5 First-Hand Tips for Staying Productive as a Freelancer cover image

5 First-Hand Tips for Staying Productive as a Freelancer

Jethro Solomon • February 22, 2020

small-business freelancing

No productivity life-hacks here. I'm going to share real-world advice that will have an immense impact on your success as a freelancer or remote worker. I have been an online worker for ten years, and had a good deal of success in recent times, but much, much more failure before that.

My advice here might seem like common sense, but it applies to you as a freelancer way more than most workers who have to stick to certain routines. Who can't socialize during work hours and have no choice but to commute every day. You are a new breed of worker, and you need to enforce your own structure.

Keeping your head down and getting stuff done is easier said than done when you're tired, demotivated and your bed is a short distance away from your workstation. Or perhaps, you procrastinate instead and get carried away with online social activities or brain-numbingly scroll through funny cat pictures.

So, how exactly do you just get things done? How do you break the cycle and stop wasting time?

1: Fix your sleep patterns. Unplug before bed.

Having wild sleeping patterns is way too easy when you work from home. You may regularly stay up working into the early hours of the morning, or simply get carried away scrolling through various news feeds filled with memes. But decent, structured sleep is actually the natural human state, and very much necessary for you to function at your best.

You need realistic consistency. I'm not going to tell you to schedule every working hour. Just make sure you are sleeping well, every night. I have honestly been having a lot of trouble getting decent sleep recently. I realized that I had fallen back into a pattern of staring at glowing rectangles, beaming endless illuminated information into my eyes into late hours of the night, wondering, why can't I sleep?

Make sure to unplug at least half an hour before bed, and vow not to look at the rectangles until morning. Read a book in some dim light, pre-prepare your breakfast, or take a shower. Just don't expect to get naturally tired whilst shining blue light into your face from several inches away. Studies have shown that light emitted from our favourite electronics do actually stop you from getting tired.

So, set a good bed-time that you can stick to on a daily basis, and turn off the illuminating information squares to prep you for that time. Silence them too, just keep your alarm on if you need it.

2: Move more than an office worker.

You may be the worst-off when it comes to being stagnant. There are countless articles floating around ringing the alarm bells that office work is physically unhealthy. Office workers spend way too much time sitting and not moving around nor doing anything physical.

Now, consider that many of these office workers still commute, walk, and climb stairs to get to and from their desk every day. Do you? If you're working from home, you may well move less than supposedly sedentary office workers with a known higher risk of early death.

If you're working from home, you may well move less than supposedly sedentary office workers with a known higher risk of early death. https://paypod.co.za/sw1o Click to Tweet

Moving less leaves you more tired, with a lower emotional state. Being on the extreme end of living a stagnant lifestyle will do you a major disservice when it comes to maintaining productivity.

Again, I'm not going to even suggest that you start hitting the gym (unless you already do). Just make an effort to move more throughout the day. For example, I vape and need to swap out my batteries every so often. I have placed my batteries away from my desk so that I actually have to stand up and walk to them.

I know it sounds silly, but making many small adjustments will add up. If you aren't exercising, add ten minutes a day where you do some bodyweight squats and pushups. It's about balance - it doesn't have to be all or nothing, just do something.

3: Use Project Management Software

You don't need to necessarily use this with your clients, but using it for yourself will make everything easier. I use Asana, primarily with a Kanban display. I put all the things I plan on doing in the “backlog”, the stuff I imminently need to start in the “ready” column, then, everything I am currently working on in the “in progress column”. Finally, I have a column for “complete” tasks.

Not only can you get a quick overview of where you stand with everything on your plate, but you feel like an absolute boss when the “complete” column grows throughout your day. For me, it gamifies my work enough that I get an instant sense of satisfaction and control when I move something to the “complete” column.

Doing this also means I do not forget anything, which easily happens when working on more than one project. I can jot down notes and attach files to each task, no matter when in the workflow they are. When I next pick up the ticket, I'll have all of the context and information in one place.

4: Take breaks. Time them and don't get carried away.

Even if you feel wide awake and energized, you still need to take breaks. Working for long periods will lead to decision fatigue. Basically, long periods spent making decisions leads us to progressively start making illogical trade-offs, opting for seemingly more comfortable choices.

Your work will become more sloppy, and you probably won't even notice.

Take short breaks by completely removing yourself from your work tasks. Your mind will not rest if you're still doing work or making decisions. So don't answer emails or switch to an “easier task”. Go take a 20-minute power nap, eat or go for a walk.

Many of us are good at procrastinating, so harness that power in a controlled way and get a 30-minute holiday from the stresses of work. This is sacred time you must allow yourself to recharge.

5: Stand up for yourself and don't squander your time.

You may always be at home, but you still need to keep a professional edge. This means setting boundaries. Your friends and family may tend to think, that because you “work for yourself”, that you are always available. You need those around you to know, that yes, you do actually need to work. No, you can't babysit little Johnny at 11 am on a Monday.

Living in a small town and working online meant that people often thought I was simply unemployed, and leeching off my mother. They could not fathom that I was, in fact, paying my mother to live with her in a mutually beneficial manner. While this may be an extreme example, people do tend to take freelancers less seriously, especially when it comes to setting time boundaries.

I remember after a long all-nighter, my business partner was asked to help a friend install her kitchen cupboards as it would “give him something to do”. You cannot make this stuff up. He stood firm and said no. Needless to say, he is no longer friends with her but is having a lot of success with his work. Your time is money, don't squander it on people who view it as cheaper than their own.

Bonus Tip: Use a physical diary / organizer

This isn't to manage your work and clients, this is to manage your life. Using a physical, old-school hard-back organizer was the tipping point to me getting my life on track. I already had countless apps, alarms, reminders and noise across my various devices. I needed to get back to the absolute basics.

Physically writing down tasks, such as taking breaks or cooking a healthy meal solidifies them in your brain. Any time you find yourself forgetting what you should be doing, you can open your planner and see your day.

If you don't currently do many of the things in this article, I highly suggest you keep a planner to turn them into habits. Jot down your daily goals and cross them out once complete. It, much like the project management method I talked about earlier, will give you a sense of achievement and push you to stay on track.