First, what’s a hack? A hack can be a writer who churns out copy, yes, but here I mean a tip or trick that makes your workday more productive. And hey, I welcome any and all tips that help me churn out the words. Here, the ten productivity hacks I use most often and recommend to other freelancers:
1. Set the timer for 5 minutes and work. This is especially useful when I’m putting a task off, something distasteful like logging expenses or paying bills. I spent six hours in hard labor giving birth to my son, so five minutes is nothin’. When the time is up, 75 percent of the time I’ll keep going till the task is finished. Otherwise I’ll take a short break, and usually come back to finish.
2. Use an e-mail assistant to manage the details. Since I’m always on e-mail, I love IWantSandy, an e-mail assistant that helps me remember everything from appointments and interviews to phone numbers and flight schedules. Every morning, Sandy e-mails me a list of things I need to do, everything from a reminder to take my vitamins to a list of calls I must make that day. Better yet, she’s free! [ETA: And now she’s dead. Unfortunately, the developers pulled the plug on this fantastic service in late 2008. Boo hoo!]
3. Keep a notebook next to your keyboard. I keep a 5″ x 7″ notebook on my desk at all times and use it to jot down details from a phone conversation, editors’ names, potential sources, quotes I find on the web, books that look interesting, assignment details, passwords for websites — literally anything that crosses my desk during the day. I can’t tell you how many times this notebook has saved my ass. (Can you see it under my timer?) Every couple weeks I go through it and transfer important info into my other filing systems. Low-tech but handy.
4. Remember the Rule of Three. I wrote about this back in September 2007. On those days when you have zero motivation, pick three tasks on your to-do list, preferably important things, do them, then allow yourself to take the rest of the day off. I find this hack immensely helpful on the days following a vacation or illness. It’s probably not a great hack to use every day, but if you’re in a deep rut, it gets you moving.
5. Batch tasks. Got phone calls to make? Do them all at once. Rather than invoice your editors as you finish a project, schedule an hour during a week to invoice all of them at once. I do this with accounting: I schedule an hour every Friday to record expenses and log payments in Quicken. During the week, I simply throw check stubs and receipts into a folder for my Friday fun time.
6. Think of a writer/freelancer/businessperson you admire and ask yourself, “What would s/he do”” There are a couple freelance writers whose work I respect. Whenever I get stuck trying to figure out what to do next or how I should proceed, I imagine what they would do were they standing in my shoes. Then I do what I think they’d do. This really helps when I’m nervous making a phone call or dithering over whether or not to take a project. Would X do this project at $1 word and a crappy contract? How would Y handle a project in which she was a bit over her head? This mindset also helps when I’m procrastinating on a story. There’s just no way any of my writing idols would miss a deadline or be caught watching reruns of Top Chef during the day … so I buckle down and hit that keyboard.
7. Schedule rewards. When you’re a freelancer, there’s no one there to hand you an employee appreciation award or a bonus check for a job well done. You’ve got to step up and take that responsibility. You’re probably way more creative and generous than any suit or corporate HR department, so have some fun rewarding yourself. When I meet my querying goals for the week or turn in a tough story, I’ll gift myself with a venti nonfat caramel macchiato or an episode of “The Wire” (thanks Netflix!). What are your rewards?
8. Play beat the clock. I like to do this when I’m dragging my ass on filing a story. If a story’s due the following day, I’ll say, “Ok, I’m going to get a first draft of this done by noon today.” I’ll eat lunch, take a break and work on something else, then say, “Now I’ll go through and edit this until 4.” Then I’ll set a time the next day to send it in to my editor. I’m one of those writers who likes to file things before noon on the day they’re due, so 12:00 p.m. is always a major deadline time for me. I’m at my desk at 9 a.m. rarin’ to go.
9. Build accountability into your week. Knock wood, I have a lot of repeat business with editors so as I’m going back and forth with them on an assignment, I’ll say things like, “I’ll have some recipe ideas to you by Friday” or “I’ll get three story ideas to you by the 15th for your planning meeting.” If I know people are counting on me, I’ll get the work done.
10. Keep to a schedule. One of the perks of ‘lancing is that you get to make your own hours. But one of the pitfalls is that you get to make your own hours. Who’s going to dock your pay if you’re not in your chair at 9:00 a.m. sharp? But I think most highly productive writers and freelancers keep good work schedules. They tend to show up to work at the same time each day, accomplish their most important tasks during their high-energy hours, and schedule those irksome tasks like chasing down checks or interviewing during their low-energy periods. Their days follow a predictable pattern of output. Less successful writers and freelancers tend to take a more whimsical approach to the day, letting their moods, deadlines, or bank balances dictate their schedules. Don’t fall into this trap, unless you’re happy writing as a hobby.
So what are your productivity hacks? Add them to the comment section below. [db]