Working from home has its definite perks, like being able to throw in a load of laundry or do a quick yoga class via YouTube. But when I tell people I WFH, I think they imagine those activities are what I do most of the day. A lady of leisure.
Truth is, I actually get way more done at my home office than I ever do in the traditional office. It’s because I manage my time well.
As marketers, we are responsible for a lot. Sometimes it seems impossible to look at the list of to-dos and figure out how you’re gonna get it all done. Whether you work from a traditional office, a café, on the road, or from home, time management is critical. Here are some tips and strategies I’ve gleaned over the years.
Make a to do list
First, you need to know what you’re up against. Make a list of all the things you need to do for a project or during the a week. Get out whatever is in your brain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on paper, your computer, or your phone. Just pull all the details out of your brain. I like to do this at the start of the day – or better yet, at the end of the previous day, so I know what I’m coming in to.
Set your priorities
Next, it’s time to assess what needs to get done when. The quadrant model, from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, recommends you plot your tasks into four boxes to assess what to do first – the super important things that must be done ASAP, the not-so-timely but still important (e.g., planning), the timely but not important, and the not-timely/not-important. This is just one of many models of how to plot your tasks. Whatever model you use, it’s important to sort your tasks into what is hair-on-fire critical, what is necessary but not high priority, and what’s a “nice to do” task. My own list usually sorts into “Big,” “little,” and “nice.” Simple.
Break your work into chunks
At this point I find it really helpful to plot my day. I take those prioritized items from above and start plotting them onto a calendar in chunks. For me those buckets are really simple: “before lunch,” and “afternoon work.” I may add another “first order of business” category if there’s something really pressing.
Once I have figured out what needs to happen in general terms, I get more granular and assign mini-deadlines to my day. I’m a planner, yes. But like many of us, I also work better under pressure, even if it’s self-imposed. An endless workday free of deadlines is a recipe for stalling for me. These mini deadlines help me focus.
For example, this week I had several big projects due. It was a lot, and seemed insurmountable. But I spent some time mapping out the projects and assigning times to each item due. My calendar looked a little something like this:
- 9-10 a.m. Project 1 deliverable 1
- 10-10:15 Coffee break (more on this later)
- 10:15-12 Project 2 deliverable 1
- 12-2 Break
- 2-4 Meetings/conference calls
- 4-4:10 Quick break to check on neighbor’s cat
- 4:10-5 Finish up the day and make to-do list for tomorrow
I know, it’s intense. But I got all my work done and even ended up with a bit of bonus time at the end of Friday.
Are you a morning person or afternoon person?
When do you get your best work done? For me, I do my most efficient work first thing in the morning or right before quitting time. You may hit your stride midday. Factor that in when you’re planning your schedule.
Find your rhythm
I don’t always time-slot every task. Some days are less busy or I just need a break from my own neurotic scheduling. Still, I don’t let myself endlessly slog through a task or day, unfocused. I snap to my own meter.
I recently discovered that my brain starts to tire after 90 minutes. That’s when I get fuzzy and unfocused and need a break or to switch gears. While researching for this post, I found that I’m not alone. Turns out 90 minutes is a natural rhythm for the brain.
Try this for yourself: Start your work and keep an eye on the clock. When do you dwindle? Maybe you yawn, or feel the urge to stretch your legs or get a coffee. These are all good indicators of when your attention span is drooping and you need a break. Once you’ve found your rhythm, use that align your projects to your own meter.
Block your shared calendar
I’m a huge fan of time-blocking my work onto a digital calendar (Outlook or Google) as “meetings.” It helps me see all that I’m up against for a day – and if it’s feasible to accomplish everything or if I have too many overlapping deadlines. It also helps me stay on-task, as reminder alerts pop up throughout the day.
Some people find color-coding helpful at this stage, too – especially if working on a variety of different projects or assignments for different clients. A color highlight can help you scan your calendar and visually see what’s taking place on which day. (It’s a bit too busy for me – I like a cleaner calendar. But, I see the benefit.)
There’s an added bonus of digitally calendaring for those of you who work in a meeting-heavy company culture. If your shared calendar is blocked, you might be able to escape from a few of those meetings and stay focused at your desk. “I’m booked at that time,” you can tell them. Not that I’ve ever done this…
A note on right-brain/left-brain work
My experience with marketers is that they’re often a bit split in the brain, part-creative, part-analytical. We’re also responsible for a mix of tasks that require both our “math brain” and our “creative brain.” Acknowledging that you need different mindsets to achieve different tasks is a good starting point. Planning your day around these differences is even better.
Sometimes, I can get on a roll and want to work with words all day. “I can do this all day,” I think. But I can’t. I’m much more effective when I focus on right-brain creative work, then switch gears for left-brain analytics. I used to pull together a monthly recap report for a client, itemizing all the things we did in the month and attaching metrics and KPIs to it. I’d intentionally block a half-day for the “numbers work.” When it came time, I’d turn on some music (which I can listen to only when I’m not composing words), open the analytics report, and start crunching numbers. When finished, I’d shut off the music, go back into silence, and start writing up the storyline.
Don’t forget breaks
Breaks are healthy. There’s a lot of research and different tactics – how long the break should be, for example. But it’s clear that we can’t go-go-go all the time. Just as we need sleep for our bodies, we need rest for our brains. “The brain is a muscle that, like every muscle, tires from repeated stress,” says The Atlantic. “’The highest-performing 10 percent (of workers) tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer,’ said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by talking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers.”
Sometimes it feels crazy to walk away from my desk when there’s a list a mile long and I’m on a roll. I fight it and push through occasionally – especially if I’m in a flurry of inspiration. But most days, I need those breaks to clear my mind. When I come back, I feel like I have a new set of eyes on a project. (As well, when I don’t take breaks throughout the day, I pay for it later with crankiness and exhaustion.)
Tactically, what this looks like for me are a couple short breaks during the late morning and a longer break in the afternoon. The first breaks may just mean a cup of coffee or a walk outside to say hi to the neighbor and get fresh air. Then it’s right back to work. Around 2pm, I go to the gym for a workout. After that, I feel refreshed and ready to dive back into it.
Don’t be dismayed if you don’t have time for a two-hour trip to the gym. It’s perfectly good to take lunch or chat over coffee with a colleague. One tip, though: try not to talk or think about work during that time. There’s a reason “water cooler chatter” is a thing. It helps your mind rest.
I also block out time on my calendar for these little breaks. It may seem silly, but it’s a visual cue to take care of myself.
Get an accountability partner
My last tip: Don’t do this alone! I used to have impromptu instant messenger chats with another work-from-homer at the start of the day. We’d tell each other what our top two goals were for the day, and then check in mid-day to see how we were each coming along.
Find someone who can be your time-management accountability partner. Maybe it’s your cubicle mate, or someone on your team in a remote office. It just needs to be someone who you can check in with.
Bonus: Helpful tools
Here are a few tactical tools that may come in helpful when planning your week
- Set a timer – This audibly reminds you to switch gears. It can be a simple 60-minute alarm or a calendar reminder that says “switch gears – work on x.” Just something to jar you into action.
- Try working in 25-minute bursts (aka the Pomodoro Technique) – I can see this especially useful for dropping a bunch of those lower-priority tasks of the list.
- Track how much time you spend on non-work activities like CNN and Facebook – apps like TimeRabbit or QualityTime monitor your behavior, much like a radar gun tells you how fast you’re going on the freeway.
- In addition to the standard Outlook or Google calendars, try a digital work-management tool like Asana.
- Take a coffee-nap (it’s a real thing!).
- Put away your cell phone to prevent yourself from texting or surfing Instagram during working hours.
- Change scenery – work for a few hours from a coffee shop or even a company conference room.
That’s it for me. True to form, it’s been about 90 minutes and I need a break. If you want to read more about this topic, check out this blog post about getting Time Management on your side.
And tell me, what are your favorite time-management tactics or tools?