Hocus Focus

At latest count, I had a half-dozen projects in the works. Being the good little Franklin-Covey acolyte that I am (hey, don’t laugh, it works…at least for me), each of these projects is divided into its own sub-projects, which are divided into tasks, each with a priority level, a time frame and a whole bunch of sticky notes. So it’s no wonder that sometimes I have a bit of trouble focusing. For instance, I’ll be writing an article about the downfall of the Madagascar hissing cockroach when suddenly I’m ticking off a shopping list in my head and…hey, wait a minute. Mandibles. I was writing something about mandibles. Oh, hell, now where did I put that piece of paper with the anatomy chart…and don’t forget to buy quinoa…or maybe I should get millet this week…

You’ve been in this position, I’m sure.

Some days, focus comes naturally to me. I prioritize my tasks and knock them off my list, one after the other, a powerful feeling of smugness taking over as I lean on the pen for each checkmark. I’ll write an entire first draft of an article in one gulp. But because there are days when I am so easily distracted that the sound of Husband clipping his toenails downstairs bugs the pants off me, I have strategies to help focus my attention, even if I sometimes have to fake it at first. For instance:

1. Instrumental music, especially jazz, especially Miles Davis, can help me block out the background jibber-jabber in my mind.

2. When I’m feeling scattered, honing in on my mantra, “Be here now,” often reins me in. I practice mindfulness, which for a writer is like herding cats, and these simple words help me focus on the present moment.

3. Lack of focus can sometimes mean I’m trying too hard. I take a quick break for a physical task like tidying my studio, getting the mail or folding laundry. Then I go back to my project refreshed.

4. In The Wealthy Freelancer, Steve Slaunwhite recommends a great way to get through a task more efficiently: the 50 Minute Focus, originally developed by marketing expert Dean Jackson. For this, you make a bargain with yourself. If you can focus exclusively (no phone, no e-mail, nothing) on one task for 50 minutes, you take 20 minutes off to do whatever you want (assuming your schedule is that flexible.) So if I write my article about the articulation of Madagascar hissing cockroach mandibles for 50 minutes (okay, I’m starting at 40), I’ll have a cup of tea and a full-body stretch break. And maybe sneak in a few minutes of deep breathing before starting the cycle again.

5. Sometimes I’ll get squirrel-brain from too much external stimulation. Then I go into commando sensory-deprivation mode: shut Husband’s office door, shut mine, ignore phone, turn off e-mail and Facebook, and, if I’m especially fritzed, insert earplugs. I love my earplugs.

What helps you focus?

The Health Hazards of Freelancing

Twice during my career, I’ve jettisoned the 9-5 world for the independence and flexibility of freelancing. Twice I’ve had to face the pitfalls of being my own boss: the long hours searching for clients, the pulsating pressure of an hour to go before deadline while my husband is asking me how to make soup, and no colleagues down the hall to vent my troubles to or talk about the latest episode of Mad Men. But one pitfall I hadn’t anticipated was how easily this new stress could take down my health and, if I wasn’t careful, render me pretty much useless to my clients. If you’re new to freelancing, want to work for yourself, or even are a seasoned pro, watch out for these common health traps.

1. Don’t just sit there. Chances are, you did a lot of walking at your old job, and maybe not so much now that you’re working from home. Bodies were made to be in motion, not sitting in cramped positions for hours at a spell. Prolonged sitting, especially in an uncomfortable chair (more on that later) can lead to back and neck problems. Set an alarm if you need a reminder to take regular breaks. Or find some work tasks you can do standing up. I proofread standing up, and look upon it as a welcome break from sitting.

2. Get out of the house once a day. Even though my husband also works from home, I have to bust out once a day, otherwise I start to feel claustrophobic and “outside” of the real world. I’m much more efficient if I’ve had this break, even if it’s only a short walk around my neighborhood.

3. Keep regular hours. Setting regular work hours isn’t just about developing the discipline needed to be a successful freelancer. While you may have to work longer or later hours from time to time, especially when you’re first starting out, your mind and your body function best on a regular schedule. It will help your digestion, your metabolic functions and your sleep. Speaking of which…

4. Get enough sleep. Say you’ve underestimated the time you’d need to finish a project, you’re facing down a wicked deadline and now you’re looking for things you can put off to give yourself extra time. Cut out Conan or Dave, but don’t cheat yourself on sleep. You won’t be the sharpest pin in the voodoo doll the next day, and mainlining Starbucks will only make it worse.

5. Develop a stress-management practice. I like deep breathing. It only takes a few minutes a day, and for me, it’s a reminder to slow down and pay attention to my body. You might like meditation, yoga, or taking your dog for a long walk. Whatever relaxes you (and gets you away from the computer) is best. If you let that stuff build up, it’s like poison.

6. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy food…where you can see it. It’s so tempting to take a break from a less-than-exciting task (data entry, ick!) and sneak down to raid the pantry. No wonder so many freelancers put on a few pounds at the start. But if there’s a bowl of fruit on the table, or a dish of cut-up veggies in the fridge, you’ll be more likely to grab those than the cookies your significant other insists on keeping in the snack drawer.

7. Get ergonomic. It’s vital to your health and productivity to design a workstation that is efficient and suited to your particular proportions. After your computer and your health insurance (you do have health insurance, don’t you?), your next largest expense should be your office chair. You don’t have to spring for Herman Miller’s latest Aeron, but you need something that’s adjustable and has a good lumbar support. As my physical therapist (to whom I’ve given lots of money because I spent a lot of years in lousy chairs) says, “Your chair should fit your body like a good shoe fits your foot.” Also, put the things you use regularly within easy reach to avoid repetitive strain. And, if I ever see you cradling that phone between your ear and your shoulder, I will come down there and give you a time-out. Don’t think I won’t, either.

What about you? If you work for yourself, what strategies do you use to stay healthy?