One of the most notable changes that freelancers feel when they leave start-ups and start working for themselves is the effect that self-employment has on productivity. Long chats around the watercooler don’t disappear because there’s no watercooler or because there’s no one to chat to — your own kitchen, after all, is just down the corridor and a phone is close at hand. They vanish because time spent talking is time not spent producing billable work. The more productive you can be, the more successful you’ll be, a correlation that’s less direct in the corporate world where a half-hour schmooze with a supervisor over coffee can be considered a half-hour invested in career networking. But maximizing productivity as a freelancer means staying focused and avoiding distractions, a strategy that’s always easier agreed than employed.
David Rock, a business coach and author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long divides distractions into external distractions and internal distractions: bright shiny things that pull us out of work and which demand energy to drag ourselves back to it, and inner thoughts that intrude on our thinking processes.
Of the two, external distractions appear to be the easiest to avoid. Rock recommends blocking them out entirely by switching off all communication devices while you’re working. It sounds ideal and would no doubt be a perfect solution if you were working in a windowless box for a couple of hours. In practice though, you’re going to be working all day in a home office, at a kitchen table or in a café. Your phone will be on because someone might actually need to contact you. The Internet will be connected because you need it. And while you might be able to shut the door at home, in a public area, you can’t stop people from talking to you any more than you can block out the sounds around you.
Blocking Out the Noise
What you can do though is exercise some level of control over those external distractions. You might not be able to turn off the phone but you can set it to vibrate, check to see who’s calling and only answer the most urgent of calls. That’s simple enough. Much harder is the effect of music and ambient noise. Cafes might be useful places to work but it’s the baristas who decide what you listen to and the other patrons who define the nature of the conversations you hear around you. If those conversations turn out to be interesting — and more interesting than your work — there’s a good chance they’ll have you listening instead of working.
Different sounds though may have different effects. David Rock cites an experiment in which volunteers were asked to type while seeing a pattern of flashing lights. Those who were able to discern the pattern of those lights, and in particular those who were able to articulate the pattern, were found to type up to 30 times faster than people who simply saw the lights as random flashes. That might suggest that listening to music that’s familiar to you, rather than the barista’s choice of his favorite techno hits, would help maintain focus. A playlist of classical music and a pair of sound-negating headphones might not be as essential a work tool as an Office suite and an Internet connection but if stops unfamiliar music and café conversation from pulling you away from your screen then it could be a good investment. (And a big screen might help too: David Rock also cites a Microsoft study which found that larger screens minimized distraction, perhaps by blocking out visual distractions. Presumably, facing the wall instead of the inside of the café would have a similar effect).
Directing Your Thoughts
The internal distractions though are harder to block. You can’t turn your brain off, and any pause to think allows all sorts of thoughts to intrude, from what you’re having for supper to what you’d really like to be doing instead of working on the project in front of you. David Rock’s advice is two-fold. Clearing your mind, he argues, will silence at least some of those voices in your head, and against those that remain, you can apply mental brakes. An instruction from your subconscious to think of an issue or take a particular action might not be possible to stop but there is a small window of time, perhaps as little as a third of a second, in which you can refuse to obey the order.
He may be right, and mental discipline is certainly an important aspect of remaining focused but a better option might be not to block the subconscious entirely but to control it and use it. Sitting in a café, you will feel the urge to look away from the screen and think about something other than your project. But if you can direct those thoughts towards something productive, then you’ll be cutting the time needed for your next task.
The trip to the café, for example, is actually as important as the time you spend there. While the walk or the drive might feel like a pleasant break from the keyboard and the computer screen, it’s actually a useful time to think about the work you’re about to do. When you’re ready to sit and work, the loudest voices in your mind will be those that you’ve just placed there — the ones telling how organize the spreadsheet or which design templates to use for the website. As those voices go quiet and new ones start chirping, you can drown out the less useful ones asking what’s for dinner or wondering what the people at the next table are discussing by focusing the inner distraction on the next thing you need to do. You might not be able to block the inner distraction but using it could keep you productive.
For freelancers, distractions, focus and discipline are daily battles. The enemy is never completely beaten, is always able to make a comeback, and your ability to tackle it depends on the nature of the project, the tightness of the deadline and your ability to knuckle down and work. But at least it doesn’t include the watercooler.