4 Lessons that Helped Me Optimize My Workflow

Finding the right workflow can make a tremendous difference in the productivity of a freelancer, and I have been working very hard at this over the last few weeks. I have made sure that there is enough time each day and each week to accomplish all of the tasks that I’m responsible for. And I’m learning when I’m most productive and have the most energy, and I have been using those times effectively to maximize productivity. But even with careful planning and the best of intentions, managing time and workflow can be a challenge. This week has been one of those times.

This article originally appeared on FreelanceSwitch, and is no longer available online. A version of the original article has been saved on the Internet Archive.

I still do a bit of freelance computer support, and this week an unusual number of businesses in my area had computer problems and called me for help. There were virus problems, hardware incompatibilities, spreadsheet challenges, and a new computer that hadn’t been set up properly. This cut into my regular work time each day, and by the end of the week I decided to reschedule some of my work to the weekend.

Yesterday morning—Saturday morning—I received a panicked phone call from my sixteen-year-old daughter. She and a friend were crossing a busy road, and her friend was hit by a car. I raced to the scene of the accident, followed the ambulance to the hospital, and spent most of the day there being supportive as x-rays and other tests were being done. I arrived home exhausted, slept for a few hours, and didn’t get to my work.

Now it’s late Sunday afternoon, and I still have hours of work to do. Today we have had numbers of visitors and my son’s challenging teenage friend is staying the night. Time and workflow management won’t help—it’s time for raw determination.

Fortunately not every week is like this one. In my article How to Tweak Your Home Office to Be Productive Full-time, I talked about my intention to rethink my workflow to maximize productivity and minimize effort. In the last two weeks I have made some changes that have really helped, and learned a lot about myself. Here are the four most important important lessons I learned:

1. Boundaries and Deadlines Can Be Motivating

I haven’t been a morning person for a very long time. For many years I have felt productive late at night, and have sometimes worked into the early hours of the morning to get things done. But over the last few weeks, it was on the days I got up early that I was most productive.

In my first week of working from home full time, there were two days the kids were home from school – all five of them! They were challenging days. On the other days, I discovered that there aren’t as many hours for work as I expected. If I have a lunch break, there are only four hours or so of productive time between dropping the kids at school and picking them up again. Once the kids were home, I still had half a day’s work to plough through. As a result, I didn’t finish work much before midnight on any day that week, and it got me down.

Early in the second week, I randomly woke at 6:00 am. I decided to get up and start work. By the time I took the kids to school I had done two hours of solid work, which made a big dent into my work for that day. I finished the bulk of my day’s work before I picked them up from school. Psychologically, that made a big difference. I could enjoy my evening without having to worry about undone work. The next day I was awoken at 5:00 am by a stray phone call, got up and straight into my work, and had similar results.

I didn’t expect that rising early would make such a difference in my day. It may not make the same difference for you—we’re all different, and you may be more productive in the middle or at the end of the day. But the real lesson I learned is relevant to us all: boundaries and deadlines can be motivating. On the days I got up early, I knew there was a real chance of getting all of my work done before the kids finished school. That fact motivated me, focused my mind, and inspired me to put in the effort to achieve it.

The previous week I felt that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t be finished work before midnight. As a result, I was less focused, took longer breaks, and didn’t get finished any earlier.

2. I Can Stay Focused Longer by Pacing Myself

Many web workers suffer injury by spending too many hours at the keyboard, so I started to use the Workrave software to remind myself to take regular breaks. I find that it helps – and not just at avoiding RSI. It has been a great tool in helping me to pace myself so I don’t burn all my energy at the beginning of the day.

During my first week of web working full-time, I was putting in long hours. I hadn’t established a routine, and was still learning the best way to do my job. I discovered a new Workrave message I had never seen before: “You’ve been working too long. It’s time to finish for the day.” It would nag me mercilessly for the last few hours of each day, until I disabled that message altogether. One day I might work out the maximum number of hours I want to work in one day and re-enable the message. But if you have a deadline to meet, you just have to keep working!

But the other two things Workrave nags me about have been very helpful. Every ten minutes, Workrave gets me to have a half-minute break. This gives my fingers and eyes a much-needed break, and doing so keeps me working more effectively. And every fifty minutes, Workrave gets me to take a ten minute break from the computer, which is also a good precaution for my long-term health. But I find those messages also help in two other ways.

When I’m writing, sometimes I struggle to get started. It may be that I’m not sure of what to write about, or what to say, or how to say it. Or my mind might be weary, or distracted by something else. During those times I tend to get up from my desk fairly often and wander around the room. I’m not sure whether I’m trying to clear my head, or just escape! But with Workrave, I’m much less inclined to do that. Because I know that there is a half-minute break scheduled every ten minutes, I tend to persevere with my writing until then. My breaks are more controlled, and before I know it, there is a steady stream of ideas traveling from my mind to my fingers.

I also find the ten minute breaks very helpful. I’ve learned not to see them as breaks from work, but breaks from the computer. In those ten minutes away from my computer every hour, I have been sorting and filing boxes of miscellaneous papers, decluttering and organizing my workspace, making phone calls, brewing coffee, and jotting ideas down on paper. I wasn’t sure when I would find time for those types of tasks – I tend to put them off if I’m busy – and ten minutes or so an hour seems just about right.

3. I Must Be Ruthless Handling Interruptions

This is the main lesson I learned in my dreaded first week: lots of small breaks and interruptions add up very quickly, and mean that I probably won’t finish work until midnight. I need to maintain a certain amount of discipline if I want to get all of my work done, and still have a meaningful amount of time left to achieve my other goals in life.

During that first week, my brother-in-law dropped in to visit my wife and I. We don’t see him often, so I decided to stop working and be sociable. Before I knew it, three hours had passed! In hindsight, it would have been wiser to spend one hour catching up with him, then excuse myself and get back to work.

I’ve also noticed that the breaks I take are always trying to make themselves longer. There are so many things clamoring for our attention! It’s like a force of nature: unless I maintain real discipline, I’m sure that half the day would vanish in useless breaks that add nothing to my life. Am I alone, or do you notice the same thing in your routine?

4. I Can Effectively Utilize Spare Moments

Something I dreaded has become something I enjoy, and I have learned a lesson of using dead space in my day to get work done.

Two of my kids work at McDonalds, which is just a five minute drive from where I live, and regularly finish late at night. I used to drive to the restaurant at the time they were due to finish, and wait for them in the carpark. On busy nights, I sometimes had to wait twenty or thirty minutes until they finished their shift, which was very frustrating—especially if I had work waiting for me at home.

Now I do things differently. I leave home half an hour or an hour earlier, go into the restaurant and order a nice coffee and sometimes something to eat, and take advantage of McDonald’s free wifi to get some work done. I enjoy the change of scenery and the coffee, find that I am very productive there, and have lost all of my frustration. If the kids work a bit longer, that’s fine—I get a more work done.

That lesson has made me aware of other opportunities to be productive. I tend to carry my netbook with me everywhere, and now situations that I would have found frustrating help me.

These lessons have made a big difference in my work life. I enjoy working more, get more done, and still have time for the rest of my life. What lessons have you learned about workflow?

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