What are some best practices for staying on task and not wasting time when you work from home?
—This Box Set Isn’t Going To Watch Itself
Staying on task is hard when you’re near all the comforts of home. The television! The bed! The kitchen, with all of your snacks! How can you avoid wasting time when you’re surrounded by all these distractions?
Stephen King’s On Writing offers a straightforward, if hardcore, solution: “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
Although I like the spirit of that idea—and I nearly always have my phone ringer turned off while working—the Internet has destroyed the idea of the “blank wall” forever. Yes, you can use programs like Freedom to keep out distraction temporarily, but I can’t do my job without the Internet; I need to be reach sources, email editors, and collaborate on shared Google Docs.
So we need a few more best practices in order to truly stay on task.
The most important strategy I’ve found to avoid wasting time is to know what you need to do with your time in advance.
My organizational spreadsheet helps me considerably. Every morning, when I start my workday, I know how many pieces I need to write, how many people I need to interview, how many publications I need to pitch, and who needs to be invoiced.
And while being organized helps a lot, staying focused really comes down to prioritization. Writer and blogger Leo Babauta, for example, created a Zen to Done system to guide his productivity: “Each week, list the Big Rocks that you want to accomplish, and schedule them first. Each day, create a list of 1-3 MITs [Most Important Tasks] and be sure to accomplish them. Do your MITs early in the day to get them out of the way and to ensure that they get done.”
Of course, as we all know, sometimes you can have a list of tasks right in front of you and still procrastinate. Other times, you can say you’re going to check Facebook for only five minutes and look up an hour later wondering what happened.
I’m not immune to this, either. Last week, when I was working on a SparkLife piece about the upcoming Mockingjay film, I needed to visit YouTube to refresh my memory on the newest trailer and other Hunger Games information. I lost an hour of work that day because I chose to watch random YouTube videos instead of writing. I mean, Everything Wrong With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 12 Minutes Or Less was sort of related to the piece I was researching, but the next Cinema Sins video wasn’t. And so on, and so on, and an hour goes by.
Since you’re working from home, it’s really easy to stretch out your work day to accommodate these distractions. You’ll watch a few YouTube videos at 10 a.m. with the justification you can always finish your work at 10 p.m. Or you’ll look around and think you should do laundry instead of work. Or you’ll open that DVD box set and tell yourself you’re just going to watch one episode.
Paul Graham’s essay “Procrastination” (good title, right?) highlights a bit of the psychology related to this problem: “People who fail to write novels don’t do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. ‘I don’t have time to work,’ they say. And they don’t; they’ve made sure of that.”
I’ve found one of the best ways to overcome this type of procrastination is by setting a hard deadline for when you need to stop working.
If I’m meeting someone for dinner, I know I have to finish my work before going out. You’d be surprised by the work you can squeeze into a compressed timeframe if you know you have a true deadline.
Here’s one more thought on staying on task and not wasting time: If my freelancing career wasn’t aligned with my personal goals, it would be a lot harder to stay on task. But I wake up every morning wanting to be where I am. I like the work I’m doing, and I like the idea that I’m building a career over time.
If you wake up as a freelancer and think, “This isn’t what I want to be doing with my life,” it’s going to be a lot harder to get your work done. This isn’t to say every freelance job is perfect—I’ve taken a lot of jobs that feel much more like “work” than “fun,” but I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m incredibly lucky to to get paid to write about so many interesting things.
If I start procrastinating and missing deadlines, I lose this career. Remember that the next time you find yourself falling under the spell of Facebook, YouTube, and those boxed DVD sets when you’re supposed to be working!
Nicole Dieker is absolutely not going to watch more Cinema Sins after writing this. While she stays on task, send your Ask A Freelancer advice questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.