So you’re an entrepreneur—high five! I love being a part of this club. It’s so rewarding and fantastic. But it’s also hard. Really hard sometimes.
In March, I celebrated 17 years of owning my own business. It’s pretty much the only job I’ve done my entire adult life, and I have learned a lot—what works for me, what doesn’t work for me—but it’s an ongoing lesson.
I’m a believer in the philosophy that our lives happen in seasons. There’s busy seasons and slow seasons, stressful seasons and joyful seasons. We can’t typically control what season we’re in, but we can control how we approach it and how we react to it.
As a creative, I have always seen myself as a free spirit. For that reason, writing about “entrepreneur productivity hacks” isn’t something I thought I’d ever do. Being a free spirit was supposed to mean no schedule, no rules, no set hours. But here’s what I’ve found over the last 17 years: being organized and productive equals freedom.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but when I schedule out my day, I have time to partake in activities that fill me up, that give me purpose, that satisfy my free-spirit attitude.
Setting aside non-negotiable time to do things has set me free. It’s helped me say no to other things that once cluttered my life.
In this article, I’ll present you with my favorite productivity hacks—nay—suggestions.
They may not all work for you, but I think you will find that you can adapt each of these tips to your specific lifestyle and goals. And hopefully they will encourage you to take your business farther and also live a life that is full of all the things that make you happy.
1. Know how you spend your time
You know how much money you have in our bank account, but do you know how you are spending your time?
They say time is money, after all. It’s our most valuable and most expensive resource.
Do yourself a solid and do a time audit for a few days. Take it seriously. Be honest. Don’t judge yourself, just write down what you’re doing, whatever it is.
There are a few great worksheets out there, but here’s one I’ve used.
What you’ll probably find, if you’re anything like me, is that those “few minutes” spent browsing social media sites turn out to take more than that. A mosey down to the laundry room somehow turned into watching an episode of your fave show on Netflix.
It happens, so don’t feel guilty. Just own how you use your time so you can prep for how to use it better.
And it’s not just about “unproductive” time wasters like social media. You may also find that you’re spending too much time on “productive” tasks that don’t actually add any value. For example, writing long emails that could be quick phone calls. Or you may discover you spend too much time multi-tasking, jumping from task to task, stopping you from getting any deep creative work done.
That leads me to my next tip.
2. Say no. A lot. And figure out your non-negotiables.
Say no to another volunteer activity. Say no to adding things to your business you’re not passionate about. Say no letting yourself get immersed in the latest Instagram drama.
It’s hard, y’all! I know.
But about eight years ago, I made myself a list of things I decided were non-negotiable in my life. These were must-have items that helped make me a happier person and a better friend, family member, and wife. And it turns out they also made me a better business owner too.
Number one on my list was I will not work on Sundays. Oof. That was a tough one. But eight years in and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my business and for my personal life.
Leaving Sunday to be a rest day has given me the ability to spend quality time with people I love, in places I love. It’s a non-negotiable so I never feel guilty about it. It’s just how I roll. And it feels amazing.
Another non-negotiable for me was that unless I’m photographing an event, my work day ended at 6pm. Another toughie for me. But it has been so good. So good. It helps me stay focused during the day, because I know I have a hard end time so I can’t just bring my laptop to the couch and putter till 10pm. That’s not an option. The work has to get done before.
I’ve improved my workflows and productivity all because I set office hours for myself. Not to mention that I get to connect deeper with my husband because I am not constantly saying, “OK, give me 10 more minutes, I just have to finish…” nope. I don’t have that anymore, and it’s a really good thing.
Just remember this: saying no to one thing means saying yes to another.
Sometimes we just have to put things on hold. For example, for the last four years I have gone on a social media vacation in July. I always come back refreshed and with a new perspective.
And yes, it can be done, even if you own a business!
3. Figure out your work style
The productivity hacks you see all over the internet won’t work for everyone. Try things out and see how they feel. You’re not bad if a certain way of working doesn’t work for you—it’s just not your style. The tool or hack has to support you, not add extra steps or stress.
Part of this is finding a tool that helps you stay organized based on your working style.
Like many creatives, I am very visual. I found that online to-do list type tools never worked for me. I tried them all. So I went old school and got a paper planner. It sits on my desk and it’s a constant reminder to me of what is important to accomplish that day. It works for me.
I also use PowerSheets. They’re an amazing way to visualize, track, and celebrate working on big goals. Those are also on paper and I have them sitting on a recipe stand on my desk. I can look any time to see what my monthly goals are to make sure I’m working on things that get me closer to those milestones.
The other part of this is figuring out when you do your best work.
When do you hit your stride for the day? Some people do their best work in the morning, others later in the afternoon.
Work on studying yourself to see when your most productive hours are so you can schedule your day accordingly. I find that 1-3pm is an empty time for me. I have a hard time keeping my focus and can’t accomplish high-level tasks.
But this doesn’t mean I should avoid working during those hours. I still have to stick to my schedule.
To make use of that time, I try to schedule meetings and phone calls during that typically unproductive time slot. Or I use it to return emails and run errands. Because these are things that need to be done, but don’t take all that much brain power, either.
4. Have a Morning Routine
I am not a morning person. But I will tell you this: when I began waking up early with my husband and going to the gym, my brain started working better. True story.
We have this little morning routine now that doesn’t change. Wake up, go to the gym, work out, feed dogs, make breakfast, read the newspaper, drink coffee, shower. It’s how I start every day.
Just having that routine gets my day started off on a positive note and gets my brain in work mode. Yes, there are days when I have to shorten or edit the routine, but the mainframe stays the same.
There are lots of studies out there that show people who have morning habits or routines accomplish more. And I am a believer. We aren’t rushed, there are no surprises. We do our routine and then start our (very different) days.
Depending on your season of life, your morning routine could look very different. And that’s ok. But design one. Try it out. Adjust it as needed. A morning routine may be just what you need to start off each day on a positive note.
5. Get rid of distractions
Physical, digital and mental clutter leads us all to be less productive.
Wherever you work from, clear the area. Keep only the things you need near you. It’s easier to focus and get the job done when you don’t have bills that are due, unopened mail, and a pile of laundry sitting next to you.
That also means your desktop. Get it organized so it’s always ready to go and you’re not searching for things.
And we can’t forget about social media. It’s not about that 1 hour you spend on Facebook or Instagram. It’s about that one hour, every day, over time. It adds up.
There are some great tools out there to help you block social media when you need to seriously focus. SelfControl is the one I use on my Mac. It can also be as simple as turning off notifications during your work hours.
Even turning off work email notifications for a few hours a day can help you focus more deeply.
I don’t know about you, but before I go to bed I have a flurry of thoughts. I used to let them flutter around, but all that did was to keep me awake longer.
I now keep a notebook by my bed and do a “brain dump” when I need to. I also tend to do this when I have a stressful situation or a tough decision to make. Writing out what I’m worried about and what my questions are helps me to quiet my mind and re-focus my attention on the more important task at hand.
6. Don’t use your to-do list as a crutch
To-do lists are awesome. I love them, actually. But what I’ve found is that unless I prioritize and schedule out my to do list, I’m a cheater. I do the super easy stuff and never get to hard stuff. Or there’s never time to get to the tougher stuff.
So now I make my to-do list and number the items in order of their importance that day. That way, I always tackle my most important task of the day first. That tends to be when I have the most motivation.
Things that don’t get done (which were of lower importance, anyway) get moved to the following day. Maybe things get moved up or maybe they don’t. But it helps me to make sure that my big ticket items are always getting knocked out first.
7. Have a 20 minute list
This one actually may qualify as a hack!
Keep a list of things that you need or want to do that take 20 minutes or less. When you finish up something early or a meeting gets cancelled, you’ll be ready to pounce.
Using those small time increments to knock out non-time-sensitive tasks is an easy way to be productive. And it feels awesome to cross ‘em off your list.
But don’t overthink this—if something only takes 2 minutes, just do it now. It gets one more thing out of the way.
8. Have a regularly scheduled “maker day” or “office day”
It’s so easy to put off working on big tasks, even if they are fun and enjoyable. We build it up in our head that we don’t have time. And so it gets put off, and put off, and put off… You know what I’m talking about.
A year ago, a friend of mine told me her office has a “maker day.” She described it as a day once a week to work on internal projects—nothing that is specifically for a client. I loved the idea.
Growing your business can be hard when you have lots of clients to take care of. So scheduling out a day (whether you do it once a week, every other week, or once a month) to work on specific projects is a fantastic way to force yourself to work on things.
No excuses, it’s on your calendar and you gotta do it!
My least favorite task is paperwork. I always put it off. But it needs to get done, and so I made my Mondays an office day. I don’t schedule photoshoots or meetings on Mondays. Mondays are spent in my office (in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, obviously!).
I send out and schedule online invoices, approve album designs, write blog posts, and go to the post office. It’s a great way to start my week by accomplishing important things that keep my business moving.
9. Ask for help and support
Yes, we are all independent, badass entrepreneurs. We rock. But we all need help sometimes.
Find groups online (like Rising Tide!) where you can openly share your struggles and questions. You are not alone—others have been where you are.
Maybe you don’t want suggestions. Maybe you just need someone to listen. That’s good, too.
Find your safe space to do a “brain dump” and do it. Let people know you’re not looking for answers, just camaraderie. Because heaven knows a lot of us probably know how you feel, or can emphasize with your struggle.
10. Understand there is such a thing as “too productive”
I have shared a lot of tips, but none of them matter if you burn out. Being too hard on yourself about your schedule leads to stress and guilt. And stress and guilt are not productive emotions.
What I’m saying is, although you need to be able to guard your time and be loyal to whatever system or schedule you create, you also need to be flexible. Give yourself some grace.
As Lara Casey says, “choose purpose over perfect.” We all slip. We all get carried away with things sometimes. It’s OK. Acknowledge it, own it, and move on. We’re all doing the best we can.
Another reason that you need to be grace-filled with your productivity is because life happens. A friend calls you and needs you. Don’t look at your to-do list and say no. Go.
You can go out to get the mail and end up having a long, deep conversation with the mail carrier or a neighbor (this happens to me a lot!). Don’t tap your foot and look at your watch. Lean in to that conversation and enjoy having a connection with someone—perhaps it will inspire you. Come inside and then re-focus on the things that need to get done.
Don’t let your zeal for getting things done and the thrill of checking things off your list get in the way of loving the life you’ve created. You are a boss. You are awesome. And sometimes we all need to take a moment to remember that while we love what we do, it’s not our entire lives. Soak up those incredible little moments that happen. Allow them to happen.
As my husband always says to me, “There is no such thing as a photo emergency.” And he’s right, there’s really not.
Taking care of people, loving others, and taking care of yourself is more important than any workflow or productivity practice.