Ticket to Productivity

On drawing boundaries.
I assumed moving abroad would mean disaster for my business. Instead, it thrived. Now that I'm back, things aren't so smooth. What gives?

In January 2011, I put my business to the ultimate test: my husband and I moved abroad – 3,000 miles and five time zones away from my clients, my family, and everything I knew and loved.

Having the freedom to travel whenever and wherever I want is exactly the reason I started my own business… but I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea what to expect. I prepared myself for the possibility that moving continents might mean disaster for my business.

It didn’t.

To my surprise, I ended my first year abroad with the greatest productivity, highest revenue and happiest clients I’ve ever had. And that includes only working about nine months out of the year.

Now, after having returned to the US, I’ve noticed my productivity has drastically deteriorated.

What gives?

After some reflection, I’ve realized that small daily distractions are the culprit. When living abroad, I was forced into a scenario that eliminated certain distractions from my life. Because of this, I was able to focus when I need to focus, and play when I wanted to play. I had clear boundaries, and, admittedly, I had different priorities. Namely, adventure first, work second.

Now that I’m back, the distractions are back. While it will take more of a concerted effort, these principles can be applied universally. You don’t have to move continents to enjoy the benefits of a distraction-free day – you just need mark your boundaries.

Yes, temptation abounds. But I guarantee that when you’re able to take an extra few weeks off per year – maybe even months – you’ll decide it’s worth it.

So here are my top 5 distraction-busting tips that living abroad afforded me. Tell me in the comments how you’ve adopted them into your own day!

1. A Quiet Inbox
I was anywhere between 5 to 8 hours ahead of my clients, which meant 5 – 8 hours of no emails. Now, I make it a rule to only check my inbox first thing in the morning, once midday and then at the end of the evening. My inbox is only open for 30 minutes at a time. If a client needs a long, drawn-out response, I first ask: is this better addressed over the phone? And if not, then the response is surely one that needs to be billed for, which I can now more easily track.

2. Rules for Communication
This applies to #1, but in a more general sense. Living abroad, I had to be extremely clear about how and when I would communicate with my clients. This did two things: fist, it gave them a sense of security. After all, it can be daunting hiring someone living 3,000 miles away. Secondly, it established my availability very early on. It’s easy to get into the habit of responding to small concerns via email at any hour of the day. But why give people the impression that you’re available 24 hours a day. Nope.

3. Stricter deadlines
Because I was taking so much time off to travel, I had to be a hard-ass about deadlines (to myself and my clients). Meeting more deadlines on time meant not only more free-time, but also more time to take on work when I actually wanted to work. I’m not someone who enjoys drawing out a creative project anyhow, so deadlines by default, are my friend… but I know a lot of people who struggle with them. My advice for those people is to always assume from the beginning that a project is going to take X amount longer than you know it really is. Kinda like setting a clock 10 minutes fast for folks who are perpetually late. If you tell yourself and a client that something is going to take 8 weeks, when you know it’ll only really take 6, then you’ll come out looking like the hero when you deliver ahead of time – and you’ll suddenly have two extra weeks to do as you wish.

4. Little-to-No TV
I have a confession: I like TV. I love TV. I might as well admit to it now and stop being ashamed of it. That said, I’m probably one of the earliest adopters of a no-cable, internet-for-tv lifestyle. When we lived abroad, we became ‘selective’ TV-watchers. That is, we scoured Netflix, Hulu and the BBC only for the best shows. We watched in a very limited capacity (granted, during dinnertime, but we had no dining table, so around the TV it was). In essence, we became pro-active with our TV consumption and, as a result, it consumed much less of our time. Only the best stuff and nothing more.

5. More time off to enjoy life, recharge and widen my world view
As a mentioned, I was nervous about the extra time off we’d be taking to travel. And to be completely candid, I can’t say I ever totally relaxed when we traveled. After all, as a self-employed business-owner the switch never really turns off. But in hindsight, I can see how the extra time off actually made my work better. I was always excited to dive back into a creative project after having expanded my horizons. I had amazing photos I could incorporate into designs. I had equally amazing stories I could share with clients, which helped to connect with them on a deeper level.

So, in creating boundaries for myself (either purposefully or not), I was creating the space necessary to grow and explore. And the greatest treasure I brought back with me? The realization that whenever we go exploring, the universe goes expanding – and that is wonderful thing.

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