So-called time management gurus will tell you to make a schedule and turn off the internet when you’re trying to work. I disagree. I’m all for working more efficiently, but I have a hard time writing without internet because I often need to look up a link or statistic (yes, I could type TK and fill it in later but I’d rather get it all done). I’m a compulsive list-maker, but I can’t stick to a strict schedule because something inevitably disrupts that schedule. Ditto on following the usual advice to limit my email checking to twice a day. If an editor wants last-minute edits or a source needs to reschedule an interview at the last minute, I want to know!
Here’s what I’ve found works for me as a writer and self-employed professional. Not all of these tips may work for you, but hopefully you’ll find a few to help you boost your productivity.
1. Unplug. Not the internet. The electricity. Take your laptop to a coffee shop and leave the power cord at home. Tell yourself you must finish this part of the project before your laptop runs out of juice and you return home. Often that helps light a fire under me.
2. Use templates.
I get W9 requests all the time, and instead of filling out a new form each time, I just send the PDF I have saved on my computer. You can also use templates for invoices, letters of introduction
, client questionnaires, professional bios, and other documents.
3. Tame your email. It doesn’t matter if you use folders, filters, rules, or some other method to manage your email. The important thing is finding what works for you so you don’t waste time searching for emails or sorting through hundreds of unread messages. Every morning, I do a quick email sweep on my iPhone and ruthlessly delete press releases, mass emails, and other items that don’t directly pertain to me. The only messages I read are those from senders I know and/or with subject lines that catch my attention.
4. Take breaks. You might think you’ll save time by powering through a task, but I find that I work best when I’m well-rested. So when you feel your energy waning, step away from your computer and give yourself a break so you come back refreshed and ready to work. For many people, a break means browsing Facebook or checking Twitter. But for me, it’s too much like work because I’m still sitting at my computer.
5. Create an outline. Some people create detailed outlines for all their assignments. I’m not one of them. I’ll write out some subheads or bullet points and fill them in later, and that helps me think about how much material will fill the allotted word count so I’m not wasting time by over-writing.
6. Outsource. Once I reached a point where I was working at capacity and couldn’t take on new clients because it would have required more administrative time, I hired a virtual assistant (VA). My VA helps with research, proofreading, and other other tasks, which frees up my time for writing.
Sure, being a generalist means you’ll get to write about more diverse topics. But specializing
is almost always more time efficient, because you develop a Rolodex of sources, an arsenal of ideas, and a deep knowledge of your niche, so you’re not starting from scratch each time you take on a new assignment.
8. Use little pockets of time. I suspect many people waste those little pockets of time when they’re waiting for a source to call them back or for a conference call to start. What can you really do with six minutes aside from check Facebook or browse YouTube? Lots, actually, as Laura tells us in 168 Minutes. I use a spare couple of minutes to catch up on Google Reader, update my Twitter feed, or write up interview questions. If a source isn’t ready when I call them, I’ll leave that Word open and move onto some other task.
9. Schedule what you can.
I’m active on social media and file anywhere between three and six articles a week because I schedule many of my blog posts, tweets, even my follow-up emails. That means I can write a week’s worth of blog posts in one sitting or send a follow-up email while I’m working on something else. Most blogging platforms feature the ability to schedule posts in advance. I also use Boomerang for Gmail
10. Don’t obsess. Many people who think they’re inefficient actually suffer from perfectionism. It takes them hours to come up with a snappy introduction because they discard every idea that pops into their head and wait for the “perfect” idea instead of honing and refining one of their existing ideas. As one of my favorite writing quotes says, “don’t get it right, get it written.” Same goes with managing your social media and email. If you try to read everything, you’ll get overwhelmed, so read what’s important or interesting and ignore the rest.
How do you squeeze more work into less time? Do you agree or disagree with these tips?
Susan Johnston is the author of LinkedIn and Lovin’ It. Her articles on business and lifestyle topics have appeared in dozens of print and online publications including The Boston Globe, Parade Magazine, and US News & World Report. Read more on her website or blog.