Yesterday, I cleared my list of “work things which absolutely must get done today” at exactly 5:00.
I’d not quite clocked a full day’s work, but it came after several weeks of copywriting churn, and I felt sorely tempted to call it a day. I had some important projects which were too big to start, and a few minor things which I could leave for the morning. I didn’t have to keep going.
But instead of shutting down, I decided to put in one more hour of work.
Now, I’m a productivity freak, but I’m no workaholic. That’s not to say I’m lazy, but I’m too aware of all the things I could be accomplishing if I just turned my timers off. I could go read a book! I could write a blog! I could practice Russian! Each hour of work comes with an opportunity cost: so long as I have fulfilled my client obligations, why not go spend my next hour furthering my own personal projects?
As a freelance writer, this can be dangerous territory, because I’m responsible to myself for my income. If I’m not on top of myself every day for the hours I put in, I won’t hit my financial goals for the month.
But it’s super hard to think this way when I’ve been working so hard, and when (strictly speaking) I don’t have to get anything more done. And even though I get paid for that hour, having put in so much time over the previous weeks, I’m not strapped for cash.
So why work the extra hour?
Small tasks accumulate. And being small, they’re rarely important. Now, many people start off their day with this busy work as a way of procrastination. There’s some big project to handle, and it’s easier to put it off by handling a few small emails first. A lot of the productivity tips I’ve read argue against this habit: start your day by tackling the biggest, weightiest project, because just getting started is probably your biggest hurdle of the day, and procrastination creates a mental weight that you’ll spend most of your day battling against. So I’ve done alright with this: putting the hardest thing first, shoving the small things till later in the day.
Only now I’ve found that this strategy means the small things don’t get done. I don’t schedule that blog for tomorrow. I don’t follow up on those emails. I don’t finish off the final edit on that document.
What this means is that all these tiny little things suddenly become urgent interruptions. Because I didn’t send that follow-up email, I don’t have the info I need to move forward on my writing assignment. Since I didn’t finish editing that document, the person I was supposed to forward it to in another time zone has lost a whole business day waiting for it. And by failing to schedule that blog, I now have to scramble to get it out on time when I should have been focusing on another task.
So my new discipline is to put in one extra hour at the end of my work day to cover some of those smaller tasks. To work ahead so that I’ve not just done what was necessary, but have gone the extra mile. And I’m better prepared for the next day, and more able to handle the big project right at the beginning of the day, because I’ve wrapped up my distractions.
This is not about working yourself to the bone. It’s about thinking ahead to reduce stress and make the next day more productive. Hopefully, if I do this more, I’ll get that hour back in efficiency the next day.
And by the way: Day 8.