Get ready, get set...go!

Using a timer to maximize productivity.

During NaNoWriMo every year, I participate in write-ins, which is where participants get together just to write.  As part of those write-ins, we usually have what we call "word wars," which is where everyone writes for a set amount of time (usually ten or fifteen minutes), and then compares their word counts to see who wrote the most.

I often find that I am more productive when I'm participating in word wars - I write more, faster, than I do during write-ins that don't do these, or than I do at home.  This is a huge secret to productivity: focusing for short, extremely productive bursts.

The idea didn't originate with me - I remember getting a timer some years ago, when I was freelancing full-time, after reading in a writing newsletter that it can help with productivity.  The newsletter recommended working for hour-long bursts, using a timer to let you know when the hour is up, and then taking a break of ten or fifteen minutes in order to let yourself unwind from focusing so hard for so long.

This approach has never worked all that well for me, and NaNo may have given me a hint as to why.  I realized this year that when we do shorter word wars - 10, 15, or 20 minutes - I do a lot better than when we do longer than when we write for 45 minutes or an hour. 

I think this is because it's more difficult, especially with tasks that involve a lot of concentration, to focus that intensely for a solid hour at a time.  Ten or fifteen minutes, on the other hand, is easy to do -- though if you are the kind of person who has to have a few minutes to "warm up" before you can start really focusing on your work, a 20-minute (or even 30-minutes) interval might work a little better.

Timing yourself works great for writers, but it will also work for other jobs, too.  If you want to try it out, but you don't necessarily want to go out and buy a timer, you can use the one on your smartphone or iPhone.  Or, if you don't want your phone around as a distraction, check out this online timer

It's the one I use most frequently when I use this technique.  You can also break a large project up into smaller segments - research vs. writing, for instance, or individual sections of a project - and work until each segment is done, taking breaks in between.

This technique also can help you to put a lid on how long you spend checking email or doing other tasks that you use to "warm up" when you first sit down to work.  Give yourself 10 or 20 minutes, set the timer and when it goes off, move on to something else.

Good luck, and may you have a productive day!

The luxury of a morning to work

Do you ever feel like having the time to actually get your work done is a luxury you don't enjoy often enough?

Today I had almost an entire morning all to myself.  Although I work from home part-time (I work as an after-school nanny in the afternoons), sometimes I feel as though other obligations frequently fill my mornings, until I have little or no time to get my work done.  The last couple of weeks have been some of the worst examples of this phenomenon.

Of course, it should have been -- and was -- expected that the holiday week would hijack my work time.  Not only was it Thanksgiving week, but my husband's 40th birthday was that Tuesday, so both of us took the day off to celebrate.  So that week was, for all intents and purposes, only a two-day week for me (Monday and Wednesday).

Then last week, my husband's alternator quit, and I had to take him back and forth to work most of the week until his car was fixed.  That takes a couple of hours out of my day, not to mention I find it harder to settle in and get work done when I've just arrived home from someplace (rather than waking up in the morning and sitting down at the computer with my coffee, as I usually do).

So waking up today and realizing that I had the entire morning and early afternoon ahead of me, waiting to be filled with whatever I wanted to fill it with, was a very nice feeling.  The day also felt like it crept by slowly, giving me plenty of time to get done what I wanted to do, which was a nice feeling -- other days, I feel like the minutes are slipping through my fingers like water, and I'm struggling to get anything done before I run out of time.

Having a day like this made me realize how important it is -- for my work and for my peace of mind -- to have more days like this.  I think from now on I need to make a firm commitment to resisting anyone's (or anything's) efforts to hijack my days with other obligations!

What about you?  How do you make sure that other people or responsibilities don't take over your time when you work from home?

Encouraging entrepreneurs and ideas

A review of $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau

I have been curious about Chris Guillebeau's book $100 Startup since I first saw it on the Nook months ago, so when I saw it was available through my library's eBook lending program, I decided to check it out.  $100 Startup is all about how entrepreneurs make business ideas successful, without having to invest a lot of money.

One of the main things the book does that I really like is to simplify the business plan: Basically, if you have a product and a customer base, you have a business.  Otherwise, you don't.  It sounds so much easier than writing an elaborate business plan with many sections, doesn't it?  It puts everything into perspective, and shows you how to quickly assess the viability of any business idea.

The book also helps you to make a decision on which business (or businesses) to pursue if you have more than one idea.  The author lays out a system for rating each business idea using factors such as a business's potential for success versus how much work it will involve.

After showing you how to establish whether a business idea is viable or not, he explains how to make it successful via marketing.  For instance, he lays out a plan for a successful launch, with lots of marketing leading up to the launch.  He also promotes the "fire sale" idea, where something is sold for a limited amount of time in order to encourage buyers to get it while they still can.

Peppered throughout the book are anecdotes about wildly successful business owners.  They range from people who have published eBook guides, to owners of more traditional businesses such as a bridal accessories shop.  Obviously not every small business, no matter how good it is, will enjoy the five and six figure income that many of these success stories illustrate, but it is encouraging to read about other entrepreneurs' success stories.

Finally, don't feel that if you are already making it as a small business owner, you don't need to read this book.  As a freelance writer, I consider myself an entrepreneur, and I still found plenty to take away from it.  Part of continuing to grow professionally is continuing to learn from the books you read, the classes you take and the people you meet -- knowing what to take away from each encounter in order to get a little closer to the success you want to ultimately achieve!

Sleep and working from home

Do your sleep habits interfere with your work schedule?

Since I started working from home full-time seven years ago, the thing I have struggled with most is regulating my sleep schedule so that I can make the most of my work day.

The problem is that I am a born night owl: I work best at night, and I tend toward a late schedule, even when I'm not working late into the night.  (Ever since I was a teen, staying up late at night to read has been one of my guilty pleasures.) 

But I also function best when I get 8 or 9 hours of sleep.  At best, the combination tends to eliminate much of my mornings as productive time, as even if I get up at a decent time, I tend to take a while to get "warmed up."  At worst, though, it means that I sleep too late in the mornings, and it ends up being wasted time.

This worked out better when I worked late at night, but a few years ago, I decided to try to normalize my schedule a little bit, since I was sleeping half the day away on the weekends when my husband was home.  I've managed to start going to bed and getting up a little earlier, but unfortunately I often use that late night time for reading now instead of working, so I'm still not getting up as early as my office-bound counterparts.  Though that is, I suppose, the advantage to working from home.

What I've noticed most of all is that, even when I do get up earlier, I still don't manage to get much done with that time in the morning.  Getting up earlier seems to result in me needing more time to "warm up" in the morning than I used to.

On the other hand, I know someone else who works from home who is a morning person.  She often wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m. and starts work, but the downside of that is she is winding down and getting tired when clients still expect her to be working.

What about you?  Are you a night person or a morning person, and what impact have you found your sleep habits have on your work schedule?

Vacation time for the self employed

A few tips to help you take time off if you work from home.

When you are self-employed and work from home, it can be very difficult to actually plan a vacation -- as in, a period of time where you stop working, whether or not you are going somewhere.  As those of us who work from home know so well, work hours can quickly expand into our leisure time.  Thoughts such as "I'll just quickly check my work email" are the first step to letting your work take over your personal as well as your professional life.

Not that it is always a bad thing.  Clients may really appreciate it if you check your email in the evening, making yourself available to help them (if you so choose) with a last minute deadline or a pressing question.  But this approach can also make it difficult to break away from needy clients (or a workaholic attitude) when you are planning time off, whether for a trip or just to give yourself some time to relax at home.

This is an issue for me right now because my husband and I are planning to go out of town for a week (a whole week!).  Although I do plan on taking my computer and picking up wifi where possible, I also don't plan on working a whole lot.  I want mainly to be able to check email, blog about the trip, download pictures from my camera, and perhaps write a little if I am so inspired.

Here are a few tips (things I have done or am doing for this trip) to help you take your vacation without work encroaching.

  1. Let your clients know well in advance.  I informed my regular clients a month in advance of our trip.  A reminder a week prior is also a good idea.  That allows them to assign any work early that they might want done over your vacation.
  2. Set a vacation response on your email.  For those clients who have forgotten about your vacation, a vacation message on your email can provide a reminder (and hopefully head off any complaints about you not responding to your emails soon enough).
  3. Plan ahead.  Your clients only bear so much responsibility.  It's your job to plan your schedule leading up to the vacation so that you accomplish everything that needs to be done before you leave.  That's why informing your clients early is such a good idea -- getting the assignments in as soon as possible will give you plenty of time to get everything done if you plan ahead.  Likewise, it's also your responsibility to say no if a client tries to give you too much work, or a last minute project that you know you can't finish before you leave.  Let them know you don't have time to do it before your vacation, and suggest that you do it as soon as you get back.

Of course, this won't solve all your problems -- I remember once, despite my best efforts to plan, when I ended up being up until the wee hours of the morning finishing my work before a vacation.  There have been other vacations, too, when work came along as something to do while traveling -- but I don't recommend that approach.  It's much nicer to start your vacation knowing everything is done and you are free to enjoy yourself!

Making time for administrative tasks

Devote part of every day to admin and your desk won't end up looking like this!

As many freelance writers discover when they start freelancing full-time, the reality of the job is that you don't really just write all day long.  For any successful freelance writer -- or any successful small business owner or work-at-home employee -- a portion of every day has to be devoted to administrative tasks, or else you will pretty soon find yourself swamped with undone work... as I found myself swamped with un-filed paperwork and other messes in this picture of my dirty desk.

Administrative work you need to take into account every day includes:

  • Filing paperwork
  • Checking, responding to and following up on e-mail
  • Keeping track of budgets, expenditures and so on
  • Paying business-related bills
  • Marketing and/or networking (particularly if you are self-employed or a small business owner)

Some freelancers I've talked to state that as much of a third of every day is taken up by these tasks; newer writers often spend even half of their days on marketing and networking.  Managing your email inbox, searching for new clients, maintaining old clients and networks, and keeping organized all take up a sizeable chunk of time when attended to regularly.  If you don't keep on top of these things, you may find yourself with mountains of paperwork to file all at once, for instance -- or, in a worst case scenario, with no more paying work until you get back to marketing.

You may not need to spend a half, a third, or even a quarter of your day on administrative tasks.  Maybe all you need to do is set aside half an hour at the beginning and end of every day to do things like check email, check your schedule, and file paperwork.  Whether you need an hour a day or several, though, it's best to set aside the time you need.  Think of it as a good way to warm up and transition into work at the start of your day, or a means to wrap up at the end of the day, and you should be able to build it into your schedule.

Working at home is a balancing act

Separating work from household chores

Most people who have worked from home, especially those who have run their own business from home, know what I mean when I say that it is a balancing act.  No matter how good our intentions of keeping work and home life separate from one another, working in the home links the two.  It's hard to work from your home and not think about the dogs that need to be fed or go outside, the laundry or cleaning that needs to be done, the errands that need to be run.

Some people who work at home solve the problem by creating a home office for themselves where home life is simply not allowed to enter.  Others let their home life dictate their hours and simply work when they can manage to fit it in.  Personally, I think neither approach is ideal.  You cannot succeed at work from home while you are trying to ignore either the work or the home.  Balancing the two is the best option.

But how to balance the two so that you don't sacrifice either -- particularly your work?  It's not always easy, and I am far from an expert.  There are days where I get sucked into laundry or running errands or vet appointments for the pets, and don't get anything done as I'd planned.  And then there are other days where laundry and dishes pile up, the dogs don't get fed on time, and I forget to even take a shower because I'm so busy working on some project or another.

But the days I usually end up feeling the best about are the ones where I successfully balance the needs of my job and the needs of my household.  I've found that interspersing my work day with breaks to do things like fix myself lunch, do the laundry, and feed or walk the dogs is a good way to get things done on both fronts.

What about you?  How do you balance work and home when you work from home?

Back from a writing hiatus -- and loving it

Sometimes taking a break renews your appreciation for working from home.

After taking a break from my freelance work over the summer, I'm finding that working from home is once again full of the simple joys I remember from early on, when I first started freelancing full time: laid-back mornings, spending my morning and early afternoon in front of the computer, making myself lunch or snacks or coffee whenever the mood hits me, being able to keep up on household tasks like doing laundry and having the time and flexibility to schedule pet appointments or ride my horse during the day.

Interestingly, whereas before the summer I was suffering from a bad case of procrastination, I'm now finding that I have more motivation than I did before.  I'm less distracted when I'm writing -- that's the biggest improvement, since time sinks such as Facebook have often stolen valuable time from my client work.  But I'm also more motivated: motivated to write, but also motivated to make the most of my time so that I don't feel guilty about taking breaks to do laundry or go for a trail ride.  Sometimes I've actually caught myself wishing I didn't have to work my part-time nanny job -- even though I love the family and don't want to leave them, right now I am missing having an entire day to write (not to mention more time to spend at the barn).

I was surprised to find how much taking the summer off has invigorated me.  Writing (for my clients, I mean) feels good again, and like a good way to earn money, instead of like pulling teeth or sweating blood -- as it had felt to me for a long time before summer started.  Perhaps that was part of why I sought out that part-time nanny job in the first place: I needed a break from writing.

Now that I've had my break and I'm feeling good about things again, where will I go from here?  The first step is to get some more client work again.  I don't know if I would want to voluntarily leave the family I nanny for, but since the older child is 10, I probably only have a limited about of years there anyway, and it would be good to be in a position to transition back into freelancing full-time when the time comes.

Sometimes you just need to take a break

Weathering -- and coming back from -- the busy times in your life.

Especially if you work from home only part time, there may come a time when you have to take a break from running your business for a little while.  Just such a thing happened to me this summer, when I found myself swamped by other responsibilities.

Besides my freelance writing business, I am also an after-school nanny, a job I took on nearly a year ago in order to ensure I had a "base income" I could count on.  Often when you have your own business, especially if you are a writer or run a seasonal business, your income can vary quite a bit from month to month.  With my part-time work, I know that even when I am having a slow month with my writing, I still have my nanny income.

During the school year, my nanny job only claims two or three hours a day, basically the hours between when the kids get out of school and when their parents get home from work.  It's really ideal, because this leaves me plenty of time to work on my freelance work.  Of course, when they were out of school during the summer, I was working a lot more -- at least twice my school year hours, and sometimes even more.

The result, as I'm sure you can imagine, is that I didn't have much time during the summer to do the things I wanted to do -- one of those being freelancing.  So I had to pick and choose what to spend my remaining time on, and unfortunately freelancing was one of the first things to go (though I did try to keep up on my fiction writing).

Now that the summer is over and the kids are back in school, my schedule has returned to its normal, pre-summer state -- and I'm slowly getting back to normal in other ways, too.  It's nice to have my mornings and early afternoons to devote to freelancing and other responsibilities once again.

What about you?  Have you ever had to take a hiatus from running your business?

Setting reachable goals

The best way to help you reach your goals is to set ones that are within reach!

If you know anything about goal-setting, you have probably heard that the best way to use goals to motivate yourself is to make sure they are something you can actually achieve.  Unachievable goals only serve to discourage you because after a while you realize you have no chance of ever getting there -- and the more out of reach they get, the less you want to try.

So how do you ensure that your goals are within your reach?

Break them down into bite-size bits.  Instead of having one large long-term goal, for example, break that down into smaller, more manageable daily goals.  For example, this month I'm working on revisions on the novel I finished in November.  Instead of making a goal to finish the novel this month, however, my goal is to do a certain amount of pages every day.

Quantify your goals.  My example for the above tip also works for this one.  Instead of setting a vague goal, such as to get better at something, figure out smaller steps that can be put into numbers.  In my case, I set a number of pages to complete each day.  If, on the other hand, you want to get better about marketing, you could set a goal to make one (or three or five, whatever makes sense for you) cold call every morning before you start your other work...or to write one pitch, send out one resume, whatever.  You get the idea: Set numbered goals for yourself so that your achievements are clear.

Don't overreach.  Even when breaking your goals down into bite-size pieces, make sure they aren't too lofty for you to reach.  For instance, don't make your goal to catch up on the entire week's work all in one day.  Set little goals to start out; if those prove too easy for you to accomplish, you can simply set another goal for the day, or try setting a slightly tougher goal the next day.

As for my goals for the month -- I'm falling behind, and considering how busy I am this month with other stuff, I think I set my sights too high.  Never feel ashamed if you have to scale your goals back -- it's better to accomplish what you set out to do (even if it's a little less) and stay motivated than it is to continually fail and eventually get so discouraged that you give up!