6 Ways I Stay Productive While Being Self-Employed

I started writing this post while on a long-haul flight, heading off on my digital nomad adventure. I was two glasses of wine in and thinking “what a great time to talk about being productive! I will write this post using time that would otherwise be wasted on the in-flight entertainment”.

Well, that was almost two weeks ago. I cracked out a rather sloppy first draft and then put my laptop away and watched some silly film. Apart from small bits of admin, this is the first time I have done any work since.

I’ve always struggled with forcing myself to work when ‘not in the mood’. You may have read my post on being lazy, that post is no exaggeration. I reckon I must be much lazier and less motivated than the average person. Especially when it comes to unpleasant jobs.

This is a pretty long introduction, but there is a reason behind it. I really want to make it clear that I struggle to spend a lot of hours working. I really struggle to motivate myself when there are things I would rather be doing.

But despite all that I somehow make it work. I managed to get loads done in 2015. I wrote two books,  created a viral video that has been viewed almost 3 million times, launched a new table tennis brand, started learning and dedicated over 200 hours to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, spent over 200 hours working as a policeman, answered 140 questions on Quora and wrote 32 different articles for this blog.

It seems that most productivity tips are written by people who already have a lot of willpower and are very motivated. Their tips seem to focus on getting in a routine or just working really hard and ‘hustling’. Well, I’ve found they don’t really work for me. Here’s what I do. Some of these tips are almost the opposite to what common wisdom says, but they work for me and they might or might not work for you.

1 – I only start projects that I actually really want to do. 

If you don’t take anything else from this article, then take this. I don’t need to conjure up motivation, because what I do doesn’t feel like ‘work’. I enjoy it and it’s fun.

I would probably make more money if I put the same amount of time into projects that are solely designed for profit, but I wouldn’t able to motivate myself to put anywhere near the same amount of effort into them. I reckon I would probably end up doing less than 10% of the amount of work.

Think about it logically. 10 times the amount of work but at 50% effectiveness is still much better than 1 times the amount of work at 100% effectiveness.

It’s great. Rather than dreading work and counting down the minutes until I can stop, I actually look forward to it. I am one of those weirdos who by the end of a holiday is fidgeting because I want to get back to work. I even slightly resent Christmas because it puts a stop to all my projects.

2 – I use deadlines outside my control to force me to do unpleasant jobs.

I can normally find the time and motivation to do something new, fun and exciting, but when it comes to the boring, dull, or unpleasant jobs I always end up putting them off. And regardless of what you might hear, every job or project has unpleasant/monotonous parts.

If you’re one of those people who is putting off becoming your own boss because you don’t think you could motivate yourself, think about all the unpleasant jobs you are already doing under your own steam.

Every day you somehow motivate yourself to do these jobs, otherwise known as chores. We need to clean the house, pay our bills and prepare three meals a day. Yet most of us still manage to do them. It is because those jobs have to get done and there are consequences if they aren’t.

The same is true in business. I do my tax returns, I pay my staff on time and respond to customer complaints. I do all those jobs because I have to and there are consequences if I don’t do them on time.

Outside deadlines can also be engineered. I played table tennis every day for a year because I set it up as a challenge and told the world what I was going to do. I would have lost face and would have let down my supporters if I had quit.

I may have still been playing some table tennis after a year without that outside pressure, but I would have done a fraction of the hours and be a fraction as good.

3 – I outsource as many routine jobs as possible.

We’ve already discovered that I am pretty bad at forcing myself to work when I am ‘not in the mood’. But businesses don’t stop because the owner can’t be bothered. Luckily there are a whole host of companies and freelancers who will take the day-to-day jobs off your hands.

Take my current most profitable business. The range of table tennis bats we sell on Amazon. The business involves manufacturing bats, storing them, shipping them to customers when they place an order, customer service and submitting/paying tax returns. All that is outsourced, meaning the business doesn’t need me to run.

I instead focus on growing it and launching new products (when I can be bothered). It’s amazing how much you can get done when other people are doing all the hard/unpleasant jobs.

The same is true in normal life. You can hire a cleaner to keep you place clean, you can use a laundrette to wash your clothing and you can use a service to deliver fresh meals to you so you don’t need to cook. Leaving you with the time and energy to focus on what you’re interested in.

That energy part is key. Chores and unpleasant jobs are draining and leave you with no energy to focus on the creative innovative important stuff.

4 – I just don’t do or find a way around those tasks that keep me up at night. 

Unfortunately, you can’t outsource everything and there are some chores that no matter how important they are, just turn your stomach. Luckily there is normally another way to do it. The alternative may not be as efficient but does work and isn’t anywhere near as unpleasant. If there really is no way around it, then I just don’t do it.

Take managing employees. I dislike managing people and am really bad at it. So to get round it I normally hire on a single project contract. I give them a small project to begin with. If they do it well then I will offer them another project, if not I pay them and move on to another person.

Or if I need to have employees ‘in-house’ I will hire a project manager to manage everyone. That way there is only one person reporting to me and only one person I need to manage. And because I only need to choose one project manager I can make sure that they are completely awesome and need hardly any input from me.

Other things I just don’t do at all. I don’t like phone calls. So I don’t answer or make them. Want to contact me? Then send me an email or text.

For some things, I do a combination of both. I don’t really like marketing so for a long time I just didn’t do any. That worked out for me and I was able to make my businesses work anyway. But marketing is important and I was leaving a lot of money/traffic on the table. So last month I created a challenge, the ‘Great Marketing Experiment’.

Each month I will spend up to £500 on a different form of marketing to promote this blog. Now that might not sound like a way around doing an unpleasant chore, but it is. I have transformed ‘marketing’ in my mind into a game where I can experiment and then show my readers how I got on. It is not the most efficient use of that money, but it does get me doing marketing and is better than nothing.

5 – I just give it a go and try not to worry about failure.

The biggest reason people fail in business is that they never start. If you keep putting stuff off until you have properly thought it through or researched it, you will never start. Plus ‘thoroughly researching’ isn’t that much fun. Just get going while you’re still in the mood and excited about it.

When I get an idea for a business or project, I will often just start then and there. Over the years I have started hundreds of projects and businesses, most of them fail or lose my interest. But so what. Plenty others work out and even the ones that don’t teach me something.

A lot of companies are starting to realise that giving employees the freedom to fail is actually great for encouraging creativity and productivity. P&G has a ‘heroic failure award’, TATA has a “dare to try award,” Supercell opens a bottle of champagne when a game fails, Google X gives a bonus for each failure.

I just try to make sure that I don’t commit too much to each project until I know whether it’s what I really want and if it is going to work out.

6 – When I am in the zone I just keep going until I finish or leave the zone naturally.

Most creative industries have their own terms for ‘the zone’ or ‘flow’. But the characteristics are the same. It is when you are in a single-minded state completely absorbed by whatever it is you are doing. When in the zone your creativity and ability to absorb knowledge are heightened.

When I am in that rare productive mindset we call ‘the zone’ I just milk it for all I can. I don’t have breaks, I don’t go out for coffee, I don’t put a time limit on how long I will work for. The last thing I want is to disrupt the zone and waste that productivity.

That may sound like superstition but ‘flow’ is a pretty well researched and understood.

Even as I start getting tired and the quality of the work deteriorates I just keep going. I can always proof-read/check it later, but it might be another week or two before I am next in such a creative mood.

 

These productivity philosophies have worked well for me so far. But as I learn more I am always tweaking them and trying new ideas so I would love to hear what is working for you?

  • Rob Brooks

    Fantastic blog post Sam. I must admit that of all the feeds and emails I get, your blog is the one I read the most.

    You have inspired me somewhat to give it a go. Things I have been putting off for a long time.

    In a month I have built my first wordpress site and have wrote a 22k word “how to book”. Hey I haven’t made a nickel yet but it’s all a learning curve.

    I am excited for what the future may bring as the hard work pays off.

    Keep up your inspiring work Sam!

    All the best
    Rob.

    • Hey Rob, Good to hear from you! Sounds like you’re well on the right track. What’s your wordpress site? I’d like to check it out.

      • Rob Brooks

        Hey Sam, thank you for your response. This is my very first website and I know I have much to learn. But I have really enjoyed making it.

        I would really like to head down the Amazon FBA route and private labelling, after what you have accomplished there seems to be pools of potential.

        First though I wish to build another site. Maybe you can offer some input if you are feeling up for it ?

        Looking to build a directory site, similar to that of yell.com. For a certain niche. However I am toying with the ideas of building it via wordpress with relevant plug ins?
        Hiring someone to do it ? (But I fear they could steal my idea)
        Or buy a current web script ready for directory style sites.

        I’m sure there are other ways to build a directory site. I am hoping for the route that requires less code…

        My very first site :

        http://www.runningfoodtips.com

        (Made by a non tech newbie!)

        Thanks again!

        Rob.

  • Keith Hirst

    Ah ha! an active arbing blog! It has taken me a while to find one. Plenty of arbing sites out there but they all stop at some point. When starting from zero knowledge it is nice to find an active community. Now to start reading…..

  • Keith Hirst

    Great post. If is a very accurate reflection of me. I have learnt not to start new projects if others need my attention. I have manage to reduce my pile of ‘items not attended to’ to next to nothing so I can get and keep focus of each new project. My latest Zone involves Arbing but I am now at risk of looking for too much information before getting involved.