May 5, 2019

How do you stay productive while working alone?

Ivan Afonichkin @afonichkin

When I do my daily part-time job, I have a lot of tasks and so I feel pretty productive at the end of the day.

But when I work on my own project, I often feel I do too little and easily get distracted by everything. I sort of tackled it by creating list of tasks that I need to do TODAY. So, every day I just pick task from the pool and work on it. This way in the end of the day I feel way more productive

What is your approach? How do you manage staying productive?

  1. 4

    I keep a "this week" and "next week" TODO list. 25 items max per category. I set the list on Sundays and try to get everything done I set out to do. The "next week" category is to handle the distractions that come up, I have a place to record them, but ideally they should be part of the "this week" list the following week.

    The lists are actually all encompassing; personal tasks, work tasks, side project tasks. I do this because I have a fixed number of hours a week to "do it all" and trying to keep multiple lists and/or swim lanes has never proven effective for me.

    I definitely don't get everything done every week and I try to focus my efforts on the "this week" tasks instead of being lured by the appeal of whatever new idea I just came up with.

    The maximum of 25 items per category is because I consistently fall into the trap of a perpetual TODO list with 173 million items on it. This constraint helps to make sure that I am only working on things that are truly important (personal and otherwise).

    The task list for this week is a combination of tasks that I didn't finish last week and new tasks that I put on the list for the future. Think of it like backlog grooming, the list is always the things I think are the most important for that week with little to no cruft. Sometimes tasks will sit on the list for a few weeks, sometimes they make it to the list, then ultimately get removed because they stopped being as important as I felt they once were.

    I do all of this on paper, because I prefer the act of writing things out every week but also the satisfaction from crossing tasks off.

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      Thanks for such detailed answer!

      The idea of keeping list short sounds very good. I will keep it in mind when doing my next TODO list :)

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        Right on, let me know how it works out!!

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    You probably don't have a BHAG (
    Or you don't have debts to pay off!
    Trust me as soon as you have one of them (better both :) you won't be distracted anymore!

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      I definitely don't have debts to pay off :)

      Yeah, I think BHAG sounds exactly like what I did :)

      I used to have very vague goals before like "today I need to work on website". Now I have more like "integrate Disqus comments, add 1 more article about X". It sounds so simple, but yeah it really works and keeps me more productive

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        "Debts" don't mean exactly "debts"
        It just means you should have some serious reason to keep working on your project without being distracted. Even if you make your task very granular, use Pomodoro or any other method, you will distract if you don't have a reason.

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          True, I don't really have very serious reason for project, except that it's something I personally would like to use daily and it will make my life easier.

          Do you have serious reason? I would really like to hear it if you have

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            Do you have serious reason? I would really like to hear it if you have
            Yes I do. But I can't tell you what it is, at least not now. Sorry.

  3. 2

    I personally found Wunderlist to be the most effective app. It has Lists in which you can add tasks, then break them down further into sub tasks. It has a feature to add notes, file attachments and even allocate tasks to other team members. It supports all kinds of devices, automatically backs up to the cloud and has reminders.

    With all these features, you might think it sounds complicated, but it's one of the easiest apps to use. As mentioned, it's the one app that has enhanced my productivity. Would highly recommend it. I love the fact that you can check a box to cross off something that's completed.

  4. 2

    I work in a two person team but we’ve adapted a new strategy recently which might be useful for working alone too.

    Basically every evening we’re preparing a todo list for the next day while also keeping a second list called “Future”. We start the next day knowing what to work on and in the evening we’re moving unfinished tasks to tomorrow and also move tasks from the future list.

    We’ve tried a lot of approaches, but this very simple one proved to be working the best for us.

  5. 2

    Planning my to do's and trying to stick to that plan :)
    I write down of my to do's and plan the week by assigning a date to each one, depending on priority and the nature of the task. I think it is also important to be realistic. If I fill up my day with too many tasks, I know I'll fall behind schedule and have a pile of unaccomplished tasks, which is very demotivating.
    Also blocking time, remembering to take breaks, blocking social media/Whatsapp (if you're distracted by it) help a lot. Another suggestion is to find your most productive time of the day and do the important/difficult tasks in that time frame. For some people, finishing the most difficult task first thing in the day works as well. If you need a tool to help with these, I can recommend Satistime . It also has a goal planning feature, which is really helpful for big or vague goals. You can set your goal, think about the sub-tasks you need to do, assign a day and time for each task (or leave it as a task for a specific week or month if you don't have a day in mind). Hope this helps!

    1. 1

      Assigning dates sounds like a very natural way to prioritize tasks. I really tried it before, but usually failed to stick to those dates for some reasons:

      1. Usually I don't know in advance how to finish particular task (e.g. I might need to learn about new framework for it) and it takes some time to figure this out
      2. Sometimes I realize that deadline for task A is closer, but I'm really so much into task B right now and very productive on it. Then I realize that deadline for task A was set pretty much randomly, so I just postpone it and keep working on task B.

      Did you encounter the same issues with setting deadlines?

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        Yes, definitely! If I'm not sure about how long a task is going to take, I assign it as a to do for a week or even a month. So, this week, I know I have to finish task x, it may take a few hours, a few days - as long as I finish it this week, its okay.
        About the other question, I believe having a plan is important, but we also need to be flexible. I also often find myself rescheduling tasks and its okay as long as I am on track overall. In the end, we are talking about productivity, and if you are more productive doing task B at that moment, why stop doing it? And your question is also related to setting deadlines. If I find myself setting random deadlines, I will be less motivated to meet them and start postponing tasks. So, I really think about when I absolutely need to complete a task and try to set a realistic deadline. And have a buffer for critical tasks:)

  6. 2

    Rate the list of your tasks by their priority and level of difficulty. Some tasks may simply be time consuming and difficult to concentrate on, while others may be done quicker and more effortlessly.
    It's all about distributing the right amount of tasks for every single day.
    Another good idea is to stick to the tasks that you have a clear idea of - the ones you can imagine vividly and is separated to action items so that you know what needs to be done.
    Sometimes, it's also a good idea to switch your work during productive hours. Like instead of doing your part time job at your productive hours, you can try doing a couple of small tasks from your own project and see how it goes. Often times we need a change in the scenery to understand what we lack or what goes different.
    There are also a bunch of productivity apps out there that can help you stay focused (like Forest, which is basically the Pomodoro technique) and turn off all the distracting websites, or just remind you about taking frequent breaks, or perhaps other project management apps (Asana, Trello , Jira or others) that can keep all your notes, tasks and necessary files together in one place so that you can track the progress that you make.
    There is also a different productivity app ( aimed at increasing productivity for remote conferencing, for removing background noise in calls in real time.
    You just have to look around and see what apps work for you and which techniques make you feel comfortable and productive. Hope this helps and good luck with your project! :)

    1. 1

      So many great suggestions, thanks!

      I indeed use Asana to have pool of everyday tasks, works pretty good for me :)

  7. 2

    I'd say that tackling a lot of tasks is only one aspect of productivity. And sometimes being busy with a lot of tasks is an obstacle to be really productive. Because it can be easier to complete a hundred low-impact tasks comparing to one scary huge-impact task (my example would be writing blogs comparing to speaking at a conference).

    1. 1

      Alex, thanks!

      That's true. I'm tackling it by creating one big huge-impact task in Asana, then divide it into smaller pieces until there are tasks that I can do during 1-2 hours. It works pretty good for me and keeps me on track right now :)

      Of course, sometimes I underestimate how much time I need to complete those big tasks (mostly because of lack of knowledge on some topics), but having at least rough plan and direction how I'm going to tackle those with small well-defined tasks really helps.

  8. 2

    Ohhhh, boy. Lol. The #100day... challenge is fascinating. Myself, I prefer to tackle 1 thing that moves the needle per day. Then if I have energy left, I add another thing to do for the day

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      Sounds good, thanks :)

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    I second the Pomodoro technique. Also, setting clear priorities at the beginning of a work session and time-blocking help. Finally, turning off all notifications during work blocks is a must.

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      Yes, this...!

  10. 2

    You should try Pomodoro Technique. It helps you to do more productive :)

    1. 1

      OK thanks. I think I've heard about it couple of times, but never took it seriously, I will try it :)

  11. 1

    Focusmate ( - basically 50-minute virtual co-working sessions. Has been a huge productivity boost for me.

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