How to Stay Organized and Get More Done

If you’re a freelance writer, you may have found yourself in this situation. It’s about 9 pm, and everything you promised yourself you’d do that day…well…the “to do” list doesn’t have much checked off, does it? Frustrated, you throw your hands up and promise that tomorrow will be the day. Yes, you’ll get up early, get a million pages of writing done, and win a Pulitzer Prize. And then the same thing happens. Why does this happen? Why do you get less done each day than you want to? Why do you feel like you’re “working” for 18 hours a day and not seeing any results? 

Without an organized method of going about your day, you don’t get a lot done. I know you became a freelance writer so you can work on your own time, and do what you love, as well. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need organizational constructs and goals to get you through your day. You might think that setting strict goals for yourself is pointless, but your brain would disagree with you. Psychologist Dan Ariely conducted a study in which he observed the study habits of college students. Overwhelmingly, those who imposed strict (but attainable) goals on themselves performed far above those who didn’t, and they hit this level of performance more consistently. 

So how does one go about setting these goals? How can you be organized without restricting the freedom you so desired as a freelancer? Well, consider this: the freedom you wanted was to be able to live your life and work, as well. If you’re spending 18 hours a day in front of a computer getting little done and still being broke, is that freedom? Not really. What you need to do is learn how to get more done in less time, thus freeing up the rest of your time for more enjoyable things. 

I’m a stereotypical right-brainer, and organization is something that I’m both good at and horrible at. When it comes to color coding my binder and keeping records, I’m spot on. But when it comes to time management…*stares out window*…oh sorry. Anyway, you get the point. But the following is how I keep myself on point, so I’m hoping it will help you, too. 

Work in Cycles

You might think that working straight through for 10 hours is going to result in a super productive day. Once again, psychology will disagree with you here. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did a study of pilots which showed that pseudo-long periods of writing broken up by short breaks resulted in a 16% increase in productivity. Another psychologist, Peretz Lavie, conducted research that produced similar results. Lavie’s research indicated that in order to capitalize on the body’s natural energy patterns (and the brain’s), concentrated, focused work for 90 minutes followed by a break of no longer than 20 minutes is the ideal work pattern. Work will feel easier, you’ll get more done, and if you focus on specific tasks during those 90 minutes, you can get way more done than you would otherwise. 

Write Out Goals/Make a List

If I didn’t make lists, nothing would get done. Literally. I’ve tested this theory, and it’s true. I need metrics, and I think most people do, however reluctantly. If you write out a list, you can check it off, and everyone loves the feeling of checking something off a list. But by setting out a task for yourself, or a set of tasks you want to complete by the end of the day, your brain has organizational constructs that make you almost unable to finish the tasks at hand. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, and what it basically means is that once we as humans start a project, we’re compelled to complete it, because not completing it causes distress or dissonance. It’s the reason you have to finish watching that movie to see how it ends, even if you hate the movie. So make a list of goals to stick to that day, and you’ll likely  be compelled to finish the list out. 

Know Your Numbers

Don’t sigh, I promise I won’t make you deal too much with numbers. But just a little bit. Like it or not, numbers are everywhere, and when it comes to productivity, knowing your numbers can be the difference between a frustrating week or month, and a successful, happy month. 

For instance, I know that I sell about 50% of what I post to Constant Content, usually within the month I post it. If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you know how much I love writing for Constant Content. But, of course, it is a little stressful not knowing what will sell. After all, it’s not like Textbroker or a signed contract from a client where you know you have the money coming in. (And sometimes even the latter isn’t such a sure thing.) So I went through and figured out the percentage of items I sell. Why? Because I know that if my goal is to make $1,000 this month on Constant Content, I should post about $2,000 worth of articles – net. I feel more secure doing that, because numbers are on my side. 

Similarly, if you’re an Elancer, you should go through and figure out about what percentage of your proposals each month you’re awarded. I am awarded usually about 25% of what I bid. So, if I want to make $1,000 on Elance, I’ll probably need to bid for $4,000 worth of work. I know those aren’t specific numbers, and they wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of a mathematician. But we are writers, and it’s close enough. 🙂 

Know your numbers, set metrics for yourself, and stick to them every day. 

Keep a Productivity Record

This is always a fun way to find out just how much time you waste during the day. Get a whiteboard, a piece of paper, or a spreadsheet…something to track on. In one column on the left side, list your 90-minute work periods. Leave some space between them because on the right side you’ll be filling in what you got done. This isn’t a list for what your goals are. This is what you actually did. 

Writing down that you spent a half an hour on Facebook isn’t going to make you feel all that great, and when you have to write down what you accomplished during a specific period of time, guaranteed you’ll be motivated to get a lot more done. It’s the same reason that keeping a food diary helps you stick to your diet – who wants to write down “10 Oreos”? Accountability to yourself is a powerful tool, and using it to your advantage will help. 

Plan in Advance

The last three days of every month (or two, depending), I plan out what I’ll do the next month. I write down a list of topics/titles of articles with resources for the articles I want to write for Constant Content. I put some blog ideas on another spreadsheet. Once I ever figure out how to make a video of what I’m doing on my computer (techies…anyone?), I’ll walk you guys through my planning and show you what I do. It takes some time up front, yes. But it saves me probably 3 hours a day. One of my elementary school teachers used to say “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” At the time I thought she was just lecturing us, but she was really right. 

By having a system of organization that works for you, you’ll be able to stick to your daily tasks, get more done in less time, and live a more balanced and fulfilling life. I’m not saying you’ll be working eight hours a day – I think all small business owners or solopreneurs knew when they got into their respective fields that it would be long hours and a lot of work. But it also allows me to take a few days off here and there, be with family, and make impromptu breakfast plans or coffee time if I want. And that’s part of why I love what I do. Freelancing will always be hard work, but it’s great work, and allows you to experience a lot of things you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do. So set up an organizational system that works for you, play around with it until it works, and watch your productivity increase! 

Do you have unique organizational tools that help you out? If so, share them with us in the comments! 

Until next time, happy writing. 



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for this. I really got on the path of discipline a couple of years ago, and my life (and writing-life) vastly improved. I primarily use the basic organizing/prioritizing/list-making methods of Brian Tracy (“Miracle of Discipline” and “Eat that Frog”) and Dave Allen (“Getting Things Done”).

    1. courtneyherz says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Daniel! I’m glad you found it helpful. And thanks for the reading suggestion! I might have to try those out! 🙂 Happy writing!

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