This guest post is brought to you by Francesca Geens, a UK based technology and productivity strategist, who loves nothing more than simplifying and untangling the way people do their work.
The problem with most articles on productivity is that they do one of two very annoying things.
They either list ten million ‘essential’ apps, or they prescribe the author’s own ‘system’.
Unfortunately, neither of these approaches results in the reader becoming more productive.
Because reading about and playing with a ton of new apps is one of the greatest productivity sucks around! You probably already have the right tools but you are not using them well.
The prescribed methodologies only work for a lucky few. Everyone else ends up more stressed because their new ‘system’ is not working for them. That’s because everyone is different.
Isn’t there another way?
How about we look at what successful independent consultants do to be their most productive and effective selves?
No list of essential tools coming up folks. And plenty of different approaches.
Read on to build your own productivity toolbox.
Last year I was in Stockholm for the Double Your Freelancing conference with about 70 or so other independent consultants. With European freelancers joined by attendees from as far as Australia, the US and India it was a truly global gathering. We spent an inspiring few days surrounded by others keen to learn from each other and invest in themselves and their businesses.
This is what happens when you hold a conference in a Japanese spa:
Yes, we did wear the robes the entire time.
With such a diverse group, I was fascinated to find out more about how they worked, the tools they used and what systems they relied upon to stay organised and on top of their game. After the conference, I contacted a few of the speakers and delegates to ask what productivity means to them.
What follows shows how unique productivity is.
This is not something that comes across in other articles on this topic. Of course, there is best-practice and yes various tools and techniques do stand-out. But the message to take away is this:
It’s OK (and important) to forge your own approach to productivity. Your approach should suit you and be tailored to your business needs.
But it can be hard to make a start.
This article will help you build your own toolkit.
The right tools for YOUR needs
The first thing to note from our survey of the conference attendees is that people were being clear about what matters in their businesses. Without this, it will be hard to get the right tools in place.
There are a few ways to go about this:
Understanding your business and its processes
Daniel Siegel (an independent digital product architect) rightly points out the importance of having repeatable processes. Having processes for all aspects of his work (from writing his blog, managing prospects to dealing with clients) allows him to ‘spend my time on the actual problem a client has’. His advice is to look for those tasks your find tedious and do all the time and find ways to ‘automate and simplify your business’. This will give you the space to focus on doing what matters most: client work.
Be clear on what matters to your business
There will always be a number of tools that will help you do the same thing. People often spend inordinate amounts of time shopping around and switching in the hope of finding the perfect one. It is likely you already have a good tool – start using it. Be clear on what you are trying to achieve.
Austin L Church (a consultant who helps freelancers and creatives build profitable businesses) says it well by saying that his favourite productivity technique was putting his goals first.
And when you do get a tool fully integrated into your day great things happen. Andy Henson (who runs a software consultancy specialising in migrating FoxPro users to web based applications) mentioned that his favourite productivity tool, Alfred (an app launching tool for Mac), is used on average 26.6 times a day.
Don’t get paralysed by perfection
Don’t waste too much time trying lots of tools rather than getting on with the work. As Austin put it ‘It is better to start (imperfectly) with different apps and tools and to try and become only 1% more efficient than to wait to study or fully research an app or tool before you try it. You only have to get 1% better each day to be 100% better in 100 days. So start tweaking your workflow now, and start becoming more efficient now. Efficiency is the same as profitability.’
The tools that stood out were providing very specific support. These are the ones you want to be sure to get in place.
Good examples of this include:
For Jane Portman (an independent UI/UX consultant and trainer), being able to use her writing across a range of platforms without creating more work for herself was important. So she now uses the Markdown format in Byword (a writing app for Mac). ‘I wish someone had explained the value of Markdown to me earlier. It’s a true lifesaver when it comes to ‘format-agnostic’ content creation.’
Jane even launched her own app, TinyReminder. It helps you get information in on time from podcast guests or conference speakers. It’s very niche but that’s what makes it so helpful.
Laura Elizabeth (an independent designer and creator of client-portal.io) recommends a text expander to help her with quick standard responses. This allows her to stay focused on current work while still qualifying new clients.
Because of the nature of her work Laura also needs to produce many client proposals. Software like Nusii allows her to create beautiful documents with little effort.
Matt Inglot (founder and host of Freelance Transformation) uses Go to Meeting for his client calls and training sessions. Being able to record and share the calls means ‘important details aren’t lost or misremembered later’.
Marian Edmunds (editorial mentor and copywriter at The Writing Business) uses Brain.fm which has music without lyrics specifically designed to aid deepen concentration. This type of deep focus is essential to her work in particular and she finds it useful ‘when I have to unravel or work through a difficult piece of writing.’
Several mention that they wish they had started taking client payments online much earlier. Using a service like Stripe makes waiting for bank transfers a thing of the past. The tiny transaction fee is a small price to pay for the speed and ease of getting paid.
Four things you can’t avoid
Specific is good but there is no getting away from the following four areas. Pretty much everyone mentioned how they deal with the following.
You too will need to find a way to tackle these four things:
You know those notes you make when you have ideas, read books, go to meetings, attend conferences, listen to podcasts etc?
- Are they scattered across a range of notebooks?
- Maybe you have some in the Notes app on your phone as well as in Evernote and Word?
- What about that growing list of bookmarks cluttering up your browser?
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with this ‘useful’ information. And when it’s fragmented it becomes time consuming and near impossible to do anything with it.
But it is important to find a way or ways to track and organise this so that it stays useful for you. Start by ditching the bookmarks and storing everything (links, notes, ideas etc) in the same place to make it easy to search for and retrieve.
Blair Wadman (Drupal & Marketing Automation Consultant) prefers Workflowy to keep all his notes in one place. Not only are they centralised but he likes the way Workflowy allows him to nest lists so that it’s easy to focus on specific areas. I prefer Evernote because I can use the web clipper or email in information to specific notebooks.
As you can see it is a personal choice. Different people process information in different ways and are drawn to different features.
Whatever tool you use: be consistent.
Having a system that allows you to priorities, keep track, and have an overview of what needs doing is also essential.
There are plenty of tools to help with this. Blair is a big Trello fan (like me) and has set up his main board with all his key areas that feed into monthly, weekly and daily tasks. For me Trello looks like this with Digital Dragonfly being my main board where all my business and personal tasks are tracked:
But paper is also effective. Gavin Ricketts (founder of creative agency Napoleon Creative) is a fan of a paper to do list. I love that fact that before he re-writes it he will scan for quick actionable tasks to save him re-writing them. I have heard this before from clients who work with paper lists that there is nothing like re-writing a task a few times to either question why it’s there in the first place or why you haven’t done it. On an app it can be too easy to move a due date or click snooze on something you are putting off doing. Gavin takes the paper list one step further by using his fountain pen. The slower pace of writing means he can read his notes weeks later!
Having experimented with tool vs paper myself I currently work with a hybrid model combining Trello and a daily to do list on paper.
The importance of an online calendar was also consistently mentioned as essential.
Mojca Mars (a social media expert and founder of Super Spicy Media), who admits she isn’t a big fan of tech tools, totally relies on her calendar ‘I have every task scheduled in my calendar. I even schedule my lunch and dinner. I really love this approach as it eliminates my time for procrastination. I simply don’t allow it to creep into my schedule.’
Others, like Matt, plan their day around their energy levels ‘I arrange my daily tasks in order of brain power required so that I can get the really mentally intensive work done in the morning, and leave simpler tasks for when I am inevitably tired and not at my best’. A good tip is to only check your emails when you are ready for your first break of the day and start with your more important tasks.
Once you have an online calendar setup be sure to integrate it with something like Calendly. This was probably the most mentioned tool and called a ‘life-saver’ more than once. It will save you hours of email ping-pong when scheduling calls and meetings. It’s very flexible and I have a range of links to give out to clients, prospects and contacts depending on what’s required:
I know email can be a massive time suck and productivity killer for so many so if you feel like you are overwhelmed by the state of your inbox it’s important to spend time getting to grips with this.
You don’t need to believe in Inbox Zero but you do need a system.
Your system could include any or all of the following:
- Only checking a few times a day.
- Giving access to a Virtual Assistant to help you filter.
- Making sure you are using cloud based emails with excellent built in spam filtering.
- Unsubscribing to as many newsletters as you can get away with.
- Not using your inbox as a to do list.
Or you could use Sanebox like Marian who uses it ‘to bring only the most important emails to me and make a 30- second decision about the best of the rest of the emails to be read at a time of my choosing.’
Or you can also be brave like Matt who says that, ‘Eight years ago I turned off email on my smartphone and I only open my email on my computer when I intentionally wish to check it. This allows me to get work done without constant interruptions, and hasn’t impacted the amazing service that my agency’s clients receive from me’.
Don’t forget about other tech essentials
In my client work I often notice people wanting to get lots of tools in place when other tech is missing. Essentials for any independent consultant include:
- The best computer you can afford.
- A good desk setup (think screen size, chair, standing desk, quality keyboard and mouse)
- Cloud based email (Office 365 or Gmail for your domain name).
- Fail-safe backup.
It’s easy to overlook our workstations. Your posture and environment are important to your sense of wellbeing and productivity. Jelle Annaars (a content marketing expert) found increased productivity and comfort by connecting a decent-sized monitor to his laptop. Small changes like this can have a big impact.
And if you aren’t already in the cloud with your business data what are you waiting for? As Matt says ‘I wish I had switched to using the cloud for everything sooner. Now it feels crazy to imagine files being stuck on my or someone else’s computer instead of being available from anywhere in the world. This has saved a lot of headaches.’
Productivity is more than just tools and technology
But all the right tools and tech still isn’t going to make a difference if your working practice isn’t underpinned with routines. Everyone has their favourites and these can be small simple actions. You don’t need to worry about an expansive morning ritual if that isn’t your thing.
The secret here is to consistently do whatever small thing works for you.
Some favourites to inspire you:
Planning the night before
We’ve already seen how some like Mojca use their calendar to map out their entire day. Mojca’s favourite technique reflects her simple but effective approach. ‘I sit down every evening and schedule my day in advance. I schedule all tasks that need to be completed and this helps me stay on top of my priorities. That way I wake up knowing exactly what I need to do.’
Ken also loves the peace of mind which comes with knowing everything you need to work on next day is waiting on your to do list in the morning. As for me I map out my day on piece of paper the night before (they are sheets from an old calendar which are just the right size) and leave it lying on my desk to work through the next day. I then works through these tasks with pomodoros.
This is what my day looks like today, it was mapped out last night, and includes everything from morning routine and school run, a fencing tournament and violin lesson I need to sit in on to what needs doing in the business today! Just another typical day…
Andy mentions his ‘shutdown ritual’ that allows him to plan for the next day and clear his head of work so that he is fully relaxed for the evening.
Many like stress the importance of setting yourself up for a good day.
For Andy this starts the night before by having everything ready (clothes, coffee ground, cup out) then going through a simple morning routine: meditating, exercising, writing and when at his desk reviewing the plan for the day.
The Pomodoro Technique
A firm favourite by which you work in sessions of 25 minutes followed by 5 minute breaks. But you don’t need to stick to the suggested 25 minute slots. Jelle who likes 15 minute pomodoros says that ‘For each block of time, I’ll say what my intentions is to get done in those 15 minutes. And I don’t stop until it is done.’ Barry Van Someren (an infrastructure consultant) who says he is ‘great at procrastinating’ (well done for being honest!) finds that ‘the Pomodoro technique is great with dealing with this and getting you over the “start” hump of getting to work’.
Scrum is a technique used by software development teams to work towards clearly defined short-term goals. It allows for much faster and more efficient project delivery.
Blair has adjusted it to solo use as follows.
‘On bigger projects I use backward planning to start with the main goal/objective and then working backwards from there, breaking it down into components and actions/sub-actions needed to reach the objective. I use Workflowy for the backwards plan. When items from the backwards plan are ready to be actioned, they go into Trello. With scrum, you time effort and each time period is a sprint. I’ll do sprint planning before the week starts. I use other scrum techniques including regular sprint retrospectives and daily reflection.’
Clear your mind
Many mentioned the importance of having a way to regain focus.
For Andy (and myself) it’s meditating using the Headspace app ‘just 10 minutes a day helps me focus better and be more productive as well as generally feeling better about myself’. For Daniel ‘Going out for a walk or exercising and then returning to the problem often allows me to find a solution in a few minutes’. Laura Elizabeth finds a change of environment, like going to a coffee shop, helps with her writing.
Be clever with snippets of time
Jelle, a busy parent of two, highlights the challenge of finding the time to read, ‘I wish I knew so many books are available as audio books via Audible. Audiobooks are great for on the road or during walks’. Whether it’s books or podcasts finding time to fit in learning into your day is a great way to turn doing the washing up into a more enjoyable experience.
Be aware of how you are using your time
I encourage all my clients to use a tool like Rescue Time which keeps track of where you spend your time when on your computer. There nothing like weekly stats on your computer usage to focus the mind. For Barry this feedback helps him stay focussed and on track for the week.
So what can we learn from all this?
There is no one-size fits all when it comes to productivity.
All too often we are presented with the latest apps or techniques as ‘essential’ fixes to our desire to work more effectively. We end up constantly looking for something better rather than getting on with what we already have in place. Focus and small but consistent routines are more effective than a huge overhaul of your apps or reading yet another book on time management.
As we’ve just seen the most successful consultants out there have forged their own systems. They pick and mix and create a toolbox that works for them.
It’s about finding the right balance between apps, tech, techniques and routines in a way that suits you.
Your productivity toolbox will be unique to you and should look something like this:
Smallest number of tools based on your day-to-day business needs + tech and workspace essentials + trusted routines applied systematically = your most productive self
Oh. I haven’t just given you a ‘system’ have I?
But what you do have is a framework and real-life inspiration from others just like you to go and build your own unique productivity toolbox.
Let me know how you get on.
Francesca Geens runs Digital Dragonfly, a technology and productivity consultancy. Francesca combines her love of technology with her superpower of untangling complexity to give clients the simple tools and workflows that help them work smarter. Her signature Productivity Teardown service will give you the clarity you need to get the right tech tools and productivity techniques in place to save you hours a week. Say hi at [email protected] or on twitter @f_dragonfly