Picture this: You leave your full-time job to freelance. Now, you can set your own rates and schedule and choose the projects you work on, and it can all be done in your pajamas. Sounds pretty great, right? It is, but as someone who’s been there and done that for quite some time, it’s also a big adjustment to make—especially when it comes to getting paid.
I work for myself as a freelance writer and I only get paid for the work I complete. Most of my clients pay me on what is known as a “per project” basis. What that means is that I get a set amount of money for each piece of content I write, no matter how long it takes me to write it. The faster I finish the project, the more I make per hour that I work and the more time I have to take on more work. In other words: Every minute counts.
Why am I telling you this? Because the more productive I am, the more money I make (fair enough!). As a result, I have had no choice but to master some pretty effective productivity hacks along the way to career success.
Here are the top productivity hacks I use to get more done in a day.
1. I Embrace Time Blocking
First things first, I plan out my day using the time blocking method. What that means is I sit down and parcel out my workday before it begins. I will look at my schedule for the day and incorporate any to-dos and plan around any meetings or appointments. I like to block my day into four main time blocks: early morning, mid-morning, early afternoon, and late afternoon.
Once I know how much time is available in each block, I can allocate tasks from my to-do list. I’m more productive when I can sit down and finish an assignment from start to finish. Even if I can only get one task done in one of my four quadrants, I plan to do so with no interruptions (I’ll share how to avoid interruptions in a minute).
By setting aside time where I know I can complete a task, I avoid the disruptive stop-and-go pattern that can make a task take longer than necessary. I also make better use of dead time like small gaps of time in between meetings by scheduling out quicker tasks like responding to emails during that time.
2. I Plan For Breaks
When I do my time blocking, I don’t jam-pack my day full of assignments. As tempting as it is to fill all that space with to-dos (remember, I make more money in a day if I get more done), I find that taking a few breaks throughout the day makes it easier to focus on tasks once I start them and to get them done in a timely manner.
I no longer feel guilty about breaks and go on a few walks a day and always take a solid lunch break. By planning for a break and knowing it’s coming, the break feels more purposeful and less like wasted time. Taking a real break (not just scrolling through Instagram) helps clear my mind and make it easier to tackle cognitively challenging tasks once I sit down to do them.
3. I Block Out Social and Email
Remember those distractions I mentioned earlier? Here’s how to get rid of them. It’s not a secret that email, social media, texts, and phone calls are major sources of distraction. Because I service many different clients, it’s very hard for me to ignore an email or Slack message once it comes through. I want to provide a good service and to be available when needed. That being said, all those tiny distractions throughout the day make it a lot harder for me to finish a task without interruption.
A study from the University of California, Irvine (shoutout to my alma mater) found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption.
While I don’t think it was taking me quite that long to get back on task, I did find that I worked slower after getting back to my task than I did pre-interruption. To help combat distractions, once I start a task, I close my inbox and my Slack app. I also put my phone in another room. Once the task is complete, then I can check all of my alerts and address them at once (shoutout to batch working!).
4. I Attempt Batch Working
Speaking of batch working, not jumping between different types of tasks makes it way easier to get them done quickly and without making mistakes. As much as possible, I like to batch together similar tasks. For example, I might research all of the articles I need to write the next day in the same block of time or create all of my invoices for the month at once. Batch working is especially helpful for the smaller tasks that clog up your workflow but need to get done.
5. I Touch It Once
I use the “touch it once” method as often as possible. This productivity hack primarily applies to managing your email inbox. Instead of opening an email, skimming it, marking it as unread, and then coming back to it later, I try to just “touch it once.” What this means is that I respond and kick off next steps immediately.
Let’s say I receive an email from one of my lovely editors at The Everygirl with an article assignment. Once I read the email, I will add the assignment deadline to my calendar and to my to-do list. If I need to secure an interview for the story, I’ll send out that request right away to get the ball rolling. Then, I respond to the editor and confirm I can take on the story and archive the email. One and done.
Touching it once isn’t always possible, but it’s helpful to do it as often as possible to avoid spending more time on emails than necessary.
6. I Listen to the Right Music
As much as I love to listen to music while working, it can be hard to write while someone is crooning other words in your ears. When I am struggling to focus, I find that turning on Brain.fm really works. While this lyric-less music is designed to help you focus, you can get a similar effect by listening to mellow classical music. I like to choose either their timed 30- or 60-minute session to see how much I can get done before the music ends.
7. I Took Control of My Meetings
I—like everyone else on the planet—attend way too many meetings each week. In an attempt to be accommodating, I used to provide any times I was technically available to take a call when scheduling a meeting. The result? One to two meetings a day at random times that caused a lot of stop and go, not to mention I found myself having to get camera ready every day, which I can’t bill for and which majorly ate into my productive working hours.
In January, I decided to start the new year with a new approach to meetings. I created a Calendly account, which allows me to specify which days of the week and at what times I’m available for a meeting. Not only does sending over a link to my Calendly calendar save a lot of back and forth regarding when to schedule a meeting, but it also helps me block off time to solely work. I am a morning person and it’s much easier for me to write in the morning. If I have a morning full of meetings and then take a lunch break, I find it hard to get back in the swing of things. Now, I block off my mornings for deep work time and do meetings in the afternoon, which requires less focus. Whenever possible, I also try to batch my meetings together and schedule them back to back so I don’t have weird gaps of time in my schedule.