Can the Power of One Change Your Freelancing Life?

Originally published May 16th, 2013 (pre-hack)

By trying to do too much are you doing too little?  Do you find that no matter how hard you try, you find it easy to somehow burn through 10 or 12 hour days with only a handful of articles (if even that) to show for it?  This is a common issue that crops up with many freelance writers and one that I personally wrestle with quite a bit myself.  Everyone who has worked independently online either marketing, writing, programming, or doing any of a variety of other related jobs knows how easy it is to research for hours on end, seeming to keep busy but never getting anything done by the time a large number of hours flies by.

In the end, there is very little that is more frustrating and disheartening (and even if you don’t notice it on the surface – stressful) than realizing your entire day is gone forever, and you have 1 page to show for it.  Or even numbers like 5-6 pages seems terrible if you felt busy for the last 12 hours.  This is a common issue, and it’s one that can sink a lot of freelancing careers before they really get going.

So what are the best ways to deal with this?

This comes with the regular caveat of each person being different and having to find their own motivation, but there are several general steps you can take to help you focus better, become more productive, and enjoy the drop in stress that occurs when you’re actually getting stuff done instead of wondering where all the time went.  Believe me, I’ve struggled with this throughout my writing career and as I’m diving more fully back into freelancing, I’m finding I struggle with it even more than before.

Gold pen on open writing journal

Sometimes I still write my fiction first drafts the old way…

There are two main methods that I’ve personally used as ways of dealing with this.  Both involve training myself to get into the habit of sitting down every day and committing to getting work done.  The odd thing about the freelance life?  While it can be extremely challenging to consistently get work done, if you commit to just starting to create a pattern of working, developing the habit actually becomes easier and easier.  So these two strategies aren’t even necessarily focused on getting all the work done that needs to done in and of themselves, but they are focused on teaching me to consistently sit down to work, to consistently build up with one eye to the future – and building off of that comes much more easily later.

I’m going to discuss two strategies then when it comes to developing these habits and helping to make sure you’re always taking at least one step in the right direction:

  • The focused one page at a time method
  • The one page per project per day method

These are actually pretty closely related, but they can be implemented in slightly different ways and I’ve used both: even switching up strategies on a day to day method depending on where I was at, what my needs were, and what all was involved.  Sometimes the first strategy is better, sometimes the latter.  But let me lie both out and see if these strategies help you out.  If nothing else, I strongly suggest them as a safety net type of strategy – you may find in two months you still struggle to do enough per day, but at least you won’t be stuck wondering where two months went with nothing to show.

Focused one page at a time method

Studies have shown over and over that multi-tasking in its truest sense is a myth.  You’re actually juggling individual tasks and while it’s true that some people can handle this better than others, it’s still always far less efficient than just focusing on one individual task.  Sometimes when I get a contract for say 10 articles, I can spend a lot of time hemming or hawing, or doing research for all of them – but the most efficient way to get it all done is to tackle it as if it’s only one article.  In other words, print out a sheet of paper with every article you need to do, and cover all but one article with a sheet of paper.

The best results come at this point by finding a timer.  You can use a good old fashioned timer, or there are some great ones online.  One of my favorites is this online stopwatch.  It allows you to set the time, hit the countdown, and you’re good to go.  Many scientific studies have shown if you really want to get the most out of yourself, to take advantage of all you’re capable of, then that is best done in concentrated 30 to 90 minute bursts.

writing journal and pen

Sometimes I still write my fiction first drafts the old way…

What does this mean?  It means if you have a batch of 10 articles on say blue widgets (since fans of the old school IM gurus will love that example) then the next 30 to 90 minutes should be spent on only those articles.  No additional research, no checking e-mail, no mapping out other articles or blog posts, just that little bit.

The one at a time method means you set the timer and force yourself to slam out the first article.  If the timer hasn’t gone off, cross it off and move the paper down to show exactly one article title on your list.  Go to town.  Repeat with an absolute obsession until the timer goes off.  If you feel really in the zone, go ahead and finish the article, but don’t push it too hard!

While ideally you want to move up to 90 minute blocks, early on it’s important to just set the habit.  That’s why I recommend going with 30, then a break at least as long, though preferably twice as long if you really find a hard time of getting to a schedule.

Repeat this as needed until you’ve done the minimum that you feel you need to do for a day, and make it a true minimum so you can claim everything above and beyond as a victory. This number can vary. (Many times for me this is $60 on a bad day or vacation day, $120 normally, $200 when I’m trying to really save up or do something – it might be less for you if you just want a part time income, or more if this is your main focus versus say creative writing).  But never look at the big picture, don’t get side tracked, don’t open multiple tabs.  Just do one page at a time.

If they add up to 10 or 15 by the end of the day, great – but you are far less likely to find excuses not to do these things by tackling them one at a time.  Your mind is designed that way, and since no one should be intimidated by one article, you may find that tackling it this way doubles or triples your production.  It’s amazing how stress can slow you down, how feeling overwhelmed can slow you down, how distractions can slow you down.  Going one at a time with laser focus doesn’t allow you these excuses.

Take a look at this book on how Kaizen works to get an idea of the Japanese concept of Kaizen if you’re fascinated with how this process works.  Basically your mind fights you with fear when you make big jumps or big steps.  You get paralyzed or lose will power.  In small steps your brain simply re-programs and can do more.  That’s what this one step at a time focuses on, and it’s one way to guarantee you get a little bit done each day.  Do three or four intense runs of this method, starting in the morning, and at least every day you’ll have something to show for your efforts.

One page per day/per project method

This is a method that can be extremely effective over time, especially with developing passive income streams, but it has a few drawbacks, one of the largest being that this method makes it much harder to accomplish a lot of paying freelance gigs at once.  The reason for this is that this strategy goes with one simple aspect: only work one page a day on any given project.  So a list for the day might look like this for me:

  • New fiction novel
  • Article for John Doe
  • Article for Jane Doe
  • PLR
  • Screenplay
  • Backlink article
  • Blog post
  • Kindle non-fiction book
  • Premium article for marketplace
  • Freelance writing e-book

A list like that can be intimidating, but the underlying assumption with all of that is that I will do exactly one page of each.  I’ll write one page of fiction, then one freelance article for John Doe, one freelance article for Jane Doe, one PLR article, etc.  To me this is a great way to build multiple projects over time.  If I do this once a day for a month, then at the end of the month I have a completed e-book on freelance writing, a completed non-fiction Kindle book, 30 pages of fiction and screenplay, 60 freelance articles, 30 PLR articles, 30 backlinks built, 30 InfoBarrel articles written, and 30 blog posts.  In a way it’s not much for a month, but often times this could very well be more than I would do if I just put that as a “to do” list for the month.

The obvious potential issue here is putting too much on the list to accomplish in a day.  One page per project is the way to go and I find this especially useful if you tend to have a lot of ideas for 20-40 page projects on the table.  This does not make for the most efficient use of freelancing for money now, but over the course of the year it pays off as you see your to do list whittle down as e-books, kindle e-books, and blogs continue to grow over time.

Combining the two

Personally I like using a combination of these two strategies.  While I prefer the one page per day/per project strategy because I like working on e-books and larger projects, this gets mixed in with the laser focus.  This is especially true when trying to nail down a freelance contract before deadline.  The one page a day is a nice set up because it still means you get to chip away at larger projects until needing to rush into finishing up the orders.

I hope looking at these two different methods for getting into the habit of writing and moving forward are useful.  Try giving them a shot, or in the comments please share with us what works for you!