How many times have you awoken in the morning, resolved to put in a full day of work on your business, and then marveled at how little work actually got done? If you’re like me, the answer is "too many times!" We can talk all we want about using techniques like networking and account planning to boost our businesses, but all the technique in the world will come to naught if we can’t find the time to actually apply it.
"But it’s not my fault," you might say, "things kept coming up." Yes, that’s true, and those things are called distractions. Distraction may well be the greatest enemies of your business, especially if you work out of your own home.
Maybe it’s a phone call. Or maybe it’s an email. Or if you’re me, maybe it’s a six-month old bundle of joy. The point is, it’s easy to have good intentions. It’s hard to follow through on them.
Dealing With Distractions
Learning how to deal with distractions is every bit as important to your business as learning to sell. If distractions cost you just one hour per business day, that’s over 250 hours per year, or six full 40-hour weeks. Think you could use the additional income from an extra six weeks of work per year? Or: would you want to take an extra six weeks of vacation per year?
In dealing with distractions, as with any enemy, you have three basic options: Run, Hide, and Fight. Any or all of these strategies may work for you, if executed correctly.
Your first option is to run from your distractions. As we’ve previously discussed, one of the aspects of corporate life that a typical freelancer misses the most is the basic work environment. You drive to an office building where:
- your friends and family have a hard time reaching you
- a janitorial staff maintains a clean and professional work environment
- the people around you reinforce your desire to work (or at least they should, if you work for a good company).
In contrast, your house comes complete with a full set of distractions, including:
- spouses, children, and/or housemates who might as well be children
- dirty dishes and other household chores
- the unholy trinity of television, Internet, and the PlayStation 2.
If you find your productivity suffering, try to find a place outside the home where you can work. If you’re willing to spend the money, consider renting an office outside the home. Sharing an office with other independent professionals can also work, especially if you like having other people around off whom you can bounce ideas. The big problem with renting an office is, of course, money. By replicating the corporate environment with a rented office, you’re also replicating the high overhead of corporate life, taking away your freelancer’s advantage. Fortunately, there are other low-cost or free options.
Consider your local public library, for example. In my case, I’ve used the Mountain View Public Library a number of times for business. Not only can you find study carrels complete with high-speed Internet access, you can also use the study rooms to hold private meetings. Other possibilities include local community centers and other public facilities.
If you have a laptop and a wireless 802.11b card, another good option is Starbucks. Not only does Starbucks come complete with coffee, snacks, sofas, and tables, you can access wireless high-speed connections at over 1,000 Starbucks stores.
There’s one final option if you have some generous friends. Remember my old business partner, whose two young daughters and comic-strewn "office" destroyed any chance at productivity? His new office is my kitchen table. Even though he has to drive for over an hour to reach my house, he’s found that the increased productivity more than makes up for the two-hour commute.
You can also hide from your distractions without leaving your home. If you’re fortunate enough to have a spare room in your house, you can set up a very simple home office. In fact, the simpler the better. A nearly bare room is best; if your office also houses your old comic book collection, you may find that the very human instinct to procrastinate will soon have you renewing your acquaintance with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
If you don’t have a spare room, consider using the garage, laundry room, or closet, just so long as you can create a private, distraction-free workspace. Any clean, well-lighted place will do, so long as it is free of anything that is remotely interesting – television, books, magazines, newspapers, paintings — all of these are to be shunned and avoided in your office space.
In my case, my office contains my computer equipment, my accounting files, and a closet full of old suits. Work is the most interesting thing in the room, and thus far I have resisted the temptation to spend my time playing dress-up.
Your final option is to deal with your distractions head-on. Be forewarned, this may be difficult–there’s a reason why they say, "discretion is the better part of valor!"
When you fight your distractions, rather than creating physical barriers, you create mental barriers. Regardless of your actual work environment, always act as though you’re in a professional office.
Part of this means setting ground rules for your spouse, children, domestic partner, or old college roommates that are still sleeping on your couch. Let them know that when you are working, you are working. If that have something important to convey, they can have a minute of your time, but no more. They need to feel the same reluctance to disturb your work as if you were working in an office across town.
The other part means setting ground rules for yourself. For example, if a friend calls up and asks if you want to catch an afternoon matinee, ask yourself whether you’d do so if you were working in an office for an employer. After all, if you’re the boss, shouldn’t you treat yourself with the same — or greater — respect as an employer?
The key to making this strategy work is iron willpower. You have to take a stand and stick with it, no matter how reasonable the arguments against your stand may sound. Once you’ve successfully set the ground rules and enforced them for a month or two, you can afford to cut some slack now and then, especially if your business is going well.
Learning to deal with distractions is as important to your freelance business as executing proper sales and marketing techniques. Making sure that you can stay focused on your work is the foundation of success.
Chris Yeh is a partner at Porthos Consulting, a sales and marketing consultancy that focuses on delivering measurable gains in lead generation and revenues. Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.