Having recently made the switch from a “normal” job (I use normal loosely) to starting my own company and freelancing from home (or Barnes and Noble, or wherever I travel to) I very quickly realized that I needed to establish definite boundaries for work, life, and play. It’s easy to get distracted, particularly when working from home because laundry always needs to be done, dirty dishes are always happening (how, I’ll never know) and the internet is a treasure trove of other things to do. These six simple productivity techniques have made a huge difference!
I’ve always been an avid multi-tasker, which I blame on 10 years of bartending, and a keen procrastinator (thanks, college) and but those don’t work when you must set and meet your own deadlines, and the only face representing your work ethic and company is your own. These somber realizations led quickly to some research, followed by a stack of notepads, some color-coding, and the use of my trusty iPhone timer.
These systems aren’t perfect and still suffer adaptations on a weekly basis, but they’re better than nothing because moving forward, no matter how slowly, is preferable to standing still. As I continue my life and learning as a freelancer and a writer, these techniques will undoubtedly evolve. But so far, I haven’t missed a deadline yet and am consistently advancing both my personal and professional goals.
Since this is such an important topic for my fellow entrepreneurs, I thought I would share my experiences and ideas with you! These productivity and organization methods are an amalgamation of several schools of thought, shaped by trial and error, and I’m sure a year from now they’ll be completely different!
My Six Favorite Productivity Techniques
1. The Psuedo Pomodoro
My first and personal favorite is an adaptation of the Pomodoro method because if you let me, I’ll get completely absorbed and spend 9 straight hours working on the same thing. Then I get horribly burnt out and binge-watch Netflix while eating crappy food in bed, because “I earned it.”
This is a problem for many obvious reasons, but mostly because freelancing requires you to juggle numerous tasks, to-do’s, and deadlines. I like working with a timer because it keeps everything on my calendar always inching forward, a little every day.
My preferred timer ratio is 30/20/10. I like working in hour blocks because it makes planning a daily schedule more consistent. The 30-minute windows are for more time-consuming tasks such as graphic design, reading, or researching. The 20-minute windows are for writing, checking social media, and replying to emails. The 10-minute windows are for stretching, refilling coffee cups, performing small household tasks, or making phone calls.
2. Trading To-Do for Done
Done lists are an excellent way to track both how long you spend on tasks and how much you achieve throughout the day. When my timer goes off, I take a few seconds of my 10-minute window to record what I’ve gotten done in the last hour under the appropriate time slot. I created a simple checklist for this in Numbers and saved it to my desktop.
First thing each morning, I print off the previous day’s list before clearing it and starting fresh. While I store most of my work digitally or in the cloud, I do still enjoy traditionally printing things off because having something concrete to flip through is satisfying to me. Also, I can highlight specific jobs across a week or month and easily track how long they take, which allows me to estimate how much I’m earning per hour for each task and establish appropriate pay scales. It also allows me to separate the billable hours of actual work from the time I spend learning, reading, or working on things that don’t directly earn a paycheck, such as my own personal marketing and social media management.
3. Writing Everything on a Calendar
Since I’m just starting out and balling on a budget, I use Google’s free calendar tools to schedule my whole entire life. There are tons of great productivity and time management programs out there, but for now, Google suits my needs just fine. I’m sure this will change as my business expands.
The key to successfully using a calendar is ACTUALLY using it.
First, I created a series of color-coded calendars. I have my own personal calendar and separate calendars for writing and revising, research, pitches and proposals, follow-ups, reminders, and social media management.
Then, I create all-day events for the various responsibilities I have each week and assign them to a particular calendar. Tasks that repeat each month (such as project deadlines, website/portfolio updates/various reminders) get set to recur.
First thing Monday morning, I plan my weekly schedule based on everything I need and want to achieve. I do this by hand, on a notepad, and then build my calendar, crossing things off as I go. This has its own reminder as well, to make sure I don’t slack and actually do it.
Every day, I read my email, the various blogs I subscribe to, and the news. I take the time to write, work on graphic design projects, read, and research. I also work on one e-course a month, study a language with Duolingo (currently it’s Spanish) and complete a Lumosity workout.
The beginning of the week is dominated by scheduling social media posts, for my clients and myself. Every weekend, I update my website. Every three months, I update my business plan and evaluate my progress.
4. Breaking Tasks into Chunks
Being the queen of procrastination in my former life, I knew I had to make a serious effort to break the habit. In college, I believed my best writing happened during crunch time. Now, writing professionally, I’ve discovered my best work happens over time and with careful revision (who woulda thought, huh?).
So, I promptly schedule deadlines on the calendar as projects are assigned, estimate the necessary time to complete the project, and add a little extra to accommodate for problems, writer’s block, my 8-year-old, and life itself. Occasionally, a client comes to me and needs something last minute. I don’t mind rush projects, but they require me to rearrange my schedule and that wiggle room comes in handy when the opportunity make extra cash pops up.
The “done” list helps me to track how long it takes to research and write projects of various depth and length. This allows me to better plan my time and work more efficiently. The “pseudo Pomodoro” also ensures that I touch all my projects every day, even if it’s just for 20 or 30 minutes. This helps me to feel less stressed because I also know exactly where each project sits on a timeline and can estimate how much longer I’ll need to complete it.
I don’t formally “timebox, ” but I do arrange my work into an order of tasks based on rough times of the day. I check emails and read all my blogs first thing in the morning while I’m drinking my coffee, mostly to get the juices flowing properly. Depending on the day, this can take 30 minutes or two hours (sometimes the inbox is almost silent, at times there is a massive amount of content to sift through).
Then I cycle between writing, researching, and graphic design or social media management projects during the middle of the day.
I break at 3:30 PM to pick my son up from school, and then sit down to study Spanish, do my brain training, and work on whatever e-course I’m currently enrolled in while he completes his homework and spends a couple hours playing.
I strive to wrap my work day up no later than 6 PM so I can spend time with him, start dinner, and tidy my house up. We eat and hang out, and I usually sit down to read after he’s in bed, partly because I’m a little bit of a workaholic and mostly because I really like to read.
6. Don’t Break the Chain
Don’t break the chain is a technique that was developed by Jerry Seinfeld to help him write jokes every day. It’s excellent for creating daily habits to learn something new. Basically, you set aside time every day to complete a task, and when it’s done, you make a mark on your calendar. I use this for my language learning and brain training classes because they need to be done on a daily basis and already have built in calendars to track your progress and reward you for consecutive daily streaks.
In the instance of Duolingo and Lumosity, both take very little time to complete. I spend roughly 20 minutes a day studying Spanish, and no more than 10 on my brain training workout. Since both apps are structured like games, it feels a lot less like working and more like a brain break.
My Favorite Tools
- Google – The Google suite makes my life super easy! I can schedule everything in my calendar, save all my images in the drive, keep all my documents in one place, access them easily from any device, and complete my research!
- Evernote – The web clipper makes saving and organizing research super easy. I can also snap photos of business cards or receipts, and the app will pull and sort the information for me! It’s super handy for storing contacts and tracking business expenses.
- Hootsuite – Scheduling all my posts might take a few hours, but I don’t have to worry about them once they’re done. It also tracks the analytics and performance of your posts across each platform.
- Grammarly – This nifty little tool helps proof and clean my writing. It’s especially useful for finding grammatical mistakes, repetitive words, and plagiarism. The best part? Grammarly integrates with most web-based applications and will check your work on everything from emails to Facebook posts.
- PayPal – Again with the early stages of my business, but PayPal allows me to track expenses, create invoices, and take payments from my clients. They charge a small fee for each transaction, but so far, I’m happy with the service.
- Coffitivity – Research indicates that soft, slightly fluctuating background noise improves creativity and helps you focus! This app produces the ambient noise of a coffee shop, cafeteria, and college campus café to help occupy the “busy” part of your brain and allow you to work at maximum efficiency!
Other Useful Things
- This might be a no-brainer (lol), but SLEEP. Rested brains perform so much better than tired ones! I spent 10 years of my life sleeping in 3-4 hour shifts because the child had to get to school, classes had to be attended, or life had to happen during the day. Bartending is not kind on the body. When I finally left the crazy night hours and started going to bed at 11 PM, I literally BOUNCED out of bed at 6:30 AM. My body didn’t know what to do with all that sleep!
- Exercise! First thing every morning, I stretch and do a little workout. On my breaks throughout the day, I do squats or planks when I stretch. This is partly because I’m not used to sitting down for long stretches and my body gets antsy if I’m still for too long, but also because exercise has a multitude of documented, researched health benefits.
- Eat, and eat WELL. Garbage in, garbage out. Try it yourself, and you’ll see. Have a light lunch, perhaps fish or chicken, with vegetables of your choice and a small piece of fruit one day. Then get a cheeseburger and fries the next. You’ll feel a MAJOR difference. I drink a smoothie upon waking, have eggs partway through the morning, a light lunch at noon, a healthful snack midafternoon, supper, and then an evening snack. I don’t keep chips or junk food in my house (because if I do, I’ll eat them. Pizza Rolls are a weakness). Fruit, veggies, whole grain crackers, cottage cheese, mixed nuts, etc. Basically, put good in, get good out.
- Learn what makes you tick! For me, it’s that morning pot of coffee (Archer Farms Hazelnut, please) and then big bottles of Tazo green tea. It’s a choice of classical music or an app like Coffitivity. I love Pentel RSVP pens, college ruled notepads, highlighters, and printed copies to proofread.
Tell me what works for you! I’d love to hear it! None of these methods are foolproof, and everyone is different. Maybe there’s some fantastic idea I haven’t tried yet! What makes your freelance business produce and thrive. What helps you reach your goals?
Until next Thursday, stay curious!