How Can A Freelance Writer Be More Productive When There’s No Structure?

One of the main benefits of freelancing is the ability to set your own schedule.

You work when the hours work for you, you choose what to work on, and you manage your own commitments. With this setup comes a lot of freedom, but it can also be challenging – especially if you aren’t accustomed to this much autonomy.

How Can A Freelance Writer Be More Productive When There’s No Structure?

One of the main benefits of freelancing is the ability to set your own schedule.

When you’re in charge of setting your own hours, priorities, and deadlines, it can be challenging to stay productive due to overwhelm and the lack of an imposed structure from “on high.”

What you need is a thoughtful, deliberate approach to your work — your environment, your priorities, and your pipeline. This is some of my very best advice for kicking procrastination to the curb.

1. Cut Out All the Distractions

Whether it’s the email alert on your monitor, the constant nag of social media, or even an uncomfortable chair, distractions will suck the lifeblood out of your productivity.

If you’re having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand, take note of the things that keep pulling your attention away and then deal with them.

  • Is it an alert on your phone? Turn at type of alert off or put the phone in another room.
  • Is there some software on your computer that keeps grabbing your attention or indulging your distractedness? Shut it down, or pick up a program that gives you distraction-free writing, like Scrivener or the distraction-free writing mode in WordPress.
  • Are you feeling fidgety? Take a moment and sit still, paying attention just to your body. Is something uncomfortable? Are you tired of sitting? Or maybe you’re hungry (or thirsty!). Troubleshoot any physical issues and find a solution.
  • Does something in your environment keep interrupting your thoughts? Do what you can to address it. Turn the radio off if it’s distracting you, or maybe turn on some wordless music to drown out the noise outside. Let a whining dog outside, deal with the source of an unpleasant smell, or find a new table that faces away from the coffee counter or door.

Distractions will suck the lifeblood out of your productivity.

If your environment is really giving you a lot of trouble, consider busting out the humble earplug. Copywriting genius Neville Medhora says that earplugs are one of the keys to his ability to write.

In his words, wearing earplugs makes him “feel like I can talk to my brain directly.” There’s only so much you can do to cut out the sounds of your environment, so if you find them particularly distracting or you just want to get “in the zone” incredibly fast, give these a shot.

2. Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

When you work for yourself, there’s no guaranteed paycheck at the end of the week. You’ll only get paid for what you produce when you’re a freelance writer, so you can’t afford not to be productive.

That means you need to know your priorities, and be ruthless in sticking to them. Anything that doesn’t move you forward needs to go.

Learn to say no – to extra projects that don’t pay well, to coffee dates that fall right in the middle of your peak time, to any notifications or email subscriptions that will draw more of your attention, to stuff that you “should be doing” but doesn’t really have any significant impact on your earning power.

You only get paid for what you produce when you’re a freelance writer.

Be aware of what your current priorities are, and tackle those things first instead of doing the easy stuff that isn’t very important and won’t make a real dent in your workload.

Learn to delegate tasks that don’t necessarily have to be completed by you, or shut them down entirely.

Got some time to work and not sure how to fill it?

It can be tempting to tackle some of the “random stuff” on your to-do list — and that’s a good idea if you’re feeling mostly spent. But if you’ve still got stamina left, tackle a priority project (aka one that will put money in your pocket rather than one that just equals another box checked) instead.

Take a look at what’s coming down the pike and work toward those deadlines in advance. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent become an additional distraction – plan ahead and put “deadline pressure” in its place.

3. Pick the Top 3

Think about how you spend the first few minutes after you sit down to work. Sometimes it’s easy to know where to start, but not always.

When you’re about to take an extended break or call it quittin’ time, take 30 seconds and write down the top 3 “must-do” things to work on next time.

This top-3 list is separate from your normal to-do list. What you’re doing is taking a look at exactly where you are at this stopping point and – while you’re already knee-deep in what’s going on and fully aware of the next step – telling future-you what needs to be done the next time you sit down to work.

By doing this, you set yourself up for success by knowing exactly where to “jump in,” instead of making yourself wade through “where was I?” or mode.

Talk about relief! You’ve already done all that thinking for yourself, back when you knew the answers right away.

Now, instead of being distracted by your own paper trail and wasting time figuring out what’s going on, you can just … get started! It doesn’t get much more productive than that.

What’s your biggest obstacle with your productivity?

Ashley Gainer is a part-time freelance writer and editor, a full-time mom, a life-long Tar Heel, and a knitter during stolen moments. On paper, her greatest accomplishment might be building a successful freelance business as an at-home single mom in her son’s infant-to-preschool years. In reality, though, she’s more likely to tell you about the blue ribbon she won at the State Fair. When she's not writing or being "mommy," she's at teaching other parent-preneurs how to build a business around their family lives. You can find more about her at her website, or hang out on Twitter.

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Having folks in the house is a distraction, but sometimes I don’t want to spend money on the gas to go somewhere else. So staying at home is the lesser of two evils LOL. (we live in a rural area)Reply to Williesha
YES. I live pretty far from anything helpful, too! I used to be able to work at a desk (table) in the living room, but now I have a closet-turned-office and being able to shut the door is reeeeeally helpful. I just need to make a sign to hang when I’m recording videos or on Skype with a client to cut back on well-timed interruptions.Reply to Ashley
Ashley, My biggest obstacle with getting things done is my schedule. Being a mom means my schedule is different every day. I’m lucky my twins nap at the same time, but they don’t always nap! I also have things I just HAVE to do during my work time like appointments, errands etc.. that I can’t do with my twins. But, I’m making it all work out! I’m able to work part-time and still earn a full-time income so I think I’m doing something right!Reply to Elna
You’re doing great! It’s so hard to get anything done when they’re so little and underfoot! I am still doing deep-breathing exercises when a day doesn’t go the way I planned it, and I’m more than 3 years in! 🙂Reply to Ashley