"Look over here," vibrates your phone.
"Read me," implores your inbox.
"I’m so cute—take a look at me!" whimpers a puppy video.
When you’re building a company, growing a team, or just managing your own projects as a freelancer or "solopreneur," keeping productive is no easy task. You're the boss, so there's no one looking over your shoulder to make sure you're staying as on-track as you need to be. Instead, your time and energy are being stretched in a dozen different directions at once.
When I first started my company, my enthusiasm for building the business was matched only by my inexperience as a first-timer. I quickly realized I was a rookie—not only just at the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship, but also at some of the skills it would take to put them together, like managing the goals and priorities of a growing organization.
Thanks to trial, error, and looking toward a few accomplished peers, I’ve learned how to better optimize my time and work more efficiently. Here's how I've managed to stay productive while working for myself, plus some tips from fellow entrepreneurs about doing the same.
As a full-service marketing agency, we’re often working on a number of projects at once, ranging from digital design to PR campaigns. To help us manage all the moving pieces, we’ve been using Trello boards to help us track and prioritize everything.
This may not sound all that revolutionary—organizations use similar tools all the time—and if you're running a small company with just a few employees, enterprise software may strike you as overkill. But I've found it helpful. Trello gives us a 360-degree view of what’s happening at every given time, allowing us to assign tasks to team members and track deadlines.
Even the small stuff can benefit from project management tools, which are more widely available than ever. If Trello isn’t your cup of tea, many entrepreneurs look to tools like Basecamp and Asana. Or it can even be as simple as using Google Keep and a sheet of paper.
"It's challenging keeping the right priorities on top because it sometimes feels like everything is a priority," says Arry Yu of the Seattle gift-funding platform GiftStarter. So Yu uses a simple analog method. "What I do to help me stay focused is to start the day with a blank sheet of paper. One side of the paper has ‘To-Do's’; the other side has ‘No-Do's’."
Few people deliberately choose which tasks they aren't going to complete, but Yu says this exercise still adds some much-needed structure. "Each day I proactively decide what absolutely must get done that day, and what I am willing to drop that day," she says. "When unplanned tasks arise from customers, employees, or family, I can easily navigate my priorities during the day because I’ve already mapped them out."
Building a company can be lonely, especially if you’re the sole founder. Some of my days are completely devoid of human interactions that don't take place without the use of a keyboard. So each week, I make it a priority to connect with friends and colleagues who also run their own companies. Not only does this allow us to bounce ideas off each other, but it provides a community of support when times are tough.
When traveling (which I do pretty much constantly), I tap into the coworking communities around the world. With a WeWork or Impact Hub membership, you’ll find yourself surrounded by entrepreneurs just by walking through the door.
The biggest mistake I made after starting my company was trying to do everything at rocket speed. I'd skip sleeping. Sometimes I’d forget to eat until dinner. That appeared to save time, but it burnt me out and tanked my energy levels over the long term.
Working in a creative field, my "idea muscle" is one of my biggest assets. When it's depleted, I'm just not as productive. Jessica Sennett, founder of Cheese Grotto, says discipline is everything here. Her advice—"always get a good night’s sleep"—isn't exactly unheard of and applies to more than just people who work for themselves, but self-care is crucial for maintaining your creativity when you're on your own.
That's something Sennett actually takes time to plan for. "Schedule out your weeks so you can see your priorities," she says, and make sure they leave room for enough shut-eye.
"What team?" you may be thinking. Even if you work independently, chances are you've hired some sort of help here and there, even on a project basis—that's your team, however provisional it may be. Other entrepreneurs may put together a more permanent staff, but whoever they are, you need to trust them.
When I was hiring, I was lucky to find great designers, developers, and marketers who are amazing at what they do. I can trust them to make decisions on behalf of the company, and that's hugely important.
"Nothing curbs productivity more than a team of people who need to run every decision by you," agrees Eli Portnoy, founder of Sense360, a behavioral data firm. "The best way to free up your time is to give people the perspective, context, and guidance so that they can fully own their domain and make decisions."
That's familiar advice to the average manager but can be difficult for entrepreneurs to internalize. After all, many of us left the corporate world in order to escape the pressures of compulsory teamwork. But some level of trust, collaboration, and perhaps most of all, delegation, is still as unavoidable as it is crucial.
When you’re growing a company, every next step is up to you. But those limitless possibilities can be both a blessing and a curse. With limited hours in a day, it’s okay to turn down opportunities and say no to requests that won't help you reach your business goals.
"You became an entrepreneur because you were opportunistic, willing to take risks, and listen when almost no one else was willing to," says Ron Shah, founder of the meeting-room booking app Bizly. "To stay the boss, you have to remain opportunistic but be more discerning." That isn't always an easy balancing act. "Most of all," says Shah, "you need to learn to say no—to a lot. Focus is the most important ingredient to staying on top."
The good news, though, is that people who work for themselves—whether as freelancers or solo founders—have the latitude to experiment. Not every productivity tactic will work for everyone, just as not every strategy you try will help you grow your business. But setting benchmarks, surrounding yourself with a community of support, and scheduling your time strategically are all likely good places to start.