Being your own boss comes with some challenges. While some of them are related to finding projects and getting paid, some of them tend to be more personal. In fact, most of our struggles as freelancers or digital nomads are mostly personal. I say this because I found out that many of the challenges we face come from procrastination. That’s basically a lack of discipline. This is why I sat down with my partner in crime and we put together this basic discipline rule list.
Procrastination is not entirely your fault
If you’re human, you most likely struggle with procrastination. Doh. I don’t know if you’ve found this out by now, but it has nothing to do with your personality or character. Actually it doesn’t have very much to do with anything else other than your brain. Your brain is your biggest enemy when it comes to getting shit done. Especially if that shit is an inch out of the usual way you do things. As amazing as our brain is, it’s lazy. It hates change because change means creating new pathways. Imagine a guy trying to go through the Amazon jungle cutting dense vegetation. That’s you trying to create a new habit a.k.a. a new pathway. But once that path is made, going through there again will be much easier. So push yourself a little whenever you feel like not doing something.
All books come down to some sort of discipline rule list
The more you read things about procrastination, productivity hacks and making things happen, the more you realize they say pretty much the same thing. We chose to call it discipline as what we plan to share with you on fck.work are more than tips on efficiency and productivity techniques. In the end it’s not about fixing a problem. It’s about a new lifestyle.
What we learned from all the books written by smart men and women is that it’s not about time. It all comes down to energy. Peter Thiel has 24 hours in his day too, just like you and me. Same goes for Beyonce and Elon Musk and so many others. Get where I’m going? The difference between them and you is energy.
It’s about focus, motivation and well-being
The discipline rule list has things that help you increase your focus so you can be more productive, meaning you will do things faster. It also has things that help with motivation. Motivation is the fuel of any kind of independent work (entrepreneur, freelancer, digital nomad etc.) And the list has things related to well-being (mental and physical health related). You need this holy trinity because all of them have great impact on your energy level. Seriously now, how productive are you on a crap mood day? Or on a stomach ache day?
Enough with the chatter. Let’s dive straight into the list:
Discipline rule 1: Decide what’s important
Objectively speaking, in 5 years from now 80% of what you do today will amount to nothing. Clean up the clutter of busywork and sacrifice the things that won’t materialize into something in the long run. It’s costing you time you could use wiser.
Discipline rule 2: 2 minute rule
Can you reply to that email in 2 minutes or less? Or take out the trash in 2 minutes or less? Can you wash the dishes in 2 minutes or less? Or post something in 2 minutes or less? If the answer is “yes” than do it now. Leaving it for later never works. You either forget and end up doing it in crisis mode or you’ll remember about it at the worst possible time and interrupt yourself from something else. Either way, it will take much longer.
Discipline rule 3: 5 minute batch
The idea is simple. Whenever you have a monster task ahead of you, set your goal to work on it for 5 minutes. Yes, it’s a trick. You guessed it. But in most cases you’ll stop seeing it as something big and hard to finish and just focus on the work. You’ll have the pleasant surprise of working for way more than 5 minutes and you won’t go through panic attacks.
Discipline rule 4: micro habits
This is related to the 5 minute batch hack, but it can be applied on a wider range of things. Let’s say you want to learn a new skill like drawing. If you set your goal to create a whole canvas in a day or a week, you’ll feel overwhelmed. Instead try to doodle for 5 minutes then stop and take care of other things. But do it regularly.
Discipline rule 5: Daily practice
Continuing what I was saying above, if you want to learn something new or improve a skill, practice every day. No exceptions. Even on New Year’s. Do it daily no matter for how long.
Discipline rule 6: Create routine
Routine beats tools. I’m not talking about the boring Xeroxed days. I’m talking about discipline. You need it. This means being organized. And it could look something like bullet points in the morning with to dos for the day. There can be 3, 5 or however many you have the energy for. But prioritize well, can useless tasks and do what matters. Remember Discipline rule 1.
Discipline rule 7: SEF
Sleep, exercise and food. Sleep enough, don’t brave it out that you can do well with 4-5 hours per night. Listen to your body or else you’ll burnout like a mofo. The average is 7-8 hours per night. Sleep is when your brain and body recover and it helps info from the day settle. Exercise as often as possible. For as little as 5 minutes a day. But do it. It helps your brain stay happy and sane and it keeps you healthy. And eat well. Choose food that helps your brain and body work at full capacity and stay away from junk. You know very well why, you don’t need me to explain it to you too.
Discipline rule 8: Never mind your memory
Your memory stinks. You’ll always forget that thing you said to yourself you’ll remember. Write down everything. Even if you are a wonder of nature and remember what you had for dinner on June 15th 2007 or who called you September 29th 2015 at 2 pm, eventually you will forget something. Scribble things in a notebook, put it in one of your apps, tell to Siri or Alexa, whatever, just do it. Your brain will be freed of the burden of remembering things. Technology doesn’t make you lazy. It helps declutter your brain so you can focus on something else.
Discipline rule 9: Less tools
Use tools, but use as few as possible. To dos, reminders, notes, calendars, alarms etc. are great, but not all at once. You’ll just get lost in the sea of notifications and eventually forget what you put where. Use one to do manager and one calendar app that integrates well with your default email client. End of story.
Discipline rule 10: Pomodoros
This is something known as time boxing. You choose a task, set up a timer for 25-30 minutes and only do that task. Phones are not allowed. Same goes for Facebook, Instagram, emails, friendly chats with people, going for a smoke and any other distraction. If it’s not going to kill you, don’t interrupt yourself. You can set up a clock with a timer, download a Pomodoro app or just use your phone’s timer. Try it out and see how well it works.
Discipline rule 11: Headphones
Keep them on all the time. You don’t have to listen to anything. However, wearing them will stop most people from approaching you. I’ve been proven wrong with this one, but I refused to acknowledge the person’s presence until they were almost literally in my face. And I asked them how urgent the matter was. Surprise: it wasn’t. So I went further and asked them to come back in 15 minutes when my current task would be finished. Which brings us to:
Discipline rule 12: Email hours
Try to read your emails only 3 times a day. Let’s say 10 am, 2 pm and 5 pm. I would advise you not to do it first thing in the morning or late in the evening. It might ruin your day or your sleep. In the end if it’s an emergency they will call. Otherwise it can wait. Reading emails is not a to do. It’s utilitarian and it should serve a purpose other than conversation. It should have a task attached, like a brief, some feedback, an important update, a reading list, research, change of plans for a project etc. And never leave emails marked unread. The notification badge will distract you.
Discipline rule 13: Batch phone calls
Same method as above, try to not always answer your phone. In the end you are not a secretary. You job isn’t to answer phones. It’s to get shit done. So don’t be always available. Educate the people you work with to avoid calling you unless it’s really, really, really important. You decide what that “really” is. Put the phone on silent and return calls in batches 2-3 times a day.
Discipline rule 14: Batch short tasks
Whatever takes 2 minutes, put them in the same hour time frame. Take 1-2 hours to do those small 2 minute tasks, like emails, phones, checking Facebook and Instagram, ordering food, loading the washing machine, buying plane tickets and so on.
Discipline rule 15: Most important 5
This should grow into “most important 3”, but 5 is fine for the moment. Make a list of the most important things you have to do for the day. Start with them first thing in the morning. An alternative to this is 1 must do task, 3 should do tasks – 5 could do tasks. Start with the must as early in the morning as possible then move on to the shoulds.
Discipline rule 16: Willpower is finite
Your willpower is limited. And it won’t help you get out of trouble. You can only push yourself so far. Therefore, make important decisions in the morning and automate as much possible. This means delegating, batching, scraping useless things. Army generals don’t have to choose their menu or suit color every day because that would leave them depleted of their willpower late at night when they should give or not give the order.
Discipline rule 17: Most powerful thing
Ask yourself what’s the most powerful thing you can do now. Then apply Discipline rule 3.
Discipline rule 18: Work in progress
Don’t polish your work. Send if off often to make time for more projects or for improving. There’s a saying in the startup world that goes like this: if you’re not ashamed of your product, you’ve launched too late. The thing about polishing your work is that you might miss out.
Discipline rule 19: Pressure is your friend
I’m talking about social pressure, rewards, public commitment. It’s more avoiding shame than deadline approaching pressure. Honestly speaking, some projects take us months to finish, but can actually be done in a week. Yes, some, not all. Still when there is no pressure, we don’t make the effort not even at half our capacity. It’s the damn brain again.
Discipline rule 20: Say no
Delete unimportant stuff. Say no to useless meetings or projects you know will make you miserable. Ignore things that don’t matter. You can even pretend not to know how to do certain things. And as much as possible avoid committing to schedules. The schedule committing part belongs to Marc Andreessen (cool guy, Google him). He does this because it allows him to meet spontaneously whomever he wants. Most people will hate you for this, but you’ll have more time for relevant stuff. Do you think you’ll regret not doing something for someone you don’t entirely care about just to be appreciated for 5 seconds?
Discipline rule 21: Schedule procrastination
Efficiency and effectiveness are what we all want. However, to achieve those constantly, our brain needs rest too. Really now, sometimes the new episode from Westworld or Last Week Tonight can do the kind of wonders that the best TED talks don’t.
In all fairness, applying this discipline rule list will take some time. Give yourself that and be patient. You do have to push yourself a little, but forcing yourself too far won’t get you where you want to go. Take small steps and take them daily. It’s more important to create a habit than to prove you can be superhuman. That comes later, after your brain understands that it’s okay to learn new skills and new behaviors. And please, please try to have fun while doing this. Look at it as if it were an experiment. In the end that’s exactly what it is.