When I began freelancing many moons ago, the biggest challenge I faced was working with little kiddies in tow.
The challenge for me back then was combatting distraction. My work and home life seemed to be a constant juggling act as I flitted between writing, washing, editing, nap-times, editing, school runs, cooking, and everything else in between.
Then the little kids became big kids. As they all stumbled out of the house each morning and my days became blissfully kid-free, I could no longer blame them for my lack of focus.
And yet, there was still the ping of email, the boing of Tweetdeck, or the flash of the instant messaging on my mobile phone, while it silently vibrated on my desk next to me – willing me to just pounce on it and open the message already!
When you’re a freelancer, consultant, or similar type of solepreneur working from home, you don’t have a boss literally standing over you or coming into your office, chasing you up for ‘that thing’. This can, if you’re not careful, make your day a little aimless. I personally found myself wasting hours each day and only becoming truly productive when the client’s deadline loomed ever closer.
Trialing the Pomodoro Technique
In desperation, I tried the Pomodoro Technique, a popular time management system developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s based on the theory that frequent breaks can improve mental agility. During his first years at university, Cirillo experienced slumps in productivity linked to distractions and interruptions. He decided to find a way of working that would help him remain focussed and boost his concentration.
Cirillo used a kitchen timer, which happened to be in the shape of a tomato, to start working in set time frames on just one task. He found that the optimum time for focussed working was 25 minutes so he alternated these work periods with brief scheduled rests.
The method was honed and named the Pomodoro Technique and it went something like this:
Grab yourself the following tools:-
- A kitchen timer (Pomodoro) set to 25 minutes;
- A ‘To do’ list;
- A sheet of paper;
- A pen or pencil.
And then do this:-
- Choose a task to be accomplished
- Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a cross on your piece of paper.
- Take a short break.
- Every four Pomodoros, take a longer break
Normal distractions, like checking emails or doing your social media updates should be done outside of the 25 minute slots, preferably after you have completed four Pomodoros, so that you have completely focussed, uninterrupted periods of work.
The three to five-minute breaks between Pomodoro should be a time of ‘disconnecting’ with your work, providing you with a chance to do something good for your health to set you in a good frame of mind for the next Pomodoro – such as stand up and stretch, have a drink of water or do some breathing exercises. Of course, this is just skimming the surface. Cirillo has actually written a whole book on the technique.
Did the technique work for me? It did for a while and I know some people swear by it. But after a while, it began to feel a bit clunky and dare I say, childish almost? I mean let’s face it, starting and stopping a tomoto-shaped timer?!
A Grown-Up Approach to focus and productivity
OK, so I stopped using the timer and continued to work in shortish bursts. But as the months turned into years and I realised I had to turn focus and productivity on its head a little.
What I mean is this: I think as freelancers, we wrongly assume that because we have eight hours (plus) in our freelancing working day, it means we must spend those eight hours working.
Based on that assumption, once we’ve calculated how much we need to earn per hour, we figure we should multiply that eight-hour working day by our hourly rate, and that’s what we should be earning per day.
But then inevitably, one day something goes awry and we realise, “gee golly gosh, I’ve only worked three hours today … that’s only half of what I should be earning.” We then panic, beat ourselves up for ‘not working hard enough’ and set out on a longer stretch to try to claim back those ‘lost’ billable hours.
I realised I had to stop this freelance treadmill style of working and work smarter not harder.
Here’s what I think working smarter means for us as freelancers:
- Decide what are YOUR quality core hours: Just because you have eight hours at your disposal for your working day, doesn’t mean you can, or even need to, work for eight hours (unless you really, really want to).By ‘work’, I mean solid quality work – completely focused, undistracted and in the zone. My quality core hours are from 9:30am until 1:30pm. It’s when I do work that is a little harder, or that I need to concentrate most on. I have a short break for lunch and then carry on with lighter tasks, or note taking for the next day, until 3pm. That’s my day done as I can’t work when the kids are back at home.If I find myself running out of time close to a deadline, I will wake up a little earlier at 5:30am and do an additional couple of quality hours before the household wakes up. As you can see, these are short stints, but they are when I work best. Simply find what works for you and stick to it.
- Calculate your fee(s) based on your quality core hours: Once you’ve decided what your core hours are (and you’ve worked out what you need to earn), base your fees on your core hours. Yes, it will mean higher fees, but that’s what you should be aiming for. Higher fees for superior work. You don’t have to stretch your working day to eight hours if you can complete what you need to do in four. This is one of the reasons why I encourage students taking my course to switch from an hourly model to a project-based model. It’s giving you the freedom to be truly in control.And let’s face it. Isn’t that the beauty of freelancing? To work on projects that you truly enjoy at your own pace? Of course, the focus should always be on putting your heart and soul into your work – your client deserves the very best you have to offer. But you know that already. Charge a fee based on your quality core hours and you’ll be the freelancer who proactively controls your day, not the freelancer who is controlled by your day. Big difference.
- Schedule non-priority (yet essential) work: Think of all the additional extras you need to fit into your working day that are an essential part of your business, but not necessarily a priority. These are tasks such as invoicing, admin/bookkeeping, tidying up your blog/website and social media updates, etc. I have personally found it is far better to schedule a day or time to do these tasks, than fit them in ‘whenever’ I get a chance. Having a methodical approach to my day means I get to plan what needs to be done, which makes it less likely for me to forget anything. After all, it’s the forgetting something that really causes us to run around chasing our tail.
This approach to working as a freelancer isn’t just smarter. It’s far more profitable. Keen to learn more? You can check out my course here. In the meantime, are there any tips you’d add? Feel free to comment below.