What’s the key to freelance success? Being productive when you work for yourself requires good old-fashioned discipline and ninja time management skills. At the risk of sounding like a 1980s business bible, time management is absolutely essential for freelance success. Of course there are other factors – being tenacious, pursuing all leads and just blind fate. But in my experience once you’ve mastered managing your time, you’ll hit your productivity stride, your clients will be happy enough to give you more work and the mythical work-life balance we hear so much about can actually happen.
I already shared some tips about being productive when working from home but if you’ve got your own productivity tips and tricks I’d love to hear them.
Here are my productivity tips for freelance writers but they also apply to most self-employed workers or people who work remotely:
- Bundle all your meetings and events into one day
Launches, lunches and meetings are a big part of being a journalist. As I mentioned in this piece on networking, getting out there and meeting people is really important but…you just can’t attend every event or you’d get no work done. Between getting ready so I can pass myself off as a Professional Adult Who Has It Together to getting there on the bus and back, a lunch event or meeting can easily eat up 3 hours or more of your afternoon. Where possible, I try to bundle all my meeting and events into one day so if I have a work event at lunch time, I set up client meetings or coffee with an editor that morning or late afternoon because I’ll be leaving the house anyway. This way, I can work from home uninterrupted for the rest of the week. Well, that’s the plan…
- Block off email time in your diary
Dipping in and out of emails all day just haemorrhages time I could actually spend writing so now I devote specific times to deal with emails – usually one hour in the morning, while I’m eating lunch and again around 4.30pm. Everyone has my number so if it’s urgent they can call me. Speaking of calling me, I recently had 16 emails back and forth with a potential client about a project that wasn’t a runner in the end. The lesson? Pick up the phone and have a chat – it’s much quicker than an email chain.
- Ration your social media usage
Wean yourself off social media or train yourself to post and go or post everything in the evening. Engagement is higher after 5pm anyway so it’s a win-win. There are so many apps and websites now like ColdTurkey that can block your internet access or a specific site. You can find more digital detox tips in my How To Spend Less Time on the Internet piece or here’s a list of apps that can block the internet.
- Uni-task, not multitask
In the last 6 months I’ve really been trying to be more present and one of the key tenets of mindful practice is to do one thing at a time. This means I focus on the task at hand – whether it’s writing this blog post or preparing my dinner – and complete it, rather than starting five different tasks and completing none. Of course some things get interrupted or you can’t complete a mammoth task in one sitting but there’s an enormous sense of satisfaction when you do complete each task fully. This Forbes feature gives a brief overview of why you should stop multitasking.
- Do the worst thing first
Bit obvious but like ripping off a band-aid, I try – emphasis on try here – to do the thing I’m dreading most first, such as chasing up a long overdue invoice. Then the rest of the day can only get better, right?
- Take a break. Lots of them.
I’ve read all sorts of productivity tips about taking breaks but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about how long you should work before you head out for a Starbucks but the most important thing is that you take breaks full stop. This piece in The Atlantic on taking breaks to increase productivity says that you should work for 52 minutes then take a 17 minute break which seems a bit excessive but remember “the most productive employees don’t necessarily work the longest hours.”
When I started freelancing I would work nonstop until around 4.30 and start making lunch before I passed out or snacked on someone’s arm. I do not recommend this. Take regular breaks, even just to go boil the kettle or take a stroll around the block. You can use your time to browse Cats of Instagram if you like but escaping the computer screen for just 10 minutes makes me feel revived and ready to tick another task off my list.
- Get into a routine.
Yes, I know that being able to sleep in ‘til noon and work wherever and whenever you want is the greatest gift freelancing can give you but as I mentioned before in this piece on being productive when you work from home you really need a regular routine when you’re freelance so your work doesn’t take over your personal life. Go to bed at the same time, get up at the same time and change your scenery every once in a while so your home office doesn’t get you down but otherwise, keep your day as routine as possible. Freelancing throws up many challenges and most days I don’t know what’ll land in my inbox so a semblance of routine holds everything together.
- Give your day a time makeover.
If you’re feeling swamped but have no idea where your day goes, for one week write down everything you did from the second you sat down in front of your laptop with your first mug of coffee until you slam it shut for the day. And be honest. At the end of the week (or you could do it for one day) you’ve got an accurate snapshot of how you’re using your day. If it reads like ‘9.30-10.00 wrote 50 words. 10.00-12.00 fell into a Brangelina gossip hole’ you’ve got your answer.
- Prep the night before
Just like you would if you were going to school (shudder) or into an office each day, get as much ready as you can the night before. I make my overnight oats or chia pudding and stick it in the fridge and leave my workspace neat and tidy. If I’m going to meetings or an event, I pick out my outfit and do my hair so I can snooze a bit longer in the morning. Finally, I always make a list of things I have to do the next day, usually in order of when I’ll do them. My number one productivity tip for freelancers? Lists will save your life.
Now for some links… Here’s my piece on being productive while working from home and this Career Foundry piece on increasing your productivity as a freelancer has some great tips. Finally, this is a good overview of how mindfulness can increase your productivity.