Yesterday I've crossed two borders, closed three ongoing projects with my clients, sealed the deal with a new prospect and was home by dinner to share a cooked together meal with my significant other.
I work around 25 hours per week, get a healthy eight-hour sleep, take unscheduled day offs and still manage to get more things done, compared to those days when I was glued to my office desk for 60+ hours weekly.
By no means, I am superhuman. Neither I have written all the above to merely show off.
You see, being a location independent solopreneur for over a year now, has taught me some valuable lessons about efficiency and proper time management.
The following hacks might seem bluntly simple. However, once you actually start doing them, you'll notice how your projects get done in lesser and lesser time.
1. Take advantage of Zeigarnik Effect
Did you know that our brains have this in-built nagging feature that will constantly remind you of those activity you left incomplete, thus push you towards finishing the task? It's called Zeigarnik Effect and it will help you to finish the task you've already started.
No matter how you feel about the project, do at least one tiny step towards it.
Facing writer's block? Open a blank file and start typing anything you feel like to.
Need to start planning your wedding? Start with looking for bouquet designs.
Got a marketing campaign strategy due tomorrow? Write down some video marketing ideas first.
In 99 percent cases you will complete the task till the very end.
2. Use project management tools (even for non-business tasks)
Our brain does not like complicated tasks. Once it faces this abstract task of say, "creating a monthly marketing campaign", it immediately feels discouraged and prefers to deal with mindless routine instead.
That's why you need to break each big project into easy, bite-sized, achievable steps.
Here project management tools come essential. You don't want to miss any important steps as you go, right?
There's an overwhelming variety of different free and paid personal project management apps, however -- the visual approach introduced by Casual project management tool worked best for me so far.
The particular beauty of this app is that you can structure all information just the way our brains produce it -- in radiant rather than linear manner. Meaning, instead of drawing a linear step-by-step plan, you can create a big project picture with multiple action flows, going simultaneously or one after another.
In other words, you draw a visual map that allows you to see your whole project at one glance, plus follow a lead of easy steps towards your goal.
Here's an example project:
Why the visual approach works great for me (and may work awesome for you as well!)?
- You always know what step to do next, thus leave no chance for procrastination to your brains.
- You have a big clear picture of your goal at one glance.
- Planning the whole project is as easy as drawing it on paper (which I used to do previously)
- If you work with a team, you always see how's up to what right now. Meaning, less fails and missed deadlines.
Other popular non-visual tools I've tried and liked are Basecamp, Podio, Trello and Microsoft Project.
3. Transform your habits
It's easy to find information of how to get things done these days, but how many of you put that advice into action? Right, I used to be in the same boat.
We all have habits and most of them are hard to crack. Yet, there's one smart solution introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit called the "habit loop". In short, a habit consists of three components: cue ("trigger" that precedes the routine), routine (the actual act of doing), reward (internal or external reward you get from performing the routine).
Now, the bad news is - you can't change your cues. The good news is - you can change the consequent routine.
So among other unproductive things, I know I'm guilty of plugging into my social media first thing in the morning. The cue itself - share my new blog posts on social media - isn't that bad. But, I know I can get quickly sucked into mindless browsing for hours and this will mess up my day.
Solution: schedule your social media updates the night before. In fact, set the exact time when you will do it and do it each day.
This approach is applicable to any cue leading to a negative routine.
Each time you manage to accomplish your new routine, make sure you treat yourself for that. Create a special ritual you'd anticipate to e.g. guilt free session of web surfing, cash, candies or whatever else that is reasonable, accessible and gratifying for you.
Rinse and repeat for around 21 days till the new habit sticks.
4. Use the 90-minute rule
Some 50 years ago Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that our bodies shift from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes during the day. This phenomenon is also known as the "ultradian rhythm." In simple words - we can be extremely productive for just 90 min at a time.
What happens when those 90 minutes are out? We start seeking for additional fuel in form of caffeine, sugary snacks or our own stress hormones - adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. At this point we start losing focus, stop thinking clearly and seeing the big picture.
My day yesterday looked like this: I got to the airport early and worked in the coffee shop for 90 minutes till boarding (there was no Wi-Fi); watched movies on my flight and got back to work while going on train from Switzerland to France. By the time I was home, I quickly checked my email, had dinner and worked for some 90 minutes more.
Result, for just 4.5+ hours I've managed to do a huge chunk of work that used to take over 8 hours per day some time ago.
5. Prioritize till it hurts
As one Pentagon executive brilliantly summed it up:
"First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down."
That's a golden rule for any daily task list. Add everything from three down onto the next day.
Having troubles identifying which task is more important?
- Understand the dependencies between tasks. Can I do step A without doing step B? If no, B is more important. Choose to focus on those tasks that affect your further success.
- Use a decision matrix.
Everything in the upper-right corner should go with "do it now" label. Big impact/hard-to-do items should be added to the mix for prioritization against other initiatives. Small and easy-to-do tasks should be delegated or outsourced.
Bonus Tip: Casual just introduced this new feature that prioritizes tasks for you in the most time-efficient way possible. Meaning you don't need to struggle with this yourself, just follow the lead (works perfect for me).
6. Set up airport days
Do you know what's the ultimate productivity place for me? Airports and airplanes. In fact, I often choose connecting flights rather than direct (those are also at least $100 cheaper) and manage to get even more things done on my travel days, rather than home office days.
Now, allow me to explain.
You have a strict time limit in a form of the next flight, limited free airport Wi-Fi or the time of your flight. Meaning, you can work in 90 minute sprints to get reach the top of your productivity scale.
You have zero distractions as you are actually sitting on a plane your phone is off, your internet is off and it's just pure effective work left to do in a quick sprint. Once I often stimulate the same environment at home by unplugging and just doing the job for 90 minutes straight.
To sum it up, here's the exact road map to accomplish more, by doing less:
- Make the first step towards your projects and let Zeigarnik Effect help you finish it.
- Take advantage of project management tools to keep your activity neat and focus sharp.
- Track your cues and transform them into positive routines.
- Embrace working in sprints with the 90-minute rule.
- Prioritize till it hurts to work on the tasks that matter most.
- Eliminate external distractions by scheduling "airport days".
Happy doing less and achieving more! ☺