Ask Ellen: How Can I Stay Focused?

Dear Ellen,

I recently started working from home, which is awesome for so many reasons. But the problem is that I’m struggling to stay focused. In the morning, I tend to putter around the house, washing dishes, cooking, tidying up, checking Facebook, or whatever, and before I know it, it’s 4pm and I’ve barely gotten any work done! Please tell me I’m not the only person with this problem. How can I get more disciplined?

Puttering Problem

Ellen Fondiler: Ask Ellen

Dear PP,

I can relate to this problem! I had to force myself to stop puttering in order to write this advice column. I’m not even kidding!

When you’re working from home, it’s inevitable—you’ll be faced with temptations and distractions that you won’t find in a typical office environment.

Without a “boss” looking over your shoulder to ensure that you’re getting things done, you’ve got to become your own boss! That’s why it’s called “self-employment,” after all. (Emphasis on the word: “self.”)

I’ve launched five different businesses and I’ve been self-employed for most of my life. Some weeks, I feel like a productivity superhero, and other weeks, I just want to curl up with Netflix or goof around with my kids and avoid my computer at all costs. I’ve learned to be gentle with myself when I’m having a “productivity slump,” and also, I’ve learned that I function best when I have some basic systems in place.

Here are a couple of things that really help me:

1. Establish a routine.

You don’t necessarily have to work from 9am to 5pm, but you do need to establish consistent “working hours” that make sense for you.

When do you feel alert and productive? For me, it’s first thing in the morning, and then I get another wave of energy around 3 – 5pm in the evening. But from about 12pm – 3pm, my energy plummets and it’s tough to get things done.

Since I know this about myself, I can organize my workday accordingly. I try to schedule client sessions and writing projects during the morning. I try to avoid scheduling big, intense projects during the early afternoon because I know it’s not the best time for my brain. Instead, I use that part of the day to take a nap, go for a walk, chat on the phone with a friend, or putter around the house.

2. Set concrete goals every day.

Every day, I pick three things I want to accomplish. I write them down on a piece of paper. (Productivity expert Leo Babauta calls these three things your MITs, or “Most Important Things.”) Then I assign a specific time slot for each item. Here’s what my list might look like:

9am. Write responses to Ask Ellen questions.

11am. Phone call with Susan to discuss GO GET IT! program options for 2017.

3pm. Email six recent clients to check in and see how they’re doing. When appropriate, invite them to work with me again in 2017.

If I complete all three things on my list, then I consider my day a success!

3. Give yourself breaks.

You’re not a machine. You’re a human being. It’s important to give yourself time to exercise, sleep, meet up with friends, and enjoy non-work-related experiences. I know so many self-employed people who are chained to their computer/phone/tablet 24/7, and who sleep poorly and feel brittle, exhausted, and burnt out almost constantly. Don’t do that to yourself! Take breaks. Remember that “rest” isn’t optional—it’s a requirement.

There are so many great books on productivity and time management for entrepreneurs. A few books that I especially love:

The 4-Hour Workweek By Tim Ferriss. Personally, I’ve never managed to compress all of my work into just 4 hours per week, but hey… it’s an inspiring goal to work towards! Talk about efficiency!

Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day By Todd Henry. A great kick in the butt to stop procrastinating and seriously get to work!

In The Company of Women by Grace Bonney. Beautiful profiles of 100 female entrepreneurs—from all kinds of industries—who are doing amazing work. Many of the women featured in this book share their personal productivity tips—there’s so much gold inside!

Whew! Now that this column is finished, it’s time to watch an episode of Outlander and putter around in my kitchen! Haha! There’s nothing wrong with puttering—it can be meditative and relaxing—but make sure you’re prioritizing your income-generating work, first. Remember: as fun as it might be, puttering doesn’t pay the bills!

Good luck, PP, and congrats on choosing the path of self-employment! Great adventures await!


Image: Willie Franklin