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We're living in a "time is money" world where we're expected to optimise every single second of our lives. But I call bullshit on that.
The life of a self-employed professional (SEP) is a busy one. When you're running a one or two person business, there's no shortage of tasks to do, but not many people to do them.
So how do you decide how to structure your time, so you can get the most out of your efforts, without falling apart in the process?
I had two questions at a recent Consultants of Choice Office Hour on this very topic.
"My biggest issue is making sure I set aside time for "me". I'm terrible at taking breaks, and when i'm diving head first into work the first things to fall off the list are eating properly and exercising. "I don't have time for a workout today" and then its the end of the week and I've told myself that everyday.
What's the secret for finding that balance and not going all in on your career?"
"I would like to learn how to effectively make progress and structure my day/week so I can fit most things in! Do you have any ways of working or tips where you’re able to make progress while keeping it all balanced? Do you have set days where you do marketing/social media posts or do you outsource this? Do you set a limited amount of time on tasks to make sure you don’t go down the rabbit hole?
I’d love to hear how you manage family and work so I can introduce some different ways because I’m wanting to make progress that’s really intentional."
Here's how I answered them:
First Things First: We're Set Up to Fail
Let's zoom out for a second, for some social and economic context. We're all struggling with time management, and most of us feel like we're not using our time properly. That's not because people are lazy, or scattered, or inherently bad at... existing.
It's because we're facing unrealistic expectations. You can optimise your own little patch, but the fact remains: you are targeting individual change to counteract the impacts of a broken system.
There's no 'right answer'. No-one has it figured out. You didn't miss a memo. Everyone is fighting the same battle, especially if you're dealing with family and work responsibilities.
We weren't meant to be doing it all
The traditional nine-to-five grind was built for a time when one person worked and another handled everything else, but that's ancient history. We're juggling multiple full-time gigs - work, domestic duties, and childcare - and it's impossible to win at this game.
The pressure to optimise every spare minute and constantly achieve more can be overwhelming. But before we start to look at ways to change, we need to remember: we are set up to fail.
So here's the deal: forget the idea that there's a 'right' way to do this, and don't believe the hype from those productivity gurus who pretend they have the answers.
Over 90% of productivity literature is written by the same type of person - middle-aged, middle-class white men who curiously leave out care labour and family responsibilities from their to-do lists (this famous tweet debacle rings a bell here), bar a mention of 'being home more to see their family.'
I'm going to give you some genuinely useful, practical tips on how to manage the juggle, but I don't want you to read them until you've taken this serve of tough love: you're doing great, and it's not you that's broken, it's everything else.
The good news is: self-employment is an incredible opportunity to break out of this time trap, and to design a life that works for you. So that's what we're going to do.
Get real on the size of your container
Step one, before we look at any tricks, is to lower your expectations, and boost your self-compassion. Your working time container probably isn't big enough for all the things you want to put in it. You're an ambitious high-achiever, after all!
That's OK. Your ambition is awesome. But not when you use it as a stick to beat yourself with.
So, size up how much time you've got available, and be realistic about how long the things you want to achieve will take. When you realise your maths is off (and it will be) get ruthless about stripping out the things that add the least value.
Then, and only then, can you start to look at hacks and tips for getting the most out of your limited availability.
Here's six tips to help you strike a better balance, with no Pomodoro timer in sight.
- Embrace deep work
- Hack your constraints
- Turn want-to into have-to
- Run experiments
- Leave things better than you found them
- Manage energy, not time
TIP #1: Embrace Deep Work
You can't do everything at once, and there will always be more tasks than you've got time for. But if you spend all of your time harbouring a sense of guilt and FOMO about the other things you should be working on, you'll never focus.
That's why presence counts. Andrew Huberman tells us we can only expect to achieve two 90-minute stretches of deeply focused work each day.
That might not sound like much, but it's more than many of us are currently achieving! Multi-tasking, distractions, interruptions and what-about-ism eats into our capacity for focus.
So use the limited time you have as productively as possible by putting aside intentional stretches of deep work. Set aside dedicated time for specific tasks, no distractions allowed. Put on some tunes, lock into that task, and work like a boss.
Doing "deep work" KEEPS YOU present and fully engaged, leading to better results. CHOOSE quality over quantity.
TIP #2: Hack your Constraints
When you've got limited time, you'll be surprised at how much you can accomplish. Ever pulled off a miracle just before the school pickup or a deadline? You know what I'm talking about!
Work expands to fill the time available for it. So, when you put your headphones on for deep work, create a clear time container. Setting strict deadlines will help you use your limited time more productively.
Embrace the concept of "done is better than perfect," allowing yourself to complete tasks even if they are not flawless. Perfectionism can hinder progress and waste valuable time.
DOING SHORT BURSTS OF GOOD ENOUGH WORK WILL ALWAYS BEAT LONG PERIODS OF TWEAKING AND PERFECTING.
TIP #3: Turn Want-To Into Have-To
If there's something you desperately want to do, but you find challenging, make it something you have to do.
I've been writing Wednesday Wisdom every week for over five years. If I waited until inspiration struck or I had the right idea to publish, there's no way I'd have created an article every week.
But I promised it, and people expect it - which is a huge motivator to make it happen. When you know people are watching, you'll be more motivated to follow through.
MAKE PUBLIC PROMISES TO MOTIVATE PRIVATE PROGRESS
TIP #4: Run Experiments
Those productivity gurus telling you to wake up at 5 AM or have "content days" don't have a clue about your life. Most of them aren't getting something in the slow cooker while typing an email, and they aren't worried about the laundry or their elderly Mum's doctor appointment either.
Which means you should take all advice (including this advice) at face value, and play lightly with trying things out, to see what works in your life.
Don't set hard and fast rules. The best thing about self-employed life is that you get to call the shots. But if you've been working to someone else's schedule for a long time, this newfound freedom might be overwhelming. You might not know where to start!
Try short-term experiments to find out what works for you - and release what doesn't. Try things like:
- Giving specific days 'jobs' to do - i.e. one day for content, another for admin. Or, three days for client work, two for everything else. Or, Friday for sales meetings... etc
- Putting weekly appointments in your calendar for things you're worried you won't get to (running every Tuesday and Thursday lunch-time, newsletter writing on a Wednesday morning, etc)
- Getting up early to work before the rest of your household is awake, and finishing at 3pm
- Keeping free afternoons and doing a night shift
- Setting aside your first two hours as 'deep work' before you touch emails or admin
... etc. Treat each idea as an experiment, and if they don't work for you, or you get distracted or bored, try something else. Eventually you'll get the hang for what works for you, and what doesn't.
Also: what works today may not work as well six months from now, and that's cool.
EXPERIMENT WITH YOUR NEWFOUND FREEDOM BY TRIALLING SHORT SCHEDULING EXPERIMENTS, TO FIND OUT HOW YOU WORK BEST.
Tip #5: Leave Things Better Than You Found Them
This is all about re-using, leveraging, and making life easier.
Every effort you make, whether it's writing an email or creating content, has the potential for reuse.
- Save that outreach email as a boilerplate, to use next time
- Turn that proposal into a template to speed up your sales process
- Turn that blog post into 6 short social media posts, and the basis for your next newsletter.
- Write up the lessons from your last project as a case study or article
- Plot the steps you took in your last project, and how long it took, and put it on a one-pager that you can send to clients as a "how we work together"
- Use the above as the basis for scoping up similar client engagements.
- Write down the six paint points your coffee date mentioned, and use them to create a list of standard questions for your next discovery call
- Take COC member questions and write an article from them, like this one (or this one, on how to do value-based pricing) - oh wait, that's for me :D
Adopt a mindset of leaving things better than you found them, considering how your work can be repurposed or used as a foundation for future tasks.
This approach has an extra benefit, too: it stops you from trying to do everything perfectly!
If you aim for forward motion and small improvements, and leave things better every time, you'll keep going - and stack up progress along the way. Momentum beats perfection, every time.
LEVERAGE YOUR EFFORTS BY RE-USING YOUR WORK IN MULTIPLE FORMATS, AND CREATING TEMPLATES AND PROCESSES FROM NEW IDEAS.
TIP #6: Manage Energy, Not Time
When we talk about time-management, we often default to thinking of people as machines. As though each day is comprised of identical units that will be met with the same level of enthusiasm. You have xx units available, and the job is to allocate them correctly.
This is wrong. Not all time is created equally, and not all activities require the same level of energy and motivation. Not only that, but not all activities lead to a net drain - some boost you, lift you up and give you more energy to get more done!
Some activities are energy boosters and others are energy drainers. Striking the right balance in your day can be the difference between fulfilment and fatigue.
- If going for a run gives you an afternoon energy boost, schedule that into your week.
- If client coffees and sales meetings give you a lift, scatter them throughout your schedule and use the boost to write marketing copy and have new ideas afterward.
- If admin sucks the life out of you, make sure you don't have a whole day of it, or delegate it to someone else.
- If client work drains your tank, don't book three days in a row without rest and recovery.
Your boosters and drainers will be individual to you. The trick isn't to find a perfect balance, but to be aware of how you tick, and set yourself up for success.
Try tracking your tasks in a journal, and using a little arrow key to monitor your energy - an ⬆️ up arrow in the margin for things that gave you energy, a ⬇️ arrow for things that drained your energy. Over time, you'll start to see a trend. Go with that, and prioritise adding boosters in to keep you motivated.
AIM TO MANAGE YOUR ENERGY, NOT YOUR TIME. PRIORITISE ENERGY-BOOSTERS, AND GET MORE ENJOYMENT OUT OF YOUR DAY.
Summing It All Up
In the pursuit of constant optimisation, we need to get real. We're not machines. We're flawed, interesting, curious humans with the capacity for creativity, connection and change.
Instead of trying to squeeze every drop out of the lemon, we're better to:
Set realistic expectations
Recognise our limitations
Prioritise quality over quantity
Embrace 'done is better than perfect.'
Use tools like deep work, hard deadlines, time experiments, commitment and public accountability to get you on track, and make sure you're including a healthy dose of activities that give you energy, to bring balance and joy into your daily life.
Most of all remember that there's no ultimate answer. No-one has this figured out, and it's perfectly fine to adapt and evolve as you navigate your way to better time management. Consulting life is all about freedom. Make the most of it.
Self-employment is an alluring prospect. It’s a chance to live your life on your own terms, to achieve more fulfilment and meaning from your career,...