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How to Find Time by Cutting Back on Reactive Work

by Arianne Foulks

June 30, 2015

Creative business owners / founders: You'll need to be able to find the extra time to do so without slipping far behind on your day to day tasks. You're not likely to find more hours in a day. Instead, let's find your most focused and productive way to work.

Creative business owners: join me to shape up our businesses! I have written an eight part series that will help you:

  • Increase efficiency and focus,
  • Enjoy your work more,
  • Reach your goals,
  • Learn to quit trying to do every darn thing that goes into running a business yourself!

How to Build a Successful Creative Business on Limited Time

Let’s work to build our businesses together over the next few months. You’ll need to be able to find the extra time to do so without slipping far behind on your day to day tasks. You’re not likely to find more hours in a day. Instead, let’s find your most focused and productive way to work.

Let’s clear the decks so we can make the time we have count! Here is what I do when I have a project to focus on, and need to put some serious time into it.

Drop distractions

If your schedule is light on true work hours, you have to guard your time. Cut distractions that make you lose focus. Do you ever find that the day is ending and you’ve barely put a dent in your to-do list? You were pulled in several directions all day. Try these popular methods of focusing on your real work:

Turn off notifications

Those little beeps, banners, and red dots can steal more time from you than you think! I have read articles about how multitasking is the worst way to work. Even without facts and figures, I can see this for myself. Have you ever gotten a ding that made you switch tabs in your browser or move to something new? You complete that task, and then stare blankly at your computer, wondering what you were originally working on.

These moments where you’re shifting focus and have to get back on track again mess with your productivity. Especially if you consider that they may be happening dozens of times a day.

I recommend turning off notifications entirely. If you can’t bear to, you can switch to “Do Not Disturb” mode while you’re working. You should control when you check mail, Facebook, Instagram. That red dot with a number absorbs more of your time than you realize. If you’re getting alerts or banners making a noise or popping up visibly, it will be hopeless to stay on track. Do you really need to know the moment one of these generally non-urgent messages comes in? Or could you turn off the notification and check in when you’ve made the time to?

When you’ve made the time to check in on distractions, consider limiting it. For instance, I have been enjoying Instagram. I post my photo and then I scroll through to like and comment on others’ photos. This often takes me more time than I intended. If I set a 15 minute timer on my phone whenever I use Instagram, I can remember to turn it off and get back to work without losing 30-45 minutes to chitchatting.

Find a productive place and time to work

I work by myself in my quiet office in our finished attic. I’m two floors from my husband, who is working to a musical soundtrack in his basement office. For years we’ve worked together, but when my job shifted to be more focused on reading and writing, I needed silence.

That’s just me. Maybe you do a task with your hands and you work better with some company and some noise. Try out different places and ways to work to see which results in the most productive work.

Don’t underestimate the value of finding the right time to work. I work best in the morning. During the school year, Saturdays are my only chance for that, since the kids are out of the house then. Sometimes I wilt in the afternoons and can’t focus and that’s when I head outside to get some exercise.

Plan your day for success

Make to-dos reasonable

It’s easy to feel ambitious, give yourself a crazy amount of work to do, and never feel caught up. I find that it’s best to keep your expectations low as far as how much work you can get done in a day. Put one important task on your to-do list for each day. If you finish it, bravo! You can do some of your other to-dos or call it a day.

I like to have one big project per day, with perhaps two little extras that I know I can fit in. You’ll get better at deciding what to focus on each day as we get farther along in this series. We’ll be talking about your responsibilities and how to reduce busywork.

If you’d like to follow along in shaping up your business with me, set aside one day a week for this. Your only to-do that day should be working on your business.

Start with the important work

Do the most important task on your to-do list before you open your email, social media, or any other communication tool. I tracked my computer time for months, and found that communication was where most of my time was disappearing. Even if you end up putting out fires the whole rest of the day, your important work is already done.

This article from Trello about “timeboxing” is a winner, and I urge you to read it:

Can you be as effective in 35 hours as you are in 80? Startup veteran and developer Jess Martin thinks so. He has worked tirelessly to optimize his productivity in order to work better, not longer.

It’s easy to feel busy and enjoy little “wins” all day by answering emails and helping people out. Then you’ve spent all day doing reactive work for others and getting none of the proactive work of building your business done. I suggest avoiding your email inbox in the morning. When you do open your inbox, answer it and close it again to focus on your next task.

You’re ready!

That’s it – pretty simple, but any day that I follow these steps tends to be a great one. Even though the steps needed to focus are so straightforward, I slip out of them all the time. Especially when a task is daunting, it’s tempting to go back to your inbox where you’re needed and you can solve problems. Or to Instagram, where you’re getting supportive messages and hearts all day.

Be wary of these internet sirens! Block your ears and do what will get you to where you want to be instead. What if you could get your business to where you could take a two week vacation, just by cutting down on Instagram or reactive work? That’s a no-brainer, right? Keep your end goal in sight and take your work day as seriously as you can.

Your homework

This week:

  1. Check to see what notifications and reminders are set on your phone or computer, and turn off any that aren’t life or death.
  2. Evaluate your current workspace to see if you can make it distraction-free and conducive to serious work.
  3. Plan your to-dos for the next week, keeping expectations low.
  4. Adjust your schedule so that you timebox your important work before opening up the communication floodgates.

Ready, set go! Then, when you’ve accomplished this, let’s celebrate and support each other in the Aeolidia Facebook group for creative business owners!

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10 thoughts on “How to Find Time by Cutting Back on Reactive Work”

  1. Oh the notifications and the staring blankly at the screen afterwards. Yup, that gets me every day, several times a day….
    The only problem is that if don’t deal promptly with customer enquiries or updating orders I worry that my business will suffer.
    There has to be a half way solution, maybe schedule timed check-ins?
    It certainly does drain my productivity, though! Thanks for the tips.

  2. Yes, Ellie! I recommend scheduled email check-in times. You may be able to get away with one a day, or you may need three. If you have blocks of time that won’t get interrupted, you’ll get much more done during them than if you’re bouncing back and forth.

  3. I am so easily distracted and oh those notifications! I can’t resist a peek. I’m definitely turning them off from now on. Thank you for the tips Arianne.

  4. Arianne, this was great information, some of these I have been ‘trying’ to do for a few years now. I tend to fail at the getting stuck in email part. I have too many requests for my time and I tend to tackle the easy wins first, saving the big tasks for later. I feel like I at least accomplish something this way…but as you pointed out, before you know it, you have been reactionary all day and the big tasks are still waiting. I do have a few wins on this post, I have had my phone on silent for years, nothing dings, all notifications are off. I turned off the red dots and numbers, and keep doing it after each new app…my OCD cannot handle seeing those on my phone without reacting. I did the same with my computer, no beeps and no notifications. The notifications definitely helped. But even without notifications, email is the big issue. For years I have turned my inbox into my todo list, unread emails are items I need to address. This might be a mistake, but nearly everything I need to get done has some type of email attached to it. When I stay out of email too long (like our recent vacation) I get overwhelmed when I come back to it. I hate email, it has become a never ending assignment of work that needs to get done. Working on the priority tasks BEFORE opening email and time blocking will be tough for me, but I think this could be your best advice from the post!


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