About 15 years ago, I had a job where I worked from home.
When I got the job, I was delighted.
Managing my own workload.
Working in my PJs.
2 months later, my house was spotless (and I mean, deep cleaned from top to bottom), I’d planned an entire house makeover – including colours and new furniture, and I’d gotten to know my new neighbours really, really well.
It was at that point that I asked my new employer if I could get a desk in the local office.
Safe to say, I discovered that I wasn’t hugely disciplined when it came to working from home the first time around.
8 years later, I set up my first consultancy business and – knowing myself so well – decided that if I was going to be a success, that I’d better put a few systems in place to help me be more productive.
Of course, working for myself did give me a certain ‘hunger’ for success that I didn’t have when I had an employer. And my circumstances had changed – I had 2 young kids and really wanted to work from home to be around for them.
But still, I was slightly worried I might fall into my former unfocused ways. So here are the tips that work for me (and no, I do not always stick to them rigidly – I’m human!) so please feel free to swipe them and adapt them for you.
41 Ways to Stay Productive as a Freelancer / If You Work From Home
1. Focus on a Single Purpose – keep your top business priorities in mind and focus on doing what it takes to achieve them. So my absolute priorities are to deliver a quality service to my clients, to help other freelancers, and to run a successful home based business that contributes to the family finances each and every month. If I find myself working on a project or task that isn’t going to help to meet one of these top priorities then I am ruthless about dropping it. I learned this through bitter experience of focusing on the wrong things, accepting the ‘wrong’ work and just generally being unfocused.
2. Avoid Distractions – obvious one here but turn off your email. Take your social media off your phone and don’t have it open on the desk top. I would say turn off your phone, but I personally keep mine switched on in case the school calls about either of my kids – but you can always turn the volume down if you find you are getting endless calls.
Switch off app notifications in the settings so you’re not constantly being ‘pinged’ when someone follows you on Twitter or Pinterest. You could even try switching on the radio and listening to some music if you find that helps you to focus and switch off from any outside distractions (like the builders who are building an extension on my neighbour’s house!!!)
3. Avoid Meetings – OK, this is a difficult one but do you really need to have a meeting or could you do it over the phone? I used to work in a university and they LOVE to have meetings about everything. It was a great way of meeting colleagues in a large organisation, but it wasn’t always an effective use of time. If you really can’t avoid a meeting, set strict deadlines. And stick to them. This rule applies to Skype calls and webinars too.
4. Have an Agenda – following on from that, if you have an agenda, it’s easier to stick to the timings of meetings etc.
I even write out agendas prior to client phone calls to make sure that a) we cover everything and b) we focus on what needs to be done without going off on tangents. Of course, it’s tempting to have a chat about other things – especially as I work from home and Murdo isn’t always the chattiest of companions – but it won’t help you to stay on task.
5. Block Off Times To Work on Specific Activities. Will you get distracted sometimes? Yes, of course, you will. But blocking off time helps you to maintain focus.
I block off chunks of time for promotional activity, writing, client work, guest posts etc. at the start of the week. This has the added bonus of avoiding the endless ‘to do’ list full of little tasks. (see my diary below – and yes, I do block in time to walk the dog and go for a run!)
6. Know Yourself Better – We’re all different and all work differently. If you’re better at writing first thing, block off time to do that then. If you’re better at research in the morning, do it then. Knowing when you are most productive – and what tasks give you energy (or do the opposite) will help you to figure out what to do and at which times of the day. There’s a great post on productivity that was written for bloggers – but the rules pretty much apply to anyone working for themselves.
7. Chunk Similar Activities Together – I draft posts for this blog, my other blog and my clients at the same time. They are similar activities and so I get in the flow of doing this. I then write posts in batches – and if writing is an activity that you need to do in your business, take a look at Ali Luke’s post on Boost Blog Traffic about being a more productive writer – it’s gold, and I’ve adopted a few of her tips.
I also have specific times for doing admin or promotional activities. And, as I’ve written about before, I chunk my social media in batches too.
8. Get Up Earlier – for those of you who know me, I can hear your hollow laughter so stop it! I am NOT a morning person and much prefer working in the evenings, but as my kids get older, they go to bed later and so I’ve had to switch from working in the evenings to the mornings. This would have been impossible for me a few years ago when my son used to get up at 5.30am – no way I could get up at 4.30am like Gina Horkey! – but now that he’s almost a teenager and I need to crowbar him out of bed, I set my alarm for 6am and get a good hour of emails and social media done before he’s up. (My daughter has always been far more sensible – ie like her mother – when it comes to mornings).
9. Group Interruptions – if you know that there are certain household chores that need doing during the working week – like calls to suppliers or deliveries – then chunk these together too. Lunchtime is a good time to do this, or I finish up half an hour earlier than usual and do them at the end of the working day.
10. Outsource Chores – when you’re starting out in your freelance business, this might not be possible financially, but if you can share the household work with your other half – or the little darlings – then do that. My son (12) washes the car, walks the dog and feeds the animals, my daughter (9) cleans her room (ahem!). My other half does the bins, dishwasher and bathrooms and I’m in charge of shopping, cooking (I’m the only one who doesn’t burn water!) and laundry (I’m here to hang it out and bring it in when the inevitable rain starts). The other stuff we all pick up at the weekends.
11. Have Email Rules – I like this one. As well as not keeping your email open, I’ve read a few articles about keeping your emails to a maximum length. 5 sentences seems to be the recommended max. This stops you from sending rambling emails that take you an hour to edit, and makes you get to the point.
Another idea is to only check your email in the afternoon, so you can focus your work in the morning without any distractions. But this can be a bad idea if you’ve had an email in overnight that needs quick action. I check my emails first thing – that hour before the kids get up – and if there’s no crisis to be averted or urgent actions, I deal with them later in the day.
12. Use Technology – I know some people hate tech but when there are so many tools out there that can make you more productive, it’s worth using them. Here are a few of my favourites – and they’re mostly free too, which is even better!
13. Read It Later – my latest favourite tool is Pocket – kind of like a bookmark, it’s an app where you can add interesting online articles as you come across them and then I read them on the app on my phone when I have time later rather than interrupting the working day.
14. Perfect Doesn’t Exist – I’ve procrastinated on product launches, dithered over sending emails, and spent hours tweaking blog posts that were already fine as they were. If you don’t get anything out there, you don’t have a business. And if you keep procrastinating, it will kill your productivity stone dead.
The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing.
15. Use the Rule of 3 – set yourself 3 goals for the day at the start of each day – make them big goals that have tasks attached to them.
So, for example, I will set myself the goal of drafting several blog posts in the morning – which includes research, promotional activity – e.g. emailing potential clients & promoting on social media, and dealing with admin – comments on blog, updating social media
16. Keep your Desk Tidy – a messy desk may be the sign of an organised mind but, in reality, it’s usually a sign that you’ll spend an hour looking for a vital piece of paperwork only to discover it’s right under your nose.
Have a filing system.
I have 3 folders – shred, read, file. I sort paperwork out into these as I go and spend an hour a week sorting them. (I have to admit, I am way behind on the filing part…)
17. Stop Watching TV – or batch your favourite programmes and watch them on catch up TV all in one go. But don’t spend evenings in front of the box when you could be working on a new product launch, finding new clients, or creating a new business idea. Or doing your tax return.
18. Get Into a Routine – Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter has themes for each day of his working week – like marketing on a Monday, idea generation on a Tuesday and so on. Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, takes the middle of the day off. And Winston Churchill started the working day from his bed.
Whatever helps you, having a routine will create focus, as it means you will know what you’re doing when, and will help you to avoid time spent panicking in front of the computer with the sheer scale of what you have to do. I aim to write in the morning, and do admin/promotion in the afternoon.
And I take a Friday off.
19. Learn To Say No – It is tempting in the early days to say yes to everything. But since I learned to say no, I’ve created more focus – and earned more money as a result. Focus on what you need to do to get the job done. People will respect you for it if you do it well.
20. Focus On What You Do Best – again, in the early days, you are likely to have to do everything in your business due to a lack of extra cash. But, as the business grows, try to outsource tasks – particularly those that don’t play to your strengths.
Get your business cards and logo designed on Ffiver, spend some money getting someone to create a decent WordPress template for you or to set up your mailing list/newsletters.
21. Look After Yourself – get some exercise, get out in the fresh air, drink plenty water, and eat a healthy diet. You’ll feel better, have more energy and be more creative as a result.
I walk the dog, go for a run 3 times a week and do the school run every day (on foot – not in the car). It gets me out in the fresh air, gives me the chance speak to friends, and keeps me fit. And I’m 14lbs lighter than I was when I commuted 60 miles a day.
(But no, I still don’t drink enough water!)
22. Stop Writing a ‘To Do’ List! – instead, chunk up the day and focus on the bigger aspects that you need to cover rather than writing endless lists of smaller tasks, which will just overwhelm you. So Promotions, Writing, Research – three big headings for the day but each will have smaller tasks within them. Just don’t endlessly list them out.
23. Use Your Time Wisely – when you freelance, you have no commute and that gives you extra time in the day to work.
Or, if you’re out walking or running, why don’t you subscribe to a podcast or download an audible book to keep your skills up.
24. Use Your Commute – of course, if you’re still working and are setting up your freelance business as a side hustle, then why not use your commute time to listen to podcasts/books?
25. Stop Multi-Tasking – when you work from home, it’s tempting to do all the housework, run your business, deal with personal finances and everything else throughout the day (see my earlier experience of working from home for evidence of that!).
But that means you’re not remotely focused. Sure, being at home should be an advantage and mean you can get through the work, but try to keep your personal or household chores to specific times – like lunchtime or after school.
26. Disappear – if you can, switch off your phone, go work in the library, turn off your social media – and FOCUS.
27. Delete Tasks – As author Cathy Presland’s says, ask yourself:
Is this contributing to my financial goals for the month,
Does this fit with my vision for the business,
Am I working to my strengths?
If a task doesn’t answer yes to at least one of these, then take it off the list.
28. Get Up to Speed – check your priorities the night before so you have a clear idea of what you will be working on tomorrow. Now you can have everything set up in advance.
Including the right mindset.
29. Deal with the Worst First – there is a lot of advice out there about doing your worst or most difficult task first.
To be honest, this doesn’t work for me as I need to get into my work flow a bit before tackling these sort of jobs – but if it works for you great!
And, if you’re like me, then try doing a few easier tasks first, and then tackle your worst job. What I always aim to do is get any difficult tasks out of the way in the morning.
30. Know When You’re Done – if you have specific goals for projects (which is my way of saying – you should have specific goals for your projects) then you’ll know when you’ve reached them.
31. Be Accountable – when you work on your own, it’s easy to get lost in your work and lose focus – particularly when you have a large number of projects that you’re working on.
Share your goals with others – friends or family or other freelancers that you work with (not your clients!) – and you’ll soon discover that, by being held accountable, you will increase your productivity.
32. Set Up the Right Environment – if you work from the kitchen table and are constantly distracted by noise, household chores or people coming in and out of the room, you’re not going to be hugely productive.
Get a workspace that is calm, where you can work in peace – or alternatively, where you can open the door and share the buzz if that’s what you prefer. Keep your desk clear and your space organised and notice the increase in your productivity as a result.
I delegated the areas I struggled with to people who also believed in the project. This freed up my time to focus on what I was good at.
Sir Richard Branson
(And who am I to argue with Sir Richard?)
34. Do Small Tasks Quickly – you will have small things that need done during the day. Emails that need to be sent, newsletters that you have to schedule or tweets that have to be sent. Do these tasks quickly and move on.
35. Stay On Track – if you’ve blocked off chunks of time in your diary for specific tasks, stick to them. I’m not going to lie, I find this one difficult – especially if I’m in the midst of writing. However, if you get to the end of one blocked off timed project, and you haven’t finished the task in hand, try moving on to the next one (unless it’s vital that you finish it today). If you have no time left in your diary that week for that particular task, can you get up earlier to do it or work on it later once the kids have gone to bed? Try to stick to your schedule as much as possible or your whole day is at risk of backing up. Once you’ve been freelancing for a while, you will get more of an idea of how long things will take too, so this will get easier.
36. Congratulate Yourself – give yourself rewards for finishing projects. Even something as small as having a coffee (and a cake!) when you’ve finished up working on your ideal client profile or updating your LinkedIn profile, for example. Small rewards are a good way of breaking up the day and moving on to the next chunk of work in a positive frame of mind.
37. Unsubscribe – OK, obviously I’m keen that you keep receiving my newsletter 😉 but how many emails do you receive in your inbox daily that you just don’t read? Pick 2 or 3 that you really read and use – and delete the rest. Or, if there are any emails that you just can’t bear to unsubscribe from, try having them sent direct into a specific Email Subs folder – rather than clogging up your Inbox.
38. Stay Positive – ban negative people and negativity from your life, and you are more likely to stay positive and on track as a result.
If you really can’t ban them (ie it’s your spouse or your mother!) then try to keep contact outside your working hours – and try not to discuss work with them (difficult in the case of your spouse).
39. Review – look at your progress each day, week and month. Are you getting through the work or are you becoming distracted? Look at where your focus is best and worst. What can you change to improve? Is there anything you can learn from when you are best focused that you can transfer to those times when you can’t focus?
I love writing and I am BAD at letting it take over my entire day. But ask me to call people, and I’ll do anything to avoid it. The solution – for me at least – is to work on the projects that I love first, then make a couple of calls, then go back to the work that I enjoy most, like a spot more writing or some social media. Or strategy and planning. I love strategy and planning (I am a freak, I know). Creating a little phone call sandwich in the middle makes it easier for me to get it all done.
40. Have Plans – I love a good business plan or a marketing plan, not least because they help you to stay productive. If you know where you’re going – and why – it’s easier to stay focused.
If you haven’t already, write your plans, even an outline is good, and (MOST IMPORTANT BIT HERE) review them regularly!
Aim to look at your marketing plan monthly and your business plan quarterly as a minimum. This will help you to get back on track if you’re becoming distracted – or decide to ditch what isn’t working and stop it using up valuable time.
41. Time Out – if you’ve really hit a wall – and let’s face it, we all have days like that – then it might be that you need to switch of the computer and your phone and have a duvet day. Or visit friends. Or go for a long walk on the beach. Whatever recharges your batteries. There are times when you just can’t do any more and fighting it might be the worst thing you can do.
The beauty of working for yourself is that you have the option to do this. Just try not to roll one day off into an entire week!
And Finally… At the end of the working day, focus on one specific task and complete it. Then finish up for the day. Completing a task at the end of the day is good for boosting your mood AND starting the following day with a positive mindset.