As a freelance writer, I love that I don’t have to worry about a boss looking over my shoulder.
The downside? I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder.
I have many deadlines to meet, but little accountability if I leave everything until the last minute. I’ve found that relying on self-control alone is difficult, which is why I use the following tools.
- Track Time
I closely track my time using an app. I bill some clients hourly and need to know how long I worked on an assignment. But I also track my working hours because I want to know how productive I am throughout the day. I keep track of how long I spend on each assignment and how many hours I spend working for each client throughout the week.
Over the last three years, I tried several time-tracking apps and programs. Some were rudimentary, as in I used the stopwatch app on my phone. Others had the ability to connect to accounting software, generate invoices, and sync across multiple devices. There are many programs to choose from, including several that are free for individual users, such as Toggl, TimeCamp, TimeDoctor, and Harvest.
After testing different apps, I realized the functions I want are simple. I chose TimeDoctor because it’s easy to create and switch between tasks. There’s also a timer that sits above other windows and serves as a constant reminder of what I should be doing. The app notices if I’m on a website that likely isn’t work-related or if I’ve paused a task for awhile, and will ask if I want to get back to work.
Using the app’s website, I can create reports of my overall time usage by day, week, or month and then break it down based on task or client.
As a result of tracking my time, I know which clients offer the highest paying work on a per-hour basis. I’m also better at managing my time because I know approximately how long it takes me to complete each type of assignment.
- Stay Inspired
Without a boss to set goals, weekly check-ins with a team, or colleagues to compete with, staying motivated can be difficult. Having long-term goals can help, but there are a few apps I use to stay motivated throughout the day.
The first is a spreadsheet I created on Google Sheets. I set weekly financial and personal goals and record my progress daily. There are a few conditional rules that make cells change colors when I do well, but overall it’s a simple sheet. I enjoy pushing myself to exceed my weekly goals.
Another tool I use is a browser plugin. I use Chrome, and by default a new tab shows the Google search bar and your six most-frequently visited sites. These six sites tend to be time-wasters for me.
I used to get distracted, but installing Momentum (also available for Safari) changed that. The free extension replaces the new tab page with a beautiful full-screen image. I can put down my primary focus for the day and am reminded of it each time I open a tab. The extension also shows the time, weather, a to-do list, and inspirational quotes.
- Avoid Distractions
The time-tracking software and Momentum extension serve dual purposes in that they partially help me avoid distractions. However, the free StayFocusd Chrome extension’s sole purpose is to make sure I stay focused.
Using StayFocusd, I created a list of blocked sites, such as Facebook and Reddit. I give myself an aggregate daily limit of 10 minutes on these sites and set the extension to run Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:30pm. Once I hit the 10-minute mark, when I try to go to a blocked site I’m redirected to a page that says “Shouldn’t you be working?”
I like being able to check social media throughout the day, but since I started using StayFocusd I no longer get sucked in and wonder where the last 15 or 30 minutes went. For non-Chrome users, there is LeechBlock for Firefox and SelfControl for Safari.
- Organize Tasks
Keeping track of my deadlines, revision requests, and interview schedules can be difficult. By staying organized, I avoid wasting time searching through emails or worrying that I lost track of an assignment.
I create boards, lists, and cards in Trello. For example, I have one board for all my writing, each list is a client, and each card on the list is an assignment. I color-code my assignments, give each of them a due date, and can view everything on a calendar if I want. Rather than follow the assigned due dates, I try to get ahead by setting my own deadlines.
- Create a Work Space
I built a standing desk in my room, but only use it occasionally because I found my productivity drops when I try to work from home. The fridge beckons me over, and there always seems to be a chore that I want to prioritize over my work.
Most often you’ll find me at a shared workspace during the day. Cafes are favorites for some freelancers, but the work atmosphere of co-working spaces suit me better. I enjoy getting out of the house each day and I think the separation of my workspace and my home makes it easier to relax once I return—although there are evenings when I have to work at home.
PRACTICE MAKES COMFORT
A friend recently made the acute observation that practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes comfort. My practices and the tools I use help me stay focused, and over time I’ve become more comfortable being my own boss.