One of the biggest challenges of being a student entrepreneur is the nagging reminder that maybe you should be enjoying college more. Maybe you should be going out with friends more often instead of skipping social outings to work on your startup. Maybe you're too young to be working so much. Maybe you should taking more afternoon naps at that beautiful library on campus.
These nagging thoughts sometimes persuade us to take a break - and that’s a good thing. But it’s not all good, especially when you have trouble getting back into your workflow. The trick to simultaneously juggling the varied demands of college and startups is to strike a balance, not just between work and play but between your different types of work. Here are ten tips for staying motivated and productive when you’re being pulled in multiple directions:
1. Always keep moving toward your goal
Do at least one small task every day, even if it's just posting for the company's social media accounts. It keeps your end goal at the forefront of your mind and often, that small task is the kick you need to start working again.
2. Break down projects into tasks
When you’re planning out your day, don't just write "work on action items for project" on your to-do list. Specifying which specific tasks you'll work on today will make it easier to tackle the first one.
3. Be flexible
Don’t feel bad about an afternoon that turned into a spontaneous coffee date with a friend. The funny thing about work is that it will always be there and when push comes to shove, it will get done. Building friendships is important, so don’t say “no” to people just because you committed to work on something you could just as easily finish several hours later. If you get out of class early, give yourself a little break to hang out on the quad and run into friends.
4. Schedule blocks of college fun
Pick one night per week that you don't plan to work. Schedule a fun dinner with a friend or go to a bar. Talk about normal college student problems, like writing papers or figuring out what classes to take next semester. Even better, don’t talk about work or school at all. Appreciate that this is the time in your life that you have the least responsibility.
5. Set due dates
If a goal isn’t actually time-sensitive, set arbitrary due dates for yourself. If you absolutely have to push back a deadline, do so understanding that it’s a big deal and needs to be justified as though your imaginary boss is going to ask you why you moved the deadline. A good reason could be that you started the project and realized that it will take longer to do the work than you originally thought. A not-so-good reason is that you watched TV every night this week instead of working and now there’s no way you’ll finish by the deadline.
6. Keep an idea notebook
Keep a notebook handy to jot down great ideas that pop up at inconvenient moments. These ideas may be important to another class or project but are distracting you from what you’re working on right now. Write ideas down to get them out of your mind, knowing that you'll be able to refer to your notes later and remember all the details.
7. Know your limits
Know how much work is too much for you and be swift to enforce your limits as soon as you realize you've taken on too many things. Saying “no” when you need to is part of taking care of yourself, and there’s no shame in having to reconsider a time commitment that you made in a moment of excitement. It’s better to acknowledge the mistake and bow out gracefully at the beginning than burn out and present subpar work.
8. Establish priority rules for tough choices
Everything is a project, including taking care of yourself and having a social life. Think through the process you will follow if you have to choose between two tasks from different projects that conflict. Decide what it would take for a meeting to be important enough to miss a class or cancel dinner plans with a friend. You can reschedule a meeting because of an important appointment, for example. If it’s important to you, then it’s important regardless of whether other people would objectively agree.
9. Give analog a chance
The best method of organization is the one that you'll use and that actually works for you. That could be a certain productivity app on your phone, but consider the advantages of the old-fashioned pen and paper. A blank notebook, a stack of Post-Its, or a large whiteboard all let you develop your own system instead of forcing your tasks into a structure that might not work for you. Plus, anything that’s not connected to the Internet cuts down on potential distractions.
10. Work with your brain, not against it
Learn how your brain works, and work with it to make the most efficient use of your time. If you know that you need a mental break by a certain time of the day, save mindless tasks like washing dishes or doing laundry for those times. Mindless tasks can double as meditation. Plan on writing papers or working on business strategy for the time of day that you’re the sharpest. Notice what types of tasks you procrastinate on the most and try to figure out why.
Combining college with a startup can be mentally exhausting, but it’s definitely possible to stay motivated and productive in all areas of your life. You can get more out of life by being organized and balancing the competing demands on your time from work, play, and everything in between.