5 Productivity Traps | Working For Yourself

5 Productivity Traps to Avoid When You Work for Yourself

Alexander Huls

When you work for yourself, being productive as a small business owner is as important as it is challenging. There’s no one else around to keep you on track, or pick up the slack if you fall behind. It’s up to you to get everything done – and it’s not just about getting the work completed. It’s about doing it well. There are stumbling blocks—distractions, inefficiencies—that can keep you from doing your best work. Here are five common productivity traps you can fall into with sole proprietorship, as well as the best ways to escape them.

1. Getting Distracted Online

You can’t run a business without being online. The downside to that is something we probably don’t need to tell you: the internet can be distracting. One minute you’re working, the next you realize you’ve been on Twitter or YouTube for the last hour. That Wi-Fi connection may allow you to communicate with clients through Skype, promote yourself with emails to customers and send payments through Paypal, but it also gives you access to a time-sucking, concentration-draining trap that represents one of the biggest threats to your productivity.

How to solve it:

If you don’t need the internet to complete a few tasks, unplug your Ethernet cable, switch off Wi-FI, or use programs like Freedom to block your internet connection.  If you do need the internet to work, try programs like Cold Turkey or Anti-Social to block the specific websites or social media platforms you’ll be tempted by.

2. Creating Overly Ambitious To-Do Lists

Daily to-do lists can be a sole proprietor’s best friend for getting work done. They can also be a worst enemy. What we want to get done and what we can are rarely compatible. That’s why lists can quickly become full of tasks that can’t possibly get done in one day. If your list is long, there’s a good chance that you won’t complete it.  The end result will be even worse: you’ll become demoralized, overworked, or convinced to-do lists don’t work.

How to solve it:

Key ways to improve your to-do lists does not include asking yourself “What do I want to do today?” but “What has to get done today?” To-do lists can become overloaded when people put ASAP tasks next to the ones that could be finished in two days.

When you make your list, don’t just be honest with yourself about what tasks you can get done, but about what tasks are a priority. In doing so you might decide that a project is just not worth your time,or is not going to help you achieve your business goals. Remember: putting less on your list doesn’t make you a slacker. It helps you work more efficiently and more productively. What’s more, ending the day with the most important things done on your list will do wonders for your sense of accomplishment.

3. Sticking with a Difficult Project Too Long

Sometimes you just hit a wall on a project. The temptation can be to stick with it until it’s done—even if it means blankly staring at a computer screen for hours. Sometimes you may have to do that. But, often our brains stall on a task for a reason. Sticking with something that isn’t going anywhere can be a waste of valuable time you don’t have, especially when it can put you behind on other things you have to get done.

How to solve it:

You aren’t lacking things to work on. If you’ve given a project a healthy stab, but are just completely stuck, tackle another project. Now, this only applies if the task isn’t something you have to do ASAP to move your business forward. If it is, then you have to get it done.

But if it’s a lower priority project you’re stuck on? Move on to something else—ideally a small task or project that won’t take a lot of time. It’ll give your brain a break. What’s more, taking on (and finishing) a small project lets you return to that difficult project with a sense of accomplishment, enthusiasm, and a renewed perspective.

4. Following Ineffective Work Routines

Routines can be a great way to help streamline productivity. But they can also be bad, locking you into a process that doesn’t work. As a sole proprietor, it can be easy to pick up routines that work in the moment—especially at the start when you’re “winging it”—but aren’t ideal for the long run. What if you’ve realize that the afternoon is your most creative period for generating new business ideas? Great, except for the last year you’ve gotten used to ending your day by following-up or checking-in with clients about ongoing projects. That routine will hold you back from making the most effective use of your time. And the longer an inefficient routine like that lasts, the harder it is to break. You can find yourself working as hard on re-wiring and re-adapting yourself to a better way to work, as you would on something you need to do to make your business succeed.

How to solve it:

Take some time—maybe every few months—to audit how you’re working. Look at what your routines are.

  • Are you happy with them?
  • Are they working for you?
  • Are they the best way to accomplish tasks?

If the answer is “No,” don’t worry. You still have time to change them before they lock in and get more difficult to break. Have you discovered that preparing your company’s promotional tweets in the morning makes you grumpy because it’s a boring way to start the day? Stop doing it. Determine what time of the day your brain gets more sluggish and could do something menial, and set-up your tweets then. Have you discovered that your plan to send out all of the week’s invoices on Monday afternoon gets sabotaged because you get really busy then?  Try sending an invoice the moment any work is completed instead.  It’s all about experimenting, finessing, and checking in with yourself so you’ll always ensure that you’re working at your best.

5. Forgetting to Take Breaks

For a sole proprietor, there always seems to be more to do. That’s why it can be incredibly easy to work for long hours without a break. How can you spare even five minutes when your daily to-do list is only half done? Here’s the thing: if you don’t take breaks you risk getting less done, not more. A study by The New York Times show breaks actually increase your productivity. They also help you avoid becoming burned out and stressed.  Skip breaks, and you will make your workday that much harder.

How to solve it:

Easy: Take breaks. What you do with them is up to you. Some advise naps. Some suggest gym trips. Fast Company advises a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes you work. See what works best for you. It may require some trial and error. Once you know what’s most effective for you, don’t forget the next step: enforce the break.

It’s easy to plan to take one, but there will be times when you’ll feel like you can’t because you’re so busy. You can. Believe me. You—and your brain—will never regret taking a moment away from work to refresh.

Next Steps:  You’re busy. We get it. So why not let us do some work for you? By signing up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter, you’ll receive hand-picked articles, How-Tos and videos covering the latest in small biz tools and trends. We’ll do the research while you spend your time where it counts: managing and growing your business.

26 Responses to "5 Productivity Traps to Avoid When You Work for Yourself"
    • CHE ALEXANDER | March 24, 2022 at 11:16 am

      This article is great and very helpful.

      • Small Biz Ahead | March 25, 2022 at 10:33 am

        That’s wonderful to hear! Thank you for the nice comment.

    • Claudia Barbuto | March 23, 2022 at 9:17 am

      These are great reminders that are straight to the point.

      • Small Biz Ahead | March 23, 2022 at 9:39 am

        We’re glad you liked the article, Claudia! Thanks for commenting.

    • Rachel ann wolf | March 23, 2022 at 8:20 am

      This was a good reminder of all those things I use to do and have gotten too busy to do. Thank you.

      • Small Biz Ahead | March 23, 2022 at 10:24 am

        You’re welcome, Rachel!

    • CP | March 23, 2022 at 6:04 am

      I have been self employed for 8 years now. I have found many of these points to be true. Something I have found especially helpful is to allow myself to avoid certain tasks I am not wanting to do (or dreading, honestly) by doing another task that also needs to be done but that I am not avoiding at the moment. The longer I avoid one task, the more I get done on the other tasks. This had helped tremendously with productivity, and even when avoidant, I do not fall behind.

      • Small Biz Ahead | March 23, 2022 at 11:35 am

        Thank you for sharing!

    • Michelle H Rand | March 23, 2022 at 1:23 am

      We have an Office Cat, Belle. She provides much needed comic relief not to mention just the opportunity to refresh ourselves by tending to her. She de-stresses everyone. My group has named her Best Hire of 2022.

      • Small Biz Ahead | March 23, 2022 at 11:42 am

        That’s awesome, Michelle!

    • Lori Anne Escalera | January 8, 2021 at 7:44 pm

      I agree with Laura Pilkington entirely. And I also think that our businesses have different requirements so for me, as an artist, – sometimes it takes 52 minutes before I really get deep into something. It would be totally inefficient to not respect the need at hand and break. I used to have that argument with my Dr. who wanted me to take breaks. Sometimes you just can’t. I am more efficient if I organize my day around my energy. I pile through. After 40 years I know how my energy goes. But I loved all the ideas… always up for a refresher course. I procrastinated something all day because I was afraid to deal with a message – but I took care of other things needing doing before I got to it finally. When I did, it turned out to not be negative. So I felt good that I was able to accomplish productively, even though I procrastinated something. thank you. Love the newsletters.

      • Small Biz Ahead | January 11, 2021 at 2:24 pm

        Thanks for sharing!

    • Carla J Edwards | January 6, 2021 at 10:40 am

      A 17-minute break every 52 minutes is not doable. It’s not efficient or cost productive. To actually work an 8 hour day, you would be adding over 2 hours to your day.

    • Stacy Colonna | January 23, 2020 at 9:30 am

      Great tips – they all hold merit;) Also the need to get up, move around and simply step away is an important deliverable to be mindful of. Laura’s comment on Fast Co’s recco re: 17 minute breaks generating 25% “waste” in her day – let’s look at the other side of that sheet? (a nice phrase i picked up this morning) If one spent 25% of their day re-charging, relaxing tense muscles and allowing them to de-stress, taking in either meditation or an interesting idea or two through reading or a podcast or perhaps a walk in the sun – would that then be a tremendous boost the the 75% spent working or a “waste”? What say you folks?
      XO Stacy

      • Chloe Silverman | January 23, 2020 at 12:53 pm

        Thank you for the comment Stacy!

    • Dr. Betty Franks | January 23, 2020 at 8:48 am

      The editorial was very informative. Thanks 🙏🏾for sharing some different solutions for different issues.

      • Chloe Silverman | January 23, 2020 at 12:52 pm

        We are glad you found this article helpful! Thank you for commenting!

    • George E McBride | January 15, 2020 at 8:36 am

      I work from home, alone, and will often sit down to work so focused, especially early morning, that often it’s 3-5 hours later before I realize I haven’t left my desk. You may feel like you’ve been “in a groove” focused on your task, but it gets counter productive after that long. I find myself making mistakes, or that I’ve been doing the same thing and it would be better to back away and just come back with a refreshed look. When I do get up I’m stiff and sore. So I will often set my oven timer to go off like every 2 hours to force me to get up to go turn it off, stretch, get a drink, etc. It “forces” me to take a break and rethink whatever I was doing. Thanks.

      • Chloe Silverman | January 15, 2020 at 8:40 am

        Great tip! Thank you for the comment, George!

    • Susan | January 31, 2019 at 12:01 pm

      17 minutes for every 52 minutes is a little extreme. Employees only get a 15 minute break for a 4 hour shift!

      • Hannah Sullivan | February 1, 2019 at 2:23 pm

        Thanks for your feedback, Susan.

    • Teresa Morgan | January 31, 2019 at 8:24 am

      These are all good recommendations. I find that when I am working on something too long, I get frustrated and stop being being productive. Although 17 minute breaks after 52 minutes does seem like a bit too much, it makes perfect sense to me. You have to step away when you stop being productive. I am a creative, so this is very important!!

      • Hannah Sullivan | January 31, 2019 at 10:59 am

        Thank you, Teresa!

    • anne | April 24, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      Hello, nice post, thanks a lot for that. I think another trap is not visualizing your future. Solution is making a vision board and looking at it regularly. Do you agree on this?

    • Laura Pilkington | March 29, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      A lot of great points!

      But wow, really FastCompany – 17m breaks for every 52m worked? In a 9 hour day, I will have wasted 25% of my time! That doesn’t seem very “productive” to me.

      But I think I just spent 17 minutes on this blog.

    • Ken Zenzel | March 28, 2018 at 6:00 am

      You reinforced my few good practices, drew attention to some bad practices, overall encouraging. It is apparent that you have been in my office, looking over my shoulder.

      Because I don’t want to be distracted by follow-up comments or new posts, I trust that any new ideas or revisions to what you have already written will be included in future articles. Therefore, I didn’t check either “Notify me” box.

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