You cannot imagine how long it took me to finally focus on writing this article. Really. First; I was switching on my computers (I need two for my different jobs). Two computers, fifteen things to check. On each of them. Social networks, email accounts (yes, I have more than one, and no, I still haven’t synced them all) plus the sports news of course. Sometimes I check the same news site on both computers which doesn’t make any sense. It’s become a routine that I haven’t broken yet.
The bottom line is: I have some issues with staying focused. (In case you didn’t see that coming.) As a freelancer, that is as bad as it is perfectly normal. It is normal because there is no boss breathing down your neck. And it’s bad because you still need to achieve results to pay the landlord waiting for the rent and, more importantly, the company charging for the internet.
How to be productive is key for a freelancer because every single minute has value. That being said, sometimes less is more. I realized that I cannot work ten hours a day even if I wanted. I’ve tried it too many times, and failed badly. Failure was guaranteed especially when I started the day with a huge pile of work but had no clear plan on how to get through it.
It is definitely not a sprint but a constant battle to become at least acceptable at managing time and improving productivity. The books and apps trying to tackle this topic cannot be counted. Speaking from experience, there is a lot of power in getting the basics right. Improvements in your behavior that help you boost your productivity and help you stay focused. I am still working on it (constant battle, you know), but here are eight solid basics that work for me.
1. Get enough sleep
Not being well rested is the most important reason for not being productive. Have you found yourself staring at the screen for five minutes, daydreaming then trying to remember what you were about to do? Well, it happens to all of us, but it happens much more often when we are tired. Not getting enough sleep basically dumbs you down. And that is one of the mildest things. Much more scary is that it can lead to anxiety and depression.
What is your excuse? You don’t have time? Make time. You never exercised before? Start. Now. Your body needs it, and your mind will appreciate it even more. Whenever you can, start the day with a short run, some yoga or whatever you like best. Let it be just enough to help you open your eyes, but not that much that you get tired again.
3. Separate spaces
I find it most helpful when I can separate my workspace from the rest of the spaces. That means that I can close the door from both sides. I can close it from the inside and focus without interruption, and I can close it from the outside and leave the work there, take a break, end the day and don’t do “just a bit more” before I just fall over into my bed. For my family, it is also helpful. Open door means “daddy can be bothered even though he is working”, closed door says “no way”.
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4. Write a to-do-list
It’s normal for us all to end the day with some thoughts about the next day. But many times it remains just thoughts. Part of a more productive routine is writing a to-do-list – either old-school or digitally. It doesn’t have to be down to the very minute, but I prefer to have a plan for the day; I want to know what is expected of me, and I want to decide it myself.
When you start working your way through the list the next day, some people prefer to start with the tasks you don’t like. This works best for me. You will have more energy to face them, and you will feel lighter when you have them off your back.
A bonus for writing a to-do-list is that you can cross things off. And that is a wonderful feeling.
5. Stick to a schedule
Those of us with children can appreciate on all kinds of levels how powerful a schedule can be. It is the most important thing for a freelancer(as well as it is for the kids). I can tell myself fifty times that I need to pull this all-nighter, but after I do, I also realize that it wasn’t all that great because the next two days I only work at half my usual energy.
Design yourself a schedule and stick to it. For example, set a time for reading emails (and stick to it!), for checking the social networks (and stick to it!), for eating. Seriously, don’t forget to eat. I do it far too often, and realize when I get tired, cranky and lack the necessary concentration at 4 pm that I skipped breakfast and lunch. I would never forget to put fuel in the tank of my car. Why do I forget to put fuel in my own tank? It is a mystery.
6. When you are in the zone, keep working
However – and I am almost contradicting the previous point here – when you are in the zone, keep working. There are days where it is impossible to focus on the words on your screen, and others when you are in the flow. Be flexible enough to make the most of the energy and clarity wave when it hits.
7. Reward yourself
Put it on your schedule, on your to-do-list. After you’ve surfed the wave, gone with the flow, and achieved a good deal of work, reward yourself. Whether it’s a good glass of wine, or 30 minutes gaming, be sure that you deserve it, and that it does you good. It also raises your productivity (when it is actually a small break and you focus on work again afterwards).
8. Think positively
This may sound cheesy, but I love this advice. Think about it. Having negative thoughts just makes you miserable; being miserable doesn’t make you more productive. Be grateful that you are alive and that you have the courage to do what you do. Offices are full of people who don’t have that kind of courage.
What would you add to this list? What works best for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.