Over the years, I’ve talked with many freelance writers who don’t give a second thought to their productivity. As if by magic, they don’t seem to need to. They can just, somehow, do what needs to be done and everything flows like the mighty Mississippi.
Lucky them. I can’t relate. My personality is naturally resistant to routine, and I don’t like digital pop-ups telling me what to do, even if I’m the one who set them. It’s like a cruel joke.
I have to hack my own methods for streamlining my processes and boosting productivity, and it’s a never-ending journey. I’m constantly tweaking my systems, and occasionally find I need to create new ones to respond to changing life circumstances. (Nod your head if you can relate.)
Recently, some of my project management clients asked for my help in improving their productivity. This inspired me to think about the 10,000-foot view of the productivity challenge, and break it down into steps that anyone can walk through, regardless of their personality or work style, in order to design more efficient processes.
4 elements to consider when working to improve your productivity
1. Group similar tasks into batches.
This is a classic productivity tip that you’ve probably heard many times before. In conversations with a number of high-earning freelance writers, I found that some adopt this approach and others do not. Of those who don’t, some should and others are fine without it. While that observation initially struck me as a little odd, I found the sense in it. If you’re inclined to forget, procrastinate, or essentially ignore certain types of tasks, those are prime targets for batching. They may even be tasks you can outsource to a virtual assistant, such as invoicing or publishing clips to your portfolio. However, if you’re perfectly efficient at invoicing a client immediately after submitting a deliverable, then you probably don’t need to worry about batching those tasks.
2. Manage your actual work time.
Freelance writers are typically adept at estimating the amount of time it will take to do a lot of tasks: conducting an interview, researching a topic, writing 1,000 words, etc. It can be more challenging to estimate non-billable tasks, such as updating your website, finding prospective clients, or following up on leads. If you have trouble in this area, try tracking your time—either with pen and paper or with an app—until you can calculate an average. Any hard numbers will help, such as “I can send out 10 LOIs in 1 hour.”
Managing your time goes well beyond estimates, of course. When it comes to building your work schedule, look to maximize your efficiency. Plan the most difficult tasks for the time of the day when your brain is really on fire (hello, night owls!) and be sure to build in breaks. You’re not a machine.
Many writers love breaking their writing time into blocks, such as Pomodoro sprints, while others may simply set a timer to carve out a block for a specific task or project. Try a few different approaches for a day or two. Keep what works for you and dump the rest.
3. Stay motivated and on task.
Ironically, some of the best and most successful writers I know are shameless procrastinators. I certainly have my moments, as well. There’s no universal fix for that, but here are a few approaches that seem to work for folks:
- Create a reward system. This could be a small reward, like a favorite snack, after completing a block of work, or it could be a bigger prize. One writer I know likes to treat herself to take-out from her favorite restaurant if she hits all her goals for the week. If you’re motivated by rewards, think of the big and small ways you can reward yourself for doing the work.
- Social media blockers and similar tools. To avoid getting sucked into the rabbit hole of social media when you’re supposed to be researching statistics for an article, just shut it down. Some people find it easy enough to close those browser windows and put their phone on airplane mode, while others need a heavier fist. There are tons of apps and other options specifically designed to help block out distractions while you work.
- Keep up your momentum. A colleague in a writers’ group recently shared a tip from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, which is genius in its simplicity. He suggests using a visual tool (in his case, a giant wall calendar and a bunch of red X marks) to keep score of consecutive writing days, in an ultimate effort to write, at least a little bit, every single day. If you’re looking for a broader sense of accomplishment, you could use this method to X out each day you complete all of the ‘required’ tasks on your to do list.
4. Get help where you need it, and don’t stress where you don’t need to.
There are so many options for task and project management apps and cloud tools that it’s overwhelming. If you feel comfortable using digital tools to organize your tasks, there is surely an option out there for you, and many of them are free to use. (I’m thinking about Asana, Todolist, Trello and the like here. I’ll circle back to this topic in a future blog post.)
But (and this is a big one) these tools are not for everyone, and even people who love them may find they are not for every task. Perhaps you need a tool like that to organize a big project, or just manage the details of a client relationship, but you may still feel compelled to turn to pen and paper to manage your daily task lists. If that’s what works for you, and works well, do that. There’s never anything wrong with doing what works for your business and your work style.