Top Ten Tools for Creating a Productive Work Environment

For those of us who set our own schedules, or even those of us who don’t, you may know the familiar feeling of distraction.  Distraction and procrastination are best friends.  They love to work together and are REALLY good at their jobs.  

^^Self Employed Gangsta^^

^^Self Employed Gangsta^^

Until I started making my own schedule, I never saw myself as a procrastinator.  In fact, it was the opposite.  In college, when a professor set a deadline for a short story piece or essay, I made sure I had mine done early so I could revise it nine million times (I know, I was really cool).  But when I started SSP, I lived by the wise words of Jack White, “I don’t know what to do with myself”, and the lack of direction led me to adopt some serious procrastinator ways.

Truth is, in the early days I STRUGGLED with focus.  Yes, I did(and do) yoga and meditated, drank my herbal tea and wrote out all my goals for the day, but there came a point (roughly nine minutes into the work day) where my computer was like:

psssst.  PSSSSSST. Remember that trip you took to Greece?  Don’t you wish you could go back?  Or Ireland?  You’ve always wanted to go to Ireland.  Why don’t you check flights to Ireland?  I hear it’s off season!  I bet you could find REALLLLLY cheap flights.  Why don’t you check?  You should check.  Checckkkkkkkk.

And I was all:

I really shouldn’t.  I have been planning on gathering documents for my taxes for weeks.  I need to gather documents for my taxes, send out emails, set up consultations….

The computer screen would just stare back at me blankly, and I would cave.  Four hours and seven cups of coffee later, I probably would have purchased airline tickets to Prague (because Ireland was kind of expensive and I’ve always wanted to go to Prague and I heard Prague was cheap and, Oh!  Look at that!  Delta has a deal for airfare to Prague!  We’re going to Prague.), signed up to board dogs on the weekend (because...puppies), watched 3 running vlogs, stared at my pictures from Greece while muttering to myself about how America should really adopt the “3 hour lunch” rule, and watched a tutorial on how to cut my own hair.  You know what I hadn’t done?  You guessed it.

What I realized is that I am SUPER productive when trying to avoid tasks that I find unappealing.  So I did some soul searching, and I set out to find a way to hold myself accountable for the things that NEEDED to get done so I could get to the things I WANTED to get done.  Thus, after a classic Shelly Shimon long winded set up, I present to you:

My Top Ten Tools for Creating a Productive Work Environment for the Self Employed Baller (in no particular order):

  1. Create your ideal work space:

Where you work has a lot to do with how well you work.  This part takes some introspection and maybe a little trial and error.  Just because you may “work from home” doesn’t mean you need to be chained to your mailbox.  Being at home may be the most distracting environment for you.  Checking out a local coffee shop or a co-working space, like this one in Chicago, may be just the thing that helps eliminate your core distractions and allows you to work at your most productive level.  On the other hand, you may find working from home to be the most productive place to get stuff done.  There is zero commute and you control the way the environment looks, smells, and sounds.  My advice for the person who prefers working from home is to establish a place in the home that is your dedicated workspace, be it a desk, a spot at the kitchen table, or the floor (I don’t know how comfortable that is, but, you do you).  Make sure that space is organized and tidy at all times, and ONLY use that space for work.  It will train your brain to view that space as your work environment, and your body will sort of go into work autopilot when you sit down for the day.  It’s awesome.  There’s also a third possibility that, like me, you are most productive with a mix of both of those environments.  I am most focused (and creative) when I change up my environments.  I dedicate a couple of days a week to work at my favorite coffee shops, and the other days I work from home.  In both places, I have my spots that I have designated as my “desks” where I go to do work.

2. Get ready for the work day:

When I started creating my own schedule and working from home, the work day just kind of started when I woke up in the morning.  At first, I thought being able to work in my pajamas was the coolest, until it sort of blurred the line between lounging and working.  I started to not have a set “work time” and set “chill time”, both just became “all of the time” and it left a LOT of room for distraction, causing me to only really complete a fraction of what I needed to get done for the day.  I find that getting up in the morning and getting ready for the work day as I would if I were to report to a specific place of business or employer helps me mentally prepare to sit down and work.  So get up, take a shower for god’s sake, sprinkle some makeup on your face if you’re into that, get out of your N’SYNC Celebrity Tour tshirt, and get going for the day.  The mental game of getting ready to work is half the battle.  

3. Schedule Breaks

I never used to schedule breaks.  Boredom would come first, distraction would follow, and next thing I knew I woke up at Target with a bag of peanut butter M&Ms in one hand and a mug that read You had me at Shalom”  in the other.  I don’t know how it always seemed to happen, but the Target blackouts were common in the beginning days.  Then I started to schedule in breaks and it changed my life.  All of a sudden I was sticking to my schedule knowing that a break was on the horizon.  I powered through my work and squeezed every last minute out of my scheduled break times so that even my break times started to become filled with productivity.  I’d save yoga, running, laundry, Ferd’s walks, etc. for my 30 minute scheduled breaks, and all of a sudden, I was getting a whole lot more done throughout my day.  When I would go back to work after a break, I found that I was ten times more focused

4. Only check social media at designated times of the day.  Social media can be a real time suck.  We all know this, and yet, that beautiful purple app sings to us from our home pages and our little fingers can’t resist.  In order to get anything done during the workday, you MUST resist at certain times.  For me, a lot of my business is generated from social media, so it is especially hard for me to refrain posting, liking, and commenting.  Instead, I designate two times during my work day to check or post to my social media accounts.  Don’t worry, Anthony Rizzo will not deactivate his account in the six hours you are off of Instagram.  He will still be there.  I promise.  I checked.

5. Master “Deliberate Practice”.

Recently, I read Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit, which is mostly about perseverance and passion.  In the book she talks about this thing called “Deliberate Practice”.  Long story short, deliberate practice is when you devote a chunk of your time to honing your craft, whatever your craft may be.  It is a no distractions, in-the-zone, kind of dedication that should leave you exhausted by the end.  On many days, my deliberate practice is shooting in some capacity: different subjects, different light, different purpose, etc. in order to hone my craft.  Other days, my deliberate practice is writing, drafting, revising emails, blog posts, copy for my website, media posts, etc.  Deliberate practice is meant to make you zero in on that which will make you a stronger photographer, writer, artist, athlete, business owner, student, etc. and practice it with such fervor that you don’t even realize the world around you.  One other thing to keep in mind when planning your day around your deliberate practice is that true deliberate practice can only effectively be practiced for up to five hours.  She found that when performing deliberate practice, the body and mind can only take up to five hours before complete exhaustion.  

6. Exercise in the morning.

I know I am not the first one to advocate for a morning sweat sesh, but I have found that when I am able to exercise in the morning, it gets my body moving and my mind going in a way that prepares me to sit down and focus.  Also, starting my day in a productive way sets myself up to continue the productivity streak.  By 8 am I am already able to check something off my daily to-do list, and no one likes crossing things off checklists more than this girl.  It’s a good feeling, and with that, I am ready to tackle my day.

7. Map out the next day at the end of your determined work day.

Knowing where you are going based on where you have been is a great way to get a lot done.  At 4:30 pm everyday, I sit down and read the daily intentions and goals I set in the morning.  I reflect on what I was able to complete and consider whether or not I allotted enough time for each project I set out to accomplish.  From there, I adjust my goals and expectations for the following day, and map out how I want that day to go from the minute I open my eyes in the morning through the end of my scheduled work day.  Reflecting at the end of my day and setting new goals really holds me accountable and motivates me to get going each morning.

8. Only check your email at designated times of the day.

This is similar to social media.  I know I sometimes feel enslaved by my email inboxes, obsessively checking them throughout the day in fear that someone may desperately need to get ahold of me, and telling myself I’m losing business every second I make them wait.  This simply isn’t true and is absolutely preventing me from being my most productive self.  I set two times a day to check my email, once at 8:30 am and once at 4 pm.  My clients know that I will answer them within 48 hours, and if the content of the email is dire, I will see to it that I answer them sooner than that-at one of the two times throughout my day I have designated for email correspondence.  Outside of those two times, I am tuned in to some other aspect of my business.

9. Set intentions for the day and reflect on those intentions at the end of the day.

I touched on this in number seven.  I keep a journal that I write in at the beginning of every work day and then again at the end.  Right when I wake up in the morning, I write a set of intentions for my day.  I write down all things, personal and professional, I would like to get done.  This is based on what I mapped out at the end of the previous work day.  Writing out my intentions sets them in the forefront of my brain and allows my actions throughout the day to be more deliberate.  When I feel like taking a break that isn’t scheduled, or skipping a task that I don’t feel like completing, I refer back to my intentions and it keeps me on track.  Reflecting at the end of the work day allows me to be honest with myself and make appropriate adjustments so that I can build off of my productivity from previous days.

10. Only work within the hours you designate for yourself as the “work day”.

If you only follow one of my tips, let this one be it.  The absolute best way to stay productive and avoid burn out is to only work when you are at work.  If after work you have a brilliant thought, or you remember an email you meant to send, keep a notebook near you so that you can scribble down any ideas you want to address TOMORROW.  Healthy boundaries are the key to any successful relationship, even the relationship you have with your work.

And that’s it!  Leave a comment below letting me know any other tips and tricks you have for creating a productive work environment!


Shelly Shimon