Almost every freelancer struggles with productivity, time management and process. We’re all asking how we can get more done without going more crazy. So let’s share. What works for you?
We’ve been talking with WordPress pros about productivity. Usually I do the interviewing, but I’ve been learning so much from these interviews and reading up on being busy that I wanted to share what I’ve learned and applied.
So today we talk with me—or rather, I answer my own questions. My name is Kevin D. Hendricks and I’ve been blogging for iThemes for years. I’m a freelance writer and editor and I use WordPress for multiple projects.
“The simple act of putting to-do list items on my calendar really changed how I approach my day.” -Kevin D. Hendricks
I talk about making the most of your calendar, knowing your strengths and staying focused.
What’s the most effective thing freelancers can do to be more productive?
Put your tasks on a calendar. I’ve always resisted that idea because it felt like becoming a slave to my calendar. But it really changed how I work and made me more productive to stop worrying and embrace my calendar.
A few months back I had a busy stretch where I had way too much to do. I wasn’t sure how I could get it all done. The sticky note to-do list I’ve relied on for years wasn’t cutting it anymore. I needed something more. So I started putting those tasks on my calendar.
By putting tasks on the calendar you’re actually scheduling them for a specific time and committing to them, like you would for a meeting on your calendar. The result is you’re more likely to stick to it. You’re more likely to say no to a meeting or some other distraction because you need to get a project done.
I’m not a fan of hyper-organizing my day and I’m still not super strict with my calendar, but the simple act of putting those to-do list items on my calendar really changed how I approach my day. I could lay out each task and immediately see when I didn’t have time for a project. I could easily see when I had to work hard to get things done, and when I had time to take a lunch meeting.
Despite feeling busy and overwhelmed, I could see a path through to getting everything done.
I’m still learning how to maximize my calendar—I tend to underestimate the time required and I need to include more blank spots. I also need to get better about scheduling exercise and breaks.
How do you stay focused and productive throughout the day?
Whenever I take one of those personality tests, responsibility is one of my defining characteristics. I know I need to do the work to earn money so I can pay the bills and take care of my family.
So that drives me to stay focused and be productive. Keeping a task list (now scheduled on my calendar) and tracking my hours helps me know how much I’m getting done and how much I still have to do. That’s good motivation because while I am responsible, I also enjoy the freedom and flexibility of freelancing. If I’m getting my work done, then it’s OK to take some time off.
I realize not everybody has that responsibility driver, but I think the lesson is to know yourself. Figure out what drives you and use that to keep yourself motivated throughout the day.
Email is often mentioned as a productivity killer. How do you efficiently manage your email?
I hate the idea of inbox zero. It always feels like pointless busy work. I have better things to do than delete emails.
I also resent the idea that email is somehow so awful. Most of my work is accomplished through email—all the decisions, directions, strategy and more.
So I’ve never been one to take the standard advice on email. But I have learned how to be more productive with it.
I used to keep my email program open all day long with notifications popping up in the corner of the screen. I thought I had the willpower to ignore those notifications, but I realized I was interrupting my work all the time. Lately I’ve started closing my email program, I shut off all the notifications, and I only check it a few times a day. Vast improvement.
I also recently switched email programs, and in the process email isn’t working on my phone. I haven’t bothered to fix it, and I’m just fine with that.
Email is one of those tools we need to use effectively. Make sure you’re using email and email isn’t using you.
What other productivity tips do you have for busy freelancers?
I never realized what a disruption it is to switch tasks. The research is pretty compelling—it slows us down by 40% and it can take us 23 minutes to recover from an interruption. That’s crazy.
So the first step is to shut off distractions. Turn off notifications, close social media, turn your phone off, etc. I always thought I was good at ignoring the notifications, but then I noticed myself always checking email or getting pulled into discussions on Facebook.
We’re not as good as we think we are. In fact, we’re tempted to check our phones every 6.5 minutes. Make it easier on yourself by killing those notifications.
The second step is to tackle projects in big chunks. Not only do we need to avoid the constant, scatter-brain distractions, but we need to go deep and thoroughly immerse ourselves in a project.
This is hard because we don’t want to commit big chunks of time. Those projects loom large and it’s intimidating to get started. We don’t have the energy to start something new, and we psyche ourselves out. It’s easier to cross off a bunch of minor tasks. But the reality is those big projects are the important work you do. Many of those minor tasks aren’t important (that’s why they’re minor).
By focusing on a project for a long period, we’re able to marinate in the problem. We understand it better because we’re diving deep instead of constantly starting and stopping. The result is better work. You’ll come up with smarter solutions and see things you otherwise wouldn’t have.
I’ve even found that the projects I thought were big weren’t actually that big. I just needed to get started, focus and then a solution came pretty quickly.
So stop switching tasks, kill the distractions, and tackle projects in big chunks. It’s a different way of working, but I’ve found it to be more intentional, more effective and more satisfying.
For more insights, check out our other productivity interviews in the series.