A career in translation has many rewards to offer: flexibility, daily challenges and great opportunities for advancement are just some of the perks of our work. And let's face it, only we know the secret thrill of moving from one language to another without a hitch, like an obstacle runner jumping effortlessly over language hurdles. But with the many advantages come the perils of being masters of our time: irregular hours, contracts and working from home can sound like a dream come true, but it's not always an easy life. Failing to organize our time well can easily translate into late, espresso-fueled nights and a chronic lack of free time (not to mention sleep). The good news is that, by implementing little changes, you can improve your work habits and ensure that your on-task time is as productive as can be, making room for doing other things you love.
First, you need to establish where you are at. Next time you sit down to work, try to assess your current working style. How long do you work without a break? (Tip: you should be taking regular breaks!) Do you focus completely when you're working or do you do other things at the same time (checking emails, listening to podcasts, daydreaming, etc)? Do you find yourself stopping to check your Facebook account, getting up to do the dishes or running errands? Do you usually manage to finish your work during your established working hours? How many hours of focused work do you get done in a day when you subtract all other activities?
Once you have a good sense of how, when, and how much you're working, the next step is to decide on your regular working hours. Put your foot down and make a firm commitment to work only within certain times, barring real emergencies (and you really shouldn't have too many of these). Be realistic; working ten hours a day without proper breaks is likely to lead to low efficiency and burnout. When you're deciding on your hours, make sure that you allow time for things that might not seem like real work but are still crucial, such as preparing quotes, writing invoices, replying to work emails or updating your resumé. Wherever and however you work, protect your working hours and don't fall into the trap of scheduling PTA meetings, dental appointments and shopping trips during those times, even if you can. Most important of all, make sure that your plan includes regular breaks (more on that later) and remember to give yourself a proper lunch break, even if you work from home.
Now that you know what your working day should look like, make the most of it by using smart to-do lists. Intimidating, vaguely described to-do items—"build a new website" or "look for more interpreting work"—only serve to encourage procrastination, as your subconscious mind becomes overwhelmed. To tackle large projects, try breaking them down into smaller, manageable chunks. "Build a new website," for example, might turn into "do a half-hour of research on translator websites," followed by "write some notes on what should go on the home page." Studies have shown that, for most people, weekly to-do lists work better than daily or monthly ones. Finally, when tackling a to-do list, it is a good idea to start with the item you feel least positive about. Once you've crossed that off, the rest will feel comparatively easy and you will breeze through the day.
Remember to do one thing at a time. Multitasking can make you feel like an urban hero—juggling phone calls, lattes, tweets, and a tricky translation all at once—but research shows that when all is said and done, multitaskers often get a lot less done than their monotasking counterparts. Focusing your attention fully on the task at hand can save you hours of unnecessary, half-hearted work and free up your schedule for whatever else you want to do.
Speaking of doing one thing at a time, you should definitely try the Pomodoro Technique. This system works wonders; in fact, I'm using it right now, in order to write this article. "Pomodoro" is Italian for tomato and refers to the tomato-shaped timer used by the technique's developer, Francesco Cirillo. The idea is to work in twenty-five-minute spurts, using a timer to avoid clock-watching. After twenty-five minutes of focused, distraction-free work, it's time for a little reward and a five- or ten-minute break. The reward doesn't have to be anything fancy or fattening: a few minutes looking out the window, a fluffy cappuccino, or (my personal favourite) a chance to listen to a piece of music you love will do just great. Remember to keep the focus on your work and not on the results; it will take the pressure off and help you concentrate fully.
Last but not least, set aside some time for reflection. Half an hour a week should be plenty for this. Think back to your workweek and reflect on what worked and what didn't. Jot down some ideas. Were the working hours you allocated realistic, or do you need to make adjustments? Are there obvious pitfalls or temptations you could remove? If you can think of any changes to implement, do so right away. If you're not sure how to improve certain aspects, be sure to keep the question at the back of your mind and revisit it later. More often than not, you will find that a good idea will strike you when you least expect it!