What to do if you’re always “busy” but never “productive” as a freelancer

Let me bring you up to speed on something.

You won’t enjoy it, but here it goes anyway:

People close to you literally hate it when you say, “I can’t. I’m too busy.”

That’s a fact.

And don’t get me wrong, they may say that they understand, that they know what your work is about.  But deep down inside they’re thinking, “Damn it, I have a job too, yet somehow I can spare those couple of hours in the evening to have a drink, so why can’t he/she do it too?!”

And you know what? They’re right.

No one should be busy round the clock with projects piling one on top of another endlessly. This just isn’t what freelancing should be about.

After all, you didn’t choose the freelance life to be slave to your projects 24/7, but to have freedom and be able to do other things with your time, right?

Furthermore, being constantly busy is not even directly connected to generating results. As in, you can easily be busy for eight hours a day and yet fail to achieve anything significant in that time.

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That’s because being busy doesn’t equal being productive.

The problem of busy

In its core, “I am busy” means nothing more than “I’m doing things.” It has no implication regarding how important those things are, or how much impact they have on your current goals or projects.

Actually, the internet’s leading dictionary goes even further and defines busyness as “lively but meaningless activity.

Well, no matter how we look at it, there’s clearly something not right with the concept of being busy if even the going definition says it’s meaningless activity.

In the end, if we want to be truly productive, we need to do whatever we can to stop being busy.

Step #1: Understanding

The most difficult thing about breaking up with your busy lifestyle is identifying the tasks that are busy work vs. those that bring your business further.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all kind of answer here, so I really can’t give you a fail-proof list of things you shouldn’t do.

Instead, let’s focus on understanding your individual situation and your individual way of running a freelance design business.

For the next week, do the following exercise (and I promise it will only take minimal time):

  • For every one hour of work, take a short one-minute break and answer this question: What has your focus right now?
  • Write down the answer, and get back to work.

At the end of your workday, do some more thinking. Go through the list of the things that had your focus throughout the day and answer these questions:

  • Was each of those things the best use of your time?
  • Did they produce any worthwhile results?
  • Do they have the potential to produce results in the future?
  • What would be a possibly better way of handling those tasks?
  • Could they be removed from your future schedule altogether?

Then after the week is done, do one large review. Mark all the tasks that are just filler and give you little to no return. Also mark the tasks that are essential and have the most impact on your business.

Try focusing on specific types of tasks rather than individual tasks, though. For instance, maybe you’ll find that social media outreach is an extremely effective technique for you. And on the other hand, maybe you’ll realize that PSD-to-WP is not one of your strengths and takes way too much of your time.

(This list will become handy when going through the next steps.)

Step #2: Using a must-do list

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with to-do lists. I mean, they are great, as long as you manage to handle everything you’ve scheduled for the day. But they completely suck if you end your day with most of the tasks not crossed off.

If your relationship with to-do lists is in some way similar then perhaps a must-do list will be a solution for you.

The idea of this must-do list is to make it a stripped-down version of your standard to-do list. Or in other words, it’s simply a list of tasks for today that absolutely need to get done no matter what.

Compiling this list shouldn’t be too hard either. Just take the types of tasks that you’ve marked as essential to your business in the previous step and make sure to put them on your must-do list whenever they occur again.

It’s also a good habit to keep the task count low for this list. Only the top three (or less) tasks should find their place on the list.

The idea is that those must-do tasks save you from busy work because you know that you’re handling just the essential. This, as a byproduct, raises your productivity for the day.

Step #3: Realigning your tasks

Even on your must-do list, you will probably need to prioritize and identify the more and less important things to do.

For instance, handling a project for a high-profile client is surely an important task. However, sending an invoice after finishing a project for a smaller client is still something you should handle first – since it’s what will directly result in a payment being made.

Probably the best way to distinguish all those tasks and pick what you really should be doing first is with some help from the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.

Check the above article for the full explanation, but in short, it’s based on dividing your tasks into four groups:

  1. Important and urgent.
  2. Important but not urgent.
  3. Not important but urgent.
  4. Not important, not urgent.

For your must-do list, try focusing on doing the tasks from group #1 first, following them up with the tasks from group #2.

(Groups #3 and #4 shouldn’t even find their place on your must-do list.)

Step #4: Documenting

The three steps above will give you a general system that will help to get you on the right track to busy-free work. But the only way to make sure you’ll stay on it for the long run is through documenting things regularly.

It’s really easy to slip off and get caught up in being busy if you’re not careful. Sometimes all it takes is just one email that looks kind of important, and bam (!), you’ve spent two hours in your inbox.

That’s why keeping a journal is a great way to stay on your toes and reflect on your performance.

Moreover, journals work exceptionally well for keeping up with virtually all projects imaginable.

One of the best examples are food journals. It’s reported that the sole presence of a food journal makes the person writing it more likely to succeed and reach their weight loss goals.

What it all means is that over time, a journal becomes one of your most powerful tools for self development.

Simply take five minutes in the evening and write down how your day went and how productive or busy you were.

Reflect on your tasks, see how you feel about handling them and how well you’re managing to appoint those urgent and important tasks. Do they really turn out to be important?

That’s all. You will get loads of ideas on how you can improve, be more productive and less busy, just thanks to the sole fact of writing things down.

One common mistake to avoid

Now, when doing all of the above, you should be aware of one common mistake – thinking about hours worked as a good productivity metric.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it really doesn’t matter how much time you spend doing the important tasks. More than that, focusing on the hours is what got you caught up in busy work in the first place.

So forget about hours and focus just on the results you’re achieving. Make the results the focus point of your journal entries.

And most importantly, be happy about your progress!

For example, if you’ve managed to get everything crossed off your must-do list then it was a good day. Period. No need to feel guilty and think that the list was probably too thin or something. (Quite a common mistake as well, at least for me.)

What do you think about this? Is busy work a problem for you?

Leave a comment here.

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About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at codeinwp.com. Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.



About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with codeinwp.com, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.


  1. Sorry – i’m really too busy to read this right now!

    Seriously, you guys must be psychic! I was just thinking about this topic last week.
    Thanks for another great article!

    • Karol K. says


      Being busy is actually a very lively topic, even though we don’t talk about it much, it’s often on our minds.

  2. Great timing on this article! My “boss/mentor” and myself had this conversation yesterday and we’re right on a deadline as well! Will read this again and again, thanks for it!

  3. Great article!

    I’m a freelancer and I manage to stay busy 24/7 so thank you for the hints;)

    I have an impressive “to do list” and I really feel guilty when sometimes I finish my tasks early..I will try not to repeat the mistakes I made in the future.


    • Karol K. says


      One of the best ways to solve a problem like this is assigning an estimated number of hours for each task on the list.

      Then when you see that you’ve planned 22 hours of work for today, you’ll no longer feel bad about not completing all of them. And it will also make you more reasonable when preparing a list for tomorrow. 🙂


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