It is hard to stay focused and be productive when you are working as an employee from an office, but it is even harder when you are freelancing.
Maybe, by the end of the day you are asking yourself where did the time go, or maybe, you stay up until late at night to be able to accomplish all the tasks you have set.
When freelancing, you are not just working, but you are also running a business, your own business. As result, all the responsibility about organizing the work and achieving results is up to you.
What does it mean to be productive?
It is a question that we rarely ask ourselves.
Is it about doing millions of tasks a day? Or is it about doing a lot of the same task in one day? Is there something like being over productive? How much is enough?
Productivity is not about finishing one million tasks in a day, nor it is about doing just more and more.
Here is one definition of productivity from the Oxford Dictionary
What is significant to me is not what is significant to you. So the first step to becoming more productive is to consider what is significant for you in regard to the work you are doing.
Productivity is also not only about quantity, as we often think. For example it is easy to create a large amount of crappy unfinished work but is much more difficult to create smaller amount of quality work in the same amount of time.
When talking about productivity we also miss that we really care about sustained productivity: Keeping the same amount of productivity over and over again, day after day.
This is especially evident when you stay up late to be able to do more. After a few days doing this, you will end up with a few days where you can barely do anything. The end result will be that on average you would have achieved the same if you have worked more reasonable hours over the same number of days.
As a result, to be productive you should be looking at a way to achieve on a daily bases a significant for you amount of quality work.
It doesn’t sound very sexy, but this is what it really means to be productive. It’s not just achieving more.
What is preventing you from being productive?
Too many tasks
What you often do when you think you should be productive is to just schedule more tasks for the day.
However, as the day goes by you realize, little by little, that most of them won’t be finished today and not even tomorrow. This makes you feel guilty and unproductive. The more you try to this the more guilty and unproductive you feel.
Not working on actual work
People also tend to do things which are not actual work or work which is not critical when you have more important things to do.
Thus you spent the same amount of time with little effect when you could have spent it better on something which will produce more and/or better results.
Switching from task to task doesn’t seem to take a lot of time, but it is actually, because each time you change task your brain should focus again thus loosing the inertia it already had on the previous task.
You have also seen how much more productive you are when you have been immersed in a particular project, because you are focused without switching.
As a result interruptions that seem small like checking an email or twitter or TV or doing some home stuff, may seem small, even just taking literally a second, but they are costing you much more.
Also not every hour in the day is the same. At the beginning of the day, you are full of energy ready to tackle even the hardest task, and at the end of day you might be so exhausted both mentally and physically that even getting up from your chair may seem like a real achievement.
Even when you do nothing, as the day progress you are spending more and more of your physical and mental power.
Another reason is procrastination. We all do it, some big, some small, but this is normal. Especially when we have to start, we procrastinate and look for distractions even when there are none.
Last but not least, sometimes you feel unproductive even you are productive because you forget.
You might remember clearly something that happened when you were little kid, but any of the task you do on daily bases doesn’t seem that interesting to your brain. So it forgets them, and when you later try to remember what you have done you remember just a small portion and you feel guilty and unproductive.
Don’t worry, the good news is that there are ways to tackles all of those reasons and be and feel much more productive as a result.
One of the problems of productivity it that you might feel guilty when you are not productive and as a result this might affect your performance.
Research has shown that people who forgive themselves tend to recover faster and as a result their future results are not affected.
Do less tasks but do them longer
When you set too many tasks for the day, it is easy to not finish all of them.
It’s better to set 2 or at most 3 larger tasks each day. If you have 5 tasks to accomplish, work on three of them today and the two other tomorrow.
When you are working, don’t switch between them all the time. Work first on one of them, then on the second one, and then work on the last one until the end of your working day.
You will minimize how often you switch between different task and as a result you will be able to focus or even immerse yourself in them and be more efficient.
Not all hours are the same
Your morning is when you are full of energy and fit both physically and mentally to handle any problem. As the working day comes to an end you have less energy to fight any obstacle.
It is the same with the work you do. Some of it requires you a lot of mental power, where as other is more automated or you are so good at it that you don’t need to put so much conscience effort.
Schedule the one which requires more mental power in the morning and the more automated and easy one for later of the day. You will be able to achieve more of both.
Setup your work for tomorrow
At the end of each day take 5 minutes of your time to decide on what you are going to work tomorrow.
This way, when the day begins you don’t have to wonder and you can begin working focused without distractions.
Otherwise, while deciding what you should take on, it is very easy to distract yourself in the morning.
Plan for the future
You don’t work only one day, you work everyday (except weekends and holidays of course) and what you accomplish today will affect what you are going to work on next week.
That is why it is a good practice to plan your week, or sometimes even your month in advance.
I don’t mean that it should be super specific but you can plan the general tasks you need to take in order to accomplish your goals or to finish your projects.
You don’t need to put them on specific dates, just decided what you are going to do and in what order.
Just as with your daily tasks, don’t schedule too much work.
Cut distractions and be in work mode
Especially when working from home this is critical because there are so many things that can distract you.
The best way is to put yourself in work mode.
It can be a place. For example, you can have a specific room, or specific desk and when you are there you only work, when you are not, you don’t work.
Once you practice and have that habit, it will be very easy for you to switch on and off.
Or you can create working mode not with a place but instead with some sort of ritual, like you begin working always after you finish your morning tea or coffee.
So as you repeat it day after day your whole body will switch itself in working mode automatically as soon as you have finished your coffee.
Track your progress
It is a very good practice to have these 3 lists. First, tasks to do, then tasks in progress and then a list of tasks done. As you do and accomplish your work, move each task from one list to the next.
This will have two very positive effects on you.
First, the tracking and moving things from list to list will literally make you feel the progress you are doing which in result will make you feel and be more productive.
Second, having all your done tasks in the third list will help you whenever you wonder what you have achieved or if you doubt whether you are productive. You can just check and see that you are actually working very well and achieving your goals.
I personally use Trello but there are many more other services that you can use.
As you can see there is a lot of advice here that you can apply immediately, so your next step might be to do just day. Start now, don’t wait.