Work

Working Smarter

This month marks four years since I quit my job. Four years. When I put in my notice, I thought I’d hate working for myself. I was desperate for some time off so I thought I’d just do the blog for three months and interview for jobs starting in January. Once I had free time during the day (versus after midnight!) to work on my blog, and get sleep, and have a life, I knew I’d be hard-pressed to find a job that brought me as much joy.

I know so many people end up switching jobs every year or two, and I’m so fortunate that I have created something that I’m still passionate about nine years later.

Working for yourself, or at home for that matter, is not for everyone. People ask me all the time how I stay motivated to work when I don’t have to go into an office or don’t have to report to a boss. Trust me, if you have to think that, it’s probably not for you. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Working for yourself can be terrifying. If I don’t work or don’t get enough done, there’s no one else to pick up the slack and, well, I don’t get paid. That’s motivation enough to stay on top of things.

The negative side of that is, mixed with my natural narrow-focused personality: I can literally sit and work for an entire day without moving or coming up for air. I’ve set up a few practices for myself, so I work smarter, not harder. It’s not about the number of hours you put in; it’s the output of work you generate. (That’s one thing that drove me nuts about working in an office. I felt like we spent too much time talking about meetings or sitting in hour-long meetings that could have been covered by a quick email debriefing.)

I like to picture a bike with multiple gears. Why spin your wheels like crazy at a “one” when you can shift into a “four” and do fewer pumps and go farther?

Productivity Tips

Even though these tips are specifically for me (i.e., someone setting her own schedule), I think they can be applied to many people, including those working in an office and even students.

ONE // Set Alarms

This is my most recent discovery for productivity. I swear by it actually and can’t believe that it took me so long to implement. As I mentioned, I tend to get in the zone and tune the rest of the world out. To keep myself on track and moving the right the direction throughout the day, I set a boatload of alarms on my phone. It’s kind of like being back in high school and having bells to let you know when class started/ended. Not only does it bring me back to the surface at the right time, but it also forces me to set a schedule every morning.

I look at what I have to do and come up with realistic time-frames for everything. I may set an alarm for three hours to answer emails, set another one for when I need to take lunch, set a few for when to check in on messages on Instagram, etc. It changes every day depending on what I need to get done. Today I have six alarms set, and yesterday I had nine. I like knowing I can get in the zone without wasting too much time on one task, or forgetting to do something important altogether.

TWO // Email To-Dos

This one might not work for everyone if you don’t use email a lot, but for me, it works perfectly. I treat my inbox like a temple. (Here’s how I manage my inbox and stay on top of emails.) In addition to my to-do lists that I write down in a notebook*, I occasionally send myself emails that then become a to-do for the next day. I know that I go through my inbox with a fine tooth comb every day, so it’s a great way to ensure certain things don’t slip through the cracks. I might send myself a quick email when I’m out and about to remind myself to make a vet appointment for the dogs, or I may start drafting a post and email it to myself to finish later.

I try not to abuse this so my inbox doesn’t get completely clogged, but it does seem to work for me now. Often I feel like I waste so much brain space trying not to forget things. This way I’m freeing myself up so that I can focus on whatever I’m working on right then, without worrying about forgetting something.

* I tried Bullet Journaling earlier this year, but it did not work for me. I just use a regular notebook to keep track of my daily to-dos now.

THREE // Unplug Your Computer

Taking breaks is important, and they contribute to higher productivity (if you’re smart about them, see below!) Instead of just sitting endlessly on your computer, keep your laptop unplugged and work until the battery runs out. I like to think that when my computer needs to be recharged, I need to be recharged as well. My battery life is pretty good, but when I’m using my computer as much as I do and have something like Spotify playing, it does need to be plugged in every few hours.

I wish I had done this more when I was a student because I think it would have forced me to take those much-needed breaks.

One benefit for this, at least for me, is that it also forces me to stay on task. There are too many ways to get distracted on the computer. There are games to play, people to stalk on Facebook, videos to watch on Youtube, shows to get sucked into on Netflix, articles to pore over. When I know I’m “on the clock” and my battery isn’t going to last forever, I’m way less inclined to open Facebook or scroll through my Feedly to see if someone’s posted something new.

FOUR // Smart Breaks

Taking breaks is not my forte. It feels like such a waste of time. Why am I not at my computer when I really can (and should?) be there? Well… Switching gears is important. Even though it feels counterintuitive, I work so much better when my brain is rested. Have you ever tried to complete a task when you’re tired and/or distracted, and it takes you four times longer than it would if you approached it feeling energized and focused? Work smarter, not longer here.

There are good breaks and bad breaks though. Try to find things that give you a little mental timeout without shutting your brain off completely. My favorite kind of breaks: meditating for ten minutes, walking the dogs (or taking them to the park for something longer), folding on batch of laundry while listening to an audiobook (I work from home 😹), reading for twenty minutes, putting away dishes, doing pushups/planks/sun salutations, or doing a quick sweep of the floors with the vacuum. I try to avoid anything that puts me in a bad mood (like complaining/venting on the phone), or is too distracting (like watching a Youtube video), or is too tiring (like anything having to do with laying down).

Do you guys have any tips you implement to work smarter, not harder? I always love learning new tips and tricks from you guys!

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30 Comments

Caitlin

This is so encouraging to read! Sounds like you’ve really found what you’re passionate for-I think that’s one reason your blog is so fun to read!
I agree with you on the point about working smarter-being able to synthesize things in quick emails so there’s more time for productivity has made such a big difference.

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Jessica

These are such great tips, Carly. Have you ever tried a cube timer? I’ve been thinking about getting one after hearing about it on a podcast. Seems like a cool thing to have if you want to spend 30 minutes dedicated to something.

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Jessica

These are such great tips, Carly. I really need to implement dedicated time for tasks in my work and personal life. Have you ever tried a time cube?

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Asaake

Alarms are definitely a savior for me. And I also enjoy timers to break up long stretches of tasks. I’m still learning to work smarter tho. Managing a blog, working full time and a rigorous grad school program is proving tougher than I initially planned.

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Kate

I swear by the pomodoro method! 25 minute focus, 5 minute break. I usually use my break to get up, make tea, maybe scroll IG. I have an extension installed on my browser called Tomato Timer that times the 25/5 minute blocks.

I use a regular sheet of paper with thirds drawn on it to split my to do list over three days. Helps me feel less overwhelmed if I can see that moving a task to Thursday or Friday may br smarter.

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Taylor

I love these tips. Even though I have a “typical” 8-5 type of job right now I still utilize a few of these practices. Setting alarms and making sure I take a break occasionally are great ways to keep me focused and on track for the day.

Taylor | http://www.livingtaylored.com

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Lizzie Zimmerman

Oh my lord this is SO helpful. I work from home 4 days a week and while I’ve been missing the structure of the office environment to keep my ADHD in check, my co-workers are CHATTY and so I need to be home to avoid the noise to have any chance of being productive. I’ve been struggling to create the artificial structure for myself to stay on task though, and some of these suggestions are genius. Thank you!

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Cierra

Great tips! I also use daily to-do lists to stay on task in the office. My favorite notebook to use for my lists is the Lilly Pulitzer To-Do planner. I’m on my second notebook and I love how organized it keeps me!

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Michael @ Mile in My Glasses

I absolutely love this Carly! I’m balancing two jobs right now – a cameraman and edit along with my blog, so I need to make sure I stay on top of everything whenever I can! It’s difficult but so much fun, and when I’m working on my blog and I’m my own boss, I absolutely love it!

I hope you have a lovely Wednesday,
Michael
https://www.mileinmyglasses.com

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Missy

I use an excel spreadsheet to plan out my whole week every Monday morning. I know what I need to accomplish for the week, and this helps me spread everything out evenly so I don’t get overwhelmed. That way I don’t end up trying to get too much done in one day, and it ensures I don’t put things off until the end of the week. I can easily cut and paste tasks and move things around as needed throughout the week. I also like being able to see a month’s worth of work all on the same spreadsheet – it makes me feel more accomplished. (I would use my work computer’s Outlook Calendar, but I also put personal things on my schedule that I don’t want my bosses and coworkers seeing. Haha!)

I’m definitely going to start setting up an alarm system like yours. Unfortunately, I get in the zone like you, and I will get up from my desk at 3pm realizing I haven’t eaten all day. No bueno.

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Shannon Mahaney

Great tips! I work in radio but came from an ad agency. I’ve learned to that prioritizing is key to success. I make a list of to-dos each day and make sure by the end of it everything is marked off.

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lindsay smith

People think I’m crazy at work because I block out time on my outlook calendar specifically for tasks! But it keeps me on task and keeps me from spending too much time on things that I should only spend an hour on or I can block out an afternoon to do a larger project and tell people I’m unavailable. It works great and even shows that I’m “busy” on our interoffice chat feature so preemptively stop some unnecessary “are you busy right now…can you help with x”. In an open office of cubicles this is super helpful!
I also don’t bullet journal but I have a journal notebook that I make lists in and highlight them when I’m complete because nothing is better than crossing off accomplishments on pen + paper and I can easily look back at things come review time!

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Rachel

I love the idea about setting alarms! I do that sometimes when I am trying to get work around the house done and am really unmotivated – I time both the work and the breaks and it seems to help!

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Emily

Carly,

First, I am impressed that you didn’t list food as a reward! I am like a child when busy, thinking things like “if you get this report done, you will be allowed to go get lunch!” Not the healthiest of methods, but definitely effective!

The biggest way I have found to work smarter is to combine tasks. For instance, I figured out in grad school that when I didn’t have time to both go to the gym and do my readings, I could read while walking if I had the treadmill on 4.2 or below! Killing two birds with one stone is always ideal!

-E

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Sarah

Love these tips! As someone is working so hard to someday be her own boss and work from home, I found this very helpful! And I know what you mean about the Bullet journaling, it just didn’t work for me either.

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Kathryn

While I’m laying in bed at night, I think of one thing I want to get done before 7:30am. This gives me the push I need to get out of bed and out the door in the morning and makes the rest of the day feel more productive.

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Mia

This post was so applicable to me as I’m constantly draining myself with hours and hours of work, but I probably could be using my time smarter. I absolutely love the tip about unplugging your computer- I’ve never thought of that, and I definitely think it would motivate me to utilize the battery in the most productive manner and not get distracted!

Mia | http://www.verymuchmia.com

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Jessica

This is great! I work during the day and just started posting on my blog at the beginning of the month, but I’ve already noticed that I can sit and work on my site for hours when I get home before realizing how long it’s been. Unplugging the computer and taking a break when the battery dies is a great idea – I’ll definitely try that.

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Elizabeth

I loved this post! I recently transitioned from an 8-5 office job to working from home. I absolutely love it, but it does require more self-discipline. Thank you so much for the tips 🙂

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Emma-Lynn

I really loved the idea about unplugging your computer!
Seems like great way for you to be able to work smarter while still taking breaks

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Cheers to the Weekend – Kelly in the Kitchen

[…] I’ve been reading The College Prepster’s blog since high school and for whatever reason, I still read it consistently to this day! I’m sure anyone who works from home, freelances, is self-employed, or just doesn’t fit into that standard 9-5 bubble finds that such freedom is a blessing and a curse. If you have trouble structuring your days in a productive manner or feel overwhelmed by full days you need to fill, check out Carly’s tips for “working smarter!” […]

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