Reaching high productivity is undoubtedly one of the main goals we set for our professional careers. We all know that productive people can get more stuff done in a day, make more money, and have a bigger impact. But, in practice, the path to our ultimate performance can be strange, surprising, and sometimes even counter-intuitive.
Like, for example the concept of using a timer.
But before I can explain it, let me make one observation. The idea of productivity tends to be much more difficult to grasp for people who are working for themselves (freelancers, business owners, etc.) than for individuals working standard 9-5 jobs.
The main problem is that as long as you have a boss to look over you, you don't have to worry about things like what to do next and what the true point of your tasks is. This is your boss's job. With all this out of the way, you can focus on the job itself, which in result allows you to produce much better results.
The story is completely different if you're your own boss. In such a situation, you realize fairly quickly that the number of tasks to do is so vast that it's difficult to pick the most time sensitive ones and do them maintaining clear focus, and without missing the big picture (your main business goals). As a result, your productivity decreases dramatically.
How to fight it? First, we have to fight the impression of freedom…
Being a free man
Freedom. Probably one of the main benefits of working for yourself, isn't it? If you're your own boss then you don't have to play by the rules, show up to work at 9AM, work 8 hours every day, and go home. You can have your own schedule and do as much work every day as you wish.
However, this freedom is a slow productivity killer. If there are no day by day time constraints then it's very difficult to find a starting point and work effectively throughout the day. And trust me, I know…
This is exactly the problem I had to face a couple of years ago. Even though I was free to do my work whenever I wanted to, some days I felt almost like paralyzed with all the options, possible tasks, and the environment I was in. I needed to take drastic steps to fix this, so I decided to limit my freedom a bit.
Introducing a timer
Starting to use a timer to manage my work was one of the most groundbreaking things I did for my productivity.
Now, what do I mean by a timer? The timer I use is a simple clock-like device (a stopwatch) that can be set to a given amount of time and then count down to 0. When the time is up, it makes a sound. As simple as this.
The device itself is a very simple piece of machinery, the secret, however, is in the method. I knew that starting to work whenever I felt like it was no solution. Most of the time I would end up not doing anything for the whole day.
I decided to stick to the following schedule, and repeat it a couple of times (2-4 times) throughout the day:
- Work for 50 minutes.
- Have a 10 minute break.
- Work for another 50 minutes.
- Have a 30 minute break.
I'm sure you can figure out where the timer comes into play here… I simply use it to make sure that I work and relax for the precise amount of time I've planned.
There are likely two things you're thinking right now: (1) this is too simple to be effective, (2) this is complete slavery.
(1) Yes, it is simple, but it's also exceptionally effective. After a while of working like that, your brain gets used to the schedule and allows you to use your full processing power when the time for work comes.
If you're working without a schedule throughout the whole day, your brain doesn't know when you really need your resources, and being at your top performance 24 hours a day is simply not possible. Every two hours or so you will find yourself struggling to get anything done. This is simply when you're catching your brain off guard, so to speak.
Quite simply, if your brain knows the schedule then it can adjust and work as your ally in arms, instead of yet another layer of resistance.
(2) Now, about the slavery thing. At first, having a timer telling you when to work does not sound very attractive, but the result is quite surprising. When I first gone through my initial day of working that way I didn't feel like a slave. I felt like I'm free again!
Free to enjoy the time when I'm now working, and free to not worry that there's anything else I could have done during the day. And most importantly of all, I knew that I'm the one controlling the situation.
In the end, restricting my freedom was the best thing for my personal productivity and the amount of things I can do during the day (in my case, it was key to my productive writing).
And this reminds me of one more thing. Setting some time constrains helps you to create distraction free work environment. When you know that there's just so much time left to work then the temptation to spend it on Facebook or any other common distraction is no longer that strong… You know that in X minutes you will be allowed to have your short relaxation and enjoy whatever you wish, including Facebook.
I guess that the only thing left for me to do here is to encourage you one more time to try this technique for yourself. Give it a week or so. Besides, it's not like you're risking anything… The technique does work for most people I shared it with, so feel free to let me know how it plays out for you.