9 Crucial Productivity Lessons for Freelancers and Remote Workers


Freelancers, independent contractors, and other remote workers all have one big thing in common: they struggle to stay productive. Granted, every once in awhile you’ll run into a freelancer who seems like a productivity ninja, but for the most part, staying on-task is an ongoing challenge for people who work outside of a formal office environment. Whether you work from home, a coworking space, an executive suite, or a white sand beach in Thailand (Who isn’t jealous of those cool, hip digital nomads?), the struggle is always the same.

Nothing feels worse than reaching the end of a workday where it feels like all you did was organize browser tabs and refresh your email. We’ve all been there at least once, and everytime it happens we swear to ourselves that it will never happen again.

Well, here are some actionable, field-tested tips to make sure you never have to suffer that feeling again.

Adopt An Organizational Methodology And Follow It Religiously

If you aren’t already using a defined organizational system, then you’ll find that this single piece of advice will boost your productivity exponentially. Half the battle of staying busy is remembering project tasks, prioritizing them effectively, and knowing where to start when you sit down to do the work. And that’s exactly what an organizational methodology will do. Think of it as the foundation to your entire working life.

Getting Things Done (GTD), the Pomodoro Technique, and Zen to Done (ZTD) are all good starting points. Don’t stress if you can’t follow a given methodology to the letter, and don’t feel like you have to use one system only. For example, using the Pomodoro Technique in conjunction with GTD makes for a great combo. Plus, if you’re like most people, you’ll eventually morph your starting system into a unique personal solution.

Commit to a Single Productivity Software

Once you’ve zeroed in on an organizational methodology that works for you, start figuring out which productivity software fits it best. There is an enormous number of options here, so you might need to try a few before you find something that sticks. The most popular solutions right now include Asana, Trello, and Evernote, but you don’t need to limit yourself to those. Do some research and experiment to find out what works for you.

The most important thing is that you stick with your productivity software when you find one, or a combination, that works. The more practice you put in, the better you’ll get at using it. If you find yourself switching between softwares every month or so, you’ll be losing any benefit in efficiency to the learning curve of a new software.

Guard Your Calendar Ruthlessly

If your organizational methodology is the foundation of your professional life, then your calendar would be the cornerstone. If you don’t have control of your calendar, it won’t be long before you’re floundering around trying to make sense of what to do next.

Furthermore, you should never be too generous with your calendar. In fact, guarding time carefully is a crucial skill for remote workers.

Don’t let others write your schedule for you. When someone needs your time, try hard to fit them into your existing schedule and don’t give in to requests that inconvenience you unnecessarily. Use your discretion in determining urgency when someone demands a particular spot on your schedule, and stand strong if the matter at hand doesn’t merit a calendar-shifting crisis.

As an aside, it’s ideal to connect your productivity software directly to your calendar so you can get a big picture view of what should be happening and when. One simple way to do this is to use a single calendar like Google Calendar or iCal and then sync/merge it to any other calendar software you use. This allows for everything to show up in one place, even if it has to come from another calendar.

Kiss Multitasking Goodbye

Most people wear their multitasking habit like a badge of honor. They’ll even bring it up in job interviews, list it on resumes, and brag about how they’re always doing a dozen things at once.

Don’t be one of those people.

Multitasking might make you feel like you’re getting a lot done, but in reality it’s a huge productivity killer.

Here’s why. Every task requires a finite amount of time to complete, whether you try to accomplish another task at the same time or not. Likewise, each task requires a certain amount of orientation time when you sit down to complete it – time to remember where you left off, gather any necessary materials, and so on.

Multitasking results in small amounts of progress on lots of items, and it increases the number of times you have to touch the same item. The consequence is more time spent in preparation and orientation before actually working.

You can defeat the multitasking mindset by sticking with your organizational system and working on your highest priority items one at a time. Even if you have several things that need to get done at the same time, you’ll come out ahead by not multitasking.

Limit Instantaneous Communication to One Channel

The extreme connectedness of today’s world is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the ability to make instant contact with practically anybody in the world at any time of day is extremely empowering for business. In fact, many freelancers would probably be out of a job if it weren’t for their ability to connect and communicate instantaneously with clients around the world. However, the downside to all that connectedness is the unlimited potential for distraction.

It’s impossible to get anything done when you take 20 minutes of every hour to check email, respond to texts, and answer voice calls.

What’s the solution?

Restrict your instantaneous communication to one channel. That means if you typically respond instantly to phone calls, texts, or IMs, you should drop two of those channels and tell your clients and colleagues that they can only reach you instantly through one.

Once you do that, you can start scheduling time to check the rest of your incoming channels. For example, you can decide to respond to email once every three hours, instead of leaving it open and responding to messages as they come in. The same goes for social media and other platforms.

Build Routine Into Everything

If you spend any time looking into the productivity habits of people like Tim Ferriss, Elon Musk, or any of the other famous entrepreneurs of our age, you’ll quickly find that routine is the secret sauce that pushes their output into overdrive. The reason why is simple.

Routines serve as miniature anchors throughout your day, as well as in repeatable business processes, to help you maintain consistency and predictability in your work.

Thankfully, routine is a relatively easy habit to build, even if you’re starting from scratch.

The simplest place to start building routines is in your daily schedule. Chart out your morning first, then move hour-by-hour till you reach your normal stopping point. You’ll end up with something like this:

6:30am – 8:00am: Read, eat breakfast

8:00am – 12:00pm: Turn off distractions and work on top priorities from “in” folder

12:00pm – 12:30pm: Read and respond to email

12:30pm – 2:00pm: Research and write blog post

2:00pm – 4:00pm: Meetings and reports

4:00pm – 4:30pm: Read and respond to email

4:30 – 5:00pm: Evaluate progress and plan for tomorrow

Speed and efficiency aren’t the only benefits of routine. You’ll also experience less stress and a more accurate ability to forecast deliverability of future work.

Treat Client Admin Staff Like Royalty

The importance of being liked by receptionists, assistants, and other administrative employees working for your client (or full-time remote employer) cannot be overstated. These individuals are the gatekeepers to the rest of the organization, and they can do a lot to make things either very easy or very hard for you. Every interaction you have with them should be friendly and reasonable.

It’s easy to grow frustrated with someone when you don’t have to deal with them face-to-face, and you’re working with the distinct disadvantage of never being present in their office.

Always go out of your way to treat administrative staff with kindness and sincerity, and they’ll most likely return the favor when it counts.

Don’t Save the Button-Down for Meetings Only

When you work remotely and aren’t forced into professional meetings every day, it’s easy to fall into a slump with your personal care. Freelancers joke about sitting in bed all day eating Cheetos, but doing that everyday can be just as mentally unhealthy as living out your life on the cube farm.

Get into the habit of dressing professionally every day, even if you don’t have any client meetings or other professional engagements.

Your emotions and appearance are very closely tied, and simply feeling fresh and looking professional gives a healthy boost in self-esteem, which ultimately leads to better mood and more productivity.

Recap Daily and Evaluate Weekly

You could become obsessed with productivity, but you’ll never achieve your full potential if you don’t document your progress and evaluate it regularly. In a traditional role, your boss or superior would probably do this, and as much as you may have disliked it, it’s still an important practice.

Take time at the end of every day to write down what you did, what problems you encountered, and how you can improve in the future. Putting these thoughts down on paper does a couple important things. First, it lets you reflect on your successes and boosts your confidence. Second, it helps you plan the following day so you know exactly where to start tomorrow morning.

Use your daily recaps at the end of the week to evaluate your progress and make a roadmap for the next week. In the same way the daily recaps help you plan for the next day, your weekly evaluations will maximize your time use for the following week.

What Do You Do?

Do you have any especially helpful techniques for staying productive as a remote worker? Why don’t you give us a shout on Facebook or Twitter and tell us what they are? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments as well!

Tom McClintock, who works with The Office Club, is a long-time entrepreneur with expertise in business growth and online marketing. He co-hosts The Marketing GPS Challenge Hour and has been featured in various publications including The New Small. Outside of work Tom volunteers his time for at-risk children, having served in a number of organizations in DC, NYC and Colorado Springs, where he currently resides with his wife, Kim, and son, Thomas.

About Carson Derrow

My name is Carson Derrow I'm an entrepreneur, professional blogger, and marketer from Arkansas. I've been writing for startups and small businesses since 2012. I share the latest business news, tools, resources, and marketing tips to help startups and small businesses to grow their business.

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