One of the biggest perks of working for yourself is that you have more freedom and flexibility in regards to when and where you work. Depending on the exact nature of your business, you may have to make concessions based on the needs of your clients, but in general online entrepreneurs enjoy the ability to set their own hours.
However, there are two things you quickly learn:
- Online distractions are everywhere.
- Work expands to fill the time you allow it.
Prioritizing a work-life balance is critical when you are your own boss. We know that your business is your passion, and that you have a vested interest in doing everything possible to see it succeed, but you must set boundaries from the beginning. This helps keep client expectations in check but more importantly, it keeps you from burning out while preserving your relationships and sense of self outside of work.
When you take care to draw lines between work and not-work, it becomes more pressing to make your designated work hours as efficient and productive as possible. You want to do your best work, the first time around. And the best way to do that is train your mind to ignore distractions and focus on the work at hand.
Let's talk about the benefits of monotasking when it comes to your online business.
Why monotasking over multitasking?
There are many people who pride themselves on their perceived ability to multitask. The problem is that this ability is, in fact, only perception: every time we complete a small task our brain releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, and so we are inclined to keep switching from task to task to get that little hit of happiness and gratification.
At best, this deceives us into believing we are being more productive. At worst, it's an addictive feedback loop that sets us up for other problems down the line. Research has linked multitasking to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can affect short-term memory and cause health problems over time.
In fact, when you switch from task to task, it can take you up to 50% longer to finish those tasks, as opposed to sticking with one project from start to finish before moving on to the next one. And it doesn't take much of a distraction to derail your train of thought: in a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, an interruption just under three seconds— barely even long enough for you to change tabs or glance at your phone— doubled the rate of error; a four-second interruption tripled it.
Tips to help you monotask
So how do we train our brains to monotask during work hours, in a world full of digital distractions?
You will be unsurprised to learn that we have a few pointers.
Schedule work time and break time. Amazingly, there is a scientific formula for optimal productivity! Researchers found that of the workers they studied, the 10% of employees with the highest productivity took 17 minute breaks—spent completely away from the computer—for every 52 minutes of work. This method is particularly good for procrastinators and perfectionists, who tend to do their best and most focused work under pressure, in a state of flow, in anticipation of an impending deadline. For these people it may be advantageous to set deadlines for every step: x minutes to research, for example, before you must move on to the next phase of a project.
Your number might be different; you may feel better stretching your legs more often. For those of us that track our time for billing purposes, stopping on the hour or half hour may make more sense. The major takeaway here is to take breaks that are real breaks, away from your screen, in planned intervals, in ways that boost blood flow and energy.
Prioritize your to-do lists. Nobody monotasks all day long; at some point you do need to switch gears and start work on something else. High media multitaskers (like, say, people who work online) do worse and worse as the day wears on, so decide what your most important tasks are and tackle them first, while you are fresh— before checking email, Facebook, or other distractions, if possible.
Even better, create that to-do list the night before. It will help set your mind at ease for better sleep, rather than worrying about everything you need to do and the possibility you'll miss something, and allow your subconscious to get a head start working on your tasks.
Block out the noise. Sometimes you really need to be head-down, in do not disturb mode. Turn off your notifications, set up an out-of-office autoresponder, do what you can to let others know that you are unavailable until further notice.
If you know yourself well, you may realize you need to save yourself from yourself by installing apps that show you the minutes ticking away or block tempting time-wasters. Some options:
- Strict Workflow is based on The Pomodoro Technique, enforcing a 25min/5min workflow by blocking specified sites for 25 minutes of distraction-free work, followed by 5 minutes of break time.
- ShotClock for iPad and iPhone integrates a timer with your task list to keep you on track.
- If you're tracking billable hours for a client, using an app like HoursTracker will track time by client and automatically calculate the amount to be invoiced.
- The Forest app plants a “seed” for a tree when you start your task. Your trees grow as you stay focused; they wither if you stop the app to use your phone or visit a website on your blacklist before your allotted time is up. Bonus: by staying focused, you can accumulate virtual coins that can be used to plant real trees. This app is available for iOS and Android as well as an extension for Chrome or Firefox.
Work sequentially. When juggling multiple projects or clients, it may seem to make sense to batch process similar tasks— scheduling social media for multiple clients, for instance. However, the research is more compellingly in favor of working on separate tasks in sequence within a specific project, as less “gear-switching” is required; if you were to move from client to client, you'd still be thinking about the one you just finished and focusing less closely on the one at hand.
There can be exceptions. If you're really and truly stuck in your current project, moving on for a bit may be what you need to shake loose the next step or some creative inspiration. Or, if scheduling ahead across projects on Sunday frees up a significant amount of time so that you have fewer tasks to juggle later in the week, that's a legitimate factor to take into consideration. (Remember how we started out talking about how being your own boss meant freedom and flexibility? That still applies.)
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One final tip
Monotask even when you're not at work. Turn off your phone when hanging out with friends or family. Focus fully on conversations. Read a book or do something creative, without distraction. Be mindful with your moments; enjoy your non-work life fully. This will retrain your brain to do one thing at a time, but also ensure that when it comes time to return to work, you will do so re-energized and ready to get things done.
As we mentioned before, many of us decided to become entrepreneurs for the freedoms and flexibility that decision afforded, so don't allow work to consume all your time. Strive to work smarter, not harder or longer.