My Best Productivity Tips

One of the hardest things for many people when they first start freelancing is learning to be productive. Of course there are also those assholes who struggle to STOP working all the time, but this post is not for them. (If you’re one of those assholes, I love you, but you can just go and stand in the corner and feel smug for the duration of this blog post.) For the rest of us, the struggle is real.

There’s no more rota for you to adhere to, or boss expecting you to show up between 9 and 5, or any risk of being fired if you decide to start work a couple of hours later than normal. All of a sudden, it’s all on you. And fuck, is that scary. Awesome, yes. But also scary. Like could-be-your-downfall scary.

Having productive working days has been my biggest struggle since day one. However, I’ve gotten a lot better since I started my business over two years ago. Back then, I would sit around twitching over the fact that I had five articles to write by the end of the day. Shit SEO articles, mind — things that would take me 20 minutes max to write — but still. I knew if I just banged out those articles first thing in the morning, I could spent the rest of the day kicking back. Or doing other productive work more like, because productivity begets productivity, don’t you know?

But still I left them. And left them. Around 7pm I might decide to go hang out at the pub I still worked at for a couple of hours, promising myself that I would do them later. And I did. Usually. Alright, so I compromised my integrity once or twice, but come on, it’s really hard not to when you’re getting paid £5 an article.

Whether I wrote those articles by midnight or not, I’d still spend the entire day feeling stressed to fuck. And guys — I don’t know if you know this — stress is bad. It leads to shittier work, poorer health and general all-round misery.

I’m still not wildly productive, but I’m buckets better than I used to be. No way you’d catch me sneaking off to the pub at 7pm now with ‘good intentions’ of doing my work before midnight. Now I want to share with you a few of the techniques I’ve used over this past year to improve my productivity. And so… I will. Here they are:

Productivity Tips That Work for Me

Getting Washed and Dressed as Soon as I Get Up

I know, right? How silly is this? It’s true, occasionally I will proclaim the joys of feeling have-to-write-this-immediately-inspired, and how on those days I will skip the getting dressed part and sit in my dressing gown and slippers, feverishly typing away until I’ve got it all out.

Karen Marston FB

I love those days, and I love the fact that I can include them in my life.

But on the flippity flop, most days I remain shrouded in nightclothes, I do fuck all. Or, you know, I watch the latest episode of Homeland or something. And then maybe answer some emails.

So, on the whole I highly recommend getting dressed as soon as you get out of bed. Otherwise you’ll flip open your laptop, and before you know it you’ve spent 3 hours on Facebook and Twitter and Feedly. Bad times. You can leave the smart business attire in the wardrobe though. (Or the bin.)

I should also probably mention that I shower in the evenings. I know a lot of people like to shower in the morning to wake themselves up, but to me having had enough sleep is plenty to wake me up, and showering feels like a wasteful way to start the day. Plus my feet get really cold and I like to warm them up before bed. PLUS IT’S RELAXING OKAY GOD LEAVE ME ALONE.

Planning

Oh god, I love planning so much. I’m always changing up the way I do things, but right now I have a master list of everything I need to do in Trello and an A5-sized spiralbound notebook for weekly and daily to-do lists. On the first page of the notebook is my weekly to-do list, which I write on Monday mornings, referencing my Trello list (if I need to — often I know what I need to do without checking). And then I label the following five pages Monday to Friday. (That’s right, folks: I take weekends off.)

On that same Monday morning, I slot in any appointments from my Google Calendar onto my daily pages, and I allocate tasks from the weekly list to specific days where necessary — that way I can see at a glance what I’ve got coming up in the week. Then at the start of each day, I note down all other tasks I want to do that day too. I’ll even go so far as to note down any emails I want to answer. I also include personal things I need to do at the bottom of the page (top of the page is strictly business, baby). I cross things off as I do them, and it is joyous.

At the end of the day I transfer anything I didn’t manage onto the following day’s list and then tear out the page. At the end of the week I tear out the weekly page too, then start a new one, which I may add a few things to there and then, but will most likely fill out properly on the following Monday.

I’m a get-it-all-down-on-paper-and-out-of-my-head kinda gal, so this works super well for me. When I don’t do it, my days are inevitably a fucking shambles.

My weekly to-do list. If you want to take a moment to laugh about the fact that I wrote 'take wee sample + paperwork to docs', go ahead. I'll wait. (I'm just switching doctors, okay? And they want a god damn urine sample.)

My weekly to-do list. If you want to take a moment to laugh about the fact that I wrote ‘take wee sample + paperwork to docs’, go ahead. I’ll wait. (I’m just switching doctors, okay? And they want a god damn urine sample.)

My daily to-do list. You can also laugh at my atrocious handwriting if you wish.

My daily to-do list. You can also laugh at my atrocious handwriting if you wish.

Having Specific Tasks to Do Each Week

This is something that only dawned on me recently. It’s a lesson I learned from blogging every Wednesday consistently for an entire year. I was like, ‘Oh hey, if I tell myself there are other things I need to do each week, will I accomplish those too?’ And I expect I will, which is why I publicly announced that I’m going to blog twice weekly from now and pitch a guest post once a week. While you may still have occasional moments of ‘Hmm I don’t know what to do with myself’, you will at least manage to keep things ticking over.

Promising Things I Then Have to Deliver

I touched on this last week, but basically: if people are paying you to do something, you’re a lot more likely to do it. If people expect it by a certain deadline, you’re a thousand times more likely to do it. This is why when clients give me vague ‘Oh just whenever is fine’ deadlines, I tell them specifically when I will get it to them. I don’t want to compromise my integrity by not sticking to my word, so I fucking get on with it.

Starting My Day Off Right

On good, productive days I will do work before I eat. Before I exercise or go outside. Before I do anything except get dressed and make tea, really. On days I don’t do this, I inevitably end up watching a couple of episodes of Frasier or something else I’ve seen a bazillion times before. Or just lounging around with a good book. Shooting the shit with whoever happens to be nearby. And then I fuck about for the rest of the day too. It’s true: how you start your day sets the tone for the rest of it, so start the day off right.

I know a lot of people recommend exercise as the first thing to do each day, but I prefer to do it at the end of the day to stretch my back out and shake the fuzz out of my brain. Plus exercising first thing? Urgh.

Taking a Break Every Couple of Hours

I didn’t realise until recently how important this is. (I know, right? I’m having a lot of revelations lately.) You know that brainfuzzy-can’t-concentrate feeling you get after you’ve been staring at your screen for hours? Yeah, that’s because you’ve been STARING AT YOUR SCREEN FOR HOURS. You’re all out of concentration juice, my friend, and you need to step away from the computer for a little while, otherwise the only thing you’ll be capable of is writing one-line emails and leaving garbled comments on Facebook. I speak truth. My cutoff point seems to be around the two-hour mark, but you should figure out your own for yourself. Set a timer when you start work — real work — and pay attention to your concentration levels. When they start to wane, get the fuck outta there.

How to Build Good Productivity Habits

One thing that’s become apparent to me over the last year is that you need to commit to one thing at a time, and work at it until it becomes a habit. Something you do without thinking. Sometimes habits will form and stick for a few months, then your situation will change and the habit will be lost. Habits are like that. Productivity is like that. You’ve got to keep working at it, constantly looking for new ways to improve, and implementing them slowly.

For example, I’ve just talked about a lot of things that I know work for me, yet I still don’t always do them. Over the next few months I’m going to experiment with some more productivity techniques and I’ll share my experiences with them as I go along. Things like not checking my phone while I’m still in bed, going to bed earlier, setting specific working hours (actually I may not do that, because it feels a little too isn’t-this-what-I-was-trying-to-escape-from), and oh, for the love of god, I must learn to do things in advance.

So how about you? What are your favourite productivity tips? And what are your biggest downfalls? What area are you going to focus on improving next?

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    10 Comments

    1. hahaha i love the little “Listen to serial” at the bottom!
      I too hate early morning showers, such a waste of time, i prefer evening showers to warm me up for bed.
      Last year was slightly hap hazard for me, but i have realised writing things down means i actually get them done rather than having them whizzing around in my head. Much more productive.

      1. Haha, I listened to an episode this morning ;) (Not the best way to start my day… god damn it! As a result, today has been fair less productive then yesterday. Do as I say, not as I do!)

        And yes, writing things down is fucking amazeballs.

    2. Productivity is at the top of my list for this year too. I’ve just started leaving my phone in my office at night, so I don’t check it as soon as I wake up. When did it become normal to take our phones to bed, anyway?!

      1. RIGHT? I still do this. In fact, reading this comment was probably one of the first things I did today. SIGH. Working on it.

    3. For me, putting on work clothes helps get me mentally prepared to put my butt in the chair and go to work. It also lets me remind myself when I’ve got permission to NOT work; if I’m hanging around in casual clothes, then I’m okay with binge-watching Godzilla movies.

      The other thing that works well — and this may sound silly — is shutting the door to my home office. If it’s closed I’ll keep typing away. If it’s open, I’ll be thinking about a job, and the next thing I know I’m doing the dishes or something. Apparently I do my best work when under lock and key. Probably the sign of some deep-seated neurosis, but it works for me.

      1. Thanks for sharing, Dan! I’m awful for lounging around in sweatpants all day, but you’re right — putting on some clothes you feel good in can make a world of difference. That’s interesting about the shut-door thing. I’m pretty good at ignoring distractions as soon as I’ve started… it’s just starting that seems to be the problem. ANYWAY, deep-seated neuroses FTW if that’s what works for you :D

    4. I’ve been trying to write more, which got me to your article…while I’m one of the people standing in the corner, these are some solid tips….I say at 12:35am, while making sure I reach my social media blog commenting goals. Ha!

      Points for Trello use, and weekly deliverables!

      1. Haha, hi Rob! Glad I could help you reach your social media goals ;)

        I actually decided to stop using Trello recently. I realised I would spend ages putting everything into it and then only look at it intermittently, if at all. And then when I did eventually check it, a lot of stuff in it would be outdated. I have since reverted back to my favourite method: paper to-do lists :)

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