. Some examples are
• A healthy breakfast
• A great cup of coffee
• An early morning workout
• A little bit of TV, music, or reading
• A time of quietness and reflection
• Whatever you need to start the day off right!
2. “Starve your distractions. Feed your focus.” – Anonymous
I like to think I have a good memory and a sharp focus. I can remember watching my parents put up wallpaper in my bedroom when I was two years old. But when I’m distracted, I forget whether I put water in the coffee pot two minutes ago. I also have the dubious distinction of forgetting to put coffee grounds in the filter and brewing up a tasty mug of plain hot water.
As much as possible, it’s important to limit your distractions and create an environment where you can focus deeply on one thing at a time. You may want to silence your email notifications and plan regular intervals to check your messages. You may want to close the door to your office so that other activity in the house won’t interrupt you. And you need to find a way to focus your mind on the task at hand.
If you charge by the hour, or if your client requires timesheets each month, you may already be familiar with time tracking software and Pomodoro timers. Setting a timer like Toggl for a certain period of time, especially when it’ll be recorded on a timesheet, is a good way to “feed your focus.” Even better if your promise yourself a nice break and reward at the end of your concentrated work time.
In a previous blog post titled “Ten Tools for Working Smarter and Faster in Your Virtual Business,” we also discuss RescueTime and other handy software and apps that can help limit distractions and optimize your efficiency.
And if your mind drifts and you have an “Aha!” moment about another project, sometimes scribbling the ideas down on a piece of paper or typing them into an app like Evernote can help you do a quick brain dump and then return to the task at hand.
3. “Success is 20% skills and 80% strategy. You might know how to read, but more importantly, what’s your plan to read?” – Jim Rohn
It’s hard to be productive without a plan. Depending on what stage you’re at in your Virtual Assistant or Freelance journey, you may have one client or twenty clients. You may have varied tasks or similar tasks. Whatever the case, coming up with a plan of attack can help you optimize your daily schedule.
Sujan Patel recommends we “eat the frog first” in his article, “Optimize Your Daily Schedule for Maximum Productivity — Here’s How.” He explains,
“If you eat a frog first — do your worst task before anything else — then the rest of your tasks will seem easy in comparison. You’ll be able to better focus on them because you won’t be thinking about that dreaded task.”
He also recommends grouping your similar tasks together and getting those done in one chunk of time. In my case, I would follow his advice by answering emails and social media comments within the same time frame, and designating a different time frame for all kinds of research (like content research for an article I’m going to write and internet research for a client). Then I would group all types of editing into one time frame, and article writing for another separate time frame.
And these different groups of tasks should ideally fit within a defined office hours schedule you create for yourself. Setting office hours can help you reach your goals for completing tasks and give you a finish line to strive towards.
4. You can have it all. Just not all at once. – Oprah Winfrey
The first few strategies we’ve talked about apply to those hours when we’re working from home on our online businesses. If you’re a full-time Virtual Assistant or Freelancer, you likely have some flexibility for how you plan your time. But what if you’re juggling a job on the side?
You may feel like you’re spinning plates, and the minute you focus on one plate, another one is in danger of falling to the ground. Oprah’s quote is good encouragement to pace yourself. If your goal is to transition to working full-time from home, there may be a few bumps along the way as you prioritize items on your schedule. But it’s doable.
In his article “How to Juggle Your Day Job While Pursuing Your Dream,” Saul Bowen advises against saying yes to every project offer just because you think it will help you build a good reputation. He explains,
“This is the number one trap people fall into by accident. Having lots of work is good, but it’s far better to have a smaller number of high-quality manageable project recommendations. It’s tough to get that if you’re running around trying to complete fifty projects at once. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
“The best piece of advice I was ever given is this: Aim big, but start off small. You know what you want to be doing, but until you’ve had some time to sink your teeth into smaller projects you won’t know how to go about it. Take those baby steps!”
He also recommends you “keep your job and your passion separate.” In other words, avoid doing your Virtual Assistant or Freelance work while you’re at your other job. It’s like the strategy we mentioned above about grouping similar tasks together. It’s hard to focus and be productive if you’re dividing your attention.
And then there’s all those good things like sleep, recreation, and quality time with family and friends. If you’re working an eight-hour job outside the home, it’s hard to fit everything in.
In my freelance journey, I’ve found that it’s important to pinpoint when you’re most productive and decide what type of schedule works for you. If you’re a morning person, you could get up earlier and fit in some virtual work before you head out to your other job. If you aren’t a morning person, that type of schedule may quickly burn you out.
If you’re a night owl, you could get up at your usual time and then spend some hours at night on your virtual work. The important thing is to try not to burn the candle at both ends, and make sure you schedule time to recharge on your own and with your loved ones.
As Saul Bowen says in the article above, “It’s great to want to spend every spare moment trying to build your career, but it will lead to you burning out, which is going to set you back a lot more than a couple of hours with your friends or family will.”
So, optimizing your daily schedule is a bit of give and take. But it can be done! As Calvin and Hobbes would say, these tips and strategies we’ve talked about can help you do some of “the nothing you want” by freeing up time that might otherwise be wasted.
How do you maximize your time in your Virtual Assistant or Freelance work? We’d love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.