The battle to be your own boss–life’s distractions vs getting things done

The dream vs the reality of working for yourself

Scenario 1–I breeze out of bed at 5am, knock over an hour at the gym, then an hour on my creative projects before I hit the morning routine. After school dropoff, I take my meticulously pulled-together self off to my home office, where I work and study effectively for hours. The internet works perfectly, and I can get everything on my to-do list ticked off, and then some. At the end of the day, my kid helps me with dinner and the dishes, and flutters off on fairy dust to bed…

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Scenario 2–I wake at 7am to my kid asking for breakfast. I drag myself out of bed and throw on the outfit I wore the day before…

(This illustrator, Tyler Feder, knows way too much! Her ‘Work from home looks’ cartoon (above) went viral last month)

I stagger to the kitchen. All being well, by about 9:15am I’m sitting down at the (maybe-still-encrusted-with-last-night’s-dinner-but-don’t-judge-my-housekeeping-skills) dining table and staring at the growing list of things to do, wondering how I’m going to fit it all in. I start on my coursework backlog, hopefully also fit in a little paid freelance work, and don’t even get anywhere near my creative projects. Before I know it, it’s nearly 3:30pm, and I’m nearly late for school pickup. Again.

Some workers-from-home can juggle children, housework, paid work, distractions and still get a full day’s work done. But for the rest of us? It can be a struggle.

A stylised picture of a clock surrounded by various stressful words like 'time management', 'busy, 'rush'.
Being responsible for managing our own time can be a blessing or a source of stress

Here are a few ideas to help busy people make the most of the time they have.

Decide what’s important

The Eisenhower Matrix was developed by the former US President of the same name (Steven Covey used it too, in his classic professional self-help manual the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change). According to this way of thinking, everything we do (in work or in life) boils down to its urgency and its importance.

When you think about something you’re working on, is it:

  • 1. Important and urgent?
  • 2. Important and not urgent?
  • 3. Not important but urgent?
  • 4. Not important, and not urgent

Important, urgent tasks are our everyday, and could easily soak up our available time if we let them. In my ‘work’ world, the important, urgent tasks include my studies, and any assignments or freelance work deadlines that are falling due.

The ‘Important / Not urgent’ tasks are often neglected though they can really bring us benefits in the longer term. These are my professional development, my marketing strategy for the next six months, my website under construction, working on blog posts or the time I’d like to invest in a long term creative project that no-one else will clap eyes on until the first draft is done. Meetings to discuss new work opportunities, even though they may not turn into dollars in the bank for weeks or months.

The idea with important, not urgent tasks is to gradually increase the proportion of our time that we devote to them. Important, urgent activity is my everyday, and it soaks up all my available working time. I’m going to try to set aside the first hour of a day for less urgent, but high-value activities, which will, I hope, reap long term benefits.

But how to choose between everything that’s important? For me, study and a little paid work take up the bulk of my time, and creative projects don’t really get a look-in. And when my freelancing schedule picks up, there’ll be planning (blog content plan, business development and planning, marketing) and the business of running a business.

What I’m trying to do is to assign timeslots to each activity, each day, and try to stick to them.

(Another productivity expert, Mike Vardy of the Productivityist website, in this blog post, talks about setting a theme for each day of the week to maintain focus).

Sometimes I find myself using the unimportant, urgent tasks; those phone calls and texts, the distractions and interruptions, to distract me from more difficult tasks. Making sure I allocate as much of my working time as I can to the important stuff first means the distractions are far less likely to derail my progress.

But whatever you do, leave the mindless busywork (and lolcats, and your 37th attempt to smash level 526 of Candy Crush) at the bottom of the to-do list where they belong!

A retro video game, space invaders, multicolour on a black screen
Gaming goes to the bottom of the priority list, folks!

Stake out your time and space and defend it

When it comes to the important stuff, the ‘when’ is easily as important as the ‘what’. Working from home has a special set of distractions associated with it. Freelancers, if they’re not careful, risk constantly being drawn away, whether by housework, which suddenly appears more attractive when there’s a blog post to write…


…or by kids and spouses, who occasionally like to socially interact with the grumpy person who’s sitting at the dinner table hours after they’ve returned home!

I have quiet working time when my kid is at school. I have to make the most of it. Not everyone has that time.

A turquoise-painted door that has a bolt lock and a ring doorknocker.
A beautifully lockable door in Marrakech, Morocco

Sometimes there’s a door that can be closed. Sometimes there isn’t.

There are two rules though. 1. Tell the family how much time you need to be left alone. 2. Use that time, or lose it!

People around you often need time to get used to you not being 100% available. In the meantime, there’s sometimes nothing for it but to skip out to a cafe with a laptop and sip on a thinking beverage while you work.

As a professional, you have to do whatever it takes!

Plan to succeed

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today, I’m working on an assignment. I’ll need to catch up on some coursework, and I have a novel manuscript to finish beta reading. If I have time, I have some short story reading to do, and I’d really love to start reading the new editing handbook that just arrived for me in the post.

Though I don’t always remember to draw up a plan, I do know that I work a whole lot better when I do. Planning may be anything from using an app (try Trello) to a sticky note that lists the three or four things I need to get done today, stuck to my laptop screen.

And no need to waste your working time coming up with your to-do list. Use the quiet moments at the end of today to scribble down on a sticky note what you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do it now! I’ll wait.

Account for Murphy’s Law

As I’m sure you know, even if you do make a plan, not everything works out that way.

It is the nature of things, Grasshopper!

For instance. I live and work in a total beauty spot in Victoria, Australia.

But it’s not perfect. Like our internet goes out for hours at a time. So when I’m on a deadline, this really. Really. Sucks.

As freelancers, we need to think like the big end of town. The big end of town always wants to know what its contingency plan is. But unlike the big end of town, we’re nimble, and instead of the 150-page Business Continuity Strategies I used to have to pore over, yours may just be a cluster of dot points.

  • Bring your laptop, power cable, a USB phone charger and earbuds to the next municipality’s public library, or to a cafe with free wifi or
  • Connect your laptop via your phone as a hotspot
  • Get a mobile wifi to connect to a different internet service provider’s service
  • Every day, at the end of the day, save all your working documents on two different backup methods. You do have backup methods, don’t you? I use a USB key and the cloud.

and so on.

It doesn’t matter what your strategies are to be able to keep working when things go awry, and whether they’re different from the next person’s. You have to just know

  1. what tasks will you have to perform, and in what order?
  2. what do you need to perform them? and
  3. what’s your backup method of performing each?

That’s an extreme over-simplication of business continuity planning, but those are basic tips to keep your basic tools online.

Remember why you’re here

Sometimes it’s just hard to keep at it. I get that. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me every day to be my own boss.

The workers are insolent! They complain all the time! They keep drinking the good coffee!

But right now, I’d much rather be here, working under my own steam, than working in a big podfarm.

That doesn’t mean I won’t take a work contract when I want to. But sometimes the only way to find out what you’re meant to be doing is to take the leap into the unknown.

It’s scary, but it’s exciting, and when I start making a little more money, I’m sure I’ll start believing I can do it!

In the meantime, I’ll just try.

So how do you make sure to get things done?