It took me a long time to accept the fact that adding structure and routine to my work day was not the equivalent of giving up the freedom of entrepreneurship that I had longed for throughout my years as an employee.
The idea of working from home had been a fantasy for so long that when that day actually came (almost a year ago), I didn't want to let go of my dream and accept the unplanned realities of this lifestyle.
It almost felt like a failure, or a step backward to need rigidity in my day when my vision had always been so free-flowing and flexible.
So, naturally, I fought it.
Even though I'd "work" all day I wasn't working smart. I fell into the habits that most work-from-home-ers can relate to: I'd start my day, still in my pajamas... and sometimes that's how I'd end my day (don't judge me).
I'd start my day by checking email, Twitter, Facebook. Reading the "news." I'd look at my to-do list and start working on something -- but not long after I'd find all kinds of things around the house that I just "had to do."
At first it was fun and exciting, but distractions are as endless as you allow them to be. And bad habits form quickly.
Distractions aside, there was no real rhyme or reason to my workflow. The not-so-fun (but necessary) stuff kept getting neglected. I found myself constantly switching between different tasks and projects, never really making much progress on any one thing.
Trying to balance client work with our own SaaS products (HookFeed and Minimalytics) was hard enough -- but I was also learning to code (which is insanely time consuming), starting to blog (which was a scary new frontier for me), and building relationships with other SaaS folks (I knew no one when I started). The list goes on. And I was spread thin.
Time management became an oxymoron and everything suffered. I felt like I was swimming in a sea of tasks with no direction or end in sight. I started neglecting time with my friends to work at night and on weekends. I stopped exercising because I felt guilty about the time it took during the day and was too exhausted at night. I was losing my war against structure.
I thought I was avoiding routine but had fallen into one anyway.
A bad one.
When I finally admitted defeat and began taking baby steps toward building structure and productive routines, I got my lightbulb moment that changed EVERYTHING:
Structure is not the enemy to freedom, it's the gateway.
I also realized it's f#%*ing hard. But like anything you want to get better at, you practice, you allow yourself to fail, you try different tactics until you find what works for you, and you practice some more.
Here are 10 of the the most useful tactics that help me structure my days (and stick to it):
- Wake up at the same time every day -- and do it early
If waking up early isn't your thing, set your alarm for five minutes earlier than normal. Get used to it. Then 5 more minutes. Your body adapts quickly -- give it a shot.
It may sound insignificant but there's a compound factor to starting your day off with small routines that sets you up to stay on track for the rest of the day.
Hint: that's not checking email, Facebook or Twitter. If your most creative/focused time is in the morning (like it is for me) use your first two hours to write, code, design, or work on solving a problem that's been lingering. Your focus will fade throughout the day, so save the menial tasks for the afternoon.
It's not realistic to think that you can focus on something all day long. Especially anything creative. So break your day into 1 or 2 hour chunks with breaks in between. Have a goal for each sprint and try to hit it.
Rule: When you're in a sprint do not check email, social media, etc. This is dedicated time. You'll be blown away at what you can get done in just a couple hours.
Tip: Try a little iPhone app called Countdone to make a game out it.
In between your focused sprints go on Twitter and Facebook. Watch random YouTube videos if you want. Do the dishes. Run an errand. You no longer have an excuse to step away (physically or mentally) from focused work time because these breaks are already planned into your day. You're going to do these things anyway -- so be smart about it.
Something funny happens when you say "I'll work out later." It transforms into a promise that you won't. Pick any time during the day that works for you and stick to that exact time. Set a meeting for it on your calendar. When X:00 hits, stand up and go.
Tip: If I plan to workout mid-morning after my first two-hour sprint -- it helps if I already have my workout clothes on.
When your fridge is empty at noon guess what you're going to do. Think about what to go get for lunch. Debate what sounds good, waste time deciding, then spend time going out, and eating something that's probably not very healthy. By the time you're back home ready to work again you've killed a lot of time. Be a grownup and stock your fridge.
Find your "spot." Local coffee shop. Co-working space. Somewhere out of the house with Wi-Fi. A change of scenery does wonders for a fresh batch of concentration.
Since adding some structure to my days, I've been able to squeeze out a solid eight hours of focused work -- and still have plenty of time to do the other things I wanted to do during my day.
If I tried to sit down for eight hours and work straight through, there's NO WAY I'd have the level of focus or quality of work as I do breaking up that time into dedicated chunks. We weren't built like that.
I know you're probably thinking that putting together a rigid plan like this is one thing -- but life happens.
Try treating each chunk of time as an independent piece of your day. Some things wont happen every day. Move things around, replace a sprint with meeting. Go to lunch with a friend. Just plan your time well before and after it. On days you don't workout use that time for something meaningful.
Plug and play.
It's funny -- the thing I feared would take away my "freedom" is the one thing that has allowed me to have it.
I'm less stressed. I feel more accomplished at the end of each day. I have time for friends and family. Time to exercise and cook healthy meals. Time to watch my favorite shows, read a book, and get a good nights sleep.
Structure and routine have given me a free-flowing lifestyle. Go figure.
Joelle Steiniger is co-founder of Small HQ, a product company. She's currently writing How to Build a Rocketship and co-hosting the Rocketship Podcast.