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My friend quit his job to go freelance, so I gave him my 5-part productivity formula

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A friend and fellow copywriter recently asked me for productivity advice.

This guy has worked for years as a full-time, in-house writer for a large corporation, and now he’s ready to make the jump to freelancing.

Brave guy. That move takes guts.

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So he wanted to know how I’ve managed to run a successful freelance practice for years, often juggling upwards of a dozen clients at a time — and how I’m able to stay organized, disciplined and on task day after day without anybody telling me what to do.

That was a good question, and I thought the advice I gave my friend might help you as well. Here’s what I told him about how I’m able to get so much done.

1. I focus on one task at a time (because multitasking is a myth)

This seems counter-intuitive. The really productive people are all multitasking, aren’t they?

Actually, they’re not, at least not the way we think of it.

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People might think they’re multitasking as they shift their attention constantly among several tasks. But if the various things they’re tackling are higher-order mental tasks — like drafting an email while speaking on the phone to a colleague — what these people are actually doing is “task-switching.”

And that’s a mistake.

I’ve always instinctively made an effort to stick to one writing task at a time, not moving on to something else until I completed it, because I always assumed I wouldn’t be able to do my best work if my attention wasn’t 100% on that one project.

But a few years ago, while doing research for a white paper I was writing for a client, I found some science to support that view.

It was a Psychology Today article called “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking,” and its author, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk, PhD, argued that “multitasking higher-order tasks is more or less impossible”.

Dr. Weinschenk explained that when we try to engage in this silliness — which she described as task-switching — “we make more errors on all of our projects than we would if we just tackled them one at a time.”

Moreover, as Dr. Weinschenk points out: “research indicates that when we task-switch, the very act of shifting our focus back and forth eventually drains us of 40% of our overall productivity.”

So don’t take it from me. Take it from science.

To get more done, devote yourself completely to one project at a time — and give it your full attention until it’s done.

2. I keep myself on a strict schedule

When you’re a freelancer, or you work from home, it’s easy to get lazy.

Easy to procrastinate. Easy to rationalize away a task you don’t feel like tackling right now, and do something fun instead.

Nobody’s watching you, right?

A lot of freelancers set out on their own because they like the idea of being in control of their day, being able to work when they want and take breaks when they want.

And yes, that is a wonderful benefit of running a freelance practice. But if you’re not extremely disciplined, it can also be a trap.

This is why millions of home gyms get assembled and placed in their owner’s new “workout area” in the den… but soon after become little more than storage racks to hang clothing, and eventually find their way into the garage, and finally onto Craigslist.

You need a plan.

Every morning, I get to the office that I rent at roughly the same time, and I start working right away on the most important (or strategically advantageous) project on my list for that day.

Notice I didn’t say I check email when I get to my office. I don’t, because that’s an easy way to get off schedule. I start every day on a productive note — one task at a time, until it’s done, starting with the most important project for the day.

Yes, I could stop working at any moment of any day and go to the mall. Or go home and binge-watch Netflix shows.

Or take a nap.

But if I got into the habit of doing those things, I wouldn’t have the discipline or the stamina to handle things effectively when my workload spiked or when a client needed a rush project.

There’s no secret to being able to work harder. But one of the most effective tips I can give you is to make being productive such a routine part of your day that you do it without even having to think about it.

3. I keep a close eye on the clock

In addition to keeping to a strict schedule for the day, I also give myself a schedule to follow for each project.

For example, when I have to write a corporate blog or a by-lined article for an executive, I start out with a designated amount of time for research, interviewing the subject, outlining, etc.

Then I give myself a certain amount of time to make progress on the writing itself — and when I’ve hit the end of that allotted block of time, I take an objective look at how far I am into the draft, how long I anticipate completing it will take, and what else I have on my day’s agenda.

Only after that assessment will I decide my next move.

If you’re hoping to become a busy freelancer with a full workload, you’ll really need an accurate sense of how long any given type of project will take you, so that you can effectively budget your time.

This is vital to ensure that you make each project worth your while in terms of billing — you wouldn’t want to quote a low amount to design an icon set and then spend 15 hours getting to a first draft.

It’s also necessary because if you don’t know how long a given project will take, you’ll have no way of meeting your agreed-upon deadline.

And as strange as it sounds, you’ll also need to keep a close eye on the clock while you’re working to the extent that you’re enjoying what you’re doing.

I truly enjoy most of my copywriting projects, as I’m sure graphic artists and videographers enjoy most of the projects they tackle.

And it’s very easy to stick with an assignment for a longer period of time than necessary because you’re having a great time working on it.

But you always need to keep in mind that you’re running a business — and even if you’re not billing hourly (which I hope you’re not), your time is a critical component to your success.

So… learn how long every type of assignment will take you. Then budget your time accordingly for each project. And give each assignment every minute it deserves — but not a minute more.

4. I write down all of my tasks and keep them in one place

This is another big pitfall I’ve seen freelancers fall into, especially when they get busy. When you lose track of all of your open loops and to-do items, bad things happen to your business.

You miss deadlines — and your credibility suffers with that client, not to mention any potential client that company might have sent your way if you were more reliable.

Your prospecting and business-building efforts suffer. Even your creativity suffers — because you’re always hurried and stressed knowing you’ve forgotten tasks, dropped balls, missed opportunities, etc.

If you’re a creative freelancer, you need to devote all of your mental energy to your business — particularly paid assignments and prospecting for new clients.

And because these things require so much brainpower, you can’t afford to waste any mental cycles trying to remember what assignment you owe to each client, when each assignment is due, what follow-ups you’ve promised to new prospects, etc.

I keep every one of my open tasks on whiteboards hanging in my office.

It’s simple — I divvy these boards up by client, and under each I list the open tasks, their due dates and any other relevant info I need (like the name of the folder on Dropbox where I have the details for the assignment).

I also list my own business as a “client” on one of these whiteboards, and I track all of my own open tasks — like invoices I need to draft, follow-ups I need to send, etc.

That might be a little low-tech for your taste. If so, choose an app to track everything. Or choose a software tool like OneNote, or a cloud service like Trello.

But choose something, and keep a list of all of your open items written in that one place.

Oh, one bonus tip: If you choose to track all of your to-do items on a whiteboard or a notepad that you leave in your office, and you want to be able to review your to-do list anytime no matter where you are, take a picture of it with your phone before you leave each day.

5. I constantly remind myself of the stakes

This was the final piece of advice I gave to my friend who’s about to launch his freelance business.

The best way to ensure that you follow all of the other advice here, and establish a routine as a productive and reliable freelance professional, is to always keep in mind how fortunate you are to be able to live the freelancer’s life — and how vital your productive routine is to keeping that life possible.

That’s why I head off to my office in the morning and start working. Even when I don’t feel like it.

I remind myself every day of how fortunate I am to have this work.

And how easy it would be to ruin my reputation by slacking off, missing deadlines, and failing to take seriously the trust my clients are placing in me.

If you have tips for staying productive in your freelance practice, please share them in the comment section below.

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About Robbie Hyman

Robbie Hyman has been a freelance copywriter for more than a decade, writing for startups and multibillion-dollar businesses. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen, an online course that teaches smart money habits to young people. Get to know him at robbiehyman.com.

Leave a Comment



  1. Great suggestions Robbie! I’d also add finding the right space to work in. I have an office I work from two days a week, facing the beach, and it’s fabulous. I also work from home, so that’s a perfect balance for me. Happy writing!

  2. Great post, it would be cool to see an image of the whiteboard you use, to see the layout.

  3. This is a good reminder even for those who have been freelancing for a while. Thank you!

  4. Hi,

    Your point number 2 is really true. It does happens to me from time to time.
    However, whenever I looked back , see my children and the task ahead of me, I jumped off and get to work.
    On a serious note, you have shared an important tips that will help a new freelancer get started.
    Thanks for sharing.


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