The life of a freelancer can be a constant swirl of busyness. Projects and tasks and urgent needs are all vying for your attention. Freelancing is a whirlwind. Freelance productivity is the solution.
You’re not alone. We all deal with this vortex wrestling for our attention. The less-than-cheerful news is that the whirlwind never goes away. But the good news is you can tame it. You can figure out how to be more productive within the whirlwind and not allow it to consume your life.
Here’s how to do it:
- 1. Create a freelance productivity system for your life and work.
- 2. Make and pursue goals.
The reality is the whirlwind is all about the tyranny of the urgent. It overwhelms you with minor tasks and you never get anything important accomplished.
“When urgency and importance clash, urgency wins every time.” -Franklin Covey
In order to survive, you need strength to stand against the whirlwind and not allow yourself to be blown to and fro whichever way the daily wind is blowing.
Why Be More Productive & Make Goals
Before we get to the how, let’s talk about the why.
Hopefully, many of you are eager for the how and you fully understand the why. You’re desperate to corral your tasks and regain control of your life.
But there’s value in considering the why. Yes, you want to be more productive and accomplish more and be less stressed. But there’s a deeper purpose.
The purpose of freelance productivity is not to make you busier. This isn’t about merely cranking up your efficiency so you churn through even more minor and meaningless tasks in a day.The purpose of freelance productivity is to create margin in your life for what really matters to you.
Stop and think about that for a moment:
- What really matters to you?
- What do you want to accomplish?
- How much money do you need?
- How much do you need to work?
- How would you invest extra time and/or money?
You shouldn’t create goals and develop a productivity system simply to get more work done. You should do it to regain control of your life and ensure that you can pursue the things that give you purpose.
Maybe that is your freelance job. Maybe your work truly matters to you and gives you fulfillment. That’s great.
But maybe the work you’re doing now isn’t exactly the work you always want to be doing. Maybe you need to make changes to your business. Maybe you have a side project you want to pursue. Maybe work is just necessary, but it powers other pursuits that give you that sense of accomplishment.
Let your business be the fuel that powers what you want to do in your life. However it works for you, think about the why. Use that as the motivation to make some changes and tame the whirlwind once and for all.
Freelance Productivity System
Some freelancers manage their tasks out of their email inbox. The result is that your inbox rules your day. The latest email is the latest priority and you have no sense of scope or strategy. It’s an inefficient way to run your business. It’s also a great way to forget things.
You need a system. Not an email inbox.
Works for You
But the first thing to understand about productivity systems is that there’s no universal system. The only right system is the one that works for you. And what works for you might not work for a fellow freelancer.
So while it might be helpful to compare notes and see what works for others, the only real solution is to figure out what works for you. You’ve got to try systems and change systems and tweak your approach until you find what works for you. And that may change as you change.
A good freelance productivity system is an evolving process.
Getting Things Done
One common and well-known approach to productivity systems is detailed in the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. This has been a popular approach in recent years, and for good reason.
The whole idea is to get things out of your brain and into a system. So instead of using your brain to keep track of all your tasks and projects and commitments, you have a system that does it for you. This frees up your brain to actually focus on work, to be creative, to think deeply. It enables you to do better work.
The basic assumption of the system is that you’re dumb.
Seriously: Our subconscious is dumb when it comes to thinking about the things we should be doing. What happens when you hear that new email ding? No matter what you’re working on, no matter the deadline, you suddenly have an innate desire to check your email.
The whole purpose of the system is to keep track of what you need to do, what you should do, or what you should consider, and then convert those things into tangible actions.
The ultimate result is that your subconscious mind can stop trying to track all these tasks, which makes you more productive and less stressed.
The core of the Getting Things Done system is that you create and maintain a series of lists:
- 1. Next actions – Tasks you need to accomplish.
- 2. Projects – A larger action that requires multiple tasks to complete.
- 3. Waiting – An item that needs action, but you’re waiting on someone else (like you’re waiting for a client to provide copy before the project can move forward).
- 4. Someday – Things you need to do someday, but they’re not urgent.
Then you supplement your lists with tools:
- 1. Lists – Something to track and organize your lists of actions, projects, etc.
- 2. Calendar – Where you actually spell out when you’re going to do what actions (this gives order and structure to your day and keeps you from lurching from task to task in a constant state of distraction).
- 3. Reminders – Things you need to come back to, but don’t need to deal with today (so stop trying to remember them and let your system remind you about them).
- 4. Resources – Things you need to refer to, whether it’s how-to articles or client content.
There’s an entire world of tools out there to help you accomplish all this. From apps to services to resources you can buy. Maybe you use Trello for lists, iCal for calendar and reminders, and Evernote for resources. Maybe you use something else entirely. The point is to find the tools that work best for you.
A Few Tips for Picking Tools:
- Just start: Don’t wait for your system to be perfect. Refine it as you go, but just go!
- Be all in: Don’t try to use multiple tools for the same thing as you’re figuring it out. Pick one and stick to it. Redundant organizational systems don’t organize anything.
- Pay attention: Especially as you’re starting out, you need to keep your various tools open and refer to them often. Out of sight, out of mind—so keep those tools in view until it becomes a habit.
- Supercharge it: Tools are interconnected these days. There are WordPress plugins that interface with calendars, Trello, Evernote and more. You can also use services like IFTTT and Zapier to keep everything connected.
- Learn from others: Everybody has their own system for productivity, and a lot of the tools overlap, even if each unique system isn’t the same. Search for tips and creative applications from others online. Ask around. If something isn’t working the way you want, ask how other folks make it work.
Process Your Inbox
Getting Things Done works by creating a system to handle everything that comes in. So you need to actually process everything that comes through—emails, phone calls, support requests, etc.—and make sure it has a place to go where you’ll eventually follow up with it.So get things out of your head and into a system. You’ll be more focused and more productive.
Make Some Goals
While it’s helpful to have a productivity system, it won’t end the whirlwind. It will only help you deal with it. There really is no end to the whirlwind—sorry, that’s life.
But knowing that, you should make time for big picture strategy in the midst of the whirlwind. You have a whole system to help you stay productive despite the whirlwind, so use that system to make long-term goals.
As you’re making goals, be sure they’re SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. You want to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish.
Another smart way to approach goals: The more you have, the fewer you’ll be able to achieve with excellence. If you aim for two to three goals, you can probably achieve them. But if you aim for any more, you’re going to hit even fewer of them. And if you aim for a lot of goals, you’ll probably hit none of them.
Make goals for your upcoming week, as well as more long-term goals like the coming month, quarter, and year. You don’t need to be crazy organized and planned out with it, but you need to have some sort of plan.
If you walk into your office on Monday morning without a plan, the whirlwind will gobble you up. You have to plan for it and block out the time to make this stuff happen. And that’s especially true for your long-term goals. Make them part of your freelance productivity system.
Action, Not Knowledge
The freelance life is a constant whirlwind. The sooner you accept that and are prepared to adjust accordingly, the better off you’ll be.
Ultimately, the solution doesn’t require any special knowledge or insight. It just requires the right behavior. You have to be disciplined enough to create and implement a system, and then stick with it consistently.
Your business is the sum total of your habits, both good and bad. For some of us, that can be a little scary. But it just means we need to force ourselves to form better habits. That’s how you can achieve freelance productivity.
More Freelance Productivity Help
Learn more about freelance productivity, systems, and goals in the Freelance Summit. It’s an 11-hour webinar series with Nathan Ingram that covers great content like this plus more on process, profit and productivity.
For even more on freelance productivity, check out some of our other blog posts:
- The problem of too busy.
- 99 productivity tips if you work from home.
- How to be a super crazy productive freelancer.
- How to stop worrying and embrace your calendar.