If you work for yourself or work from home, your day may not come “prepackaged” or structured by someone else. Contrast this with those of us who work in a traditional job, where our day is set by our workplace, or our boss.
If the agenda and structure of your work day is not set by someone else, you would do well to set it yourself. Meetings without agendas can lack focus, drag and take too much time. The same is true of your day if you don’t put in place a systematic plan and structure. To successfully manage your day, you need to manage your time, distractions and work out an agenda.
The first key to manage your day is managing time. When do you work? When do you take breaks?
Most of us were not home schooled. When at school, we encounted teachers, principles/headmasters and other staff. We were subject to timetables. These provided teaching periods and breaks such as recess or lunch breaks. There was time for learning and there was time for refreshment. During class periods, we couldn’t go out and play when we felt like it. Our workday needs structure like this. Note: most home schoolers put in similar structure!
Pomodoro timer technique
One way of providing this structure is to use techniques like Pomodoro timers. The Pomodoro approach involves having 25 minutes of focused work times and then breaks. During focused work time, you select a specific task to work on. You then focus specially on that task. At the end of work time, you have a short break. The standard break time is 5 min. Every fourth break is longer, being 15 min. During these breaks, you don’t work. Instead, you do something you enjoy. This could be, for example, talking with work colleagues or going for a short walk. An important aspect of these breaks is that they are breaks.
When I first used this technique, I found focusing on specific tasks very productive. I would get “in the zone” and get a lot done. 25 minutes can pass very quickly. I then thought, “why not just continue working”. Why not keep working until my mind starts to wonder? I would then take the 5 minute break. This seemed like it worked well.
The problem I then found with this extending of 25 minutes, is that my later work sessions would lose focus. It is very easy to be busy but not be focused. It is focused work that gets stuff done. I’ve found that I need these 5/15 minute breaks to keep my level of focus high. It may be different to you, but for me, I take the Pomodoro breaks when they happen.
The Pomodoro technique started with tomato shaped desktop timers, where you could dial up 25 minutes. These days, your computer can keep track of Pomodoro timing for you. Options (among many) include:
- Focus 10, Windows, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/focus-10/9nblggh5g2xh
- YAPT, Windows open source, https://github.com/YetAnotherPomodoroApp/YAPA-2/
- PomoDoneApp, MacOS, https://pomodoneapp.com/
- Pomodoro Timer, Ubuntu. Search for it in Ubuntu’s software center
These apps will keep track of your Pomodoro times. Many apps have a desktop icon and notifications. More advanced timer apps also provide task or project management. If that works for you, great. I prefer to do this elsewhere. I just want Pomodoro timing from my Pomodoro app.
We live in an age of distraction. Most of us have smartphones and these devices come default with notifications. How often does your phone beep at you during the day? Do you need to look at it when it makes the beep? More importantly, is there any action you need to take right now because of that beep? If the answer is no, and lets be honest, it generally is no, we didn’t need that beep in our day.
It takes time to get into focus. When our phone beeps, we are then taken out of that focus zone. It is going to take time to get back in. Because of this, consider turning notifications and alerts on your phone off. If there are certain people that you have to respond urgently to, you then you can put them on a priority list where notifications and alerts can be received from. Most phones support this for SMS messages. For other tools such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Wechat, you may need to silent their alerts during your work day.
Urgent or Important
Everything that we do can be broken into one of four categories:
- Urgent and important: We need to do these things and they need to be done soon
- Not urgent but important: It is important that we do these things, but they don’t need to be done now. If we forget them; however, our performance will suffer, or we won’t meet other people’s expectations of us
- Urgent but not important: Things we feel urgency to do now, but don’t really matter. Lots of stuff tends to fall into this category. This can be things like email. Most distractions (see above) like phone notifications are urgent but not important. If we are not careful, we will do things that are urgent but not important. We then don’t do important things that don’t need to be done right now – and then can’t properly do them when they become more urgent
- Not urgent but not important: Our natural filters tend to take care of leaving these things aside
It is important to carefully consider the importance of all of our urgent tasks. Is it really important? Does it need a response now?
Email is presented to us by email software as urgent. We act as if it urgent if we continually check on it during the day. If we are not careful, then email can end up being a distraction to us, just like phone notifications. If you don’t manage your access to email, it will quickly grow out of control, sucking up most of your day.
Consider checking email only at several points of the day. If someone needs to urgently contact you, they could SMS you or ring. Email does not require instant answers. It is ok to take up to two days to answer email. Check out manager-tools.com for more email guidance.
A strategy that you can consider is to identify semi-urgent emails and put them aside for a few days. Examples include people who ask for help too quickly when they have not looked to solve their issues first. By delaying a response to these semi-urgent emails, you may find that these issues resolve themselves.
Now, we have:
- our day broken up to Pomodoro units of work
- we have identified what is important,
how should we organize or manage our day overall? As meetings need a plan, or an agenda, so do our workdays. A standard workday could consist of 15 or 16 Pomodoro work times. You can now allocate what you will do in these work times.
- Consider two Pomodoros for processing email. One at the start of the day, one near the end of the day. In these Pomodoros, process each email that can be responded to quickly. If it needs a more detailed response, put it aside or tag it for work at another time. Move onto other emails
- If your work involves dealing with tasks that arise each day (eg support requests, etc), allocate an adequate number of Pomodoros to deal with them.
- If you have longer term projects that you need to work on each day, allocate Pomodoros for them. As an example, if you want a good 5 hours of work, allocate 10 Pomodoros. Don’t worry about Pomodoro’s being 25 minutes rather than 30 minutes. You’ll still get plenty done anyway.
- Keep about 10-15% of your Pomodoros free for unexpected developments. If you have a perfect workday where nothing unexpected happens, you can use these Pomodoros for your project work.
You will work more productively when you manage your day through focus and structure. You can achieve this through:
- structuring your day into focused work times and breaks using the Pomodoro technique
- ensuring that you manage distractions in your day, such as avoiding phone alerts and emails. You avoid these things, except as planned, because they take focus away from your important work
- managing with your email in only a few focused sessions per day and generally ignoring it at other times
- understanding the difference between urgent and important; not allowing urgent but not important work to interrupt you from important work that is currently not urgent
- creating a workday agenda consisting of Pomodoro work times