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6 Simple Ways For Freelancers To Increase Productivity

The best part about being a freelancer is having the freedom to set your own schedule and make your own rules. This, however, can also be the worst part. Without the normal structure of an office environment, many would-be freelancers find themselves wondering at the end of the day where all their time went. Getting the most out of your workday can be tough. So, to help, we present some simple ways that freelancers can increase their productivity.

1. Set A Schedule Link

Work Schedule

Define Your Working Hours Link

Having set working hours creates a feeling of accountability and puts a premium on your time, making you less likely to waste it. Create a clear set workday schedule and stick to it. If you decide to start work at 8:00 each morning, then get up, take a shower, get dressed and get to work on time. Wandering into your home office still in your pajamas doesn’t exactly set the mood for a productive day. Follow this rule and you may be surprised to find your level of productivity increase immediately.

Take Breaks Link

Studies show that people who take short breaks during the work day tend to get more done . Spending a few minutes away from work will have you returning refreshed and ready to tackle the next task. Go for a walk, grab a snack or take a quick ride to the coffee shop. Set aside 30 minutes or an hour each day at a predetermined time to take lunch. Skipping lunch may mean more time to work, but working on an empty stomach leads to poor concentration. Your focus here should be on quality rather than quantity. Thirty minutes of focused work is much more productive than an hour of distracted work.

2. Make A Plan Link

To-Do List

Set Goals Link

Without goals, we would quickly find ourselves bumbling through life aimlessly. Goals keep us on track with a clear vision. Set short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for yourself. For instance, what do you hope to accomplish this week, this month or even this year? Long-term goals help shape your short-term goals. Spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish and then write it down.

Create To-Do Lists Link

Use your goal list for the week to create your daily to-do lists. You can use any type of to-do list, whether a desktop app1, an online app2 or just plain old pencil and paper. Regardless of the format you prefer, having your day planned out in order to stay focused is important. Create the next day’s to-do list at the end of each day and commit to it.

Break Up Large Tasks Into Managable Pieces Link

When creating your to-do lists, don’t write things like, “Work on productivity article” or “Work on logo design.” Be more specific, like, “Do research for productivity article” or “Refine logo concepts.” By being specific, you narrow your focus and work more efficiently. Save the vaguer or more general descriptions for your goals list.

Track Your Time Link

Several good time-tracking apps out there will help you with time management. Knowing if you’re using your time wisely is important. Record how long you take to complete tasks: you may be surprised to find how much time you waste in a day. Knowing how long certain tasks take can help you better plan your days, leading to greater efficiency.

Evaluate Your Performance Link

At the end of the day, look back at how well you measured up to the goals you set for yourself. Did you accomplish what you set out to do today? If not, why? Evaluating your performance is a critical step towards improving your productivity. Set realistic but challenging goals, and honestly review your performance to determine if there’s room for improvement.

3. Get Focused Link


Do One Task at a Time Link

Multi-tasking has gone from being a computer term to a part of our everyday lexicon. Many people feel these days that we get more done by multi-tasking. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, doing one task with full attention is much better than doing two tasks with half as much attention. Spreading your focus between multiple tasks leads only to diminished quality and actually less productivity. Do just one thing at a time and you’ll find your productivity go up, along with the quality of your work.

Limit the Time You Spend Surfing the Web Link

Set aside a certain amount of time each day for Web surfing, and keep it work-related. Use an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader to have new content from your favorite websites and blogs brought to you. This is much more efficient than visiting these websites several times a day to see if anything new has been published. If you already use an RSS reader3, then you could probably benefit from spending a little time cleaning it up and eliminating feeds that you rarely read. Also, organize your feeds into folders so that you’re not browsing non-work-related feeds during the day.

Eliminate Distractions Link

Allocate certain times of the day to checking email and social media. Rather than keeping your email and Twitter accounts open on your desktop and letting them constantly vie for your attention, decide how much time you are willing to devote to them. For example, you may decide to check and respond to emails twice a day. Handling tasks like these in large batches is best. Which do you think would take longer: reading and responding to 30 emails periodically throughout the day, or reading and responding to them all in one shot?

4. Get Organized Link


Consolidate Your Email Link

Many of us have several email accounts for different purposes. Why not put all of your email in one place? If you don’t already have one, sign up for a Gmail account4 from Google. It’s free and by far the best Web-based email out there. Once you have set up your Gmail account, you can have it fetch email from all of your other addresses. You can even set up filters to organize emails as they come in so that you don’t get confused. Now you can deal with all of your email in one convenient place.

Use Labels to Organize Your Email Link

Gmail has labels instead of folders. Labels work like folders except that an email can have multiple labels instead of having to reside in just one folder. Set up labels (or folders if you don’t use Gmail) with names like “Urgent” and “Follow up” to prioritize messages, and names like “Account info” and “Website client” to stay organized. With Gmail, you can even automatically label and sort incoming email instead of doing it manually.

Update All Your Social Media Accounts at Once Link

Networking is a great way for freelancers to find new clients, keep up with trends in their industry and stay connected to colleagues. Most of us have accounts on several social media websites, such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Just keeping track of all these services can be challenging, not to mention a huge time drain. Instead of visiting each of these websites individually, why not update them all in one place? With social media aggregators5, you can stay in touch as well as post updates to all of your social media accounts at one time, in one place.

5. Set Up Your Office Properly Link


Respect Your Office Link

Keep your office clean and orderly. Have only the essentials on your desktop: computer, phone, printer, etc. A cluttered desk negatively affects your mood, which will spill into your work. Working in a constant mess is counter-productive. Take the time to set things up so that everything you need is right in front of you. Searching for supplies, walking to the printer and other small actions can really add up to a lot of wasted time.

Get Comfortable Link

Make your work place comfortable by opening up the window on a nice day or playing some of your favorite music. Your place of work shouldn’t be a dark dudgeon where you feel like you slave away all day. You should enjoy being there. Invest in an ergonomic chair, keyboard and mouse. Back pain or carpel tunnel certainly won’t make you more productive. Research ergonomics6 to learn how to create a comfortable and healthy office.

Go Mobile Link

One of the best things about being a freelancer is that you don’t have to report to a certain place every day. If you find yourself getting in a rut, change things up by working at a local coffee shop, bookstore or park. A change of scenery can go a long way to keeping things fresh, and most cities have a lot of free WiFi hotspots. Just pack your laptop and go.

6. Get Help Link


Outsource Link

Consider hiring an assistant. You will more than make up for the cost of filing and invoicing services with the extra time you’ll have to focus on the work you do best. Hand your taxes over to a professional; an accountant will do them properly and give you one less thing to worry about. All kinds of services for small-business owners are out there. Which ones make sense for you?

Learn from Other Freelancers Link

Frequent freelance forums7 and connect with your peers. A wealth of knowledge and new ideas is shared on forums every day. You could learn such things as how to better deal with clients and what is the best invoicing software. Become a member and reap the benefits of the collective experience of freelancers just like you.

Further Resources Link

Don’t stop here. Check out these other great resources on productivity.


Footnotes Link

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Tim Mercer is a photography enthusiast, graphic designer, artist and blogger. His blog offers free resources for the digital artist and graphic designer, as well as tutorials, artist interviews, inspiration and more.

  1. 1

    Where nice article. Just what i needed.

  2. 2

    Cheryl D Wise

    August 19, 2009 10:13 am

    I agree with almost everything in the article except the advice to use Gmail. I get information from clients that is proprietary and subject to confidentialty agreements. Therefore I can’t use some third party mail that could be scanned by someone or some entity not party to the confidentiality agreement. I use specific email accounts for those clients.

    Outlook is easily configured to get mail from multiple email accounts and I have filters set to do all my sorting for me. I also have Entourage on my Mac configured to do the same. So why would I need or want some third party web based mail client to do something I’ve been doing for well over a decade?

  3. 3

    Ian Storm Taylor

    August 19, 2009 10:20 am

    Sadly, this article is exactly what is distracting me. It’s OK though Smashing Magazine, I still love you! (And yes good article.)

  4. 4

    Christopher Rampey

    August 19, 2009 10:31 am

    thanks for the great article! now i’m going to go check out those links, and maybe go get a coffee, and then i’m gonna organize my desk, and set up a system to properly sort my email, and then if i still have time for some work….

    ….wait, nope, it’s now 5pm and i clearly remember #1 was set a schedule and stick to it.


  5. 5

    Thanks… this what I needed.

  6. 6

    Just in time since I’m changing the way I do freelance. Trying to structure everything a lot differently to get things done more efficiently.

  7. 7

    I really don’t see how my Gmail account makes me more productive.

  8. 8

    Frederick Luna

    August 19, 2009 10:53 am

    simply AWSOME – – it can be resumed in make a plan and get focused

  9. 9

    fantastic article. I really enjoyed readin it! luv ya smashing!

  10. 10

    I can definitely say it certainly gets harder as time goes on to escape the pj’s to the desk. I found myself rolling out of bed later and later until I smartened up. One big thing that effected my motivation for the worse was not having enough personal interaction with work partners/associates outside of a virtual environment (be it IM or email). There’s much to be said about personal interaction in a working environment to spur creativity…

  11. 11

    very nice article tks i’m need this tools to become a good freelancer :)

  12. 12

    Nice article!

  13. 13

    Sonali Agrawal

    August 19, 2009 11:31 am

    Loving this article…..

  14. 14

    Deepak Chopstick

    August 19, 2009 11:50 am

    Great article. I’m doing some of the things mentioned and working on the others.

    The biggest problem is being constantly interrupted during the day on non-coding issues. I’ve now decided to turn off my email, telephone and Skype for 4- 5 hours in the afternoon to get total quiet. Then at the end of the day respond as much as I can. Most folks can wait. I also keep mornings completely free for emails, calls, estimates etc.

    Thunderbird email client has a to do list calendar plug-in that allows me to turn emails into to-do items with different categories. I can then choose one category at a time to respond to or work within.

  15. 15

    Nice to hear that I am not the only person with the pyjama-problem :) Though my pyjama looks better that the standard clothes of Steve Jobs.

  16. 16

    George Egonut

    August 19, 2009 1:40 pm

    I agree with all of these tips, aside from doing one task at a time. A lot of research shows that certain types of people are more productive when they have a few tasks going on at one time. I know that I personally stay much fresher if I have two or three projects open at a time. It stops me from becoming bored or frustrated with any one given project, and it especially allows me to stay creative because I can easily try out an idea that pops into my head regardless of what I happen to be working on at the time.

  17. 17

    I read somewhere that creative people having messy desks is a good thing. Now if i can just find that article…

  18. 18

    “Break Up Large Tasks Into Managable Pieces”, this is very true.

  19. 19

    I’m freelancing for about 10 years now and those are great tips, though everybody has his own personality – some need to set up rules and some adjust on the fly and like to handle many things at once.

    Somewhere I did read that it makes sense to write down to-do lists and just cross out the items every day once it’s done. Firstly I did not see the point – I can pretty much remember my tasks for the day, but later I got it – crossing finished tasks out makes you feel the progress.

    Our days I use online task management lists ( but the principle it still the same – cross out the tasks as you move through the day.

  20. 20

    Yeah. it’s a great article that i need it. thank.


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