It’s a bit unfair to call myself lazy. I work as hard as anyone, but I discovered that there were times in the past where I could look back on the last hour and say I achieved something, and other times where I’d gone down the rabbit hole of the internet and was left with little to show for the time spent.

I hated the feeling.

Dealing with distraction is a constant battle for every business owner and research says we’re losing.

On an even bigger scale, weeks can go by where you feel like you’ve not managed to work on your business, instead of in your business.

Times when you’ve done good work, but other areas of your business have suffered.

Times where you’ve felt overwhelmed by the many roles of the business owner.

They say that the best inventions are born from laziness, so let me show you how I deal with distraction, how I cope with not just the challenges faced by a small business owner, but also those presented by this modern age of overwhelming information.

This is a guide to productivity for those that don’t have the time to go through the trial and error themselves.

Heck, it’s a guide for those even too busy to read this article. (HINT: skip to the practical bits)

The Case of the Small Business Owner:

The modern small business owner wears many hats and spins plates on a daily basis. Some entrepreneurs have gone as far as spinning hats, but no-one was impressed.

 

This is obviously out of necessity. Very often the small business consists of just one person.

You are the CEO, the CFO, the manager, the technician, the cleaner.

This is not a new problem.

Since the caveman opened his cave shop to sell fresh fruit and mammoth fur coats to traveling Neanderthals, he has struggled to play the role each part of business demanded. Even if he could play the part, he could not be as efficient at all of them as he had hoped, with the result that as silly season for fur coats passed (winter, in case you’re wondering), he’d forgotten to do a stock take and ended up with too many unsold fur coats.

His wife was happy, but his business had underperformed because he dropped a plate. Ok, he dropped a clay bowl, whatever.

The point is that it takes skill to do it all, not just the specific skill each role demands, but the overarching one of discipline and organisation.

How much does being productive mean to you?

Let’s go back a bit, why are we doing this? What’s at stake?

If your answer to this is that you’re a workaholic and just love hustling each and every second of the day, chances are you don’t need the tips in this article. Workaholics have the opposite problem, can’t help you there!

If, like me, you’re doing this because you’re trying to build a future for yourself and your family; if you’re running a business because you’re passionate about it’s industry, but that passion ebs and flows; if you’re trying to work hard because this country’s pension sucks…then it’s important to remind yourself of the bigger picture. Constantly.

I’m not talking about airy-fairy visualisation techniques, I’m sure they have their place. I am talking about simply putting your bigger goals front and centre in your mind as much and as often as you can.

Given the above, and given that you still want to realise your dreams before your life ends, let’s take a moment to appreciate how little time you have. This is your life in months:

Guide to productivity - your life in months

You’ll notice there are not a lot of them.

I recently blinked and we went from Christmas to March. Life goes by ridiculously quickly so decide how you want to spend your time. If you look at that picture and think, what’s the point? I might as well go sit on the couch and watch telly until the electricity runs out or a meteor hits the earth…Fine. Do that, but make a decision either way. The clock is ticking and they are wrong when they say that time is money. It’s way more valuable, you can never get it back, it’s the ultimate resource.

How discipline relates to success:

On that happy note, let me explain my view further.

Having lived life now for a few decades, I’ve seen and come to the realisation that the guy who worked hard at school but got only B’s and C’s, now has the edge over the supposedly more clever guys who didn’t. I am generalising here, but think of most of the successful business owners you know. Do they work hard? Are they disciplined?

Jim Rohn said: “Motivation only get’s you started, it’s habit that keeps you going.”

It’s my firm belief that habitual discipline relates directly to success. You can have all the grand plans in the world but if you don’t take daily action, produce content, make decisions and hustle, it will come to nothing. Productivity implies production, there has to be output from your time spent.

So if it’s habit that keeps you going, how do you form these habits?

The modern human condition:

Well, we’re certainly up against it. Our diminishing powers of concentration are fast becoming the biggest obstacle to our productivity. Our natural curiosity is not the evolutionary virtue it once was. Your Facebook timeline, to use an example, is an attack on the senses. It’s a multitude of events screaming for your attention, feeding your curious brain with fast food.

No wonder it’s called a Facebook feed.

Have you ever been on a task, hit a difficult patch, and gone straight to social media for a dopamine fix? If you’re thinking you don’t suffer from this addiction, and it is an addiction, try taking off those apps from your smartphone or blocking them on your internet browser. You might be in for a shock as you find yourself constantly reaching for something that now isn’t there.

This is not just to do with social media. If you’re nodding your head to yourself in smug satisfaction about the fact that you don’t even have a smartphone and don’t know what Facebook is, rest assured. You have your vices. Find them and think about them the same way.

Of course, distractions don’t just come in the form of cat pictures on Instagram. We are constantly bombarded by information, in our email inbox, and everywhere we travel on the internet.

This is the human condition. Overwhelmed by information, we need to acquire a new skill, that of being able to put the blinkers on, to filter information, both reactively and proactively.

Forming productive and disciplined habits:

B.J Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University has studied behaviour change for twenty years, and he believes habits are formed by succeeding at small adjustments, then gaining confidence from that success.

He points to the success of tech giants such as Google and Facebook, who have effectively trained us to use their tools daily and behave in a certain way. It makes sense that you might have to take back your attention in the same way, little by little, over time.

For me, what really worked and became a turning point was understanding that the difference between the man who gets things done and the man who does not, lies in the small action of simply starting. Importantly, starting over and over as the motivation wanes and the discipline kicks in.

I also evaluated how badly I wanted to be that guy.

The guy who says he’s going to sit and write 3000 words and then actually does it.

The guy who has ridiculous yearly goals that become less ridiculous when he simply achieves them.

The guy who gets. sh!t. done.

Life happens, it helps to think of it as a game and when you’re winning, tell yourself you’re winning. Even at the risk of being the cheesy guy in front of a mirror saying: “Hi handsome, you’re a winner!”

I’ve of course never done this. (I may have done this)

There is evidence to suggest the things we tell ourselves over and over have an impact. What have you got to lose? How much is at stake?

The practical bits:

Ok, so having got that off my chest, here are some super practical things to help you in your quest towards banishing distractions and uber-productivity:

1. Set time aside for each of the different roles in your business:

This means that if you need to be a worker bee, to get actual work done, do that for a set time. But schedule in specific times of the day or day of the week to be the CEO, where you can do some big sky thinking to evaluate where you’re at and move your business forward.

You can also pretend you have a secretary and practice firing people. It’s fun.

The point is to do one thing and one thing only for a set time, without jumping from one task to another and being exceptionally bad at all of them. I find it easiest to use blocks of hours, but then you might be fortunate enough to be able to dedicate bigger blocks to specific roles.

2. Stay off the phone

No phone calls:

This one is tricky I admit. And my clients will tell you that I love a good chinwag on the phone. Thing is, those calls are scheduled and serve a specific purpose, whether it be solving a problem that needs a deeper discussion, or simply selling.

When you block off time as mentioned before, stay off the phone, otherwise it defeats the point.

3. Outsource

Know when to outsource.

Even in a small company, with little budget, there are times where it makes sense to outsource certain tasks. Sometimes for expertise, sometimes because it makes the most economical sense.

That’s for instance, why I have an accountant, and why I outsource my fetch-the-tv-remote activities to my children. (It makes the most economical sense.)

Of course, this brings with it a minefield of potential problems.

You could hire a useless Virtual Assistant, or use a developer on Upwork with less than stellar results.

But be clever. Find menial tasks with low risk and test the waters. Understand that you are essentially interviewing them, but using sample projects to do so. Tread carefully and it could turn out to be a great long-term asset.

4. Defer the distraction.

FOMO – be ok with parking knowledge or even deferring it.

The term is not just something the youngsters use, Fear of Missing Out is a real thing and in this context, it refers to those moments where you see a link to a really interesting article, or catch your friends talking about something online that sounds interesting, and you simply have to read it.

Again, it’s about realising that:

1. You don’t need the immediate gratification.

2. You can defer the knowledge/gossip to another time where you decide it warrants attention.

It helps also to come on the internet with an attitude of self-preservation. i.e. “Don’t you dare decide for me how I’m going to spend the next 5 minutes.” Go online with a sense of snatch and grab. Take what you need on your terms and leave.

I use Pocket to save articles I want to read for later. I see them. I think they’re useful/interesting, and I tuck them away, without letting them rob me of the next bit of time unless I purposefully allow this to happen. Pocket sits on your browser and syncs to an app on your phone. Perfect on-the-loo reading!

Additionally, I use Feedly to aggregate all the various blogs I follow so that I can choose to go to this one place on the internet, configured for my interests, and choose what I am going to spend my time reading.

Reading a blog entry now comes from a position of control, not from clicking recklessly.

5. Take the time to time yourself!

Time yourself when doing a task.

I have three kids, I call them Small, Medium and Large. I sometimes use their names too. Small, Medium and Large, SML for short, bring with them a whole host of interruptions and logistics. Some of them cute and some not so much, as those with kids can attest to.

three kids stick figures

This means that sometimes, blocking off an hour to do something is a luxury. The other times, I use something called Half-time.

Loosely, make that very loosely, based on the Pomodora technique of doing a task in 25 minutes and giving yourself a break, I do this because SML (and life) insist on it.

So decide on a task, set a timer and concentrate hard for around half-an-hour. The timer will go off and you will have accomplished something, or you’ll know something about someone’s random life on Facebook. One of those two outcomes will make you feel great.

6. Set realistic goals.

Set personal and professional goals and put them where you can see them.

These are those infamous new year type goals and the biggest mistake I see people make with these is setting too many. Don’t do more than two or three of each and make sure they are realistic and achievable. Every win will make you more likely to get the next one etc.

Then put them where you can see them every day. It’s simple but effective. You need to be reminded again of what it is you’re moving towards. This provides the fuel for the fire you need to carry out even mundane tasks, knowing you’re inching closer to the goal.

7. Make a list, make lots of them.

With all the productivity software out there and all the millions of ways you can try and organise your life, there is still nothing as powerful as the simple list. It’s becoming quite fashionable to say lists are meaningless, but I am still a firm believer, providing you are using them to stay focussed, not using them to feel accomplished simply by having drawn one up.

Seeing the goal, actioning it, and marking as complete., is in itself its own drug. An addiction that moves you forward.

But: You know those people that say they love lists? They only love them because they tick things off. This means that your lists have to be reasonable. A day task list that reads like a monthly shop is not doing you any favours if you just about manage to do the top 1 or 2. You have to guard your own psyche remember? You have to manufacture wins in order to train your brain.

So instead make them achievable. If unsure, break things down into smaller chunks, move projects forward. Little and often.

The king of list making and one that I cannot live without it is Asana. Try it and thank me later.

8. Become a single-minded and focussed horse.

Put on those blinders:

Remember the curse that is our curiosity? Don’t be ashamed to curb the curious cat that you are. It’s the software that got us into this mess, let the software get us out of it.

There are tons of tools that do this, but the one that I love and hate is the aptly named Self Control. You give it a list of websites that you know could be a distraction, decide on the amount of time you need, enter a password and Self Control will stop you from accessing any on that list.

And I mean really stop you. That thing will carry on computer-says-no even if you try and reboot. It’s really effective…and mean…

I might have mentioned Facebook before. Ok I did. A lot.

Thing is, my clients are on there, my clients sell on there, so as a company we have to hang out there as well, but I don’t need to be distracted while doing client work.

Enter the fearsome Facebook Feed Eradicator. It uses no chemicals, but instead replaces your Facebook feed with an inspirational quote. This thing alone has skyrocketed my productivity.

9. Switch off the television.

Tell your Telly who’s boss:

I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before.

Well you’ve heard it plenty of times because it’s true. Watching shows is a passive exercise. And it keeps you there. I have successfully got my kids addicted to shows just so I can do more work, I hope they forgive me one day. The point is I can see what it does to them when they come away from staring passively at a screen for a while. It’s not pretty. (Don’t worry, they have a balanced lifestyle. I even let them outside once a month.)

I love Game of Breaking Homeland as much as the next guy, but decide what it means to you. Decide if you want to get where you want to get, then think about how much time you spend watching television.

Don’t even get me started on the news. A wise man (it might have been me) once said that you will find out anything worth knowing from other people, without having to subject yourself to the depressing potion of what the media thinks of as newsworthy.

Trust me, there is nothing in the news today that you need to know in order to hustle and succeed in business.

10. Sleep when you’re dead?

Sleep less:

I’ve thrown this one in, because I’ve tried it and got a lot more work done and because Margaret Thatcher didn’t need sleep. She got sh!t done. So much so that others are struggling to undo it.

That being said, you have to be realistic. I don’t do well if I go too long with only 6 hrs a night. I start looking slightly less handsome.

Find out what works for you and take those hours back.

11. Make new friends and ditch the old ones.

As best you can, surround yourself with people who get.sh!…ok you’ve got it by now.

You’ll be amazed at how this rubs off on you. People who get things done are almost always positive and encouraging. Your friends can either inspire you or do the opposite. Gary Vee proposes a friend audit, which is maybe being a bit extreme, but I get where he’s coming from.

The alternative is hanging out with people who do not get things done and blame everything but themselves for not reaching their goals. You know the ones.

It all comes back to the principle of feeding your mind with the right things.

12. Relax.

In contrast to what I just said….If you don’t take time for yourself to relax you will burn out, eventually, guaranteed. So sure, have some chill time. But schedule it. Be purposeful about it and know where you are spending your hours.

Again it comes down to what achieving your goals mean to you and the importance you attach to them. Time is your currency, spend it wisely.

13. Practice.

Lastly, your brain, the vestibule of your self control, is like a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly. This means that there is hope for all the unproductive folk out there. You just need to think long-term, it will take time to retrain your brain, but it can be done.

I’ll leave you with my favourite saying:

“Are you telling the day what to do? Or is the day telling you what to do?” Click To Tweet

These are the personal methods I use, what are yours?

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