Top 5 productivity tips for flexible workers
…and the secret I learned from a 2.5 year experiment
In 2015, after 20 years of being a traditional permie working for The Man, I decided to become a flexible worker in my own small business. I’ve already written about how this has changed my view of work, from being a place to being an activity.
Full disclosure — I’m a project manager by trade, and a practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD®) productivity methodology for over 10 years now, so my approach is more structured than most. Some would rudely say anal or nerdy. But I’m also flexible, adapt easily and can’t bear fixed routine in any way (emptying the dishwasher kills me…I’ve already done it once in my life, how can it ever need doing again?).
I think these are all good reasons why working flexibly has worked so well for me. I really can’t imagine going back to a 9-to-5 working life (well, a 7-to-7 as mine was in reality).
I’ve analysed what exactly has worked over the last 2 and a half years and come up with my Top 5 Productivity Tips for Flexible Workers, all learned from experience. Whether you’re a solopreneur, a micro- or small business owner, an independent freelancer or a flexible worker in someone else’s company, these tips can work for you, too. (Some of them can even work for permies if your company has a flexible working policy):
- Hardscape your weeks
Working flexibly doesn’t involve waking up and thinking for the first time about what you fancy doing that day. That’s maybe a myth we should kill to start. This is not retirement.
Instead, be very clear on what things you really have to be present at this week and this month: meetings, telephone calls and videocons are an obvious starter, but also visiting clients, going to networking events, etc. This kind of obligation should be plugged into your calendar. Things that earn you money should be prioritised.
But if you really are a flexible worker, this also includes your child’s nativity play, or your hobby group’s monthly get-together. If it’s important to your holistic life, prioritise it by plugging it into your diary. Heck I plugged in going to see Wonder Woman during the day before it left the cinema. (I saved money and it felt like a perk sitting there with silver screeners and school truants.)
This gives you a much clearer realistic calendar for dealing with new work coming on board or dealing with clients. I call it hardscaping because it’s there for you to work around, giving you structure to your time that week.
The other reason to do this is to give you some valuable social contact, too. Being a small business owner (as most flexible workers are) can be lonely and isolating otherwise. Ideally you should look a month ahead so an empty week doesn’t creep up on you.
2. Have a helicopter view and a ground-level view to hand
Ever had that frustration of knowing you have space in your (hardscaped) diary, but then wasting time just being paralysed by what to do next? I’ve found this can happen more since working for myself, simply because I don’t have an external influence (a boss or company) structuring my time and priorities.
I’ve found working for a client gives me that obligation-based focus (I don’t want to let them down, I want to do a good job, I actually do want to earn money), but then when I have my own time to work on progressing my business it can be tricky to know where to start. Especially because it rarely earns money directly.
Here’s where I unashamedly call on my GTD practice. Having a clearer picture (which I worked through as an exercise in itself) of what my high-level goals are for my business (the helicopter view) as well as what my next actions are (my ground level view) really helps me be able to work out what to do next. GTD calls this the Horizons of Focus. When you run your own small business, you need to become fluid at moving from one horizon to the other.
You could call it knowing where you’re going so you can work out how to take small steps in the right direction. That way when you do have time to fill, you have more of a pick ’n’ mix choice about what to do. Without this combination of high- and low-level views, you lack an anchor.
3. Abandon multitasking: embrace deep work
Ever tried to download 3 movies together thinking you’re saving time? Then watched them each take 3 times longer because your bandwidth can’t take it? Well that is a bit like multitasking: it’s a great way to do several things badly.
A great benefit of being a flexible worker is being able to have more control over setting your own conditions for working productively. And that means being able to abandon multitasking more for deep work.
It’s a term coined by Study Hacks blogger Cal Newport (I recommend his book: Deep Work). You know that deep work satisfaction — that feeling when you look up from what you’ve been focussed on and find time has passed and you can’t believe how engrossed you were in your activity and how much you’ve achieved?
It’s not that I don’t still have multiple roles to fulfil now that I’m a flexible worker, it’s that I can control how I do this better. So when I set aside time to do deep, focussed work, I switch off email, phone, and app notifications and work somewhere either quiet or buzzy: I’ve found I can write articles, emails or documents well in airports, coffee shops, etc., whereas things involving reading or analysis I need silence for. And a chunk of time to get immersed in the detail.
Work out for yourself what your favoured conditions are for the work you do, find a place that fulfils that and then give yourself the best chance of leveraging those conditions by switching off your distractions. Only good things will happen.
4. Technology can be your friend and your frenemy
Technology is amazing. And amazingly confusing. So use it wisely to enhance your productivity. Work out what problems you have and there will usually be an app to solve it. But stop using what you don’t get on with or what takes more time and effort than reward.
My own best technology friends are:
- Xero: our easy-to-use online accounting system, importantly generates invoices so I can get paid real money.
- Nozbe: my multi-platform to-do list, project management tool and note jotting app. Basically my whole life is in here. Enables me to jump back into client projects without losing track of anything. Freaks people out that you remembered something. Gives me my Horizons of Focus.
- Evernote: particularly the Web Clipper to save useful websites, articles, even online quotes for future reference. Great tagging for useful searching afterwards.
- Time Recording Pro: I charge for some work by the hour, and this Android-based time logging app is simple and intuitive to click on and off. Can be set for different rates for different clients. But even if you don’t earn money this way, measuring how much time you really spend on a task can be useful and help you improve your productivity and profitability.
- WhatsApp: gave up on mobile phone calls and sometimes Skype and started to use this where there is wifi/mobile signal. Saves money on international calls, and clients started to see the benefits.
- MailChimp: amazing marketing list & campaign tool enabling us to do what much bigger companies can.
- Zoho Mail: I wanted an email provider away from the big boys. So far it hasn’t let me down and is growing all the time with additional apps.
- Spotify: I couldn’t be without music and I travel a lot. Just remember to download your favourites before your 11 hour flight (she says not at all from bitter experience).
- Jabra mini conference hub (Jabra Speak 410): this is the only hardware I’ll mention: it’s priceless. Gives me conference phone features on the move and also serves as a wee music speaker in hotel rooms.
5. Leverage working flexibly
I have found one of the biggest benefits of flexible working is the whole point of it: to be able to define where, when and how I work.
I’ve worked with a core client leading a global project, so this ability to work anywhere at flexible times really came into its own: I could be on conference calls early in the morning with Singapore or in the evening with Mexico. When I travel on a client job, I work solidly whilst I’m away to make real progress on that work, knowing I can come home and maybe have a few days of doing other things. Even going to the cinema in the daytime.
Pay attention to your own body clock. When you don’t have to be limited by another company’s rules, set your own for when you want to work. If you’re a night owl, aim to do your deep work in the evenings (you can Tivo or stream ‘important’ TV you don’t want to miss). Some people put their kids to bed and get a few hours done before switching off for the night. Same for early mornings. My wife tells me there’s nothing as magical as getting some deep working hours done whilst the rest of the street (including me) is asleep.
Also listen to your energy levels. One of the things I’ve always loved about David Allen’s GTD methodology is that he tells you to do activities taking into account your available energy. A huge benefit of working flexibly is that you’re more able to do this than someone in an office with a boss hovering nearby. So if you know you’re lacking focus or are a bit tired, then do something else. Heck, do nothing if it means you don’t have to redo something you did badly. Or hack away at something less important but a bit mindless: I often reconcile Xero invoices when I’m like that, or go on a stationery buying errand. In a small business it all needs to be done, so save some jobs for those low-energy times.
So what’s the simple secret that I’ve learned about flexible working in this time? I’ve given you clues in each Top Tip. It’s this:
The secret to flexible working is to have an underlying structure
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that working flexibly is about working without structure. Just like a jazz musician can only riff when she has enough experience to understand the given boundaries of music, so it is for us Flexible Workers: you need more structure, not less, to make working flexibly be more productive. Well, at least if you ever want to earn any money.