How I manage my time as an independent consultant

Time is something that is rarely on my side (sorry Mick).

In fact, a lot of times it actually plays against me. 

When the whole quarantine thing started, I thought time was going to be a lot easier to manage. 

No distractions, no meetings having me move across the city all the time, no one calling me out for lunch or coffee. Even for someone who has been working from home for the past 4 years, it seemed like a good deal.

So, so wrong.

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, and quarantine distractions are just a different flavor for the same oily snack that takes your attention away from that spotless diet.

In my case, it’s been all about keeping up with family and friends, managing (and growing) two businesses, welcoming a new 6-month-old puppy who seems to be high on sugar 24/7, and trying to keep up some level of a personal routine of eating properly, meditating, and exercising. 

The image of the mom holding a phone to her ear, cooking dinner with one hand and a baby with the other comes to mind.

We all have the same 24 hours per day. How we manage those hours is what sets apart people who get things done and people who sit on the floor, rocking back and forward in a fetal position repeating “everything is fine” over and over, and over again.

Over the years, what has worked incredibly well for me is blocking and themes.

Working with themes rather than checklists

For a long time I planned my day around things I had to do. The good old checklist.

That never ending, always expanding, bastard of a checklist.

Checklists work out great for me when I need to go to the supermarket, but when it comes to moving the needle on my businesses, it just falls flat. 

The reason is that checklists are not static. There’s always something new coming along. And every time something new hits my inbox, everything else needs to be reviewed, and rearranged in terms of priority. 

Not something I deal with well.

Because of that, I started playing around with the idea of themes.

I divide my week into blocks.

Blocks for myself (meditation, exercise, etc), blocks for ops and management (those bills are not going to pay themselves), blocks for meetings, blocks for content writing, and so on. 

Each block tells me exactly what I need to be doing, and how long I should be doing it for. 

This has significantly changed things for me for two reasons:

  • I know exactly what I should be doing and when
  • I know exactly how much time I have to get that done for the week. 

The second point was particularly helpful for me.

According to Parkinson’s law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. If you have 2 hours to do something, it will take two hours. If you have a week, it will take a week.

When I know I have 3 hours per week to work on lead generation, I remove the fluff and focus only on what’s critical to get it done. It’s amazing how much unnecessary shit we add to our tasks simply because we have time. 

One last thing here – YES, shit happens you haven’t planned for. No one is in complete control of their time, remember?

Make sure you have a block of time for that.

Mine is on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the afternoon and it’s called “Putting Out Fires”.

If there’s no fire to put out, I simply allocate that time to something else that might need more work.

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Maker time, Manager time

Within themes, I break time down between manager time and maker time.

This was a life changing concept for me, courtesy of the one and only Paul Graham (who heads the Y Combinator).

Paul wrote this article back in 2009, highlighting the significant differences in the demands of managing and making.

When you’re making something, you require extended periods of uninterrupted time.

It takes time to get going, get focused, and see a task through. Time which should be dedicated to deep concentration. No constant interruptions having to go into one call or another. 

My maker time is divided into 3hr chunks. That’s how long it takes me to complete a complex task, like writing an article, building a new page for my website, and so on. 

During maker days, I book no meetings, turn off notifications, and only check messages and emails between breaks.

My manager time is completely different. It’s divided into 1hour blocks, and it’s constantly going from one task to another. Managing for me is about short bursts. Quick meetings to make sure everything is working out. It’s about breadth, not depth.

Cutting out the crap

It’s amazing how much time we occupy with crap that really gets us nowhere. Busy work, designed to make us feel proud of accomplishing something, but not actually doing anything for us.

I only realized how much time that sort of thing took away from me on a daily basis when I quit agency life and went solo. Without all the “meetings to book meetings” , purely bureaucratic processes, and “it’s just how things are done around here”, I seriously got an extra day per week. 

Understanding what is essential, and what is busy work is critical, especially when you go solo and suddenly become the person in charge of deciding “how things work around here”. 

Entrepreneurship can be extremely stressful at times, and we often find ourselves creating useless but “feel-good” tasks to make us feel in control. In the end, you don’t relief stress, don’t feel good, and are definitely not in control. So let go of those. 

An incredible mentor I had over the past couple of years introduced me to the idea of “the one thing” and it has changed the way I see my ’to-dos’. The idea was developed by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in the book The One Thing, and it couldn’t be simpler.

All it takes is asking yourself –  What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? 

I printed, framed, and hung it above my monitor in the office. It makes everything more obvious.

What now?

Give it a try.

  • Break your week and your days down into themes (consisting of the key areas of your life and work you need to focus on)
  • Divide those hours between maker and manager time, to make sure you’re shipping everything you need to ship.
  • Cut the crap and focus on what’s essential. Ask yourself – what’s the one thing that would make everything else easier or irrelevant.

And that’s it. 

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