ZAP! Instant productivity

I am the good fairy of getting shit done

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Hola, colleague! (Look who’s learning Spanish on Duolingo like a big January cliche)

Welcome to another episode of ‘oh god, is this what life is going to be like for all time?’ aka locked down, plague-ridden Britain. Not much to say on this except - solidarity, always.

On a happier note, it was great to see so many of you at last week’s free accountability coffee break. This month has been SO challenging already, and my motivation fell off a cliff, so checking in and setting public goals (in front of a friendly bunch) has already had an impact on me - and hopefully other attendees too. Also very reassuring to see that lots of us are struggling with the same things. Don’t forget to sign up for the follow-up (also suitable if you missed the first) on Friday 29th here. We’ll be celebrating any wins from January and setting some goals for the month ahead.

If you’re currently feeling as professionally sluggish as I am, today’s issue should help too.

How can I be more productive?

We all want to be more productive (says the girl who has just scrolled through the entire Twitter back catalogue for a guy called Capybara man. It’s literally just photos of capybaras.) But what is the secret and why is it so freaking hard?

“We don’t talk about how to be productive – it’s not something we learn at school, so there can be quite a lot of ‘productivity shame’ and worrying that we’re failing compared to other people,” says Karen Eyre-White, founder of Go Do Productivity, which offers coaching in – you guessed it – productivity and time management.  

And, if we’re honest, it’s extra tough staying motivated when you work alone. “In organisations there are managers, colleagues and teams – this is a whole system that we’ve developed over time because it does help to motivate people. When you work alone it has to be self-generated,” says Karen. And that’s without mentioning the fact that self-employed people need an entire tool belt of skills, for jumping between wildly different tasks.

The good news? “There’s a correlation between self-motivation and being self-employed,” Karen assures me. So even if you’re feeling ‘meh’ at the moment, the very fact that you’re your own boss implies that you have all the tools you need to keep focused – you just need a bit of a nudge.

Consider yourself nudged.

Here are some simple techniques that can help you refresh, re-energise and have your most productive week/month/year ever!

To do today

“People often think that being productive means having a really long to-do list, but often that’s counterproductive,” says Karen.

  • One short and sweet way to ease the pressure and narrow your focus is deciding what not to do. “Ask yourself: what can I take off my plate? Am I trying to do too much? Can I afford to get other people to help me?” says Karen. [Find out more about outsourcing some of your work here.] “In short: what are you going to say ‘no’ to?”

  • Beware the bias: it’s easy to assume you can power through things, but have you factored in loo breaks, lunch, random emails, adorable pets, etc? And of course many self-employed parents are now hampered by home-schooling and childcare issues on top of everything else. All the more reason to be realistic in your expectations. “We often have a productivity bias, but if you don’t get through your list you’ll feel a sense of deflation, which can carry over to the next day,” says Karen.

  • Keep. That. List. Manageable. “Aim for three to five things – knocking them out with help you feel balanced and increase your focus.”

A longer-term planning session

“An almost universal problem for self-employed people, is that they spend all of their time working in their business, rather than working on their business,” says Karen. “It’s not a job that shouts loudly – there’s no one in your inbox demanding this gets done, so you have to make time.”

One way to get down and dirty with your long-term plans, motivation and come back to work with renewed enthusiasm, is to schedule a day – or more – dedicated to big picture stuff.

In a pre-covid world, I’d have suggested going to a new café or co-working space for this, but if you have space using a different room in the house would work. If that’s not possible, even turning your chair to face a different direction, and removing all distractions, should help mark this time as different to your day-to-day. (Personally I am a huge fan of a ‘thinking bath’, but I appreciate that note-taking is more of a challenge.)

Karen herself (when possible) escapes her family for a night in an Airbnb once a quarter (each three months), and spends that time mapping out her ideas. Her top tip? Sticky whiteboard paper that you can sling up on a wall, write all over, and pull down without leaving a mark.

“I start by looking back at what I have achieved in the last quarter and celebrating that,” she says. “It could be any win – from getting a higher number of subscribers to my newsletter, to how I navigated a difficult client. I then look at my vision for the business – is it still where I’m heading? Is it still what I want?

“Finally I narrow down what can I realistically achieve in the next three months – and that really helps with my focus.”

But how do you keep your list achievable? “There’s so much that you could do, but you have to, at some point, make decisions about what to do. You’re choosing priorities for right now – you can park anything else and look at it next time.”

How to set priorities for your business

During your planning day, give one of these a try:

  • Think ahead (like, a lot)

 “It can help to imagine yourself in your old age,” says Karen. “Picture looking back over your life – what is it that you want to have achieved? As an exercise it can help you gain perspective and help you focus on your professional goals and aims.”

  • Carve up your time

A benefit of your planning break might be stepping back and separating out your days. I know lots of freelancers who find it helpful to have specific jobs they do on certain days, or at certain times. If there are particular goals you have that just aren’t progressing, could you afford to earmark a specific day or half-day each week for them?

“I have project work that I want to do, so I dedicate Mondays to it,” says Karen. “I protect my Mondays, so that it’s business as usual from Tuesday – Friday.”

I really like this idea, as I tend to store my personal projects up for the end of the week, and rarely bring my A-game. Imagine the smugness of having worked on them right off the bat!

  • Create a master list (mistress list?)

A big issue in my more frantic moments is The Fear that I will forget something important. My personal scrappy to-do list system needs some work, for sure. Karen suggests a master list both for the current quarter, and then in general. “Get it all out of your head so it doesn’t pop up when you’re in the shower,” she says. Having a big list also makes creating a weekly or daily list super simple.

One last thing…

Finally, look a this picture of computer scientist and total mega babe Margaret Hamilton next to the Apollo code she and her team wrote to help land the first man on the moon. This is the end result of getting up every day, and chipping away at one tiny problem at a time.

Hang in there, colleague. Working for yourself is always a delicate balance between glory and breakdown, and it’s so tough at the moment. Forgive yourself for not bringing your usual energy and enthusiasm, but do what you can to set realistic - kind - goals for the days and weeks ahead. You’ve got this.


  • Read an article I’ve written for AllBright about how to build professional resilience after a shit year.

  • Here’s why you should get dressed to work, even if you’re not seeing anyone.

  • I massively appreciate it when you share Out Of Office with other self-employed women - thanks to those who have helped so far!