Five months ago, I started working as a freelancer. I was excited and enthusiastic when I took my first project. At last, I can work on my own time, on my own phase. And boy, I was wrong! I spent most of my week running around the city interviewing clients and presenting half-baked outputs. And the other half, I spent in front of my laptop figuring out how to finish a webpage that was sitting on my desktop for days. At the end of the second month, I was mentally exhausted. I still had a lot on my to-do list and I am already tapped out.
I took a week to breathe and fix my messed up sleep cycle. During those days, I decided I want to approach the freelancing world one baby step at a time. Over the past few months, I have discovered ways to increase my productivity while reducing clutter and stress.
Decluttering the Space and the Brain
First on my list was to get rid of all the papers on my desk. It was hard enough to find my laptop among the mess; it was even harder to track what I was doing. According to a study conducted by Princeton University, physical clutter in our surroundings competes for attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress. So, I bought boxes to organize all the forms, documents and receipts lying around my desk. I started working on my table with only my laptop, pen, paper, and an occasional coffee mug.
I also installed website blocking extensions to both Chrome and Firefox. It wasn’t easy keeping up with all the notifications and emails while trying to finish a project. Your brain doesn’t get a chance to focus and enter a creative process, making it difficult to start and finish tasks. The key is to help the brain focus on one task at a time.
Good Ol’ Pen and Paper
Back in grade school, my mother would always buy me an extra notebook labeled “To Do Today”. She’s always strict with organizing my day and finishing my homework before sleeping. The freedom of going to college made me forget that one little reminder from her.
Instead of downloading and figuring out how to use productivity apps and systems, I bought handy pens and notebooks. Every night, I would spend 10 to 15 minutes planning out the next day. I would write down 3 big tasks that I can accomplish throughout the day and 3 small ones I can finish in minutes. By not relying on alarms, I get to focus and control the flow of tasks during the day.
Set Big Goals and Small Quotas
One thing I did not expect in freelancing is the amount of work a project needs. Every project seems a mountain that I need to climb. As the projects pile on, it got very intimidating and I ended up losing a couple of them. Little did I know I can create my path through those mountains without overwhelming myself with their immensity.
Big goals are intimidating, and I had to remind myself that they won’t come true with an all-nighter. With my reliable pen and paper, I wrote down all my projects at the time and break them down into small, doable tasks. Eventually, I formulated my own system and I was breezing through several projects in just a few weeks.
Night Owl vs. Morning Lark
If Superman can’t stand kryptonite, I can’t stand morning alarms. I would always force myself to wake up at 7:00 am, believing that being an early riser is synonymous to being a productivity ninja. It was not surprising that I accomplished very little and only managed to be good at sleepwalking.
A study in Penn State and Kettering Sleep Disorder Center in Dayton, Ohio proved that not everyone is a lark. There are differences in everyone’s circadian rhythm that disproves the saying, “The early bird catches the worm.” Sometimes, night owls gather more worms. So, being a self-confessed night owl, I started my work at around 10:00 pm until 4:00 am. I began setting-up my meetings at 10:00 am or late in the afternoon to fit my schedule. In the end, I was able to finish more tasks than before and accomplish them creatively.
List of Rules to Live By
Lastly, all that hard work in the past months will be worthless if I don’t keep them. It was like making a promise to myself and eventually breaking them. I was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s “13 Virtues”. It was his personal improvement program. He tracked his progress in a booklet to make sure he was paying attention to each virtue every day.
I followed his footsteps by slowly making my productive activities a habit. I continued my working habits until today. And since school started, I scheduled my study time at 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm every night, except Sundays. Of course, I can’t be working all the time. I also go out and usually schedule it on Fridays.
Being productive is not something you acquire overnight. It takes time, and yes, it takes a lot of hard work. Like me, you just have to find your personalized productivity system and stick to it. Make it a habit. Enjoy the journey and without noticing it, you have reached your goals.