10 Productivity Hacks for Freelancers

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]

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31 comments… add one
  • I haven’t read the Getting Things Done book but I use GTD organization (discovered through my slavish devotion to Web Worker Daily). I’ve got a Mac so iGTD is my go-to organization tool. It lets me set up contexts for tasks — literally the places where I do things. Some of my contexts are Browser, Email, Phone, etc. Then I have projects, which are my clients and jobs. Each of my to-dos have a context and belong to a project. I check my to-do list everyday but with this organizing system it’s easy to sit down and crank out every phone call I need to make at once OR work on a project basis if I want to get ahead on one. iGTD is a terrific program, too, because I can hit F6 from my email or web page and have that copied and pasted right into a new to-do, which I can then assign a context and project so I’m able to move through my inbox (fairly) quickly.

  • Starting to like Google Notebook (http://www.google.com/notebook). You install a little extension for your browser, then you can add web pages as notes as you surf around. You can make comments about them and then can access the full blown notebook page later to organize, revisit, etc. Still getting used to the tool, but I can already see how it would be useful.

  • I really have to ask … why are so many posts, including this one, tagged as “Ass”?”

  • Diana, great post! About the Rule of Three, I actually find it helpful to use it every day. I’ve fallen out of the habit, but every night I’d write down on an index card the top four (okay, so mine is the rule of four) things I absolutely need to get done the next day. It really helps me focus…I should get back into the habit.

    Beth, we categorize as “ass” any post that has the word “ass” in it. This one has two! We also sometimes use this category for posts about things we think suck.

  • wordwych

    This is a great list! Definitely another one to print out and post on my bulletin board. I was glad to see the notebook recommendation in Hack #3. I used to be the queen of sticky notes, but frequently struggled to find *the* note I needed at a particular time. I switched to using a cheapo spiral notebook about two years ago. Life has been so much simpler and much, much more organized. All my notes are in chronological order, so it’s easy to go back and look for little details. I date the front of each notebook and file them away once they’re full (example: “Jan 1 07 – Feb 15 07”). I use the 8.5 x 11, 70-page notebooks that go on sale for 10 cents each at Wally World during school supply season. For a couple bucks, I can load up on enough notebooks to keep me totally supplied.

  • HisGirlFriday

    Great suggestions – #s 1,6, and 7 are going to go into rotation immediately!!!!

    One of mine that’s kind of what Linda does: Every night I plan a list of what I have to do the next AM, on a spiral notebook as suggested, with phone numbers, etc – so I don’t have to go searching in the AM and I can hit the ground running. (Also, that way I don’t feel guilty about spending the first 15 min of the day with my tea and electronic NYTimes.)

    Then, on the next page of the notebok, I write down who I called and what the result was (VM for voice mail, email, SECY for message with secretary; W for reached the person and he’s working on getting my info.) That way I know who I’ve called and where my reqeusts stand. I have so many balls in the air, I’d never know what I’ve done and what still needs to be done.

  • Just wanted to say, great post, Diana! I just printed it out and stuck it on my bulletin board.

  • Keeping a notebook with you at all times is #1 top supremo tip as far as I’m concerned. When I can, I try to go a step further than just jotting myself a note; if it’s a writing idea, I try to come up with two or three things to get me started on an idea. Essentially, I’m making a “thumbnail” outline. When I sit down to write, there’s no immediate “uphill” climb as I figure out what I meant and how I should get started.

  • wordwych

    Thought of another hack!

    Like Justin, I have recently discovered the Google Notebook, which I find to be more and more useful as I become familiar with it. I second his recommendation of getting to know this little tool, especially if you’re a Web addict. I also recently “discovered” (OK, noticed) the Notes function in Outlook. You can create little notes and color code them to your preferences. I’ve got into the habit of cutting and pasting info from e-mails (books I want to read, potential markets, the seeds for article ideas) into a Note so that I can delete the e-mail (thus decreasing the amount of flotsam in my email folders) and have the pertinent info at hand and easily accessible. It’s very easy to switch over to Tasks or Calendar to create a reminder or an appointment for a time-sensitive Notes.

    Although I frequently curse Microsoft, I must admit they’ve got some useful stuff bundled into their software.

  • Steve

    For those of you who like Google Notebook, take a look at Microsoft OneNote or Aquaminds’ Notetaker (for Mac). Both let you drag and drop all kinds of file types into pages that look like ruled notebook paper. Just like a real notebook, they can be divided by page, tab or grouped in “drawers.”

    For every story I do, I just create a titled section for it and start running a list of possible sources, URLs, contacts and background research. When I start interviewing people, I just cut and paste their contact info into a new page, type my phone notes beneath their name during the interview (including occasional timecodes) beneath it. Then I “drop” the digital recording of the interview right next to their name, so everything’s in the same place. Makes it track down a quote or snippet of conversation very fast.

    Both pieces of software automatically index your notes to make them searchable, and they both offer trial versions if you want to give it a shot. If you’re looking for a tech solution to all the detritus that builds up on your desk, you’ll love it. I’ve been using it for years now and love having all that info archived in a meaningful way (with no work on my part, really). It also saves me the trouble of over-running my address book with sources I may or may not want to talk to again — you just hang onto everything, even contact info for people you never ended up calling (which can be very useful when something similar comes across your desk).

  • megan

    Great stuff! I think people underestimate the power of the timer. As a compulsive multi-tasker (and somewhat ADD to boot), timers really help me stay on task.

    Similar to IWantSandy, I have found http://www.jott.com to be a lifesaver for me. I’m on the road a lot, and it seems like drive time is prime time for remembering all the stuff I need to do. With jott, you call in and basically leave a voice mail message which is transcribed into an e-mail and sent to your account ASAP. It totally helps clear my head (GTD style) and helps me stay on top of all those nagging “to-do’s” that drive me batty.

  • Thanks for sharing jott.com.

  • This is also a great list (I just read Linda’s). Thanks, Diana!

    I especially like the idea of having a notebook next to your computer. Right now I have, um, clutter, and some sticky notes under there somewhere.

    I also have a litter of kittens under my desk, but I realize that I’ve been letting them be my excuse to be less organized and more “whimsical.” Thanks for that reminder.

  • Greg Korgeski

    Great suggestions! Several of my most helpful:

    – I log my time spent on various writing projects daily. On my Mac I use Project Calculator, and set up a new “project” each day. When I’m on a specific writing project (a blog or a book chapter, say), I just click the start button and write in whatever that project is… and stop it when I’m done. I don’t set time goals, but I hate seeing that I only put in a couple of working hours, so over time this feedback system keeps me working full work days on writing projects. Plus I can print out reports every month or so of how much time I spent on what.

    – Both the GTD book by David Allen and LaMott’s “Bird by Bird” have helpful advice on getting started on a task. The idea of Allen’s about specifying the next, concrete action you have to take, and LaMott’s notion of having only to write the small amount that fits in a tiny window, are super helpful when used together. When I’m stuck on what to do next, I break the task (write book, say) down into the next specific task (write that tiny section from the outline), and even then, I only have to fill that one small window with words. Crappy words, at that!

  • Hi! Thanks for the tips, I am a very unproductive writer.

    Just to let everyone know, that IWantSandy went permanently offline last week unfortunately. Something about the creator moving over to some company named Google, or Yahoo? 😉


  • RE: “IwantSandy”. Since it has been pulled, try http://www.jott.com. It is free as well and you can add to your “to do” list from your cell phone. It will also remind you on your cell or on your email.

  • I love #7 the most! I tend to reward myself with ice cream or 20 minutes of Desperate Housewives or Oprah on TiVo. I feel as though I kill two birds with one stone since I this usually gets my creative writing juices flowing.

  • I too rely on spiral notebooks. I only buy the ones with the perfs in them as they can be easily ripped out and added to a client folder. The notes for my personal sites eventually go in 3-ring binders. Those ‘back to school’ sales, as far as I’m concerned, is the ONLY time to buy general supplies like spiral notebooks, notebook paper, file folders, markers, pens and pencils. Why pay $1.49 in January for the same notebook that was 10 cents in September?

    I also work with multiple notebooks at once – on average two at a time. One for personal projects and ideas and another for client work. That helps to keep me focused and prevent those wild goose chase idea hunts for personal projects when I should be doing something more important.

  • That is some great advice! I’ll take that to heart on my endeavours, right now I only have a couple of things on my To Do list, but the rule of three is a great way to prioritise.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

    Lisa(@Lisa107b on Twitter)

  • These tips are golden! The comments here are very helpful too and have led me to look into Google Calendar. Microsoft OneNote is another one I picked up from here (thanks Steve!). I’m just annoyed that I’ve always had it on my computer but never bothered to try it out.

  • Hi!! Diana, I just loved your post! Being a freelancer myself, I tend to stick to a routine that would serve me on highly productive basis, including your productive tips onto my routine would just add more substance to it! Thanks!!

  • I used Sticky Notes, a free download from Microsoft. http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/Using-Sticky-Notes
    The notes are color-coded, and you can you can format text, resize, and flip through open notes. You can move the notes around the screen wherever you want them, and they stick around until you delete them. Sticky Notes are available for XP, Vista and Windows 7. You can also download a talking clock that you can set to remind you when assignments, appointments, and meetings are coming up.

    • Thanks for the info. I wish Sticky Notes was available for Mac. But a talking clock — I’m sold!

  • Pretty awesome tips here. Another tip that you can probably add is “Quit your day job that requires you to put in 40 hours a week.” Heh But it’s manageable, for now.

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