Stuck in that stuffy office, being a freelance blogger was the ultimate dream: working whenever and wherever you want.
But while my old boss made sure I worked 9-5, my new boss (a.k.a. me) seems to have no trouble with late starts and regular Netflix marathons. As great as that sounds, it’s not so good for the bank balance.
Getting your rear in the seat and doing the work can be a real challenge.
Many of us started freelance blogging because we wanted to be our own bosses, but who knew being your own boss was such a demanding job? You need to manage your time, motivate yourself and, occasionally, crack the whip and hold a disciplinary meeting, all before you even get started on the blogging.
Don’t forget about the inevitable disasters that’ll come along. I’ve been to hospital emergency rooms twice in the last fortnight, which meant at least one day of work up in smoke. No doubt you’ve had your fair share of catastrophe; in my experience, freelancing means you’re always either dealing with an emergency or waiting for the next one.
Whether you’re dealing with the lure of procrastination or the stress of unexpected setbacks, if you don’t work you don’t get paid. Your pay is directly related to your productivity.
Now, I’m no productivity guru. I’m not knocking out 10 posts a day or writing 100 words a minute. I watch way too much TV and love sleeping in. But in spite of my mad procrastination skills, I’m consistently able to hit all my deadlines and keep my clients happy.
The aim of this post isn’t to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the day, but rather to succeed even if you’re a world class procrastinator. Here’s how to make your working time count, whether you’re dealing with a crisis or just want to binge-watch every episode of Parks and Recreation.
Start with a simple routine
The way you start the day makes a huge difference, either setting you up for success or leaving you fighting to get anything done.
You’ve probably read a million posts on the ‘perfect’ morning routine, but the truth is there’s no such thing.
Just because something works for others it doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be any good for you. Some swear by hitting the gym the minute they wake up, but others find 10 minutes browsing their Instagram feed gets them ready to face the day.
Make your own routine. Try different things and keep what works, ditch what doesn’t. Some things you may want to consider trying are:
- Quiet – This could mean meditation, prayer, or just taking a moment to enjoy some silence before things kick off.
- Affirmations or visualisations – I’m not a believer in the law of attraction, but I have found affirmations and visualisations help with a positive mindset. This could be regarding your writing ability, your ability to find well-paying clients or anything else you might be struggling with.
- Exercise – Whether your idea of exercise is a brisk walk around the block, deadlifting a few hundred kilos or interpretive dance, getting the body moving is a good way to kick start the brain for a day of blogging.
- Reading – Make some time to check out other blogs in your niche, read some relevant business books (maybe the rather spiffing How to Pitch a Blog Post), or simply catch up on the news.
- Writing – Many find Morning Pages (writing 3 pages of your thoughts with no self-editing) a great way to get the creative cogs turning. I personally use the opportunity to journal and write out my plan for the day.
- Cold shower – Nothing shakes you from your slumber like an icy shower. This option is not for the faint-hearted (including me).
- Going online – This one’s more controversial; some think checking your emails and notifications first thing is the worst thing to do, starting your day reacting to other people’s agendas. But if you enjoy catching up and you can avoid being pulled into hours of browsing, good for you. Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself and aren’t putting off the work.
- Job boards – Earlier in my blogging career, I’d start my day by scanning the job boards such as Problogger and the BAFB jobs section, looking for my next client. The early bird catches the blogging work.
- Getting dressed for work – Freelance blogging is a full time job, so it’s important to treat it like one. For some, that means getting dressed as if they were going to the office. (I find my PJs much more comfortable, though.)
- Caffeine – My personal favourite; the day hasn’t started until I’ve got a steaming mug of coffee in front of me.
To be clear, I wouldn’t try doing all of these, or your morning routine will end up a whole-day routine. Personally, I find three to four activities works best, lasting about 20-30 minutes. If I’ve slept in or there’s some emergency, I’ll usually condense these into a five minute, better-than-nothing blast.
Next step: Start building your own routine, by picking something from the list that appeals to you. See how it works for you. Adapt as necessary.
Bonus tip: If you’re struggling to separate yourself from your duvet, setting a second alarm downstairs, away from the bed, works a treat. I put mine against the wall where the neighbours would hear it, set 5 minutes after my bedside alarm; my chronic compulsion to keep other people happy is enough to get me down the stairs before it goes off.
Eat the frog (but dice it first)
“Eating the frog” (a concept popularised by Brian Tracy’s book) means getting the nastiest, hardest job out of the way before anything else.
There aren’t actually many nasty jobs I need to get out of the way; I started freelance blogging because I enjoyed everything about it. I love writing, and the business side fuels my ambitions of being a savvy entrepreneur.
However, as much as I love blogging and I’m grateful every day I get to write for a living, I find it takes a lot of my energy. So if I’ve got a post that needs to be written, that’s the first thing I do in my working day.
If there’s something you need all your energy for, or there’s some mammoth task you’re dreading, tackle it first. For you, that might be the research phase or writing proposals for your clients.
However, as those kinds of tasks are intimidating, it’s easier if you break them down.
Imagine you need to write an epic post for your new client. Don’t just put ‘write post for Client Ltd’ on your to-do list. Break it down into the smallest possible actions. Depending on your client this might look something like:
- Confirm topic with client
- Research topic
- Interview expert
- Write first draft
- Edit post
- Submit to client
- Make any necessary revisions
- Publish via client CMS
- Promote on social media
- Send client invoice.
Or if you wanted to win a contract blogging for your dream client, you might break it down to:
- Read last ten posts on dream client’s site
- Look up company details on LinkedIn
- Find out if they work with freelancers
- Find out who makes the hiring decisions
- Look for shared connections
- Ask for an introduction
- Craft a compelling pitch
- Get trusted friend to review pitch
- Send pitch
- Follow up.
Next step: Identify any tasks that eat up your energy or you dread doing, break them into the smallest possible steps and make them your priority for the day.
Get more done in less time
We all have 24 hours in a day, so how come some people seem able to get so much more done? If time isn’t the key factor, it’s clear we need to work smarter, not longer.
Here are a few ways you can boost your output:
Batch your work
According to an article in Psychology Today, we can lose up to 40% of our productivity each day by switching between tasks needlessly. So rather than doing mental gymnastics, leaping from one task to the next, try to limit the number of switches you make.
The easiest way is batching similar kinds of work together. Some people do this in line with the time of day; I do my blogging and research in the morning and stick to admin and business-related tasks in the afternoon. Others dedicate entire days or even weeks to a type of job.
I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which promotes the benefits of focused work free of distractions. As much as the idea of hiding away in a cabin in the woods might appeal though, it’s not a realistic option for most of us.
A good first step would be turning off all notifications on your phone and laptop. I’m no focusing superhero, and I’ve checked my phone a couple of times in the course of writing this post. But, if it was pinging every time I had a Twitter notification or another spam email, I’d never get this work done. (Some people swear by apps that turn off access to Facebook and other time-wasting activities, which may be of interest for the hardcore procrastinator.)
Have a dedicated workspace
As most freelancers spend a lot of time working from home, it’s important to have some kind of office. This could be a fully furnished room or, if space is lacking, something as simple as a designated seat in the kitchen. It’s a powerful way to let yourself (and others) know that if you’re in the office, it’s time to work.
For that reason, keep it as separate as possible from where you sit to relax. By keeping your work time for work, you can get more done. Then, when work time’s over, step away from your computer. Clear boundaries between work life and home life can make things smoother for everyone in the house, including yourself.
Create your own blogging playlist
When I’m racing to make a deadline, music helps me stay focused. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics (or I’ll end up including Macklemore lines in the post), so I tend toward chillstep, trance or film soundtracks, depending on my mood and what kind of energy I need.
If you’re looking for inspiration, most music streaming services include playlists specifically curated to focus your mind. However, some people find any music to be a distraction. In that case, you may want to try listening to nature sounds, binaural beats, or white noise.
Either way, I totally recommend a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Hands down, they’re the best investment I’ve made in my freelancing business.
You can’t read a post on productivity without hearing about how amazing the Pomodoro technique is. You do 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5-minute break. After 4 rounds, you get a 15-minute break.
Even my weak, distraction-loving mind can cope with 25 minutes of focused work!
Don’t get too caught up in the specifics though. Maybe 25 minutes isn’t right for you. That’s totally okay! Find a block of time that works for you, something that allows you to get stuck into your work without intimidating you.
But what about those rest periods? Isn’t that the same as task-switching, the very evil I was warning you against earlier? It can be. However, I recommend being just as smart with your rest times as your work.
I like to step away from my computer, get myself a drink, and stretch out a bit. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous I might swing a kettlebell around for a few minutes. What I don’t do is jump on YouTube or check Facebook. The key is to avoid switching your attention to a completely different task or distraction for those 5 minutes.
Get your first draft out as quickly as possible
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises writers to ‘write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft.’ For the first draft of your post, don’t worry about typos, grammar, or whether that language is appropriate for your client’s audience. Just get it down.
If you come to a roadblock, don’t let it stop the flow. Just put a placeholder in and move on. (<Insert witty example>, <Make less clunky> and <Include actionable advice> are typically found throughout my first drafts.) Your client will never see it, and you can fix it all in the second draft. You’ll never get that far, though, if you’re agonising over every sentence and choice of word.
Next step: Pick one of the above productivity tips that sound good to you. Try it out for a minimum of a week, and track your results to see if it works for you.
Know where you’re headed
Failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. However, I always feel a little inadequate when someone’s telling me their 10-year plan. I struggle to plan what I’m having for lunch, let alone what I’ll be doing years from now.
However, identifying one or two key long-term goals isn’t so hard. Do you want to be a six-figure blogger? Or land a gig with your dream client?
To create your plan, work backwards from your goal:
- What would you need to achieve by the end of the year?
- What would you need to achieve this month?
- What would you need to do this week?
- What would you need to do today?
As part of my morning routine, I pick out three essential tasks for the day. I’ll then open up Google Calendar and work out exactly when I’m going to get them done.
However, even the best plans will run into trouble. I used to get incredibly frustrated when my plans were already off the rails before I’d finished even writing them. Then one of my fellow freelancers introduced me to the idea of buffer time. Including a two-hour buffer block of time in my daily schedule gives me enough time to deal with any last minute emergencies.
In practice, this means I plan out my day as a six-hour day. If everything gets done in those six hours, I now have two spare hours to get a head start on tomorrow — or, more likely, I clock out two hours earlier. On the other hand, if it’s been ‘one of those days’, my schedule isn’t destroyed, and I simply use my buffer time to get back on track. (Apparently, Sophie does the same thing but with a whole buffer day once a week!)
Next step: Before you go to bed tonight, pick three key tasks you want to achieve tomorrow and write down when you’ll get them done. Don’t forget to allow more time than you think you’ll need!
Is it urgent or important?
Sometimes the challenge with planning is knowing which one of the million tasks on your to-do list to do first (or next). That’s where the Urgent-Important matrix, also known as the Eisenhower matrix, comes in.
In summary, all tasks can be classified in one of four ways.
- Urgent and Important
- Urgent but Not Important
- Not Urgent but Important
- Not Urgent and Not Important
Most people, including myself, have our days controlled by urgent tasks. It makes sense, as the urgent ones usually make the most noise. The bills need to be paid. The car needs to be fixed. The deadlines need to be met.
Picking up more milk may be urgent (because there’s none left in the house and you want a bowl of cereal), but it’s rarely important (because you can live without milk if necessary).
Keeping the rent or mortgage paid is both urgent (because it’s due soon) and important (because failing to pay could cost you your home).
It’s common sense that you’ll want to focus more of your attention on the urgent-and-important tasks, while trying not to get caught up in chasing urgent-but-not-important things.
However, to be a successful freelance blogger, you cannot neglect the not-urgent-but-important tasks either.
Remember your long term goals from the last section? You picked them because they’re important to you, but I’ll bet they don’t count as urgent. So if you’re focusing on the urgent-and-important, you’ll never make time to do the important-but-not-urgent work that leads to long term progress.
In a perfect world, I’d recommend setting aside at least an hour every day to work on the important tasks that’ll lead you to your goals. In reality, that’s not always possible. Family emergencies and unexpected bills mean the urgent work piles up and the important work is neglected. However, if you have your long term goals planned out and know the next actions you need to take, any setbacks are only temporary.
Next steps: Take another look at your plan for tomorrow. How many of the tasks you picked are urgent rather than important? Make room for at least one task that’ll move you closer to your goals.
I have a love/hate relationship with Gary Vaynerchuk. The guy has an incredible energy about him that’s contagious, but sometimes it’s difficult not to compare myself to him and wonder what I’m doing wrong. Don’t I want it enough? Am I just lazy?
When you’re constantly seeing other freelancers boast of 20 hour work days and ‘killing it’, that’s a recipe for burnout and procrastination.
Instead, it’s essential you look after your most important asset: yourself.
That means getting enough sleep. You might think you’re fine on five hours’ sleep, but your performance will suffer if you’re sleep deprived. I remember staying up into the early hours to finish a post; I thought I’d nailed it, but when I read it back the next morning it was a mess, filled with horrific mistakes and whole sentences that made zero sense.
Make time in your schedule for yourself. Exercise and healthy eating can go a long way to keeping you productive, and setting clear cut-off times each day can help preserve your sanity. (My weekends are my own time, and I won’t answer business emails at 3am.) Staying healthy and sane will help you get much more done in the long term than pushing yourself until you burn out.
Next step: Check your schedule for today again. What are you doing today to protect your wellbeing? Take 10 minutes out to have some exercise, and make sure you’re getting the sleep you need.
Being a freelance blogger may be a dream job, but that doesn’t make it an easy one, especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator like myself. By putting these habits in place, you can still get a lot done with the time you spend working.
Fellow procrastinators: what are your top tips for getting the job done when you’d rather be doing something else?
Let me know in the comments below.