Chris Stryczynski

Software Developer / Consultant

Things I've learnt that help me stay productive when working alone

It’s nearly been a year since I’ve started freelancing full time. I thought I would reflect on things that I wish I knew when starting. A reminder that this is my own experience, I haven’t really spoken much about this to anyone, so potentially it’s not applicable to everyone.

It seems one starts off as a wild west cowboy and the eventual aim is to reach a monk like practice.

If I look back to when I started, I think the most important thing I overlooked was, I didn’t REALLY understand why I wanted to do what I set out to do. I just treated my new path it as kind of another job, another project. After a while I felt like I had a better understanding of WHY I needed to do the things I need to do, I had a much stronger ‘vision’ of what I wanted to achieve - talking to others, reading books, thinking slightly outside of the box (of what I was doing then) and having a longer term plan was when things started to really click for me - the motivation is just so much more self reinforcing and directed. This took me quite a while to realize, I think it would be difficult to figure this out any sooner. Kind of like thinking ‘backwards’ from chess endgame, rather than thinking forwards from the beginning. I might make another blog post to go into more detail about this. But the rest of this post reflects some of the quicker, short term, best bang for buck techniques that I can recommend or share.

Things that surprised me:

  • Getting brain fried at the end of the day. Coding for long periods of time productively just seems impossible. I can definitely feel my cognitive ability declining near the end of the day. On the plus side, I can attend to less ‘intensive’ tasks nearer to the evening. This can be some what mitigated by balancing your day with other tasks. I recently found out about this book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing that touches upon this - the author was on the Tim ferris podcast https://tim.blog/2018/03/25/daniel-pink/ (skip to 1:05:00 for the interesting bit).

  • The power of distractions. Having previously worked in open plan offices - no one is ‘watching’ over you to ensure you complete the day’s tasks. This resulted in me being more distracted than I’d usually be. This is something that gets better with practice, as well as having good habits, however it’s still something I find that needs constant review. Another good book I read that touches on this topic quite heavily is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Mistakes I made:

  • Billing for focused work only. When talking with clients, only billing for periods of ‘focused work’. I seemed to waste time talking with clients, ‘warming up’, checking emails etc… As soon as you’re on the phone / chatting / opened the project - start billing. Chatting / warming up to a project is time that would be spent by any developer - it’s part of the process - so communicate and bill for this accordingly.
  • Not taking sufficient rests. I always seem to get more edgy / irritated if I haven’t taken a good break during my lunch. A short 10-15 minute nap is really valuable.

Some practical things I found to be significantly beneficial:

  • Prepare the next day’s meal in advance. So when lunch time arrives - you’re not wasting high potential time.
  • Log your time spent for each task/project. This gives you a quantitative figure that you can use to reinforce your discipline on the following days.
  • Know your next morning’s activities, even just a rough idea helps me get started in the morning.
  • Routine makes everything easier, routine has significant impact on my own performance, much to my surprise. I would oscillate between being highly productive for some weeks and unproductive on others. I often had trouble starting work in the morning, but once I got going - things just flowed through until the end of the day. Like a rolling ball of momentum. Now days, I try to recognize where I am being distracted in the morning, where my time is being spent during lunch etc. Logging your time is useful (I use Toggl - works great for when you have a small total of projects).

Chop wood? Sharpen the saw!

Sometimes I found it difficult to stay motivated, to keep on track with the work I was meant to be doing. I didn’t really have much issue with being distracted by social media, youtube etc. However… Suddenly I’d notice all the things I could do to ‘sharpen the saw’ instead! I spent huge amounts of time on things that would ‘improve’ my workflow. Things like learning, keyboard shortcuts, editors, programs, researching keyboards / monitors, adjusting to new keyboards / monitors, or custom windows tiling layouts. Time spent here is not something of waste, however they do eat up time - although they probably have a net benefit in the long run, in the short term I may be low on billable hours at the end of the month.