1: Plan your attack
The modern age of instant communication has the unpleasant downside of hurling distractions and requests at us faster than we can deal with them. Making a plan for your day and sticking to it will leave you feeling more productive and positive.
Spend half an hour each morning prioritising your tasks and planning how you’re going to approach them. I’ve found great success using the Eisenhower Matrix:
The most important result of using this grid to prioritise tasks is that you quickly realise that most incoming requests from customers are URGENT, but not IMPORTANT. But because they’re our customers, we tend to do what they ask first. Resist this urge. Properly important tasks will improve your life, your work and your income, all of which will make you happier and allow you to provide a better service to your customers in the long run.
Write your daily list
Once you’ve got your prioritised list of tasks, plan your day. Write a list of the things you’re going to do today, broken down into small steps. Ticking tasks off is a powerful motivator, so make sure you can do that at least once an hour (“research article”, “outline of article”, “first draft” etc.)
I’ve found it also helps me to sketch out the rest of my week, so I’m reassured that tasks are planned in. These plans always change, but seeing everything I have to do blocked into my calendar (I use time blocking) helps me relax and focus on the current day’s tasks.
Stick to it
Once you’ve got your list, it’s important to stick to it. New tasks will come in during the day (though you should work with notifications turned off while you’re doing creative work), and our impulse is often to jump right on them. But put them into your priority grid — only tasks that are both IMPORTANT & URGENT class as enough of an emergency to change your plan. Everything else can get planned in for future days.
2: Double your estimates
I’m especially bad at estimating how long a task will take. Most of us are, in fact. So I’ll give a customer a guess of when something will be ready and find that I drive myself into a stressy place because reality comes to visit. So take your estimate and double it.
This is not for Scotty's reason of making yourself look like a miracle worker (although that’s a nice side-effect). It’s because you’ll be less stressed, less rushed and produce better quality work if you give yourself the proper time to.
3: Build a motivating playlist
Music is great. It’s human emotion bottled up as sound and you can unbottle it whenever you need to. Find the music that gets your head in the right mood for work. It might be high-octane, action packed movie soundtrack like James Bond would listen to while doing his paperwork, or it might be sweeping classical pieces that would suit a criminal mastermind moving their evil chess pieces around their evil chess board. Whatever works for you.
I’ve always found that songs with lyrics distract me when I have to write, so I use instrumentals then. Other tasks don’t seem to get affected by lyrics, but if you suffer from the same word clash as me, avoid wordy songs while you write.
4: Only touch each task once
Jumping between lots of different tasks leaves us feeling dazed and exhausted. When a task comes in, plan to do it when you’ve got enough time to complete it (or a distinct sub-task of it). Avoid the urge to dip into tasks as they come in or when a customer asks a question about it. Prioritise it, plan it, do it. Don’t dabble in it; the results won’t be as strong.
5: Document your process
If you have to explain the same thing to customers or colleagues more than once, put it in a shared document or record a quick video explaining it (use Loom — it’s a fantastic free service for quickly recording videos or screencasts and sharing them).
If you have to do the same list of tasks for projects, create a template that you can call up whenever you need it.
Rethinking these basics every time wastes your time and energy.
Work with a network of folk with overlapping skillsets. Find people whose work you like and use them in your projects. This will allow you to specialise in the type of work you love, offer more to your customers and gain work through the network effect.
7: Be lazy
If there’s a tool or service that makes the job easier, use it. If there are suitable stock images or designs that do part of your job for you, use them. The quicker you can get the first 80% of the job done, the more energy you’ll have for the all-important last 20%.
8: Race to the Minimum Viable Product
If you’re getting lost in the possibilities of a project, try forcing yourself to create the least complex acceptable version first. If it absolutely had to be finished by tonight, what would you do?
Accept that some ideas won’t be used, that some of it will be raw and unrefined. But getting that first 80% done will give you time to improve it before the real deadline without the stress of thinking it won’t get finished.
9: Recharge when empty
If you’re running on empty your creative work won’t be good. Recognise when your creative tanks are dry and do something else for an hour: walk, read, nap, have a bath. The mental break will help you reset, and your brain will be working on the project in the background.
10: Turn browsing into learning
When our minds wander, we often start browsing social media or the crappier parts of the web. But we can make better use of that time while still getting the mental break we need.
Use Pocket (or Read Later in Chrome / Reading List in Safari) to save articles as you find them so you have a library of useful content to delve into when you have time or your brain needs to stretch its legs. It’ll be better than another cat meme or the depressing realisation that Facebook thinks you’re now of the age to be interested in ads for corduroy trousers.