How I Stay Productive & Focused Online (with Free Resource List)

It took me a while to stay focused while working online, but now I have a system that works. (Also with a free resource list)
It took me a while to stay focused while working online, but now I have a system that works. (Also with a free resource list)

Before I started working for myself I would day dream at my corporate tech job about how excellent it was going to be when I would finally be able to work for myself and hang out online all day.

lol. Riiiiight.

I've now been working for myself for over 3 years, and I've learned quite a bit in that time. Much of those learning experiences have involved me falling on my face (someone very wise once told me they're called A.F.G.E - pronounced "affguh"- which stands for "another f*cking growth experience". So true, so very true). It's just the nature of learning, sometimes you need to fall very hard to really get the message across.

That's been my experience with staying productive online. Like I mentioned, I couldn't wait to be able to surf the web all day long and when the day finally came and I became my own boss? Well, it turned out I was kind of a shitty employee too.

Like most people I get distracted online really easy, and it's been a constant process to keep those shiny objects at bay. But after wasting a lot, and I do mean a lot of time online in my first year of business, I learned to put a system and guidelines in place that have helped me get more work done than ever before, and still post and engage on social media.

Getting Disciplined

Taking responsibility for wasting time was one of the biggest game changers for me. Actually noticing that I was not achieving my goals and big chunks of time were being swallowed up online was a real bummer. Getting real with myself helped me confront the problem head on. (You know the deal, admitting you have a problem is the first step.)

So once I got real with myself about the time I was wasting and focused on a commitment to myself to change, that was an enormous shift in behavior.

Speaking of which, if you are clicking around aimlessly online check out my printable to help you shake it off by asking some key questions to get your focus back. You can find it right here.

Using Tools to Help

Once I admitted I needed to change things, I set out to use all the tools available to me.

We live in such an incredible time, and there are so many apps, ideas, and resources all based around productivity. But again, there's the shiny object syndrome. It's so easy to waste time on these things and really distract yourself from the actual tasks at hand. (I used to be a complete and total workaholic, and a big lesson from that was the amount of work I would create for myself by all of my to-do lists, apps and basically just pushing paper around.)

While I love to mess around with a good productivity app, I keep my system and the apps I use pretty much in place. But I'm not adverse to tweaking things if I learn of something new, or I find something is no longer working.

From when I was a teenager all the way through my early thirties I kept a notebook on me at all times. I recorded everything in it. But once smart phones made technology so readily available I dropped that habit so quickly I'm a little ashamed, because I found I was a collector of way too many apps to help keep me productive. Such irony, I know.

Over the past two years I've started using a notebook again (my friend Lisa Solomon turned me onto Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks, I like them better than Moleskine because they're wider and lay flat.) and I employ my own version of the Bullet Journal. I keep everything in there now; thoughts, to-do lists, ideas, mapping, etc. It's a mess and I absolutely love it.

On Sunday night I write out everything I need to get done along with any larger, long term tasks I need to focus for that week in my notebook. Then throughout the week I use the to-do app Wunderlist daily to break that list up, monitor what needs to get done, and check 'em off as I do them.

The tool that has really helped me work better and shorter (which seems counter-intuitive but it's the truth and many people have written about this) is using a timer, also known as the Pomodoro Technique. The thinking behind it is you work with a timer set for a specific amount of time, focus on one task at hand and then take a short break when the timer is up. There's something about knowing I'm dedicating a set amount of time on one thing that makes it easier for me to concentrate. I often use the break to make a cup of tea and check in on social media. I personally move between 25 and 45 minute increments. (I bought this desktop timer for my Mac, and I love it!)

The book Manage Your Day to Day by 99u really helped me to understand the energy involved in working, and how it's important to break up different types of work activities. So, I often try and do the things I am most excited about in the morning, and evening -- leaving the afternoon slump to do mindless tasks like bookkeeping, email, and paperwork.

Another tool that has helped me enormously is using a read it later app. I use Pocket, and I can not sing its praises enough. I use it to save everything I see online that I want to read, so I can...yep, read it later! It takes all the pressure off of having to read something right then - which distracts me from what I need to get done in that moment. It also keeps me from having to email myself things I want to read or having 37 tabs open at once. I have the Chrome extension on my browser and I just click, save, and read when I have time. Such a relief. Pocket also has an app, so I can read in bed or when I am traveling.

In the same vein, I use Evernote and Skitch to save items on the web I need to remember visually or want to save for reference. Evernote is also a great place to take notes when I'm with a client, and format things I'm thinking that I don't necessarily want to save.

Another system that has helped me enormously is scheduling all of my social media. I take time in the A.M. (I use my timer), and I line up everything I want to share, and then I schedule it. I use a few different platforms, but I would encourage you to use one and stick to it such as Buffer or Hootsuite. Scheduling out my social media gives me some breathing room to think clearly about what I want to post, and keeps me away from falling down a click hole. I then have my notifications to alert me so I engage and chat with people. (I also use my breaks to surf social like I mentioned above, but once that break is over back to work!)

Saying No to Shiny Objects

At the end of the day you can set up as many systems, use as many tools, keep as many to-do apps that your little heart desires but if you don't set boundaries for yourself around the amount of time you waste online you'll never get anywhere. That has been the biggest takeaway for me around working for myself; recognizing that I want to create more than I consume other people's content.

It's hard, I still have days where I fall into a 45 minute Facebook click hole. It happens, just not as much anymore. I've worked hard to keep my system in place, and all of the above tools help me get my work done. I've put together a quick and dirty resource list of the above tools with links to their sites, and tips on how I use them in my every day. Enjoy!

Meighan O'Toole

Always all in.