“It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”
These calming words leapt out to me one afternoon as I frantically pawed through the self-help section of a bookshop searching for advice on how to be more productive at work. They were written by David Allen – management consultant, educator and executive coach to successful business leaders – whose book, Getting Things Done, has spawned literally thousands of clickbait articles about “How These Five Tech Billionaires Stay Healthy and Maintain Productivity.”
These kind of smug listicles are everywhere and they fuel the idea that success isn’t just about working hard, bro, it’s about working smart.
Despite its initial calming effects, I didn’t get on with Allen’s book. In the end it made me more stressed than I’d been before. Whole chapters were dedicated to structuring different types of lists, and the pages were interspersed with vague quotes from famous philosophers and radical thinkers (Albert Einstein, The Buddha, Lily Tomlin) which distracted from the main text.
In truth, Getting Things Done simply wasn’t written for regular people doing regular work. It was written for executives and company directors with a small army of staff to keep them afloat – the kind of people who wouldn’t blush at saying, “Remind me about the Hong Kong trip two weeks ahead, and we’ll plan the logistics.” That’s an actual quote from the book.
Here’s a more relatable quote from magazine-maker and podcaster Liv Siddall who, like me, can struggle with the idea and execution of effective time management. When we spoke she was trying to work out how to cram three different birthday parties into one Saturday afternoon.
“My working week feels so much like playing Super Mario on GameBoy,” she says, “running slightly chaotically at a pace towards an unknown destination, dodging Goombas (scary emails/clients)
It’s not just people working in media that have these issues. Martha Smith is a tattoo artist in south London whose work is currently in high demand. “Overworking definitely becomes pretty overwhelming,” she says. “I’m currently working seven days a week to save some extra cash. “I can handle it most of the time, but when there isn’t an end in sight, the workload does get on top of me. I have constant email notifications on my phone, so in some ways I’m always working.”
Erica Leal, an independent jeweler based in Vancouver whose work has been gracing the pages of Vogue a whole lot in 2018, feels the same way. “I feel like I’m in a constant state of getting my shit together,” she says.
“Industries and businesses are always in flux, so the moment you think you have it figured out something shifts and you have to find your feet all over again. It helps to just resign yourself to that fact. That’s just the nature of having your own business.”
She has a point. Freelancing or running your own business are inherently stressful activities that demand more of your time than a lot of full-time jobs. Even if the hours are the same, the number of different activities you have to juggle is vast, which does mean you have to be at least vaguely able to manage your time.
In an ideal world, Liv says, “I’d give up drinking; I’d have a spreadsheet for everything; I’d exercise every day; I’d get up at 6am; I’d have one meeting every day; I’d own a Margaret Howell suit; I’d have a team of people who I have hired to do difficult jobs for me; I’d have one one-week and one one-month holiday per year; I’d be able to leave my phone alone for more than five minutes; I’d delete Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and I’d teach myself how to remember people’s names.”
But this is not an ideal world, and while it’s definitely not necessary to read a whole book on productivity and restructuring your working life (sorry David Allen) there are a few simple things you can do to make you feel more in control.
1. Work when it’s best for you
The joy of not having a nine to five is that you can work when you like. But that can also be a problem if you don’t make sure those hours of work are efficient. “I find it very very difficult to wake up before 8am, and I absolutely detest working past 6pm,” Liv explains. “It’s taken me a while to accept that and work with my own schedule rather than being angry at myself for not getting up early or pulling an all-nighter to get something done.
“Just because other people get up at 5am and finish work at 11pm doesn’t mean that you have to. So work to your own clock.”
2. Be more like Nick Cave
Make a list, check it twice, prioritize tasks and work out how much time each one will take. Then establish what you can fit into your hours of work that day – the rest can wait. Try and stick to that routine if you can. “I remember hearing that Nick Cave
3. Do lunch
When you work in an office, there’s nothing more depressing than those colleagues who sit at their computers with a sad sandwich while everyone else is at lunch. Everyone knows they’re accomplishing nothing while they sprinkle lettuce onto their keyboard except cheating themselves out of a well-deserved break at midday.
You don’t have an office or colleagues, but you’re still entitled to down time. So don’t be depressing, do lunch. “Maybe, gasp, even leave your studio for that lunch break,” Erica suggests.
4. Take time to reflect
Yup, reflection is another thing you’ve got to make time for, otherwise you risk making the same mistakes time and again. It’s not just reflecting on your working process that’s important, but taking the time to get perspective on your situation day-to-day.
“I think I’ve become quite good at putting my work situation into perspective,” Martha says. “I’ve had a tough few years with family illness and it’s amazing how much of a help that is when you need to snap out of a work slump. I can very quickly pick myself up and say, get over yourself, this isn’t that bad!”
5. Learn to say no
Being overworked can feel like a relief when you’re freelancing as it’s one of the only times when your financial concerns disappear. “It’s funny, when I have too many projects on, I feel lost, scared, panicked and worried,” Liv says. “When I have very few projects or not much work on, I feel lost, scared, panicked and worried.”
It’s important to accept that there will always be uncertainty in what you do, so try not to take on excessive amounts of work to compensate. You’ll just end up making bad work.
6. Email smart
Where time is concerned, email is a curse and Slack is the devil, DMs and phone calls are two little gibbering demons sat on each of your shoulders. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? Well they’re three toddlers climbing all over you and covering your eyes while you try and accomplish something with your morning.
Though the metaphor is mixed you get my point; that’s a whole lot of distraction coming into your workplace each day. If you don’t put limits on how much time you spend doing each, well then you’re in trouble.
“I do all my admin in the mornings – about an hour of emails before customers,” Martha says. “And then I do my accounts before I leave at the end of the day. This way, my job feels like it has a system that I can control in some way.”
7. If you don’t love it, walk away
This may sounds glib, but there are other, easier ways to make a living. “It’s incredibly involved and time-consuming to be freelance,” Martha admits. “I do think its 100% worth it, but only if that passion is still there. I love my job, I love spending time with my customers and I love growing in the trade I'm in.
“If you’re working 70-hour weeks it has to be in a job you love otherwise you’ll burn out. But it’s so bloody worth it to earn your own money, to have a holiday when you like and work extra hours when you need some savings. I’m incredibly lucky!”