Since I left my corporate job, I’ve been reading a lot about how to increase my productivity. For people like me who transition from a structured environment as an employee to a more flexible lifestyle as an entrepreneur, the adjustment can be hard. If you’re wearing many hats – for example, you’re the one creating the product, talking to customers, and doing the marketing – it can be especially overwhelming. I was busy, for sure, but was I being productive?

Tim Farris once said, “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions”

It felt like I was the only one struggling with time management, and then one day I attended a conference that included a fireside chat with broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien.

She discussed with the audience how hectic her schedule had been when she worked at CNN. She would wake up at 4AM every day in order to be at the studio before 6AM. Then she wouldn’t get home until 5PM or 6PM in the evenings. After spending time with her family and doing chores, she wouldn’t get to bed until 11PM or midnight, and then she’d prepare to do it all over again the next day.

Although she admitted that her schedule was crazy back then, it was still a schedule which she followed and didn’t have to create herself or even think about.

Now O’Brien has her own media production company, and she makes her own rules. But she also has the responsibility of setting her priorities for the day and constructing her own schedule. And it turns out that this is sometimes even more challenging and overwhelming.

What O’Brien said that day really hit home for me. Back in my corporate job, my schedule for most days was already set. Team meetings were scheduled, projects had due dates, and we knew when busy season was going to come and how long it would last.

The problem with creating your own schedule is not just that you need to be more organized during your day. It’s the need to juggle many things at once, like answering an email, calling a customer, writing a blog post, and networking.

Research suggests that only about 2% of people can actually multitask effectively. The rest of us think we’re being productive when in reality we’re not at all. What we’re doing instead is “task-switching,” which is the process of focusing your mind on one task at a time, then switching to another and re-focusing. In the end, each task takes longer than if you’d just done them separately. The only true way you can multitask is if you’re doing automatic tasks like walking and talking (which don’t require much thought). In other words, multitasking and piling more stuff on your to-do list just doesn’t work.

To help improve my time management, I’ve read books, listened to experts, and experimented with different approaches. Here are the 3 best practices that I’ve found help me be more productive:

1. Wake up early and do your more important creative tasks first

For the majority of people, we’re most productive and alert shortly after waking up in the morning. That’s why it’s best to allocate those precious few hours early on in the day to accomplish your most important tasks.

The key here is to determine which tasks are important and prioritize them first because often we’ll get started working and leave the items that we know we need to get done until “later.” (Like sales calls or going over our finances.) Try to accomplish those super important tasks earlier in the day so you don’t end up using the excuse “I ran out of time.”

The type of work you do in the morning matters too. Mark McGuinness, a coach for creative professionals and columnist for 99U, says, “The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second.”

In most cases, we do the opposite. We’ll focus on replying to emails first thing in the morning (reactive work) instead of writing or programming (creative work).

2. Use your calendar

Kevin Kruse, the author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, interviewed over 200 ultra-successful people, including 7 billionaires, 13 Olympians, and a host of accomplished entrepreneurs for his book. He says that most successful people don’t use a to-do list. Instead, they schedule everything on their calendar. Research shows that only 41% of items on to-do lists ever get done. So Kruse ultimately finds that these lists are useless and cause unnecessary stress because you’ll always have uncompleted tasks on your list.

According to him, utilizing your calendar to schedule tasks allows you to free up your mind, since you now have a plan for how to address each of your tasks. You can use the calendar to allocate time for things like meetings, writing, exercising, or even time with family and friends.

“If you want to be more productive you need to become master of your minutes.” – Crystal Paine

3. Build Daily Routines

Leigh Michaels, the prolific author of more than eight romance novels, once said, “Waiting for inspiration to write is like standing at the airport waiting for a train. Conditions to produce one’s craft are rarely ideal, and waiting for everything to be perfect is almost always an exercise in procrastination.”

The idea here is that you need to work on your craft every day, even if you don’t feel inspired. Build daily morning routines to help you get organized and reduce stress so that you can achieve this. After leaving my corporate job, I got into the routine of waking up every day around the same time, even on weekends, so that my body would get accustomed to it. This allowed me to focus on ezClocker everyday without getting tired.

I usually start my mornings by evaluating my goals and what I want to accomplish for the day. I also do some creative work, like writing a blog post or working on a piece of code. I take breaks throughout the day during which I’ll either do a workout or take a walk in the park and listen to a podcast to de-stress and re-energize.

Building daily habits will help you focus, manage your time, and achieve your goals more efficiently.

Raya Khashab
Raya Khashab is the CEO and co-founder of ezClocker, a time tracking and scheduling software for small business. She is passionate about customers and building products that change the way people run their business. She is also a big supporter of the startup community and helping people achieve their dreams.