As you’ve most probably read in my previous post about how the final weeks of December through to February has been the most unproductive for me work wise, I’ve tried to identify what the reasons were for this lapse in productivity. After all, it’s a good 3 months off my calendar – a quarter of the year that could have been spent on getting my hands dirty and my schedule full: new clients, portfolio, projects, etc.
So I’ve whittled it down to 3 things on my end – maybe you could identify with some of these issues that I’ve faced and maybe, just maybe, it’s what’s holding you back too. And of course I’m not going to leave you hanging! Once you’ve gone through the list, I’ll let you in on what worked for me for hauling my butt into gear!
Problem #1: Holidays
Ah, the good ol’ holiday season. For some it can stretch from November to January, or maybe it could be spring/summer/winter holidays. Or maybe you’re just back from traveling and have trouble getting back into the swing of things. Hey it happens – we need a holiday right after our holidays! Holidays are great though – they allow you to recharge after a hectic year, and helps to balance out the challenges of work and life. But starting up a routine again after a few weeks or a couple of months of not doing much work-related stuff (or maybe you’re only doing the fun stuff) is almost like switching the ignition of a parked car that’s been idle for a few months. It groans, heaves and simply doesn’t comply. Rattling it all the more might give you more sighs and fake starts, but you’ll soon notice that no amount of cajoling will bring it to life. Welcome to the post-holiday blues.
Problem #2: Emotional stress
I was a bit of a wreck in October, after I lost my dog to cancer. I won’t lie – it was hard leading up to the final moments. I had a class to run as well, all I could do was to hold it in and just compartmentalise my thoughts and emotions, doing things proactively instead of just worrying too much with nothing to show for it. So my time was divided between managing my classes and doing research on canine cancer, along with finding alternative therapies to help make my dog more comfortable. I was pulled into a few different directions and my emotions were running on the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I was lucky that I was working while I took care of my dog, because it allowed me to break away, even if it was just a few hours everyday. The downside to it was that I was a bit of a mess for a couple of weeks after everything ended. I felt as though a big weight was lifted off my shoulders as the compartments I had assigned within my mind all crumbled away. I felt everything all at once. I was tired.
Problem #3: Being unwell
I had severe acid reflux for 3 weeks prior to my Melbourne trip, out of the blue. I was nauseous all the time, and didn’t have any appetite to eat (the constant nausea had a lot to do with that), and to top it all off, I couldn’t sleep lying down because bile would come up into my throat. A round of blood tests and ultrasounds later, I found nothing that could explain my symptoms. I finally found the cause after a bit of fluke – it turned out that a particular medicine I was taking had caused the symptoms. Once I stopped, everything returned back to normal. So while my body took quite a beating a month back, I’m much better. I’m still tired though, and feel as though I’m still catching up on the sleep that I lost.
Finding your flow: A 4-step process
So those were the 3 issues that I faced during the last few months. It might be different for you depending on what you’re facing at the moment, but I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what you’ve experienced – the important thing is to get back up on your feet. I recently started to focus on how I could propel myself out from this bit of a slump and I found that the below tips work really well for me. So while I’m still gaining steam to get back into full-on work mode, I know I’ll get there! And here’s to hoping you will too.
Tip #1: Rediscovering inspiration
When you’re sick/emotional/away from your desk (or your workplace), it takes a bit of time to get back into the swing of things. I know this because with the crazy highs and lows that come with all the above mentioned scenarios, sitting still at a desk and actually doing work doesn’t sound attractive at all. Nope siree. So it’s either inspiration overload (holidays) or I-am-not-in-the-mood-for-anything (emotional/being ill) sort of situation.
What worked for me this time round was to slowly allow a bit of online perusing to trickle into my schedule. As a personal rule, I don’t often visit blogs or Pinterest. I prefer to do my reading through an RSS reader (Pulse on the iPhone) and as for Pinterest, I only allow myself a 15 minute peek every now and then because otherwise I’d look up from my computer and realised that I lost an hour in what I now refer to as the Vortex of Time Suckage.
So what happened was that by injecting my eyeballs with these sort of short doses of imagery on a daily basis, it got me pumped up again. In a kick-in-the-ass pants kind of way. The one where you clutch your hair, slap your forehead and go “That so-and-so who did this-and-that is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!” You know, existential questions.
At least that’s what worked for me. Every time.
Tip #2: Reorganising your workspace
I love clean tables. I just haven’t been able to maintain one for a very long stretch of time.
Just to lay it all out on the table (ahem); I’m not the most organised person in the world when it comes to my desk. I have 2 – 3 different sketchbooks (because I like having separate books for each project) and a weekly journal propped open, all strewn about – depending on what I’m working on. I also have some loose papers flying about: printed materials, bills, notices, boring stuff so that it forces me to do something about them. Filing them away means never ever getting to them so they’re there staring at me until I settle them once and for all.
So yes, there’s bound to be a mess here and there; but it’s an organised mess and it’s the sort I don’t mind because I know what lies where and when. Clearing my desk is a task I enjoy, because with every task I finish, I get to clear it off my table. Physically.
Those letters and boring stuff? All gone. Those sketchbooks that I have haphazardly strewn around? I sometimes close them (gasp!), set them aside and choose to focus on one thing for a while. I do this each time I wrap up a big project, but also when I’m feeling a little meh. Clearing things away and reorganising my workspace helps me fill in the mental void I feel whenever I’m away from my desk for too long. When I give my desk a once over, I discover things that are left unsettled, projects that need filing, and obligations to fulfil. Knowing where I am and what needs to be done quickly kicks me into problem-solving mode, and then I realise it wasn’t all that bad. Once I took care of the boring bits, I get all tingly about starting fresh. Because it means that there’s now room for new things. Exciting things.
Tip #3: Creating deadlines and sticking to it
You know what has also really worked in getting me back into work? Deadlines.
If you’re a fellow procrastinator who’d rather wait until the final hours to a deadline before you even feel a glimmer fear, I feel you. Self imposed deadlines can sometimes be dodged (AHA!), but when you’ve got a commitment to others, you’re trapped. So what do you do? You give up the cheese. You’ll scramble for a bit and curse yourself for binge watching Downton Abbey while eating a truckload of cookies. But then adrenaline kicks in – you dust off your computer, crack your knuckles and get down to business.
Setting a date for projects and tasks and actually pencilling them into your calendar (I use Google Calendar) will help you get a bird’s eye view of your schedule. It also allows you to see how much time you have to do non-business/fun stuff (no judgement – let’s get real here) and how much time left you have to work on a particular task or project. I’ve found that having rigid time slots makes me feel claustrophobic, so I set goals for each day and allow my own rhythm to decide when I want to do it.
Break down your major project milestones into things you can do every day – don’t just schedule the deadline on a date with no idea on what you need to do to make it happen. There’s nothing wrong with being a little disorganised, but you’ll need to know what needs to get done, period. When or how it happens is entirely up to you, and once you’ve had a good think about how you’ll manage things, slacking off isn’t a bad thing. Because if you know what you’re doing and then it becomes purposeful slacking. There’s a difference!
Tip #4: Follow through on your new routine
I start my day with a shower and a bowl of yoghurt and muesli for breakfast. Sometimes I slip in a 10-minute yoga stretch, but to be honest, I haven’t been doing those for a little while. Doing it makes me feel better though, so I’m starting it up again (writing this just reminded me of it). After breakfast, I putter about in the garden and put my herb containers out in the morning sun before going to my desk to start my workday. That’s been my routine for the past couple of weeks.
For you though, maybe it’s when you make a cup of coffee and sit at the table, or when you go for a jog in the morning before you start your work. Building up a routine is definitely something I recommend for freelancers or those who work from home. And I’m not the only one. Ever notice how out of whack you get when your schedule gets messed up a few days/weeks in a row? That’s what happens when you run into the 3 problems I mentioned above: your routine gets screwed up. Going back to a routine is one the best things you can do to fan the flames of productivity.
Find out when your body works best – is it during the day? Or after lunch? Or perhaps you’re more relaxed at night? Knowing and recognising the cues your body and brain is trying to tell you will help you work more efficiently instead of merely pushing through the motions. Do you feel like a nap? Go ahead, take one. Are you in the zone and need total silence and concentration for an hour? Do it. Map out the times when you feel your best in a diary and when you’re not; and it will help you go a long way in getting things done.
No one ever said that you’ll need to work at your desk for 8 hours straight to be productive – maybe it’s how you like it, but I know I can’t do those anymore. As I grow older, I find myself breaking my day up into chunks – a block of time where I’m being really productive, and there’s a block of time where I’ll be catching up on fun TV show or a book. Because my hours aren’t quite set, my productive periods can run into the night as well, occasionally. I love that about working from home.
So there you go! I hope you find these tips useful – they’re what I’ve personally done to get myself into my work chair this week. I’m going to level with you on this: you’re not going to wake up productive the next day. Some people might, but like a sugar rush after eating a whole bowl of M & M’s – it’s only temporary. So don’t worry if you’re taking a little longer than usual to shake yourself off of whatever’s got you down. You’ll get there!
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[Embroidery by Karolin Reichardt, for her 2014 series called Iceberg.]