It started in second grade. I clearly remember explaining to my mother the reason I consistently did poorly on timed tests in mathematics: “The music in my head is too loud. It won’t let me finish.”
While I certainly hope I could breeze through those second-grade math tests now, my war with focus and time management has continued to rage since. As a full-time freelancer, however, it’s a battle I can’t lose without serious repercussions. To combat this and find my focus as a freelancer, I’ve developed several time-management and focus strategies. Here are a few.
1. Start with a plan.
Since I have at least three active clients at a time, I have to keep track of multiple deadlines for different companies on a regular basis. My first priority each Monday is to create a schedule that includes what I plan to accomplish each day that week as well as the current order of my priorities.
In addition to that overarching weekly plan, I often spend the beginning of each work session creating a mini-plan with specific steps to focus on so I always have definite goals to complete.
2. Just start writing.
I sometimes struggle with my tendency to overthink at the beginning of a project. To break the ice, I’ll often start by writing a very rough draft, jumping from one point to another with the information I want to convey. This extremely rough draft tends to remove the pressure I inadvertently place on myself to make the piece perfect from the beginning. When I go through to rewrite the piece and add more order, I’m often surprised at how much of the original wording I tend to keep.
3. Keep track of time.
It doesn’t matter whether the client prefers to pay me by the hour or by the project—I’ve learned that writing down when I start and stop working (even if it’s for a small Facebook or snack break) helps me stay focused on the project I should be working on.
Tracking my time to the minute made me realize early on how many detours I used to take while working. I’m much less likely to check email or social media accounts when every minute spent there is a minute I’m not getting paid. Plus, the more condensed I can keep my work time, the faster I can get back to what I really want to be doing: spending time with my family.
4. Use different times of day for different types of work.
Given that I’m significantly more distracted during the day when the rest of my world is awake, I prefer to do most of my writing, which usually requires a chunk of uninterrupted time, while everyone else is asleep. I still do some work during the daytime hours, but I do my best to keep it to less time- and focus-intensive tasks such as client correspondence and prospecting.
5. Break down larger projects into mini-deadlines.
You think a month is an infinite amount of time in which to complete a project? Think again. I learned the hard way that—no matter how much the procrastinator inside of me tries to say otherwise—I can’t do most of my work on a major project the week before the deadline.
Instead, I now break larger projects into weekly deadlines, helping me stay on track for my actual deadline. If I honestly believe I can complete the project the week before the deadline, I now try to complete the project in the first week instead. This way, I’m not hurt if the project takes more time than anticipated, and I don’t have to deal with the stress that comes from putting myself under pressure.