I like to think of working in freelance as a “liberating challenge.” While you have the freedom to work whatever hours you like in whatever space, that freedom can be a trap of its own. As there’s no one to organize your day for you and place an infrastructure neatly in your lap, it’s up to you to stay focused and productive.
Organizational skills and self-motivation might come naturally to some of us, but the rest of us will need to take up whatever small practices we can to be more tactful and effective with our time-management. If you fall into that second group, try these top tips.
Setting a Schedule
When you have total freedom over your schedule, setting a schedule to stick to may seem counter-intuitive. However, schedules are in place because they benefit us and help us accomplish our goals. If you’re overly flexible with how you approach each day, it’ll be hard to get into the mindset of task completion. There are no hard lines for you to stick to and the start of the day can wane farther and farther into the distance. Instead, set a work timeframe and try to stick to it so you’ll have some sense of rhythm and normalcy.
Create a Morning Routine
Our brains don’t automatically become productive just because we have work on our plates. Well-planned morning routines will signal your brain that it’s time to start working.
It could be as simple as showering, making coffee, or other essentials (yes, coffee is essential). Develop a list of steps you follow each morning, maintaining this routine day after day. This will break through that post-sleep fog, triggering the energy to start your day as well as be productive for the rest of your day too.
Don’t Check Your Inbox
It is so easy to get stuck in the cycle of checking and responding to emails. The truth is that a lot of us that are office-based (especially freelancers) spend way too much time sifting through emails.
The best thing to do is set aside time slots on your busy days to check emails. And if it’s not the email checking time - close them! We all have phones, so if something is urgent, I’m sure you’ll get a call.
Embracing a Workspace
I have this fantasy that I can complete my work from the comfort of my bed, especially on chilly mornings where I’d rather keep sleeping. I imagine I can work in my pajamas all day and it’ll feel like it’s practically a day-off.
I say this is a fantasy because no reality I’ve ever encountered has validated this thought. If I work from my bed, or from my couch, blankets heaped on top of me, I’ll never get into a good flow. When I want to be effective, I need to put on actual clothes and sit at my desk. It’s part of my morning routine and it helps get me in the mindset of a workday.
Develop your workspace to make it a place you enjoy being. Maybe that means setting up your desk by a window with lots of sunlight, or setting up three screens so you can work more efficiently. Be sure to invest in an ergonomic chair and a set-up that promotes good posture. Feeling stiff at the end of the day because you were slouching on the couch won’t make you feel like your work is sustainable and you’ll walk away feeling worse.
Complete Tasks by Priority
Tasks lists make each day more manageable by laying out a clear, simple plan to follow. No more wasting time figuring out your next move after each task.
I prioritize my tasks each day, creating my numbered to-do list that I simply follow step-by-step. I start with my most important tasks: those that must be done today or by specific times of the day.
From there, I prioritize by doing my least pleasant tasks first, but others do the opposite. I’m motivated by getting my worst jobs done first, knowing the rest of my day will be easier. Others prefer starting with easier tasks, working up to their more difficult ones. It comes down to personal preference, so figure out which one best motivates you.
Create Small Goals for Each Project
If you have a big project and the only way you are going to track your progress is at completion, you will lose interest pretty quickly. Instead, create small goals for each project and tick them off as you complete them. The sense of satisfaction from checking things off your to-do list will keep you motivated. The more tasks you tick off, the more productive of a day you feel you’ve had.
Like everything in life, it’s all a mind game. If you can teach your brain to be satisfied with your progress, you will convince yourself you are more efficient!
Avoid Social Media
Social media is both a pleasure and a curse. Yes, it can be fun to endlessly scroll through your friends’ content and stay up to date with the latest trends. But it is also a black hole and there’s never a visible stopping point. There are so many different platforms to look through, never-ending notifications, and delightful dog videos to watch; you can’t possibly hope to extricate yourself from the trap.
Using social media is as easy as picking up your phone, so by setting a loose barrier between your workday and social media, you’re guaranteed to be far less on-task. To fix that problem, make an agreement with yourself to minimize your social media usage throughout the workday and let it be a nice little treat for you at the end of the day.
Speaking of social media and little treats, embrace the opportunities to take breaks throughout the day. Maybe you go for a quick walk, make yourself some lunch, or call a friend. Consider what you do to decompress; this can be a metaphorical carrot dangling ahead of the completion of your next big task.
If you’re grinding for hours on end, your work will become more about your endurance and less about the quality of work you’re producing. By taking little breaks throughout the day, you’ll feel more satisfied with the tasks you’ve completed and you’ll have the motivation you need to push through your workload.
“Okay, today’s the day - I will finish the flyer for Client A....”
Starts working on flyer…
*In Spongebob voice* “One moment later”...
14 tabs open, three different projects in progress, plus six different emails open, each with half of a response.
Does this sound familiar?
If it does, don’t be embarrassed! Multitasking is really useful when you are trying to cook dinner, do the washing, and talk on the phone at the same time. But when it comes to work, the number one thing that productive people do is focus on one task at a time.
If you focus on one thing at a time, you get it done faster and your to-do list shrinks more quickly. Yes, you may get all 10 tasks done in the same amount of time while juggling through them, but it makes your stress levels soar and it is just not worth it.
Track Your Time
Everyone works at a different pace, and it’s important to understand the time it takes you to complete key tasks in your day-to-day. By understanding that you need to put 45 minutes into completing a standard activity, you can visualize your day more effectively and plan accordingly. Making the assumption that it will take you 20 minutes will set you up for failure.
The length of time itself is inconsequential. It’s more about being able to organize your day around it. I like to use my calendar to set up work blocks for certain activities and drop my meetings within those spaces so I can visualize what my day will look like.
This might mean finding out I don’t have the capacity to get something done on a particular day, which I can then communicate with my clients. Using calendars or project management tools like Asana to organize my time has vastly improved my time management and ability to conquer my workload.
Prioritize Healthy Sleep Habits
Sleep is too often an afterthought in our modern world. It’s something we do in whatever spare time is leftover, whether that’s eight hours or four hours. Too little sleep will hurt your productivity all day (and often longer), so make it a priority instead.
Get your solid night’s sleep by creating your ideal sleep environment: lighting levels, noise levels, temperature, and so on. Give yourself a bedtime, sticking with it each day so your body can learn the routine. Once you’ve developed your routine, the snooze button won’t be so tempting.
Know Your Weaknesses
Even the most successful people have weaknesses in their productivity plan. There are always certain distractions or temptations that pull our focus away from work. The trick is learning your weaknesses and finding a solution.
For many, social media is especially problematic. It’s easy to flip it open and spend far too long scrolling endlessly. If that’s your top temptation, leave your phone in another room in between scheduled breaks. There are app locks you can use too, restricting certain apps during specific hours.
Enjoying More Productivity as a Freelancer
Everyone’s approach to time management and productivity will be different based on the work they do or the methods that work best for them. Use the tips above to perfect your productivity plan.