…and the secret I learned from a 2.5 year experiment
In 2015, after 20 years of being a traditional permie working for The Man, I decided to become a flexible worker in my own small business. I’ve already written about how this has changed my view of work, from being a place to being an activity.
Full disclosure – I’m a project manager by trade, and a practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD®) productivity methodology for over 10 years now, so my approach is more structured than most. Some would rudely say anal or nerdy. But I’m also flexible, adapt easily and can’t bear fixed routine in any way (emptying the dishwasher kills me…I’ve already done it once in my life, how can it ever need doing again?).
I think these are all good reasons why working flexibly has worked so well for me. I really can’t imagine going back to a 9-to-5 working life (well, a 7-to-7 as mine was in reality).
I’ve analysed what exactly has worked over the last 2 and a half years and come up with my Top 5 Productivity Tips for Flexible Workers, all learned from experience. Whether you’re a solopreneur, a micro- or small business owner, an independent freelancer or a flexible worker in someone else’s company, these tips can work for you, too. (Some of them can even work for permies if your company has a flexible working policy):
1. Hardscape your weeks
Put anything important to you into your diary to give your weeks structure. Prioritise things that will move your business forward: earning money, talking to clients and suppliers, networking. Add in events that are important to your holistic life: your child’s nativity play, your hobby group’s monthly get-together. This gives you a clear, realistic calendar for fitting in work. It is the hardscaping of your week, giving you structure to your time and ensuring you get some valuable social contact, too.
2. Have a helicopter view and a ground-level view to hand
Be clear on what your high-level goals are for your business (the helicopter view) as well as what your next actions are (your ground level view). If you know these you can better work out the small steps you need to take each day to go in the right direction. When you have space in your (hardscaped) diary, you’ll have more of a pick ‘n’ mix choice about what to do next. (This is pure GTD here: The Horizons of Focus.)
3. Abandon multitasking: embrace deep work
As a flexible worker you have more control over how you fulfil your multiple roles. This means you can abandon multitasking more for deep work. Figure out for yourself what your favoured conditions are for the work you do, find a place that fulfils that, ringfence a chunk of time to do deep, focussed work and then give yourself the best chance of leveraging those conditions by switching off your distractions: switch off email, phone and app notifications. Only good things will happen.
4. Technology can be your friend and your frenemy
Technology is amazing. And amazingly confusing. So use it wisely to enhance your productivity. Try new apps to solve your problems but stop using what you don’t get on with or what takes more time and effort than reward. You can use cheap or free technology to do your accounting, record time spent on work, store your to-do lists, make cheap calls and do marketing & campaign management with the power of bigger companies. See the full article for tools I’ve found indispensable.
5. Leverage working flexibly
The whole point of flexible working is to be able to define when, where and how you work. Pay attention to your own body clock. When you don’t have to be limited by another company’s rules, set your own for when you want to work. Also listen to your energy levels: if you know you’re lacking focus or are a bit tired, then do something else. Or hack away at a task that’s a bit mindless. In a small business it all needs to be done, so save some jobs for those low-energy times
So what’s the simple secret that I’ve learned about flexible working in this time? I’ve given you clues in each Top Tip. It’s this:
The secret to flexible working is to have an underlying structure
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that working flexibly is about working without structure. Just like a jazz musician can only riff when she has enough experience to understand the given boundaries of music, so it is for us Flexible Workers: you need more structure, not less, to make working flexibly be more productive. Well, at least if you ever want to earn any money.