Recently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.
A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid.
Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.
What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.
I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.
It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.
But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.
Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.
Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.
And yes, there’s an app for that.
Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)
Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:
Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.
Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.
I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.
Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.
Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.
For those of you keeping count, this is Muffin Maven’s third, yes third, blueberry muffin recipe in recent weeks. What can I say… each offers something a little different. These are wheaty, not too sweet, and are filled and topped with hearty granola.
We’ve been making granola from scratch the last few weeks, using a recipe from Brown Eyed Baker… which turns out to come from Cook’s Illustrated, our favorite source for all things culinary. That recipe is a bonus link below.
Muffin recipe from Taste of Home.
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granola without raisins, divided
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries
- Preheat oven to 400° and grease/line 12 muffin cups. In a small bowl, whisk flours, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Stir in 1/2 cup granola.
- In another bowl, whisk egg, buttermilk, oil and juices until blended. Add to flour mixture; stir just until moistened. Fold in blueberries.
- Fill muffin cups three-fourths full; sprinkle remaining granola over batter. Bake 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.
Bonus Recipe: My friend Keith turned me on to this granola, so it’s listed in My Fitness Pal as Keith’s Granola. But it’s actually called Maple Almond Granola and it’s fantastic.
By the way: Pinterest users, you can access all the muffin recipes I’ve collected here.
I’m off to be with my preaching peeps this week, and as is my custom, I refer you to previous posts about the joys and challenges of cohort groups as pastors and church professionals. I am a big believer in them.
On Competition and the Church: what happens when colleagues “compete” for the same positions.
Off to the city of the big shoulders.
We love grapefruit in our house, so I had to try these. Truth be told, they didn’t taste terribly different than lemon poppyseed, but there was a subtle grapefruitiness to them, especially in the glaze.
This recipe was adapted from Girl Versus Dough. I didn’t have whole wheat pastry flour on hand so I improvised as noted below. I used less milk than the original calls for and ended up needing to add some flour at the end. I’ve reflected these changes in the recipe as best I can.
GLAZED GRAPEFRUIT POPPYSEED MUFFINS
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon grapefruit zest (from about 1 large grapefruit)
- ⅓ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup poppy seeds
- 1 tablespoon grapefruit juice
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 egg
- 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/3 cup cake flour *
- 3½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup 2% milk (I used skim–it’s all I had)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1¼ cups powdered sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 2 to 3 tablespoons grapefruit juice
- Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 2 regular-size muffin tins with baking spray or line 14 muffin cups with paper baking cups.
- In a large bowl rub sugar and grapefruit zest together with fingers until well-combined and fragrant. Add oil, poppyseeds, grapefruit juice, vanilla and egg. Whisk until combined.
- In a separate large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and salt.
(*If you don’t have these exact types of flour, use about 2 cups and eyeball the consistency of your batter in the next step. You know it’s the right amount because batter should not “pour” but drop into muffin cups with a wet plop.)
- To grapefruit-poppyseed mixture, alternately stir in flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, until just combined. Pour batter into prepared muffin tins. Bake 17-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center of a muffin comes out clean. Transfer muffins to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- In a small bowl, combine ingredients for glaze, adding more grapefruit juice or powdered sugar as needed to achieve desired consistency. Dip top of each muffin in glaze, then return to cooling rack or parchment paper so glaze can drip and set. I only glaze the ones we’re planning to eat and store the leftovers in the fridge. Muffins can be reheated and glazed as you go.