When you’re a freelance blogger, your time equals money in a way no 9-to-5er will ever experience.
Whether you’re working by the billable hour or the flat project rate, the more you’re able to get done in a day, the happier your bank balance will look at the end of the month.
It’s one of the reasons so many of us burn ourselves out.
Painfully aware of the fact that we and we alone are responsible for how much money we’re able to bring in, we’re constantly trying to squeeze as much as we can out of each day. We devour productivity tips, tricks and systems because we believe we can always do more, more, more if we just push ourselves a liiiittle bit harder.
But the trouble with a “more, more, more” mentality is it leaves us feeling empty, empty, empty after a while. And an empty freelancer has a productivity level of zero.
Guess how much money a productivity level of zero will earn you?
If you really want to maximize your productivity — meaning, “produce the highest amount of high-quality work each day” — you need to stop listening to all the gurus and hype that promise you the secret to cramming ever more into the same 24-hour blocks while your mind and body coast on fumes.
Instead, focus on creating a sustainable, personalized system that enables you to do your best work each day, every day, and keep that pace up over the long term.
Forget the latest GTD fads and promos; the methods in this post will help you find your best productivity groove and, as a result, create awesome work (and income) like never before.
1: Stop thinking “time management” and start thinking “energy management”
Maximizing your productivity isn’t about cramming the most activity into your hours, but about finding the hours you feel the most alert, energized and creative and leveraging them wisely.
We all have natural ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. You may have heard your friends in cubeland talk of something known as the dreaded “3:00 crash” (or, if you’re a cubeland escapee, you may well remember it yourself). It’s one symptom of this natural rhythm.
As human beings with a finite reserve of physical, mental and emotional energy, we can’t operate at a high level of action all day long. Either you learn to work with your energy pattern, tailoring your activities to match it, or you work against it, which leads to burnout, shoddy work and all sorts of other nasty things not synonymous with earning yourself more moolah.
By knowing the pattern of your daily energy levels, you can take advantage of the times you’re at your prime to get your best work done faster — and save the times you’re not at your prime for less-than-critical tasks.
Energy management is especially crucial for freelance bloggers because our work is mentally and creatively draining. When you work with your body’s natural rhythms, you’re more likely to find yourself entering that elusive state of “flow” where the words just fall from your fingertips rather than having to be dredged, bit by painful bit, from a brain that’s already shut down for the day.
While it’s true you can “power through” writer’s block to a certain extent (and you may have to, sometimes, when a deadline is looming), in general you’ll get so much more done — and the quality of your work will be so much better — if you’re writing when you’re at your peak.
So, how do you master energy management?
I: Track your energy level over the course of a couple of weeks
Note the times of day it dips and peaks. When are you able to write a mile a minute? When do you start having trouble focusing? When do you hit that wall where the only way you’ll be able to press on is with a direct caffeine IV drip?
II: Match your work to your energy level
Once you’ve got your energy pattern mapped out, pair your daily tasks with the time of day to which they’re best suited.
For instance, I’ve realized (much to my annoyance) that as much as I hate getting up early, early mornings are actually my peak creativity window. If I’m able to rouse my lazy tail from bed with my alarm and get a cup of coffee in me, the hours between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. are when I can produce the highest volume of writing at the highest quality. I’ve tried ignoring this in favor of my much-loved sleeping in, but every time I do, I find myself scrambling and stressed the rest of the week, worrying over upcoming deadlines and not turning in my best work, so I learned to respect my zone.
To give you an idea what an energy-based schedule looks like, here’s mine:
- mornings (high creativity level) = tackle my most challenging work, whether it’s hammering out that first draft I’ve been dreading or editing that blog post that will not get itself in order
- early afternoons (mid-energy; I can still focus but I’m not at my best) = administrative stuff like invoicing, writing and responding to emails and scheduling social media posts
- mid-afternoons (I am sapped, distracted and totally hopeless) = walk my dogs, do some reading, run some errands, recharge
- evenings (second wind) = edit what I wrote earlier in the day, work on some new pitches, research for tomorrow’s writing, etc.
When you learn to work with your natural rhythms rather than against them, it doesn’t matter if you spend 4 hours a day, 12 hours a day or 2 hours a day working. You’ll consistently be able to generate the highest volume and highest quality of work in those hours, keeping clients happy, your bank account happy and saving yourself from the burnout that’s taken far too many freelancers down.
2: Respect the Rule of 3
When you’re a freelance blogger, every hour spreads out before you with infinite possibilities. You could write an ebook, create a webinar, on-board a new client, work on a guest post pitch… the things you could do to generate more revenue are endless.
And every minute you’re not doing several of these things simultaneously, you feel lazy, guilty and behind the ever-widening curve.
But trying to do a million things at once means, at best, you’ll produce a lot of mediocre crap. At worst, you’ll produce a lot of truly terrible crap, or produce nothing at all because you’re so overextended you give up altogether.
None of these scenarios are, I’m willing to guess, what you’re shooting for when you wake up each morning. So pick your top 3 priorities, and be ruthless about sticking to them.
It may seem counterintuitive to boost your productivity by reducing the number of things you do each day, but there’s a method to the madness. Three is a doable number, one that feels weighty enough you won’t feel you’ve slacked off, but small enough you won’t start the day overwhelmed.
If you manage to get your big 3 done early, that’s awesome, and you’re welcome to do some extra stuff for bonus points. But by limiting to yourself to just 3 goals and tuning out everything else, you’re able to give these goals your full attention without getting pulled in the myriad other directions siren-calling your name. It also helps you laser in on the most important, highest-return-on-investment things on your to-do list rather than approaching your tasks willy-nilly.
How you determine your top 3 is up to you. Some days, it will be a practical matter of the 3 things with the fastest-approaching deadlines. Other days, it may be prioritizing some long-term projects you need to start taking baby steps on.
I like to choose a mix of client and personal projects — in one day I might chip away at an ebook I’m ghostwriting, finalize a paid guest post and spend some time revising the “Hire Me” page on my blog. Whatever your big 3 are, pencil them in for the appropriate slots on your energy schedule and rock the hell out of them before moving on to anything else that day.
3: Make friends with apps
They say 20% of the work you do results in 80% of your profits. That means you’re spending a whole 60% of your time on things with severely low return on investment. How do you boost those numbers?
By outsourcing as much of that 60% as possible.
The Interwebs is an amazing place just waiting to make your life easier for you. Think of productivity apps as virtual assistants you don’t even have to pay (many are totally free, or at most a few bucks).
Use every online tool you can to automate the parts of your day that are mindless, mundane or don’t require your extra-special brain power, so that you can channel that brain power more towards the things that do require it.
The following tools come highly recommended by fellow freelance bloggers (there are lots of options in each category, as different people find different apps more intuitive than others):
To-do list management
- Do It (Tomorrow)
- Get It Done
- Remember the Milk
Keeping track of your thoughts
4: Don’t Forget to Fuel the Fire
Remember that “recharge” time you built into your daily work schedule earlier? It’s not just there to fill space that would otherwise be empty.
It’s there because, as professionals whose work is mentally, emotionally and creatively draining, we need to refuel our minds, bodies and souls on a regular basis or our wells will run dry.
If you’re like most freelance bloggers, you’ve feel that nagging sense of guilt when you take a vacation day, take a sick day or even take a 15-minute power nap. There’s always more you could be doing — pitching, promoting, creating, tweaking — and we tend to feel if we can do it, then we should.
But if you burn yourself out, you could be out of the running for days, weeks or longer, which is much worse for your biz than 15 minutes spent snoozing on the couch.
Trust me, as someone who’s burnt herself out so badly she had to take a months-long hiatus from all but the most critical of projects: Your output is only as good as your input. So make sure you’re inputting a little something every day just for you — just because it makes you happy, inspired, reinvigorated or refreshed.
I recommend shooting for one or more things every day that:
- inspire you (like reading a memoir by your favorite writer)
- make you think (like learning a new skill or watching a TED talk)
- challenge you (like trying the Couch to 5K app)
- are simply and unapologetically fun (like catching up on your favorite guilty pleasure reality TV show (cough, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, cough))
As blogger, entrepreneur and all-around badass Ash Ambirge (a case study in how to produce epic shit on a regular basis) recently posted to her FB page: “The number one thing I do to improve my writing: Living.”
So don’t forget to allow some time to live each day. It’s not just for your own sake; it’s also for the sake of your ongoing productivity and creativity.
5: What to do when you Just. Can’t. Even.
Even the best of systems will be foiled by those days when you’ve got a raging headache, an attack of the flu or your brain has reached “Meltdown Imminent!” levels.
It’s simply not realistic to try to hold yourself to your normal standards of productivity when this happens.
Unfortunately, clients still want to receive their work on time, and there will be days when you can’t drop off the grid entirely, much as you desperately want to. So while you won’t be able to produce a masterpiece, you need to find ways to produce something, anything, simply to keep yourself from falling too far behind.
Here are some of my favorite ways of getting things done even when I’m in Energy Saver Mode.
I: Work in small bursts
Whether you’re writing a blog post or a full-length book, you’re playing a long game that involves lots of drafting, revising and reorganizing.
It’s a marathon, and when you’re in the burnout zone, the thought of running a marathon isn’t just unrealistic; it’s demented.
When your brain and/or motivation has gone to mush, you need to focus not on the marathon, but on short-distance sprints. Set yourself a timer for an hour, half an hour, 15 minutes if need be, and focus only on doing what you can during that period.
This may mean jotting down notes rather than full sentences. It may mean producing a page or a sentence or a few words. The point is just to keep those words coming, and take plenty of breaks in between to rest and recuperate.
Another time, you can come back to whatever you’ve done and polish it into something worth seeing the light of day. Right now, you’re just trying to put some extra mileage behind you so you’re a tiny bit closer to that finish line. Even a couple steps at a time will add up.
II: Employ a work/reward system (a.k.a. bribe yourself)
It may not sound as lofty or noble as taping an inspirational phrase on your monitor, but when you’ve hit the *headdesk* point, lofty and noble won’t do squat. An old-fashioned case of the “I don’t wannas” needs something equally simplistic to overcome it.
When the last thing you want to do is get your work done, there is nothing at all shameful about flatout bribing yourself. Think “rat presses lever, rat gets cheese” — for everything you manage to accomplish, you get a lovely reward. It’s basic and base, but it works.
- If I can get this one post drafted, I may watch one episode of [insert whatever show you secretly adore and binge on when no one’s watching].
- If I spend 10 minutes brainstorming better headlines for this post, I will allow myself 10 minutes of watching every sappy dog/cat video I can possibly find on the Internet.
- If I sit here for one hour and tackle this rewrite, I may Irish up the coffee I’ll be sipping while I do so.
And so on. Never underestimate the power of a good bribe. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
6: Make it yours
“Productivity” is like “work-life balance” — everyone wants more of it, and everywhere you look, everyone has their own opinions on how to achieve it.
What works best is developing a system that works for you, so feel free to tweak any or all of the above in whichever way you find gets you the best results.
If you need to swear off checking email first thing in the morning because it distracts you and takes up too much mental energy, then swear off it. If you can’t focus on your writing without popping into your inbox for a few minutes to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, then pop away.
Experiment, re-evaluate and don’t be afraid to totally ignore what the gurus say, and soon you’ll have a system that’s customized, optimized and ready to produce some serious results.
Image: Matt Gibson