Why you need to keep your work space clean and organised

People tend to focus too much on what app they can use to boost their productivity, when often it’s their physical environment that’s holding them back.

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Studies have shown that the average worker loses about an hour a day to disorganisation. Consider for a moment what that means in productivity terms.

Let’s say for argument’s sake that you work 5 days per week and get paid $30 an hour (even if you’re a freelancer being paid by the contract you should still calculate what you’re making per hour worked to maximize your productivity).

Losing that hour a day to disorganisation, costs you 5 working hours every week, (that’s more that half a day’s work) 10 hours a fortnight (getting that back could earn you a long-weekend twice per month) and 260 hours per year.

 

“If you’re a business owner with 10 employees, they’re costing you $78,000 a year in lost productivity.”

 

If you work from home for someone else, that’s time you could be spending with your family, working out, tending to your garden, going out with friends or reading your favorite book.

If you work from home as a freelancer, that lost hour per day is costing you $150 per week, $300 per fortnight or $7,800 per year. If you’re a business owner with 10 employees, they’re costing you $78,000 a year in lost productivity.

If those figures don’t make you want to get better organised, I don’t know what will. Try these tips for optimising your workspace for maximum productivity.

Change your frame of mind

Think of your workspace as a command centre. There’s a reason institutions like the military, police or fire departments enforce strict organisational practices. It’s because when the shit hits the fan, they need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Imagine being called to put out a fire, only to find that you still haven’t rolled up your hose and don’t know where your helmet is. If you’re an aspiring high performer, you also need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

De-clutter

Over time, our offices and desks get so full of useless, non-essential garbage it’s not funny. Cull it all and get rid of everything you don’t need. Be ruthless. Old documents — file them or chuck them. Too many pens — keep a few on your desk and put the rest in your drawer or a cupboard.

Also, take some time to organise your cords and cables. Use velcro cable-ties to bunch cords together and pick a spot on your desk (preferably on your dominant hand side – more on that later) to keep devices on charge and on-hand.

Create systems

When I was a younger man, I would use the single bucket technique for organising my affairs. You know the one. Ok, I’ll explain. Take income tax for example.

Receipts and pay-slips came in, I put them all in a single, unmarked shoe-box along with any and everything else (including non-tax related stuff) I thought might be important enough to hold on to, and when 30 June came around, I would spend hours sorting receipts, throwing half of them away because they were useless and usually finding a bunch of important documents missing. What and waste of time.

A few years ago I came to my senses and started trying different processes and systems that actually helped me organise my affairs in a way that saved time, saved effort and which led to better outcomes.

If you haven’t’ read it already, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity is a great starting point for creating systems that will help you do a better job of managing your affairs (turns out I was on the right track though. He too uses a bucket system, just with more buckets. My friend Paul Minors has written a great book summary, download it free here).

Set up your space

A work space that’s set up in the right way helps to reduce your risk of injury, save you time and energy and make you more productive. Try these tips for setting up your workspace:

  • Get your monitor and keyboard into comfortable positions. Offices often have workspace assessors who make recommendations about how to set up your desk to reduce the risk of injury. While that’s reason enough, knowing how to set up a safe workspace will also enhance your productivity. Do some research on workspace setup and consider getting someone in to set you up properly. Your back, eyes and whichever wrist you use to control your mouse will thank you later
  • To reduce clutter, only keep on your desk the office supplies that you use on a daily basis. Keep supplies you use weekly in your desk drawer and all others in a cupboard.
  • Keep regularly used stationery and your devices on your dominant-hand side of your desk to reduce reaching across your body. Sounds small but it will save you time and energy.
  • Keep your desk clear but be sure to include anything you need to facilitate the operation of your systems ie. in-trays and file holders (don’t go too minimalist). Avoid keeping too many personal trinkets on your desk – they’re just a distraction and you’re already at home so there’s no need to be reminded about how cute your cat is.

Use a clear-desk policy

It’s common for employees in government departments and some big companies to have to ensure that all desks are clear and clean before they go home. You should do the same in your home office. With a clear desk, you’ll be able to focus on work when it’s work time and forget about work when it’s not.

It will be a pain in your proverbial at first, but once you’ve been practicing a clear-desk policy for a couple of weeks it should only take you 5 minutes in the morning and evening to pull out and put away what ever it is you’re working on at the time. If it helps you to save an hour a day, it’s a winning investment of your time.

Schedule cleanups

Even after changing your mindset, de-cluttering, putting systems in place and setting up your desk properly, you’re still going to get a build up of unnecessary papers and things laying around. Schedule a workspace clean up in your calendar once a month or so to keep your desk in tip-top shape.


This post is an excerpt from my article – “How to be more motivated, creative and productive than ever before: a short guide to working from home” – click here to read the whole article.



 

3 Epic Time Management Techniques for New Freelancers

Freelancing is a tough business. Don’t get me wrong, escaping restrictive office hours and horrible bosses and embracing the creative freedom that comes with doing what you love and are truly good at makes it all worthwhile. But, at the end of the day, it’s still work and tough work at that.

As a freelancer you have to be an all-rounder. Marketing, business planning, accounting, sales, networking and then after all that, there’s the actual work of creating and delivering the product or service that brings in revenue. With these pressures and competing priorities, good time management is essential.

Here are my top 3 most epic time management techniques for new freelancers. And since you don’t have the time to sit back with a cuppa and read an essay on the subject, I’ll keep them brief.

Good luck and go get’m!

1. Find your rhythm

You’ve probably read the books and articles online about the ‘8 most important things you must do before 8am’ or how the early bird gets the worm so you must wake up at 5am everyday or your projects will fail. All bad advice, at least for some, possibly most.

The time in the day that you’re most productive will depend on your biology and lifestyle, not someone else’s prescription. Some people are early birds and others are night owls. As a freelancer you’re not obliged to work when people tell you to, so experiment with working during different times of the day and night and find a rhythm that’s most productive for you personally.

2. Schedule everything

Your to-do list and your calendar are your biggest allies in the battle against time.

Start by adopting a system for note-taking and to-do lists. I use Asana for project and task management online and the Bullet Journal system in my trusty Moleskine for being organised moment to moment.

Once your tasks are listed and laid out front of you, prioritise what’s most important, estimate how long each task or batch of tasks will take to complete and schedule them in your calendar. Now, you’ll know where you should be, what you should be working on and how long it will take at any given time throughout your day.

Be sure to keep some time aside through your day for ad-hoc jobs that pop up.

3. Batch your work into pomodoros

The pomodoro is a technique used to complete focused work or batched tasks during specific blocks of time. There are a few different iterations of the technique, but I do it like this.

Know what you want to achieve, set your timer for 23 minutes and go. When the alarm goes off set your timer again for 7 minutes and take a break. Repeat this cycle 3 times and on the third take a 20-30 minute break. Repeat throughout your day.

*   *   *

Time management is an essential skill for successful freelancers. Whenever you feel like you don’t have enough hours in a day, come back to these techniques and, remember, as H. Jackson Brown Jr, Author of the New York Times best selling “Life’s Little Instruction Book” said:

“…You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” 

 



Why you should stop worrying about being a procrastinator

I’ve struggled with procrastination my whole life. When I was young, I wasn’t called a procrastinator, I was called lazy. I even referred to myself as lazy.

I recently had a realisation that I think all so-called ‘procrastinators’ should have. One that’s changed the way I look at my work and the way I do it, my behaviours and my output.

As it turns out, I’m not a procrastinator in the negative sense of the word, I’m just intuitively more productive than non-procrastinators. I don’t mean for that to sound self-righteous. Let me explain.

In 1955 The Economist published an article written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson about his experience and observations of the British public service.

These observations included that the public service had a tendency to grow, year on year, not in response to there being more and more work to be done, but because of the availability to resources to grow it.

He also noted that bureaucrats liked to create non-essential work for one another and expand their teams so they would be in the company of more allies than enemies.

Welcome to Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s observations have come to be known as Parkinson’s Law, which over time and within the productivity realm looks and sounds like this:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Essentially, this means that demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. The reverse is never true. No matter which way you look at it or say it, this law gives incredible power to procrastinators.

Are we procrastinators lazy? Or, as I now like to believe, do we just intuitively know that our efforts to complete a task well before its deadline are wasted? That my efforts will be much greater and the time spent on a task will be much longer if I start a task now, compared to if I start it later.

And, that no matter when I start, the task will inevitably get done, but that by starting it later I’m doing it more efficiently.

The point

Please, stop worrying about being a procrastinator. At least just sometimes. If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.



Why you should always be planning your next holiday

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In the early pages of their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz share a turning point in the trajectory of their business working with world class athletes.

After years of helping athletes perform consistently at a high level under competitive pressure, Jim and Tony were invited by a number of organisations (including hospital emergency wards and the FBI) to help improve staff performance and engagement. It was while working with these organisations that they discovered, and I quote:

“The performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of any professional athlete…”

Wow, right? The reason, they say, is that athletes spend the majority of their time in either training or active recovery and only a short amount of time actually performing.

The everyday worker on the other hand spends very little time training and even less in active recovery, yet are expected to perform at a consistently high level 8-12 hours per day, 5-6 days per week.

These expectations put a lot of stress on the mind and the body and, as numerous studies now show, have a negative impact on productivity, quality of work produced and overall work engagement. Worst of all, our addiction to overworking is rapidly degrading our physical and mental health.

It’s easy to feel like we can’t take a break from the things we’re working on or from the place where we work. The excuses are many and easy to find. We already don’t have enough hours in a day.

The work is too important or the project won’t progress without us. The office will fall apart and the world will end if we’re not around to fix every problem. We all like to believe we’re indispensable. As though the office and the people in it just can’t live without us.

Life gets easier when we realise that we’re kidding ourselves. No one is indispensable and we’re doing ourselves and the cause or project we’re working on a disservice by working through burnout. Just think about every job you’ve quit and moved on from. The project, the team, the organisation you left behind are doing just fine without you.

This isn’t to say that you’re not valuable or making an important contribution. After all, you wouldn’t still be employed if you didn’t. But, so can so many others. And, don’t take this personally, but you’re not the only one who can manage a crisis, progress your project or deal with clients and stakeholders.

You’re not the only one who has something to contribute. Who can add value.

The longer you put off having a break, the closer to burnout you get, the less value you add to the cause or project you’re working on and the sicker you become. You, your mind and your body are not designed to withstand the long hours and six day weeks you’re working. You need active recovery to stay healthy and perform at your best.

Taking a break is not a sign of weakness. It’s a matter of self-awareness and it will make you stronger. It’s not just important, it’s essential. Especially if you want to build a strong, enduring career and a happy, healthy life.

So, here’s what I want you to do:

1. Take breaks throughout your workday. 

10-15 minutes here and there can make a huge difference. Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, read the news (in an actual newspaper, not online). Do whatever it takes for you to let go and recover from the intense focus you’ve just given to whatever task you’ve been working on.

To help me take more breaks, I’ve been experimenting with the pomodoro technique. Learn more here.

2. Go on a holiday at least once a year.

And I’m not talking about going back to your home town to visit family. I’m talking about an actual holiday. Get out of the city. Go overseas. Go to the beach, a concert or on a cruise. Scuba-dive, bungie jump or sit for days in a shack in the country side reading great books.

Give yourself the gift of a break from your everyday life. Get away from it all, even for just a week. You’ll be better for it.

3. Always be in holiday planning mode.

Even if you only take one vacation a year, know when it will be, where you will go, who you’ll be with and what you will do. Knowing you’ve got some reprieve coming can help you push through mental blocks and minor crises of motivation.

In the lead up to your vacation, organise your work affairs so that you can forget about work as much as possible. If you can help it, don’t take work with you and don’t check emails.

4. If you’re a manager, make sure your team members are getting the breaks they need.

Encourage them to step away from their desk several times per day. Let them go home early once a month and don’t dock their pay. Actively encourage them to take holidays.

While they’re on holidays do not, under any circumstances call them. Reassure them that everything will be taken care of while they’re away. Not because you don’t need them, but because you need them to be at their best.

Working through burnout serves no one

Especially not ourselves. At the end of the day, we can only give as much as we have. Once that’s depleted our contribution loses its value. Take breaks throughout the day. Plan and go on holidays. Make sure your team are well rested.



 

3 quick tips for working smarter

Working smarter is all about efficient systems and processes, good organisation and avoiding distraction. Here are a few ways I keep on top of things based on these work smarter principles.

1. Create systems for managing email

I cut my email traffic in half by using a CC inbox. I created a new folder and called it ‘CC Inbox’ and then created a rule in Outlook that sends all incoming emails that I’m only cc’d into directly to the CC Inbox. I only check that folder twice per day at scheduled times. This reduces the amount of time I spend reading unnecessary and unimportant emails. Learn more about mastering your inbox here.

2. Get organised by sticking to a good note taking system and keep all your notes in one place

I use the Bullet Journal system. It’s easy to learn thanks to a quick video on the website that explains everything. It’s an easy to remember system for taking notes, making to-do lists, and prioritising what you have to do. I’ve used it for years and it works! Just make sure you’re always using the same notebook or it becomes useless. Keeping a single notebook and taking it with you everywhere is a good way to build a professional reputation. Here are some other tips.

3. Avoid distraction by turning off email and social media notifications

I used to hear a ‘ding’ every time a new email came into my inbox. It would make me stop what I was doing to check it. I turned off the notification and it improved my focus a huge amount. In fact, I now close down my email completely while I’m focussed on work to take it that one step further.

I also used to get a push notification on my phone every time someone tweeted at me or when I got a message on Facebook, for example. Even if I didn’t stop what I was doing to check it, it still momentarily distracted me form my work. Now, I’ve turned all notifications off so I only see what’s new when I take the time check each app individually. I’ve scheduled social media time during the day so it doesn’t pull me away form my work. It’s also improved time with family.

* * *

Everyone’s busy, but not everyone is productive. Change the way you work and you’ll get more done in less time and create space in your life for the things that really matter.



 

How to become the master of your inbox

One morning in 2013, my boss came into my office asking for an update on some correspondence I’d been having with an important client.

Taken by surprise and unprepared for the request, I rummaged through my Inbox as quickly as I could while he waited by my desk, but I couldn’t find anything. At least not while he waited.

“As someone who takes pride in my productivity and output at work, I felt embarrassed.”

Over the next hour or so I continued to search through the 5,000-plus emails that were sitting in my Inbox, before finally forwarding him an email with the subject line “Sorry for the wait” and the requested correspondence in tow.

As someone who takes pride in my productivity and output at work, I felt embarrassed. And, I’m pretty sure that for at least a moment, my boss was somewhat disappointed and perhaps even questioning my performance (or so my insecurities tell me).

“I was CC’d in on more emails than I could count and spending large portions of my day opening and reading emails that were non-essential.”

Worried that this may be but the first of many instances in which poor email management might bring me unstuck, I did something about it.

It took some time and perseverance but with a bit of research, planning, dedicated ‘Inbox’ time and a few new rules I got my Inbox down to a more manageable number, kept it there and became more productive.

Here’s how I did it and how you can do it too.

1. Clean up non-essentials

In my last job I wore many hats. I was part of a senior management group, led a team of 5 who managed relationships with around 700 clients and worked in project teams with people from different areas of the organisation.

“Check your ‘CC Inbox’ folder just once or twice a day and when preparing for important meetings, just to make sure you’re up to date.”

Needless to say, I was CC’d in on more emails than I could count and spending large portions of my day opening and reading emails that were non-essential. That’s no way to be productive.

Here’s how I fixed it and how you can too:

  1. Create a new folder, name it ‘CC Inbox’.
  2. Filter your Inbox to find all the emails you’re CC’d in on. Drag and drop all of these emails into your newly created ‘CC Inbox’ folder.
  3. Create a rule that directs all new emails that you’re CC’d into straight to your ‘CC Inbox’ folder.
  4. For convenience, drag your ‘CC Inbox’ folder to the top of your navigation pane and drop it under your Inbox . This will allow you to easily keep tabs on how many CC emails are coming in.
  5. Check the ‘CC Inbox’ folder just once or twice a day and when preparing for important meetings, just to make sure you’re up to date.
  6. It might happen that your boss includes some tasking for you in an email you’re CC’d you into. If this happens and you miss it, let him or her know that you don’t see CC emails in your Inbox and generally only scan them to keep up to date. Then, get onto the task you missed as quickly as you can. Tasking people who are CC’d into an email is poor email etiquette so once you pull them up it’s not likely they’ll do it again.

2. Clean out your subscriptions

I love breaking up my day with short reads, blogs and news. I have always prided myself on being across the issues that exist in the sector where I work.

“…unsubscribe from any subscriptions and updates you don’t need anymore. Be ruthless. I’m guessing you probably don’t even read about 80% of what comes in…”

To save time searching for my favourite reads and sector related updates, I would subscribe at the source to get email updates whenever something relevant was available. The trouble is, daily subscription emails can fill your Inbox quickly, and crowd-out the emails that are essential to your job.

Here’s how I fixed it and how you can too:

  1. Create a new folder, name it ‘Subscriptions’.
  2. Filter your Inbox to find all emails that have ‘unsubscribe’ somewhere in the email content. This should find most of your subscriptions. Drag and drop all of these emails into your new ’Subscriptions’ folder.
  3. Sort through your new ’Subscriptions’ folder and unsubscribe from any subscriptions and updates you don’t need anymore. Be ruthless. I’m guessing you probably don’t even read about 80% of what comes in so try cancelling any subscriptions you haven’t read in the past month (like I said, ruthless).
  4. For the subscriptions you want to keep, create a rule for each individual sender that directs all new emails from that source into your ‘Subscriptions’ folder.
  5. For convenience, drag your ‘Subscriptions’ folder to the top of your navigation pane and drop it under your Inbox or ‘CC Inbox’ folder.

3. Stop using your Inbox as a to-do list

I used my Inbox as a to-do list in two ways. Firstly, I flagged important ‘tasking’ emails as they came in, signalling that I should pay attention to them later.

“…I lost track of tasking emails as they dropped further and further down my Inbox…”

Secondly, while at home in the evenings and on weekends, I’d email my work account from my personal email account with lists and reminders for the next day or the next week.

This process did not make me more productive. Instead, I lost track of tasking emails as they dropped further and further down my Inbox; and my Inbox filled up with way too many emails from myself.

Here’s how I changed my ways, and how you can too:

Stop Flagging

  • Rather than flagging important emails for follow up, create special priority folders that require different types of attention or action.
  • Name them accordingly and be diligent about making sure you’re moving emails between folders at different stages of task completion or as needed.
  • Once a task is completed, delete or file/archive the email accordingly.

Make Better To-Do’s

  • If you don’t already, start taking a notebook with you everywhere and use it to take notes in meetings, make lists and record tasks and ideas. Just make sure you’re always using the same note book, or this exercise becomes useless.
  • Use the Bullet Journal System to keep tasks, lists and ideas organised and accessible in your note book.  I’ve been using this system for a couple of years now and I can tell you it works.
  • If you’re not a fan of notebooks and would rather use your phone or tablet to keep organised, there are plenty of apps out there, it’s just a matter of finding the one that’s right for you. This should get you started.
  • Rather than emailing yourself to-do lists from home, spend some time every evening before you go home from the office making a to-do list for the next day or next week. Even if you end up spending an extra 10 minutes at work in the evening getting this done, this one move will cut down email traffic, make you more organised, and give you a clearer head and better peace of mind at home where you should be thinking about and spending time with loved ones – not thinking about work.

“Talk more. Pick up the phone, set up Skype or Go To Meeting, have coffee or lunch with people more often. Encourage your team to do the same. Set some rules with your team about what email should be used for.”

 

4. Find new ways to communicate

As an introvert, I have to admit that for me email is a very attractive mode of communication. But, it’s not the most effective or efficient. So, to slow the flow of unnecessary emails leaving and arriving in my Inbox, I used and tested a range of new a different techniques.

Try these:

  • Talk more. Pick up the phone, set up a Skype or Go To Meeting, have coffee or lunch with people more often. Encourage your team to do the same. Set some rules with your team about what email should be used for.
  • Try instant messaging. I gave HipChat a good go, and it would have worked out perfectly for my team, but unfortunately my organisation’s IT infrastructure didn’t allow us to use it to its full potential. If not for that it would have been a winner. I hear Slack is also a great way to move conversations away from email.

With these rules and strategies in place I was able to reduce email traffic and keep the number of emails in my Inbox down to a manageable level. Best of all, I became much more productive at work and thought about work less when I was at home. I hope these tips work for you too!

Do you have any tips for managing your Inbox? Sharing is caring so tell us about them in the comments box below.