My 15 Best Practices for Productivity as an Independent Craftsman

Minimizing distractions and being productive is something everyone struggles with. Just because I’ve written this article, that doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered productivity. Far from it. It is a daily struggle. Anyone who is honest will likely tell you the same thing. My goal here isn’t to list off generic productivity tips for all entrepreneurs. There is enough of that already. The internet doesn’t need anymore! Seriously.  Rather, I want to share some of the practices that have worked well for me as a luthier and as a solopreneur.

As you read these, you might be thinking, “Wow, this guy really has his s#!% together!” I want to be as straightforward as possible and I want the reader to understand that I do not follow all of these practices all of the time. In fact, I don’t even follow half of these practices half of the time! I wish I did, but I am simply too human. It takes a lot of discipline to establish a new habit and only a little bit of complacency for that habit to slip away. All of these practices taken together will seem extreme, even draconian. The point is to consider each separately and incorporate into your life what makes sense for you. Do not attempt them all at once. You will burn out! It is much more practical to challenge yourself with establishing just 1 or 2 new habits. And of course, not everything that works for me, works for you. We are all different.

Disconnect from the Internet

I’m sure that some of you can relate to this:

You wake up in the morning and the first thing that you do is look at your phone or flip open your laptop. Without thought or intention, like a trained monkey, you are looking for notifications.

“Did that client e-mail me back?,” “I wonder if anybody commented on my facebook post?,” “How many likes did it get?,” “Oh look, Eric Schaefer posted a new video!,” “New superfood discovered in Peruvian rainforest… well I have to read that!” … An hour later, you’ve gotten zero work done and you are angrily posting a Facebook status that you are sure will change the way people think about politics.

In fact, there is a very good chance that some of you will have arrived at this article through a similar chain of events. If that is the case, then stop reading! Bookmark this page for later and get back to work! You are wasting time!

Peeking at your notifications is absolutely the worst thing you can do in the morning, even for those of us who are disciplined enough to avoid time-wasting sites like Facebook.

In fact, I personally, don’t care about what is happening on Facebook. But the morning e-mail trap is just as bad, if not worse. I will habitually check my phone for new e-mails the moment I wake up, if I can. This sets in motion a reactionary cycle where I am not working on the tasks that I consider to be the most urgent or important. Rather, I spend time that I don’t have on other people’s agendas. This is a particularly insidious trap, because it’s easy to justify to yourself that you are being responsible and getting work done, because they are, after all, client emails.

It’s not that these e-mails aren’t important. They are important, but they can certainly wait. The idea is to be intentional about your workflow rather than reactionary. Starting your day with e-mails forces you into a reactionary workflow.

This may seem extreme to some, but every night before I go to bed, I literally disconnect the internet. I pull the plug on the router. I also switch my phone to “Ultra Power Saving Mode.” This is a function on an Android phone that saves power with a simple home screen and access to a limited number of apps: Phone, Text messaging and the clock. That’s it! This is perfect for me because I need to be accessible by phone throughout the day. As many of my students know, that is the best way to reach me.

I do this before I go to bed so I don’t have to rely on my mental fortitude to disconnect when I wake up in the morning, when my willpower is at it’s weakest!

Depending on what I have planned for the day I will either leave it off all day or I will turn it on when I need it. The point, however, is that I atleast start my day on my terms, to work on the projects that are most important to me. I am not at the whim of everybody else’s notifications.

With all that said, I am actually very pro-social media. I manage my own wordpress site with a blog, an online guitar building course and a private forum. I also manage my own youtube channel, Facebook page and instagram. I love what the internet and social media allow us to do. But it can only benefit us if we are intentional with how we use it.

For me, the key to being intentional about how I use the internet is to set up my devices with certain controls or applications that manage distractions. That way, even after I’ve plugged the router in for the day, I am less likely to be pulled off task by something online.

Here are some of those controls:

  • I listen to alot of podcasts while I’m working on guitars. I avoid having to go online to find new episodes by setting up my itunes to automatically download new episodes from podcasts that I am subscribed to. That way, I don’t have to open my browser in the first place.
  • As amateur and even professional luthiers we constantly have “How To” questions that we want answered, and it would be silly to deny ourselves of the virtually boundless resource that we have at our fingertips. However, when you open up a search page on almost any browser you see a list of your most visited sites, which for me are gmail, youtube and facebook. It is very tempting when I am on that page to either check my inbox, or check for youtube or facebook comments. I remove the temptation by using a Chrome extension called “New Tab Redirect.” This removes the most visited sites, so that all you see is a blank search bar.
  • Finally, I use another extension called “StayFocusd.” This extension allows you to set limits to the amount of time that you spend on certain sites. That way, if I need to go on sites like Facebook or Youtube to post a new video or to answer questions, I won’t get pulled down into the social media rabbit hole, or atleast not for long!

Assign all of your marketing/sales/accounting work to one or two days of the week

As craftsmen we tend to loath the idea of marketing our products or services. We’d much rather spend our time in the shop. We are artists firsts and unfortunately artists tend to look down on business as a necessary evil. This is unfortunate because that line of thinking is flawed in so many ways. If you suffer from this belief then, honestly, you should not be in business for yourself, just as a matter of practicality. Get a job and let someone else deal with the “evil” side.

I have a healthy view of marketing and sales but I still don’t particularly enjoy doing it. As solopreneurs we must wear many hats and some of those hats are not very comfortable. Switching from hand carving a neck to working at a cold laptop is a rough transition and I’d personally rather get all my laptop work done on Monday and then be able to devote my full attention to building and repairing instruments for the rest of the week. I call it Marketing Monday!

Establish a price range with clients ASAP

I struggled with this for the longest time. Consider this scenario:

A customer e-mails you with a question about a custom instrument or a repair. Customer asks, “Can you build a blankety blank with blank?”

You respond with a well thought-out explanation of why blankety blanks are incompatible with blank, complete with graphs of the density of blank.

Customer insists that his father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate owns a blankety blank with blank, and that there must be a way to build a blankety blank with blank.

You respond by politely reaffirming that blankety blanks are incompatible with blank in a way that dodges the implication that his father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate’s credibility is in any way suspect.

Customer concedes that maybe some blankety blanks are incompatible with certain varieties of blank.

You respond with more graphs, and links to peer-reviewed scientific journals, and a gentle suggestion that perhaps he would be interested in a blank with a blank instead.

Customer gets excited by the suggestion. “Oh, what about two blanks with a blank!”

You respond with a lengthy explanation of why two blanks is also incompatible with blank.

Customer is somewhat deflated but still determined to invest in blank. Customer asks, “How much do you charge for a blank with a blank?”

You respond, “Work on blanks is in the range of $2000 – $2500.”

Silence. End of conversation.

Now consider the same scenario with a different approach:

A customer e-mails you with a question about a custom instrument or a repair. Customer asks, “Can you build a blankety blank with blank?”

You respond, “A blank with a blank is a better alternative and I can explain why if you want me to. By the way, work on blanks is in the range of $2000 – $2500.

Silence. End of conversation.

Now both scenarios had the same end result: the customer wasn’t interested because of the price point. In the first scenario, you spent hours or maybe even days answering emails and researching the possibilities of the project or repair. In the second scenario, you responded in less than a minute with the price point in the email. Which approach is more productive? The second scenario saved your time and the customer’s time.

In both scenarios I was being a little bit tongue-in-cheek and poking fun at the customer, and you may have gotten the impression that the customer was somehow wrong or at fault, or that the customer was the one who wasted time. And it is easy in the moment to believe that and get frustrated at the customer. Remember this:

If you don’t establish the price range up front, then you are wasting your own time.

The customer does not know the current standard price of a custom instrument any more than you know the current standard price of plastic surgery (unless you’re a surgeon or a supermodel). As the professional, it is your job to establish the price up front.

Avoid academic procrastination

Regular couch-potato procrastination is easy enough to spot. You know when you are lounging about during work time and you feel guilty about it.

However, there are two forms of procrastination that I am going to talk about which are very subversive in the sense that they disguise themselves as productivity when they are in fact procrastination.

The first one I call academic procrastination. This is procrastination by learning. You believe that once you reach some critical threshold of knowledge, productivity and success will simply happen as a byproduct of sheer brilliance. People who suffer from this form of procrastination imagine that people who are productive and successful have reached this critical threshold and know everything. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be competent enough to even start.

I believe that this form of procrastination is not about laziness. It is about fear. The academic world of books and theories insulates you from the real world of failures and deadlines and criticism from peers. Nobody can judge you or claim that your venture was a failure if you never even start.

The worst part about this form of procrastination is that it discounts the most powerful form of learning: Experiential learning. That is, the knowledge you gain from doing.

I still allow time in my day-to-day for learning from teachers, books, videos and podcasts. There’s value in that. But only if you apply that knowledge as you gain it. The most effective education, in my opinion, is in alternating periods of academic learning with real-world application. Education should be viewed as ongoing and pervasive rather than as something you do before you can be productive.

Avoid perfectionism procrastination

Perfectionism procrastination is the other form of subversive procrastination. This one is especially tricky to spot because being a perfectionist is at the core of being a craftsman. Don’t get me wrong. Being a perfectionist is a good thing in lutherie. I consider myself to be one. I also, however, suffer from perfectionism procrastination, which is not a good thing.

Let me explain it this way:

I have realized that there is a finite amount of mental energy that I can devote to any one thing before I begin to lose interest. When I lose interest, the quality of my work suffers. This seems to be an inescapable fact. With that in mind, it makes sense to critically analyze the build process and determine where clear, focused energy is most needed, and to work with an efficiency mindset at the times when clear focused energy is less necessary.

I see the same thing in students who attend my courses. They begin the course with a full tank of mental energy and a high interest. As the energy wanes. the work suffers. The end result is that the student is more focused and detail oriented in the early and middle stages, and more rushed at the end. Fortunately, I’m there to push them when they need to be pushed in the early and middle stages so that they still have something in the tank when they get to the final stages of assembly and setup, where a detail-oriented mindset is more important.

The point is that there are points of the build process where a perfectionist’s mind is not necessary, and it is at those stages where the perfectionist risks not only wasting time, but even sacrificing the quality of their work  further along in the process.

Use the Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique that involves breaking up a task into manageable 25 minute intervals of intense focus. Each interval is followed by a 5 minute break. Four intervals is considered a set and earns a longer 15 – 30 minute break. The idea is that there is no reasonable excuse to go off task when intervals are just 25 minutes. For example, even if you have to use the restroom, you can wait until the next break. If someone calls or interrupts, you can address it on the next break. When you first start the pomodoro technique, you will likely find yourself checking your phone or walking off to the bathroom during a Pomodoro out of habit. It’s important, however, to catch yourself and get back on focus once you recognize that you’ve strayed. After some time of practicing Pomodoro, however, staying on task will become more habitual.

I use this technique fairly often. When I’m having an off day, it helps to have a system like this to fall back on. Sometimes I use an app called Kanban Flow, and sometimes I use a simple kitchen timer.

Put away your tools after every job or atleast at the end of the day

Nothing wastes time like a messy shop. It’s hard to even muster the motivation to work when your benchspace is crowded and your tools are not where they are supposed to be.

The best time to put tools away is immediately after the repair or the particular job (side bending, neck carving etc.) is complete. It is much more manageable then than it is 3 weeks later when every bare spot of bench is covered with tools. The next best time is at the end of the day before you close up. Atleast then, you can walk into a clutter free environment the next morning.

Personally, I still let my workshop become a mess from time to time. In the moment it seems more efficient to leave the tools out on the bench and simply get started with the next thing. However, everytime I do that, I come to the conclusion in hindsight, that I would have been far more productive if I took a minute to clear the bench between jobs.

Now be careful here! Because there is another form of procrastination lurking in a messy shop. That is procrastination by cleaning everything in sight! I’ve fallen for this trap before. It begins innocently enough by putting your tools away. Then maybe you shopvac all the bench space to clear the dust. Then you notice dust clinging to the window trim, so you vac that up as well. However, the windows look a bit streaky, so you break out the windex… stop! You are procrastinating again! You can make a note that the windows need cleaning and add it to your workflow later. There’s a good chance that you will look at the windows later and realize that they didn’t really need cleaning after all. You were just using the windows as an excuse to put off the work that really needs to get finished now.

Keep tools sharp

Not scary sharp. Just serviceably sharp. For those just getting started in woodworking, pay to have your chisels and plane irons sharpened by a professional just one time. That way, you can see what a sharp tool is like, so you can understand the value of a sharp tool when it comes to your time and the value of your work. And just so you know, a new tool is not a sharp tool. Not even close. If you just bought a shiny set of chisels, yes, even those need to be sharpened. It makes all the difference in your productivity, the quality of your craftsmanship and the satisfaction you get from woodworking.

Schedule regular “sharpening sessions,” where you take the time to sharpen all the tools that need sharpening. No need to get carried away and sharpen every tool you have. Just the ones that need it. I recommend the Worksharp 3000 for fast efficient sharpening.

This video from the online course can help: Chisel Sharpening

Phone calls are less time consuming than email

This is one of those things that is true for me, but definitely not true for everyone. It really depends on your personality type. Some people are very efficient at answering e-mails. I, however, am not. I think long and hard about everything I am typing, but when I am on the phone with a client, the words just fall out. An answer that takes 30 minutes to write up in e-mail, could be a 5 minute phone conversation. And the best part about phone conversations is that the client can ask follow up questions and you can address those on the spot, whereas e-mail can become a long drawn out affair with weeks of back-and-forth dialogue.

I still answer plenty of e-mails. In fact, most of the time it is quicker to just fire back an e-mail for questions like “Is there still available in the October course?” However, if someone asks a question or several questions that I know requires an in-depth explanation and possibly will result in many follow-up questions, I explain that to the person and leave my number. Customers with hard questions are always delighted to see that I’ve given them the option for more personable communication through the phone.

Establish deadlines

This one is key. Many projects in lutherie don’t have a deadline imposed on them by someone else. For example, if you are building an instrument and that instrument is not for a specific client, then that project does not have a deadline unless you impose a deadline on that project. For some of you, this may sound like a good thing. Perhaps the whole reason that you got into lutherie and woodworking was to escape the world of arbitrary deadlines.

Just let this sink in:  Projects without a deadline don’t get finished and they are the biggest drain on your time.

You have to impose a deadline. If the project doesn’t seem important enough to have a deadline, then that is probably not a project that you need to be doing.

I use what I call the 10 X rule to schedule deadlines. That is, you estimate the time that you think it will take to complete a project, and then you times that by 10. And that is your deadline.

A deadline, in my opinion, need not be near term. It simply needs to exist. Being realistic and putting the deadline far into the future makes it more likely that you will stay true to deadlines.

Right now, you probably have half-finished projects collecting dust in your shop. I know that I have several! It is a good idea to make a list of those projects and impose a deadline on each one. If you feel a heavy resistance to imposing a deadline on any one project, then you should consider scrapping that one. It is a drain on your energy.

Prioritize tasks the night before

Prioritizing tasks and making a “to do list” the night before allows you to get into your workflow immediately in the morning. I don’t do this as often as I should, but when I do I have an immensely productive day. If I don’t do this the night before, I am at risk of starting my day by working on the tasks that are the easiest or the most satisfying in the moment. Unfortunately, the easy and fun tasks are never the most important ones! Kanban Flow, the same app that I use for the Pomodoro technique, is a great app for prioritizing tasks.

Start work immediately!

And that brings us to our next practice: getting started right away! I’ve tried all kinds of “morning routines” that “productive people” swear by: meditating, exercising, journaling, drinking kale smoothies etc… These are all things that get you into the “right mindset” to tackle what you need to do that day. And they do, honestly, have their merits.

But I have found for me, nothing beats simply rolling out of bed, pouring a glass of water and starting a Pomodoro (see Pomodoro technique above). I don’t take a shower, and I don’t eat breakfast… yet. These can wait. Meditation and exercise (if you’re into that) can also wait. Whatever morning routine that works for you, will feel so much better if you put it off until after you’ve gotten atleast 25 minutes of focused work done. That’s it! Anybody can work hard for just 25 minutes. Nothing gets you in the mood for having a productive day like checking something off your list first thing in the morning.

And if you really want to step it up do a whole set (4) of Pomodoros (~2 hrs of focused work). The most productive days I have start off this way. Waiting 2 hours to have breakfast isn’t always easy for me, so I don’t do this every day.

Once I’ve completed either one pomodoro or a whole set of pomodoros I can go through my morning routine (shower, breakfast, exercise, or whatever) without the anxiety of feeling like I’m wasting time.

I don’t have to commute to the shop. I live on-site. So this works especially well for me because I can simply wake up, walk down to the shop and get started. I understand that this is not the case for many people. However, there is always some work that you can do from home. Think about it. Maybe it’s posting photos of your work on your website or on social media. Just wake up 25 minutes earlier and get that done before going through your morning routine. It sets a great tone for the rest of the work day.

Be Consistent

Above all, be consistent! All of the above mentioned practices only work if you practice them with some level of consistency.  So be very mindful of this from the outset. Consistency creates habit. Once a practice becomes habitual or second-nature, we spend less mental energy, or sometimes even physical energy, enforcing the practice. The mental resistance is no longer there. When you start a new habit, you are in the honeymoon phase of habit formation. This is where you are most inspired and determined. This may even give you the false impression that maintaining this habit is going to be easy. The key to making a habit stick is to be aware that the honeymoon phase of habit formation will end, as all honeymoons do. If you are aware of it, you can say to yourself, “This is easy now because I’m inspired, but the real test of willpower is coming.” That way, you will be ready when the honeymoon phase ends.

This is not to say that a habit is not worth forming if you can’t do it consistently forever! That is ridiculous. You can fall off the wagon. I fall off the wagon all the time. In fact, falling off the wagon is actually a good thing! “Nonsense!” you say. Oh, but it’s true! Falling off the wagon gives you the opportunity to develop the most important habit of all habits: Getting back on the wagon. When you fall off the wagon, rather than throwing your hands in the air in defeat, you can calmly and coolly commit to resuming your practice as if you never fell off in the first place. Don’t get flustered and scold yourself. Just get back on. Every iteration of Off-the-wagon On-the-wagon, further develops this habit that affects all other habits. If you are the type of person who logs your success in a journal, instead of tracking how many days you’ve done ____,  try focusing on how many times you’ve fallen and gotten back on the wagon instead. See how much more effective that is in promoting longevity in your habits.

When in doubt, just do something

Sometimes a tool breaks or I realize that I ordered the wrong materials. It’s life. This happens. I made my “to do list” the night before, but now I can’t complete any of the items that I need to complete. Bummer…

On a good day, I will go back to the drawing board and come up with a new, revised “to do list.”

However, not every day is a good day. Sometimes I am in an irrecoverable funk and I just don’t know what to do. When things go wrong like this, it’s easy to fall into a state of frustration and succumb to “analysis paralysis.” Now that your entire schedule is thrown into flux, you can work on any project! What should you do?! Sometimes the best thing to do is to just do something. I don’t spend the rest of the workday trying to come up with a new plan. I’m already in a bad mood, so I probably won’t be able to do my best work anyway. I will often work on one of the less urgent, easier, or more fun tasks, and try again for a better day tommorrow. It’s better than doing nothing.

Work Overtime

I’ve saved the best for last! This is the Mother of all Productivity “Hacks!” And I know some people don’t want to hear this, but people who work longer, produce more. It doesn’t matter how often you meditate or how many kale smoothies you drink. If you work 9 to 5, you will be less productive than someone who is in the shop from 6am to 10pm. If you are new to the idea of working for yourself, you may not yet know that working overtime is a necessity.

When people ask about what I do for a living, and I tell them, I sometimes get a response like, “Oh, It must be nice…”, like I somehow inherited my self-employment, rather than took it on voluntarily. These people probably imagine that I get to take long walks in the morning and that I meet up with my friends for brunch in the afternoon. Ahh, the luxuries of self-employment! I can work whenever I want!

The reality is that if you need to work 16 hours and sleep for 8, and there’s 24 hours in a day… well you do the math.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I assure you that I’m not. I love to work. I love what I do, but I also simply love working hard and getting things done. And there is an important distinction there. Of course, it is important to love what you do, but running a business involves so much more than the part of the business that involves the art or craft of what you do. There are a lot of not-so-fun things. But if you love what you do and you love to work, then you can enjoy yourself when you’re working in any capacity within the business, whether it’s building guitars, teaching, writing blogs, editing youtube videos, answering emails, marketing, or filing your taxes.

Maybe some day I’ll get to regularly take those morning walks and go out to brunch on a Tuesday, but right now I don’t even desire that kind of life. I’m having too much fun doing what I love to do: Building guitars, teaching, and working hard every day. And the acceptance of that kind of work ethic is the ultimate best practice for productivity.
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