Freelance productivity is what defines us. We’re in a constant battle between client needs, time we have and how quickly we can produce the outcome.
As a product manager, agency account manager, community manager and freelancer, my working life has been all about organisation, TO DO lists and crossing things off the list. I’ve spent many a moment guided by careful steps and small achievements. I swear by planning to consolidate thoughts, push forward to new goals and to generally get the job done.
The difficulty in that is after a while, it feels as though I have been under heavy swathes of obligation for such a long time. There has not been a day in my life for a decade where someone hasn’t wanted a response, an idea, a piece of work, a line of advice or a moment of my time. Add that to obligations in the home and wider community. It’s a complete an utter stretch of who I am.
We have to recognise as freelancers, especially ones in community management, that there is something to be said for being free of obligation. Our mental health depends on it.
Here’s how I am finding a new way forward in freelance productivity without the TO DO LIST thinking I used to enjoy
The TO DO list isn’t static
When we find a freelance productivity system, it can become the centre of our universe. Maybe it’s driven by the stationery you’ve chosen or the way you classify what you need to do.
It will work. For a while. Then it becomes stale. Processes are like that. They move away from being something that energises us and streamlines the work to feeling more and more like school. They turn into obligation.
TO DO lists are meant to prime us for action. If you’ve got a tight feeling in your head or you’re starting to see it more as amorphous goo on a page, you need to change it up.
I’ve pushed through to the end of a TO DO list pad or project management sheet through sheer force of will. I’ve paid a hefty price.
You have to change it on occasion.
I’ve discovered that having a day a week when you have no TO DO list and pick what you want to do based on feeling is incredibly freeing. It sounds counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s the day of the week where you get to what is sitting in the back of your mind. It’s the moment where you give into curiosity, play and exploring.
That’s not the only way I change it up.
I switch between working with a planned week ahead. I work sometimes from a list based on project I keep for a month as I cross things off. Or I write 3 things for one day and leave the rest to chance. I might have Sunday planning sessions with a wine. I may wait and have a Monday morning meeting with myself to kick start the week.
Not being stuck on a rigid process means I feel like I am back in control of the work. It feels an awful lot less like homework. My productivity as a freelancer and content creator has improved markedly due to the switch, too.
Realising planning works and hurts in equal measure
Planning, even if it’s not to activate a plan, has been my way forward for decades. You don’t survive in product management or in freelancing if you don’t have plans. Or so I thought.
Writing lists helps me park ideas. The lists then become pages. The pages become journals. The journals then become boxes of handwritten books begging for attention. The flat files of ideas haunt. The dust covers all the promise of creativity and momentum I never seem to have time for.
I’ve tried copying the lists to the computer. Cross-tabs, coding and all manner of stuff have been applied. Priority is given.
Now, it feels like I am drowning in lists. So much so, I ground to a halt and couldn’t read a book, article or watch a creative or business-related show without thinking about the temptation of a list or idea. I tried to stop myself from writing lists by not consuming anything new.
My brain shrivelled and my ability to play shrank.
I was punishing myself for not actioning anything. In the process, I couldn’t action stuff because I was too busy punishing myself.
Around and around it went.
Then I realised that there was nothing wrong with planning for days when I felt interested in working and needed some variety. Those carefully crafted notes now don’t beg for attention. They are comfort at the end of the day when my head is drawn and unable to think of new words to write.
They act as the backstop they were designed to be in the first place.
I also flipped the list idea to include a DONE list. I write down the things I do every week, large and small, on a tree drawing on a giant post up. I take post-its from my bigger list of things I would like to achieve, and I drop them there as leaves too.
It’s no longer obligation I see. I see progress in action. And I feel like I have a safety net. My freelance productivity is measured in what it should have been all along, outcomes.
The temptation of busy work is easier to battle and I feel freer to tackle things as a creative person.
Returning to freelancing basics
When I first started out, I used to study, read and browse a lot. I treated work tasks for mine and my clients business like learning excursions.
Social media scheduling gave me the unique ability to fall down into learning rabbit holes. I could pick and choose where I wanted to go. I could learn and stay close to the industry. All while getting the tasks done I needed to do.
How much of a freelance productivity win is that?!
I lost a lot of that for a while there. I stopped reading with a pen in my hand. Someone made fun of it because they didn’t understand it. I found it harder to find inspiration as my knowledge grew, and work overgrew the schedule.
it shifted my relationship with social media and it was a silly thing to do. This worked for me. So I took it back.
My point is this:
- Learning helps us stay focused on our industry and what we are working on. It’s also a great way to remain inspired because you’re drawing on the collective knowledge of others
- What works for your freelance productivity regime or business in general is always going to be subjective. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for them or you. It matters if it works for the person using it
When you have TO DO Lists and deadlines beckoning, it feels like a luxury to study and read in your industry. Yet it isn’t.
The time spent studying, learning, browsing and musing helps in so many ways.
When we don’t study or grow our abilities, we forget what it’s like to be the least capable person in the room. That means we forget how to relate to our clients or our most sensitive moments.
We also don’t grow our knowledge or our skills. Instead, we lock onto ideas and rust onto ways of thinking. In a rapidly changing world driven by technology, we cannot afford to do that.
Plus, we lose the ability to be curious, to play and to enter a phase of discovery. When we’re doing the same thing day in and day out, it becomes a chore. No matter how capable you are or how happy you are to work at home, the shine goes off the apple if you’re not challenged.
Putting play time and reading on the TO DO list helps me remain centred and applied. Again, it’s about choosing your own destiny. By allotting time as though it’s a meeting with myself, the TO DO list cannot touch that moment in time.
Moving away from obligation
TO DO lists drive us forward. Yet no matter how much we plan and ponder, freelancing is not predictable. You don’t know when the next curve ball will come. Giving yourself a working life that embraces change helps you adapt better.
Think of all the thing you have no control over. Now think of the other ways you compensate for that lack of control. If you’re over-compensating like I was, be warned. There’s only so many ways you can bind yourself to work before it snaps back at you.
Challenging your thinking and allowing your confidence to take over is the best possible way forward. Find time to trust your instincts with the work instead of the obligation you outline.
Want to keep up your freelance productivity or improve it? Sign up for early registration to my new toolkit/interactive accountability coaching thingie ‘how to keep working when you’re dying on the inside’ via the $20 USD Patreon reward.