I have a lot on my plate this month, which is why I have spent a lot of time not doing work. Yes, I know on the face of it, that doesn’t make sense but bear with me because I have a point: The more work you need to do, the more time it takes to figure out how to do it. You must prioritize the time to organize your work, even when you’re busy. The alternative is to chase rabbits all day long and fail to work on the most important tasks. Here are five things I have discovered about getting (sh)it done as a creative freelancer.
1. Know Your Work
As a writer by trade, most of my work is either research or writing. But how much time each of these things will take depends very much on what I’m writing and for whom. For example, is it an email I’m writing or a blog? Is it on a subject I know nothing about or something that I could write in my sleep? What tone does it require? (Hint: Writing funny is really really really hard and takes a lot of time, especially if you don’t know your audience well.) If you keep track of your time – which you should – you will know how long each of these things generally takes you and can spread them out over a day or week.
The other trick is to know yourself. Are you a natural procrastinator, a front-loader, a plodder, or a frenetic finisher? Most of us are a mix. I’m a front-loader for sure and my motivation is to get as much quality work done as possible, which means the following advice won’t do much for procrastinators. For procrastinators and others whose competing priorities are holding them back, I can recommend Charlie Gilkey’s excellent book Start Finishing, which ironically I have not yet finished but it’s already changed my life.
2. Distribute Your Frogs
Cold, doe-eyed, slimy, and green. Down the hatch. The adage is that if you need to swallow a frog, do it first thing in the morning – or, do the horrible task you hate first so you’re not dreading it all day. When Twain wrote that, he was a wealthy, full-time writer with a doting wife. In that context, one frog a day doesn’t sound so bad. Most of us, however, have frogs of multiple colors to swallow: An incomprehensible email from a client, an uninspiring gig we don’t want to do but for the rent we must pay, and the slimiest frog of all: Tax season.
The trick is to examine why you think the task is a frog in the first place. Is it OK if you delay it for a week or a month? Do you actually need to do it, or is it someone else’s priority? If your frog really is your frog, take a minute to plan exactly how you’re going to cook it. Sometimes the task itself is fine but it feels like a frog because you don’t know how you’re going to do it. Planning helps. My strategy is to distribute my frogs over a week or a month so I’m not attempting more than one amphibian per day. You can also put your frogs in a blender, breaking down the tasks into their component parts and doing part of some each day. It stretches out the process but if the task is particularly painful to you – like sorting through a box of old papers that include heartache – breaking up the task can depersonalize it and help you get it done.
Swallowing frogs is by far the hardest part of my practice and I think I’ve worked out why: I secretly love my frogs. I have something of a martyr streak, you may have noticed, and now that I work for myself, there’s no boss for me to prostrate myself for. My frogs remind me that writing is a job like any other with good days and bad, triumph, failure, and the terror of the daily grind. If I’m honest, I kind of like having them around. Recognizing that is important and maybe it’s OK to leave a frog hopping around your plate for a day or two but beware: Frogs can easily morph into giant, warty toads of guilt that paralyze your creativity. Operating from a place of fear will shut down the parts of your brain you need to do good work. So hop to it!
3. Find Your Flow
This morning, I changed my to-do list for the fourth time in a month. What seems like dithering is actually me trying to iterate my way to better prioritization. With multiple clients, a new school, and a book in the works, I am juggling a lot of individual tasks that each have a claim on my time. In my world, prioritization is everything – it’s the only way I can spin up new projects quickly, work on them diligently, and deliver on time. Here’s what works for me:
Have a Task Management Tool…
I’m a list-driven person and I lurve my dependencies so I use Asana. There are a slew of task-management tools out there and they each have their strengths – Trello’s graphical interface shows you progress at a glance, whereas Basecamp is better for nuanced collaboration and SmartSheet manages complex projects with many moving parts. The important thing is for you to find one that does what you need it to, and take the time to set it up like you want it to work. For me, I need my task management to facilitate:
- Jumping between tasks, projects, and clients easily
- Templated task trees, each with separate ownership and deadlines, and ideally with time-bound dependencies
- Tracking my time
- Enough at-a-glance information that I can make a quick decision about what to do next
- Being able to see completed tasks and celebrate how far I’ve come, while not having them junk up my screen.
…And a Paper To-Do List
It may seem like overkill when you have a task-management tool but keeping a simple list is the only way I’ve found to truly appreciate how much is on your plate and effectively prioritize. I have a to-do list for all clients, my own business, and my personal life. The simple act of putting them all together forces you to consider what is important to you, which is the key to prioritizing effectively. While my task management tools manage the things I have to do, the to-do list manages which ones matter to me and reminds me to make time for them.
My to-do list isn’t actually paper but it is a single-page Google Doc divided into grids, and it covers a single week. It has the following sections:
|This week will be a success if…||This is the most important section of the whole list. It is at the top, bright pink, and it only has three lines, so I can ensure I’m not taking on too many competing goals. In it goes both private and personal goals – things like I keep the wheels turning for client X or I spend quality time while my parents are in town.|
|Involved Tasks||This is generally determined by the time I estimate a task will take me – usually over an hour. When this list gets long, it’s a sign that I need to start reprioritizing because I only have so many hours and brainpower.|
|In-the-Cracks||This is by far the best iteration I have ever made to my to-do list. These are tasks that take on average less than 20 minutes but help push projects forward. When I find myself with 10 minutes before an appointment, a quick glance at the In-the-Cracks list will tell me to bash out a quick response or check something.|
|No-Brainers||This is like In-the-Cracks but stupider. These are tasks that require very little consideration – like setting up an Asana task tree template, out-of-office autoresponse, or trawling RSS feeds for news to share on social media. When I have been staring at a 2600-word white paper for four hours, these are the only tasks I have left in me to do.|
|Frogs||The horrible tasks from earlier. This section is also only four lines long, which is something of a kindness.|
This template might not work for you but you’re welcome to take it as a starting point and iterate.
Template Everything You’ve Done Twice
We, humans, are strange creatures. We look at someone pulling an amazing skateboard trick and think: There’s no way they can do that again. And yet, when it comes to our own practice, we think we are making perfect or better reproductions of our past successes. In my experience, the fastest way to reproducible success is to standardize process – and that takes templates. The power of templates is that they take on the cognitive load of what to do next and how to do it, leaving your full brain (or, the parts of it that aren’t distractedly humming Eye of the Tiger) to focus on the task at hand. That makes for better work.
And I don’t want to hear any whining about how templates kill your vibe, man. If your so-called creative process cannot survive your own attempts to improve it then perhaps this field is not for you.
I read a statistic the other day – ironically while procrastinating – that it takes 16 minutes to refocus after looking at just one email. We think we need to be responsive to email but we really don’t. We think we need to be responsive to Slack but we really don’t. We think we need to be responsive to text messages but we really don’t. Not every minute of every day, anyway. You turn your phone off when you go see a movie or fly across the country – why is your work less important than that?
The day I turned off all notifications was the day my writing demonstrably improved 20 percent. Yes, I said all. Every last one. My phone buzzes when someone calls me but until that, I consider it less urgent than the task at hand. If I want to see what’s happening on Slack, I open it up. If I want to scroll through my Twitter notifications, I know where to find the app.
Note: I have no children. I expect y’all with dependents and on-call gigs may have different priorities but you don’t deserve the focus any less. Spend five minutes working on your phone settings so you are only distracted by the calls you really need to take.
Control your space. If you’re writing your Magnum Opus in a noisy cafe, make sure you have headphones and a good set of instrumental Spotify playlists. If you’re in an office where people love to interrupt you, take at-home or offsite days where you can get your best work done. Your career deserves it.
And one more thing: The more emails you send, the more you receive. If the amount of email you’re getting is dragging you down, try shushing yourself.
4. Exploit the Cracks in Your Day
Every freelancer I know complains about being busy and yet we waste so much time. Billable time. If you work on just one or two clients, and especially if you work onsite, it’s pretty easy to chock up a full half- or full day and call it billable time. For those of us with multiple clients and small gigs, the gaps in between are either opportunities for heroics or the ankle-turning cause of our downfall. If you’re looking for more work, a few five-minute tasks every day can give you a chance to send a LinkedIn request or a pitch email (adapted from a template, of course). If you’re not, these cracks can help you push projects forward and make sure that you’re not missing important details or have unanswered questions when you sit down to do focused work.
The flip side is don’t be too hard on yourself. Your brain can’t possibly work optimally for eight hours straight, so if you’d rather chat with a friend in the work kitchen for 15 minutes and go back to your desk full of ideas for the weekend, do it. Try to keep in touch with how you’re feeling about your practice and remember that humans are social animals.
5. Do the Work That’s In Front of You
Freelance life is perilous. Your clients’ trust is hard-won and easy to fray. Come the recession, contractors are the first line item to be cut. While filling your pipeline is important and new clients and new work will reinvigorate you, you must complete the work you have. In my experience, kicking ass at the work you do is the best way to get more work. Maybe that’s not always so but the sooner you do it, the sooner it will be done and the sooner you can bill for it.
That’s how I manage to get (sh)it done as a freelancer. Not all these things will work for you but some of them surely will. Just like your creative practice, you should be iterating your organizational practice constantly. Other tips and tricks are just a Google search away! You got this.