Working as a freelancer or entrepreneur definitely presents its own rewards and its own challenges. While it may sound idyllic to be in charge of your schedule on a daily basis, the reality, as almost any freelance worker can tell you, is that having that kind of freedom can also be a pitfall if you’re not prone to diligent self-discipline by nature.
All manner of things can distract you from your projects when you work from home or set your own hours. Misconceptions about what your work is and how it functions may mean that well-meaning friends or family may call (or even drop by!) unexpectedly mid-day not realizing that, yes, you have a ton of sh*t to do because you’re pressed up against a deadline. Phone notifications and social media pings, and even a compulsive need to check one’s email inbox multiple times a day (God help us!) can pull us out of our work, each distracted minute eventually adding up to wasted hours by the end of our day. Then, of course, there’s always that perfectly sunny, 75-degree weather that is beckoning us to push off today’s tasks to bask in the sun for a few hours in a nearby park (sigh).
In short, sometimes as freelancers, we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to boundaries around our time management. Over time, I’ve set up my own helpful tips, tricks & hacks to maximize my daily productivity.
1. Get a routine
My routine is more of a morning ritual. If I don’t have a crazy call time, I try to wake up at the same time every morning, take a few minutes to meditate before I head out to exercise. Both meditation and working out feel like a brain & body detox; often my best ideas or creative solutions come to me after a sweat session or actively not thinking about a solution. Getting up & at ‘em right away supports the energy of the rest of the day, rather than a slow sluggish start. The inertia can be strong on those down days! Another part of the morning routine is putting on “real people” clothes. Getting dressed and pouring a cup of coffee are strong signals to my brain that the Work Day has begun. A way of saying, “It’s Go Time.”
Of course in production, we are not always in control of our daily schedule. There are stretches where the routine falls by the wayside when I’ve had a series of crazy call times or so much international travel that I can’t remember what time zone I am in. As much as I love the variety of my days, having this routine to come back to helps me recalibrate & balance out again.
What works for you may be different, but the important takeaway is to cultivate a routine and stick to it. Routines are there to support you.
2. Be deliberate with your time.
I love lists. Mostly because I love the feeling of checking off items from that to-do list! (But also because I’m a stationery junkie. Perhaps you’ve seen me with my “production bible” notebook of lists?!) Personally, I find it’s best to have 3 lists going at any given time: Monthly, weekly, and daily lists. Each of these lists has 3 “must accomplish” tasks associated with them, as well as any other upcoming tasks that I need to keep my eye on. Once I get through the 3 “must accomplish” tasks, I prioritize the next important line-items and keep moving on from there, always looking ahead to make sure I’m accomplishing my broader weekly and monthly goals, as well. I also find that working deliberately on one goal at a time (even if it’s small) helps me avoid multitasking which often kills my productivity since my brain is having to switch back and forth between objectives repeatedly. It’s incredible what you can get done in 20 minutes if you are not toggling between tasks!
In addition to my morning routine, there is also an evening ritual I practice that supports being deliberate with my time. At the end of the day, I review the 3 accomplishments of the day (sometimes there are many more, yay!), and set my 3 goals for the following day. This helps me recalibrate, especially on the days that have been especially chaotic or I haven’t been able to get all three done. I anchor myself in the feeling of accomplishment - which is important if you work for yourself and no one else is there to acknowledge your progress. The following morning, I also set an intention, which is not a task, but more of a principle or feeling I’d like to have guide me throughout the day. And since I already set my 3 goals the previous evening, I know exactly what to focus on!
3. Ditch the distractions
Turn off the phone, if you must. Applications like OFFTIME can help you manage/keep track of your social media use. If you’re really pressed against deadlines and need a little help to get away from distractions, a more drastic measure like a Cave Day may be just the thing to help you power through your tasks (use code A_ANNIKA for 25% off (!!) any Cave purchase).
One easy hack that I’ve incorporated into my computer work, is changing my email program to update only every 15 minutes, rather than refreshing every minute.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but consider trading your home office for a community workspace, a neighborhood cafe or a flexible co-working space. A moderate level of ambient noise enhances your creativity & your performance on creative tasks. Also, concentration is contagious; when you are surrounded by others getting sh*t done, you pick up on that energy and are more likely to follow suit. A little bit of collective competition doesn’t hurt, and neither does providing a bit of polish by getting out of your pajamas.
4. Dedicated workspace
Confucious once said: A workman who wants to do his work well must first prepare his tools. Think of your workspace as one of the tools essential to your job. I’ve found that it’s helpful to have a dedicated workspace - even if it’s simply a corner desk in your home or a regular spot at the local coffee house. Working from the comfort of your bed may be fine on occasion, but you’re likely to be more productive with a dedicated space. There’s a subconscious trigger that this is the space to get your stuff done, similar to putting on work clothes rather than staying in your PJs.
If you have office mates, roommates, family or even pets present, it can still be tricky to stay focused, even with your dedicated office space. It’s tempting for folks in a shared office space to stop by for a friendly chat, or for a significant other to take a few minutes to talk through the grocery list for the week, despite the fact that you’re clearly working.
If you really want focused time, implementing some kind of “do not disturb” protocol might be helpful. It may be as simple as closing the office door or, in shared spaces, putting a sign up on the back of your computer to let folks know that you’re in “focus mode” right now and would prefer to not be disturbed. Wearing headphones (whether or not you’re listening to anything) might also discourage another coffeehouse patron from trying to strike up a friendly conversation.
5. Schedule downtime into your calendar
Seriously. Build your downtime into your calendar. Perhaps it’s as simple as 15-minute breaks at various intervals throughout the day to grab a cup of tea or take a quick walk around the block, but it can also be a larger chunk of time or a full day where you plan activities meant to inspire you. Being in charge of your own schedule is how to make a freelance lifestyle work for you, rather than having it work you over.
When I am on my home turf in New York, my Sunday routine includes an extra hour of sleep, my favorite morning super-sweaty yoga class, followed by coffee at one of my favorite sunny cafes. I give myself time to read the FT Weekend or NYTimes newspaper (on real newsprint) and put pen to paper with my own writing. It’s a gift of time for myself with no obligations to clients. This is also when I schedule my upcoming week. I try to envision what my work schedule will look like, what my top priorities will be, while also roughing in any appointments, meetings, social obligations, morning workouts as well as other fun events.
When I need to recharge my batteries, I often seek out inspiration at a local gallery or museum, schedule hang time with a dear friend, take a yoga or dance class, or simply take an adventure walk through the city.
I find it best to provide some flexibility in my weekly & monthly calendars for an unexpected social activity or that perfectly sunny 75-degree day - take a look at what can be adjusted in advance so you know whether or not you really have those 2 hours to spare. Once it’s scheduled, however, it’s important that you protect it in the same way you would protect any other task. And we’re back to boundaries!
Of course… we all operate differently, so while these tips work well to help me maximize my productivity, some other version of these may be better for you. We’d love to hear how you organize your time!