All solopreneurs face the dreadful feeling of unproductivity from time to time. The truth is that we are only accountable to ourselves. So while we have the flexibility to pursue our passions, at the end of the day, there is no one telling us what to do.
As someone who also travels quite often, I found it hard to understand if I had a productive day or not. Sometimes I want to have a productive day but go on to finish only one task. On other days I am able to finish a whole project in an afternoon working from a coffee shop.
This kind of variability in productivity is not sustainable. Not being able to measure your productivity is frustrating, but on top of that, I often have a hard time focusing on my tasks as well. We live in a world that calls out for your attention with bright colored ads, social media that uses algorithms to learn what you like — and those pesky notifications that make your phone’s screen light up so much it might as well be a strobe light.
The good news is that each person can adapt certain tools and techniques to help them remain (somewhat) motivated.
In this article, I will share tools and techniques that help me stay on top of my work and studies. Keep in mind that they might not work for you, and that’s totally ok! It takes some trial and error at first, but I bet that if you get yourself into the right mindset and give it a try, you’ll find your own perfect solution in no time!
Use Pomodoro for focused work 🍅
By far my favorite tool! The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s is used to simplify workflows and break down your day into multiple blocks with a resting period in between.
At its core, the Pomodoro Technique works like this:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on ONE task (this is important).
- When it rings, record what you did and take a 5-minute break.
- After you do 4 Pomodoro sessions, reward yourself with longer breaks.
The simplicity of the Pomodoro technique is what makes it so interesting. I don’t have to devote much thinking to the execution, and there are many apps to help you out. (I like the Be Focused – Pomodoro Timer.) You can have some fun with it, too! For example, as I like to enter into a “focus” mode (when I’m truly “in the zone”) when I am working and I felt that 25 min sessions were too short. So I am going for 45-minute sessions with a 15 min break. It works best as I have some time to focus and then between sessions I can unwind 100% and reward myself with some YouTube time.
The basic rule and philosophy of the Pomodoro Technique is this: when you are doing something, give it your all. Because if you give it your all, it’s probably gonna be pretty good.
Use white noise or lofi background music to help you focus 🔊
Working in a noisy environment can be distracting. But whenever I am in complete silence, my thoughts start to wander and I find it hard to focus on what I’m doing.
Along with the Pomodoro Technique, lofi music helps me focus and gives me a boost of productivity. This is the same type of music that would be used in a trendy lounge or a hipster coffee shop.
The effect of this type of sound on people’s brains is still being studied but many people that subscribe to websites like brain.fm, or that listen to live streams of lofi music and white noise on YouTube, prove its popularity.
I enjoy videos like 3-hour “study-with-me” sessions where a YouTube creator studies/works with you by using the Pomodoro Technique and playing music at the same time.
💡 Pro tip: In iOS 15 you are now able to listen to White Noise from your phone. Go to Settings – Accessibility – Audio/Visual – Background Sounds. You will be able to select between different sounds like rain, ocean or water stream.
Work smarter, not harder
If you are a serial procrastinator like me, there are some tasks that you keep postponing, simply because it feels painfully boring or useless. I am talking about the data analysis of your latest project, or interview scheduling or maybe even starting a new blog post from scratch. If something is boring, you can depend on your brain to find a reason to put the boring tasks aside and start by scratching off some smaller, easier tasks that give you a dopamine boost. But don’t be fooled, procrastination is never good.
How do you beat it? First, there might be some tasks that you can easily automate or delegate. For example, I leave all the accounting and worrying about my business taxes to Xolo Leap.
For the past 6 months, I have followed the rule I made for myself to start my workday with the one task I dread the most. I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a 15-minute YouTube video. Then turn on all my tools to get grinding. Those 3 hours of work in the morning will go by fast and your project might not be finished by the end of it but at least you started your day by “taming the beast”. Now everything that follows will be easier and you will be happy about it. You deserve it!
Almost accurate depiction of me doing an essay review at 9 AM.
Hercules and the Hydra by Battista Angolo del Moro, 1552
Divide your day/week by themes
For solopreneurs, it is not unusual to work on several projects at the same time. For example, I’m completing my Master’s in addition to freelancing.
Multipurpose planning is an essential skill in the busy times we live in. But it’s also something that helps you when you work in a fast-paced startup environment. But multitasking can be your enemy if it prevents you from focusing on learning or accomplishing the important tasks with looming deadlines.
Breaking the week, or day, into different “topics” helps me organize myself. I tend to push recurring tasks to the end of my day (like language learning) so that I can focus on the harder topics that require my creativity in the morning. As my deadlines for university are in the latter half of the week, I start Monday with that in mind. That way, I can focus on my freelance writing after I am done with my university tasks.
See what works best for you and use Google Calendar’s color-block features. This way you can have a good overview of what you are up to with a quick glance.
Brainstorm and organize ideas by using mind mapping
Speaking of knowing what you’re up to — mind mapping is an excellent technique to help you break down complex topics and organize your thoughts. With mind mapping, you want to visualize information and understand how the different pieces in your project connect to one another.
There are apps that help you do this (Miro is a favorite) but I have found that a pen and paper are perfectly good options, too! This is how mind mapping works:
- Set the theme of your project/essay/post.
- Try to break down what you want to achieve or portray and brainstorm mini topics.
- Find what brings such topics together and start connecting.
This type of ideation is usually fast-paced and ideally can be made on the go when an idea pops into your mind. Try not to overthink it and go with the flow.
Practice self-care as a solopreneur
After you increase your productivity, you will feel that you will want to continue grinding. Don’t.
It is important that throughout the day you have several breaks and “treat yourself” moments. Whenever you finish a work block (if you use Pomodoro), have a stretch or grab a cup of coffee. When you finish that daunting task you were fearing since last month, take a 3 hours break and go watch a movie or go for a dive if you have a pool/beach nearby.
Don’t ever work until you run out of your “creative juices”. Working till you drop would inevitably lead you to more procrastination in the future. Break the vicious circle!
Our solopreneur journey should be empowering and you should try to find a balance between work and rest time.
Many solopreneurs leave their old jobs because they don’t want the typical 9 to 5 workday. But then they end up doing the exact same thing when they are working for themselves!
Set your tasks and experiment with different techniques and products that help you achieve your goals more efficiently. But you’re not getting that time back so always, enjoy the process!
Jorge is a digital nomad from Portugal with experience in the startup world, remote working, and Chinese technology. He worked previously at Wise and Deel and is currently a remote graduate student at SOAS University of London.
In his free time, you can find him learning new languages or planning his next destination, be it a restaurant or a new city in a different corner of the world. Jorge uses Xolo Leap so his business can travel the world along with him.