Self-Employed? Use Science to be WAY More Productive in 2013!

If you are self-employed (as freelancer or an entrepreneur), there are few phrases that apply more aptly to your lifestyle than “time is money” … in fact, this is a concept you’d better master, or else you’ll be in really bad shape!

When you work for yourself, there are so many things that you need to keep in order, lest you risk sinking your entire business. Day-to-day obligations often include…

  • Handling client work
  • Keeping tabs on your finances
  • Growing your business/personal brand
  • Improving your skill (or product)
  • Actually having a life!

With all of these things stacked against them, self-employed folks have recently become obsessed with productivity and “work hacks” … and who can blame them?

The problem is this: While a great set of tools can help you get more done, TRUE productivity comes from understanding how your mind works, and what pitfalls hold it back.

Productivity is not signing up for 10 to-do list apps, 5 time-tracking apps, and syncing up your 8 separate calendars to all of your mobile devices.

Instead, it’s embracing the strengths (and flaws) of your cognition, and using systems to turn “motivation” into the much more useful discipline.

Ready to learn more?

I thought so… let’s get started!

How to Be More Productive… With Science!

Made in collaboration with ASAPscience.

What does this research have to do with self-employed people? How can we utilize these findings to have a more productive 2013?

Let’s break it down…

1.) Work like a world-class expert: Knowing nothing else, if I asked you to describe the typical “work day” of a world-class, cream of the crop violinist, you’d likely picture a scraggly musician with dark circles under their eyes and their violin clutched dearly next to them at all times.

The truth seems to be stranger than fiction: according to research by Anders Ericsson where he diligently observed the practice sessions of violinists across multiple skill levels (good, great, elite), the best players did NOT practice more often than other players and, on average, actually had more sleep per night than even the “worst” players!


Subsequent studies by Anders on this finding give us a revealing answer: the best players were engaged in more “deliberate practice” and were better at managing their productive energy than their peers.

While the merely “good” players had a tendency to practice all throughout the day, the BEST players segmented their practice sessions into strict blocks of time.

Despite spending the same amount of time practicing their instrument, the elite players were spending almost three times as many hours on deliberate practice.

The most interesting thing about this research is that it coincides nicely with the findings of Tony Schwartz, bestselling author of The Power of Full Engagement. Two studies that he often cites come in the form of a Federal Aviation Administration paper that conclusively shows that focus and alertness can be improved (by over 16%) with the utilization of short breaks.

The other study comes from Peretz Levie on the process of “ultradian rhythms“, and our energy levels rise and fall throughout the day.

Both findings point to one conclusion: Productive output is increased by having a lengthy productive session (~90 minutes) followed by a planned break (15-20 minutes).

Both studies also match up with the practice sessions of those elite violinists discussed above, characterized by:

  1. Intense segments of productive work where maximum energy exerted
  2. A planned break to recharge creativity & willpower (more on that later)

According to Schwartz:

Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That’s how we operate at our best.  Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy – physically, mentally, and emotionally – requires refueling it intermittently.

It’s not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate. It’s the energy we bring to the hours we work.

In a nutshell: trying to conserve energy throughout the day is a fool’s game.

Instead, try intensely productive segments that are followed by planned breaks to allow yourself to “go all-in” while you are working and help you to avoid the trappings of busy-work.

2.) Your willpower will betray you: We all procrastinate on starting big projects from time-to-time, it’s really just a part of human nature: in fact, researcher Janet Polivy has showcased that big projects are the most likely to cause procrastination because they give us more opportunities to “abandon ship” when things aren’t going well (something our brain loves to do).

Worse yet, research on the concept of “ego-depletion” has unveiled some convincing findings that all point to one thing: our willpower is a “limited resource” that can be entirely used up.

As someone who is self-employed, you won’t often be relying on instructions or support from others, so relying on your willpower alone is especially dangerous because if it fails, you’re likely to end up in a self-destructive lazy slump!

What to do instead: Numerous research on discipline helps us shed some light on becoming less dependent on our willpower alone.

In a test on the “commitment and consistency” of drug addicts conducted by the American Psychological Association (a segment of the population notorious for their inability to stay disciplined), researchers observed the ability of their subjects to complete a 5-paragraph essay by a certain time & date. They found that those addicts who had written down when & where they would complete the essay were 90% more likely to turn it in.

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in “normal” people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet.

To put these findings into practice from a productivity standpoint, test out using an Accountability Chart to measure how much you are actually getting done during your work sessions.

Combine this chart with the work / rest schedule above to help maintain high energy levels & awareness throughout your day:

According to researcher John Bargh, this sort of tracking can vastly improve productive output because it is the single best way to eliminate robotic behavior and the likelihood that you’ll make false assumptions about the work that you’ve actually completed, two things that Bargh calls the “greatest enemies of goal striving.”

3.) Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing: Any Ron Swanson fans reading? 😉

While many multitaskers will TRY to convince you that they “really are awesome at multitasking, promise!”, I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence on the matter.

It’s interesting to note this because a 1999 study on multitasking shows that many people think multitasking is effective because it looks effective from the outside. (“Hey, I’m getting two things done at once!”)

On the contrary, I’ve found a bunch of evidence that goes directly against that line of thinking: Researcher Zhen Wang was able to demonstrate that on average, people who multitask are far less likely to be more productive than workers focused on a single task.

Despite this, multitaskers tend to feel far more “emotionally satisfied” with their work because the create an illusion of productivity by working on multiple things at once… but doing none of them well.

Research from Stanford University also examined the productive output of multitaskers, and measured their ability on these three criteria:

  1. Ability to filter uneeded information
  2. Ability to switch between tasks
  3. Ability to maintain a high working memory

…surprise! The researchers found that the subjects who engaged in multitasking were terrible at all three!

Check out this quote from lead researcher Clifford Nass:

“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

So quit opening up 20 tabs at once in your browser and do the single most important assignment on your to-do list… like, right now! 🙂

Your Turn

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following…

  1. What did you think about the research above? Did any of the studies really surprise you?
  2. What “productivity hacks” do you have to keep yourself on track? Share your best tip with us in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

About Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti loves small businesses & startups and gets nerdy about behavioral psychology on his blog Sparring Mind.

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Thanks for sharing this as it was a great summary of some of the best research on productivity all boiled down to some powerful nuggets to implement.
The Zeigarnik effect is great to keep in mind, too, since my work is based on me creating things, so starting fast will help move the projects along more quickly, especially for things I’ve never done before.

Tamara Sullivan

WOW! This really hit home with me. I’m known for being on a conference call and doing something else and wonder why I don’t remember any of it. Will definitely be changing how I approach my work now.

Cindy Meitle

I’ve learned that getting a good night sleep rather than staying up an extra 3 hours to get projects done, results in more productivity during normal business hours because I’m more alert, energized, able to focus and my creative juices flow.

Gregory Ciotti

@Cindy — That is definitely something I can attest to as well.

Without my full 8-hours (and an early start time), my output definitely suffers.

Jonathan Goldford

Great article Gregory. I love learning about the science behind productivity.

George Siosi Samuels

Brilliant. Bidsketch articles are always extremely informative!


It’s awesome and really meaningful.

Thanks for posting.


Fantastic. Writing down accurately what you did that day not only allows you to record how much time you’re spending on each job/item, but also helps you to know what you can train your team members on if you hire someone at a later stage. Also it lets you know how much time you are wasting on e.g. procrastinating on social media or something.

Claire Harbour

Wow, what a fabulous article! I love learning about how I can increase my productivity! I think my new resolution is to take regular breaks, tee hee. Thanks for sharing! Great stuff as always! 🙂

Evan R. Murphy

Fantastic article, very well-researched. You made such a convincing case for long productive sessions paired with short planned breaks – I’m going to have to try being more disciplined about that.

I have one productivity hack to share that has helped me a lot in the last year. It’s for people who work from home: don’t work in your pajamas. In fact, wear something extra spiffy when you work, like a suit. People with a day job get separation of work and play by having their office be away from home. When your office is in your bedroom, then you need something else to help create that separation, and I have found dress to be a powerful aid. Yes, your neighbors will think you’re eccentric when they see you all gussied up to go get your mail, but you’ll get used it. 🙂


I read this article at the perfect time.

“Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing” (with breaks).

Great stuff. Inspiring and useful.

Angelina Sereno

This article is awesome, love the video!

I realize the human tendency to check email and social media is done in an effort to avoid lengthy tasks or critical problem solving while “feeling productive.” It’s nice to see that 90 minutes of focus is enough to break through big projects (although design can require quite a bit more than that at times)…

I can especially appreciate the reminder to take a break since I have not been doing enough of that! Thank you!


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