One of the most common questions I get when people find out that I am a freelance writer (or, more accurately, that I don’t have a boss and a chore list handed to me daily) is “How do you stay focused?” or “How do you stay on track?” It’s a valid question. Of course, when I was first jumping into the world of freelance writing, I thought it was a ridiculous question. But soon I found out just how easy it is to get sidelined. A little bit of Facebook here. A coffee run there. And pretty soon, an entire day is gone and not much has been accomplished.
Once I had a few unproductive days under my belt, I started to realize that maybe it would be best if I set up some priorities. Even when I tried to focus on work all day – and ostensibly was working all day – I still didn’t get much done. Soon, I figure out that what I was doing wrong was actually something I wasn’t doing: I wasn’t prioritizing. If you don’t have a routine, at least a loose routine, chances are you’ll be a little scattered in how you do things.
After a few trials and lots of errors, I finally came upon some prioritization tips that help me immensely. I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet I saw at least a 75% increase in productivity just by changing a few things around and setting a loose schedule. We are, after all, freelancers, so let’s not get too carried away with the schedule thing. But having a loose idea of what you do can help out, so here you go. This is by no means an end all be all program for perfect prioritization. It’s just what I use, and it helps me, so hopefully it will help you, too.
Little Things First
A lot of people say you should take care of the big things first and do the little things at the end of the day. When it comes to, say, getting your run in before you start work, I’d say do the big things first. But when it comes to scheduling actual work, I think that doing the little things first helps immensely. For instance, I do my proposals, emails, and queries in the morning. It gives my brain a chance to warm up on some smaller but still important tasks over my cafe mocha, and then they’re done. I need to start adding “blogging” to this morning list, as it usually gets pushed towards the end of the day. But either way, whether it’s emails and cold calling or other little things you have to do, just get them over with. Mailing items, administrative tasks, queries and proposals, basically anything that isn’t sitting down and writing an article (unless it’s part of a proposal) gets done first thing in the morning.
Why do I do it this way? Shouldn’t you get the big monsters out of the way first? Think of it this way. The little things are work, but they aren’t the big work, the real work. They’re the busy work. If you’ve been working hard all day and you get to the end of the day having finished your projects, are you really going to want to do administrative tasks? Or are you going to want to relax and then sleep? I would bet that you’d want to sleep.
Secondly, getting the little things out of the way first means you avoid the risk of putting things off that really do need to get done. If you put email or marketing or querying off, you could wind up with a very small pipeline of work coming in for the next quarter, missing important client emails, and ending up with a disorganized pile of tasks that will be almost impossible to catch up with. Just get it done, and then you can move on. The only administrative task I do at the end of the day is update my earnings spreadsheet. Because I just don’t know that information until close of day. *shrug*
Money Makes the World Go Around
Okay maybe not, but it should definitely drive how you prioritize your workload. There are one of two ways you can prioritize by money, and which one you choose largely depends on your current financial states. Nobody raise their hands, but freelancers tend to fall into one of two categories: just barely making it (or narrowly making it) financially, and feeling comfortable. I’ve spent a lot of time in the former category, and you’ll see throughout your career that it’s very much a feast or famine business. But if you prioritize correctly, you’ll be able to roll with the punches.
If you’re in the first group and really just need to focus on paying bills and that’s it, you’ll want to do what makes you the fastest money first. For me, I focus on Textbroker almost exclusively when I’m in a jam until I hit the income level I need. Why would I do that? Textbroker is well known for being low paying. Yes, that’s true. But it’s fast paying and it’s reliable. I know that while I’ll have to bust my rear end churning out content for a week or two about less than stimulating topics, I can also rely on prompt payments (weekly) and reliable payments, and that’s money in the bank. If you’re just making it, prioritize your day so that the fastest and most reliable money projects are done first.
If you’re in the fortunate second group and you’re feeling rather comfortable, focus on the highest earning projects. As is the nature of most businesses, high paying freelance assignments tend to have a longer life and you have to wait to see the money. But when you do see the money (if you’ve bid wisely) you’ll be set for awhile, or at least comfortable for awhile longer.
Most money or fastest money, it’s up to you. But notice I said that your financial situation depends on which ones you do first, not which ones you do period. You need to focus on both during your day, or at least during your week. Even when I’m flat broke and barely making it, I spend time prospecting, proposing, and querying in the morning. Without that high paying work, you’ll be in a never-ending cycle of one-cent-a-word work, and if that’s what my life becomes, I’ll go back to corporate America.
Balance is everything, but get what will serve you best out of the way first.
Organize By Task: The Assembly Line of Writing
Every writer works differently, and that’s fine. But for me, and for many writers I know, it’s simply the easiest and most efficient thing in the world to focus on one task at a time instead of one project at a time. Let me explain. For every article I write, I have to do research (be it a lot or a little, it doesn’t matter), outline, write, and submit the article. I, as many writers do, started out by doing it an article at a time. Research, outline, write, submit, repeat. Now if that works for you, by all means dear, jump on it. But if you’re finding that a little clunky, well…you’re in good company.
The brain works well when it organizes by task. You get in a groove. Research, research, research, okay, I know how researching works. I know how this feels. I’m in a groove. Outline, okay got it. Write, okay let’s blow through the outlines. Submissions: done, done, and done! This process of organizing by task is magical. At least for me. You might ask, “Well won’t I just have to review what I wrote down before I write it?” Maybe. But that’s what you have an outline for. If you thoroughly research and outline, you won’t have that problem, because your outline will pretty much be a guide for your article. But even if you do have to scan a few items again as a refresher, the time it takes you to do that will be significantly less than the time it takes you to switch gears 20 times a day.
When we switch gears, our brains tend to wander. It’s easy to get distracted. For my fellow runners out there, think of it as a marathon or a long distance race. Each task is a mile, and each set of tasks is a race. Researching is the preparation for the race – getting your gels out, your music, etc. Outlining is the warming up you do before the race. Writing is the running. And submission is the cool down. Imagine if you had to grab new gear and warm up before every mile and cool down after every mile. Exhausting, no? Not to mention scattered, clunky, and inefficient. Well your brain thinks so, too. Give it a break between tasks, but focus on one task at a time.
The only exception I have to this rule (other than working for places like Textbroker that make you take one article at a time, sans direct orders) is if you wanted to go task by task for each client or income stream you have. For instance, research, outline, write, then submit for all your Constant Content orders. Then for your Yahoo! Voices articles. And so on. I still think that’s kind of inefficient because each time you go back to researching it will feel like your day is starting over again. But for some it might work better, so I’ll throw it in there.
Own Time, Don’t Let it Run You
The way you see time is really crucial to how much you get done in a day and how you prioritize. It sounds silly, but it’s true. If you think “Oh my gosh, I only have a few hours!” then you’ll feel rushed, behind, and a slave to time. Instead, see time as a commodity. “I’ll spend an hour here, 30 minutes on this, and an hour and a half on that.” Once you view time as something you spend and not something that dictates your life, you’ll have a much leveler head and a more logical approach to your prioritization and your work, and you won’t feel so panicked.
Don’t Forget to Prioritize YOU!
The biggest mistake new freelancers make, or one of them, is to work like crazy, barely taking time to sleep. This is not productive. Take time for a cup of tea, a walk, and, you know, eating and sleeping. Prioritizing and improving efficiency, such as through the task-oriented planning mentioned above, can help you get more done in less time, freeing you up for actually enjoying your life, as well. Your brain needs a break of about 20 minutes roughly every hour and a half. Give it that time. You’ll be more focused, more energized, and approach your work with better clarity in the next session, helping you get more done.
Hopefully these tips have been helpful to you. Do you have prioritization techniques that work well for you? Let us all know in the comments!
Until next time, happy writing!