I refuse to mention the word Christmas – damn – but on this first day of November, some things do change and the year is canted toward its end. Plus you know that January is for making resolutions, February is for breaking them and March is for admitting that you actually broke them within a day and a half. November has a purpose too and it’s you.
Back in January you were under all this pressure to declare your plans for the year. Nobody’s asking you to do that in November and actually fewer people are asking you to do anything. Depending on your industry, this can be a slow time and that’s typically true of freelance writing. When you do get work in then stuff everything I’m saying to you and go do that. But when you don’t, do this instead.
Look for some new places to pitch your work. A couple of Novembers ago, I made a list of ten companies I quite liked the sound of and only one of them listened to me. But they became a major source of income, they’ve accounted for maybe a third of the money I’ve earned since then. So you can say that my list of ten was rubbish and worthless and pointless, you can say that I should’ve just gone to this lot. I definitely did say repeatedly that this was a rubbish idea as I worked through the list and nothing was happening. But I still remember the moment, sitting in a Costa Coffee, when I hesitated over whether to bother continuing.
I think that nine failures made my approach to the last lot better or at least more practised. I also think that nine failures meant I wasn’t hoping for anything with the tenth and that I therefore had a busy, an un-needy attitude in that approach. I also know that if it had taken a lot of time I wouldn’t have bothered.
Whereas I think it probably took me two hours over the course of a week to compile that list of ten places; I expect that it took me less time than that to approach them all, and it made a huge difference to my productivity for the next two years.
The trouble is that you don’t think you’ve got two hours to spare over this week. Very often you haven’t, but as we head toward the end of 2016, you’re going to find the time. And if you don’t, if you’re so busy that you haven’t got the time, take it anyway. I’m not saying lie to your client or your employer about how you’ve just spent the last two hours, but only because they might hear me.
Look, back in the olden days before there were clocks and deadlines, time was this vague, huge thing with little more than the seasons to mark its passing. Compare that to now when we can know time to the minute and we use it to the second: we have cultivated time.
If that’s true then I think it follows that we have to tend and farm time. There is a point when we sow and a point when we harvest.
And if I went even a pixel further I think I would break this analogy so I’ll shut up. But I’ve thought about this far more than it can seem here, certainly far more than is healthy, and the useful thing I’ve taken away from it is that we need breaks.
That without a break, over-worked soil will cease to be able to grow anything.
If I told you that the average person needs seven to eight hours sleep per night, you would not rush to hit the Facebook share button. But what’s less well known, certainly by me, is that there is an amount of time we each take to wake up – and that’s it’s several hours.
Fast Company doesn’t share all its working out but its article by Stephanie Vozza has specific advice on when best to get things done, particularly when you’ve got to work with other people. Two examples:
If you want to get a reply to your email, consider sending it early in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Reply rates are highest in the morning—about 45%—according to the Yesware study.
Fewer emails are sent during these time slots, lowering competition. The study also found all weekdays to be equal. So don’t worry about the day; focus on the morning, instead.
Monday-morning meetings are a staple at many companies, but if participation is low, there’s a reason why. Only one in three employees is likely to attend, according to a study by the online scheduling service WhenIsGood.net: “If you have a meeting at 9 a.m., employees will need to prepare the day before, or turn up underprepared,” research coordinator Keith Harris told Inc.. If they’re not prepared, they won’t come up.
Get more participation by holding meetings at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, the company found. Tuesday afternoon stands out “because that is the furthest you can get from the deadlines at the end of the week without bumping into the missed deadlines from the week before,” said Harris.
Maybe this doesn’t apply when you’re trying to juggle a 9-5 job and writing or you’re a writer with a baby on your arm half the day, but there is an argument that the number of hours you work does not equal the amount you get done.
A properly dry academic research paper by John Pencavel looked into it and 25 pages later concluded:
This re-examination of the recommendations relating to hours of work of the HMWC finds them
broadly consistent with our analysis: at the levels of working hours in 1915 and 1916 during the War, hours reductions would have had small or no damaging effects on output; those weeks without a day of rest from work had about ten percent lower output than weeks when there was no work on Sunday holding weekly hours constant; night work was not less productive than day work and, indeed, may have been slightly more productive.
If you’re not, it boils down to how working 55 hours can achieve the same results as working 70 and I think we knew that. We ignore it and press on into the night, but the quality of our work and the speed drops stone-like after a while.
Find a few things on your To Do list that won’t take a lot of time and do them. They’re quick wins because without much time and probably without much effort, you’ve knocked some stuff off your list.
It’s like taking baby steps or building up to doing something big except these things were real and they needed to be done so you’ve built up usefully. The sense you have that you’re on your way, you’re getting things sorted out, is real because it is real.
You can’t just do the quick stuff, you have to buckle down to the difficult and the long, but knocking off a few fast tasks is a good way to get yourself started on those.
Some To Do software including OmniFocus lets you say how long you think a task will take. I have never used this. I never will. I just think the time I spend working out time I’ll spend on a task is time I could be spending doing the task. Nonetheless, if you like doing this or it feels more natural to you than it does to me, you can assign approximate times to any or all of your tasks – and then choose to see a list of all those taking 10 minutes or less.
There are also To Do apps that let you assign an energy level to a task. I don’t even know if my OmniFocus does this because I’m not sure where to look. But if your To Do app does this, you could get it show you all the tasks that don’t need much oomph from you. All the ten minute tasks that you can do in your sleep: that’s a To Do list you can knock through quickly.
One thing I do often do is a Quick Win Hour. Take a moment to find ten things on your list or make up ten new things. Whichever it is, you do ten and you do that very, very quickly. Then you set a timer on your phone for one hour and you do all ten.
I’ve done this perhaps half a dozen times over the last two years and only once did I ever complete all ten within the time but, grief, it was close every other time. And despite or maybe because of my being so focused on the ten and the hour, I didn’t really register that each time I was getting up to ten things done off my list.
In a study of 1,000 U.S. professionals, 94% said they work 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group putting in more than 65 hours a week. And that doesn’t include the 20-25 hours/week most of them spend monitoring their phones while outside the office. If aren’t auditing how we spend our most valuable resource, our time, who else will? Nobody ever dies saying “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”
Well, true, but a lot of us have wished we’d spent more time at our keyboards writing. This article is about understanding what you spend your hours on so that you can be more in control of your time. There’s that great Douglas Adams line he gives to a security guard on low pay: “The hours are good. The actual minutes are pretty lousy”. I’m paraphrasing because I’ve decided to spend this time talking to you instead of looking up the accurate quote.
I think the 99U piece is a bit academic at times and it really is canted toward getting you out of the office – so it even recommends exercise, shudder – but there’s a lot of good advice in it. Do read the full piece.
It kills me that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Then I work all the hours in the day and that kills me. Here’s an idea for getting back some of the time that otherwise fritters away on, you know, like relaxing and socialising and stuff.
Take Back Afternoons: Productivity After the Post-Lunch Slump
When lunchtime breaks up my day, I’m terrible at getting back into a productive flow. I’m not unique in struggling to work through the afternoons, though. Most of us tend to have a dip in energy in the early afternoon, often known as the “post-lunch slump”. Research suggests that our bodies are designed to have a short sleep around this time to complement our nighttime sleep.
This regular slump in energy is obviously bad news for anyone, but it’s especially bad when you work remotely (as I do) and need to discipline yourself to complete tasks.
The best way I’ve found for kicking myself into gear is to have a deadline to push up against. If you remember ever writing furiously at 11:45 p.m. to finish a school essay and submit it by midnight, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s something about deadlines that help us overcome our worst procrastination habits.
So I took this self knowledge and used it to hack my routine in such a way that I’m now getting significantly more done with less last-minute scrambling.
There’s some smart and simple advice from productivity writer Grace Marshall: get a stopwatch. Well, if you have a phone, you have a stopwatch, but get it and use it. Time what you do.
Time your distractions
Next time you tell yourself you’re just going to have 5 minutes on Facebook – set a stop watch and see how long you actually spend. It may only take 5 minutes to post your update, but if you start scrolling, clicking and exploring links, how long is that actually taking?
Test those two minute jobs
We all have things we perpetually underestimate. What are yours? For me it’s the bitty jobs. The things I think will only take two minutes (e.g. email file) but actually take anything from 5 minutes (connect to server, wait, find file, type email, press send) to 15 (oh wait, that’s the wrong format, fix that, change the date, add that other bit of information, save it to PDF, check it looks alright, now type the email and send it…) Next time you tackle your simple, mundane or bitty jobs, use a stopwatch and see what you discover.
Alternatively, do this to get yourself ready to sleep tonight and start fresh tomorrow:
Start by identifying an exact time when you want to be in bed. Be specific. Trying to go to bed “as early as possible” is hard to achieve because it doesn’t give you a clear idea of what success looks like. Instead, think about when you need to get up in the morning and work backwards. Try to give yourself 8 hours, meaning that if you’d like to be up by 6:45am, aim to be under the covers no later than 10:45pm.
Next, do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).
Once you’ve established a specific bedtime goal and found ways of rooting out time-sinks, turn your attention to creating a pre-sleep ritual that helps you relax and look forward to going to bed.