Three Productivity Hacks from a Freelance Writer

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It’s safe to say we’re all a little distracted right now …

Even on a normal day, it can be challenging to keep your attention span in check. But especially in these crisis conditions, your ability to focus is probably stretched to its limit. Many of you are working from home for the first time, have kids out of school, pets literally underfoot, family to reassure from afar, and worried team members across the country.

Despite these extraordinary circumstances, work isn’t paused for the majority of us. It’s one thing to reply to emails in between homeschool lessons or teaching your elderly parents to order groceries online for the first time, but what about your tasks that require uninterrupted concentration? You still need to carve out space for heads-down work.

As a freelance writer, I’ve been working from home for four years. But before that, I was a magazine editor in a noisy office where interruptions were a fact of life. Trust me, no matter where you work, distractions are always present!

Here are three productivity strategies that I tap into when my brain wants to wander.

1) Start a Pomodoro Sprint

When life gives you lemons, call in the tomatoes!

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management tool that focuses on 25-minute sprints of work. Yup, just 25 minutes. There are six steps in the official process, but my version is simpler – pick a task, eliminate distractions, set a timer for 25 minutes, and go. That’s it.

I use this technique whenever productivity is hard to summon for:

  • A dreaded task (I’m looking at you, filing taxes during a pandemic …). The timer forces you to start something unpleasant you’ve been putting off. Plus, 25 minutes is easier to emotionally commit to than an entire hour. Even if you don’t finish your task in that time, you at least know you got somewhere with it. Bonus – this technique works great for cleaning your house too!
  • A project that requires monotasking. Plenty of studies have shown that humans are terrible at multitasking. But modern habits make it difficult to monotask. My secret is that the Pomodoro method is actually a psychological trick! You see, sometimes we just need to commit a few minutes to getting into a groove. I regularly find that one Pomodoro turns into two because I’ve gotten into the zone. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in 50 minutes.

2) Eat a Frog

Figurative, not literal!

This advice comes from a productivity book by Brian Tracy*. The idea is that your “frog” is an unpleasant task – it is mentally best to tackle it first thing in the morning so it’s out of the way.

I don’t actually subscribe to “eating your frog” as the very first task of your day. First of all, not everyone functions the best in the morning. Or you might have scheduled obligations during that window. For example, I teach at a community college from 8-10am two days a week – my students most definitely aren’t my frogs!

What is important is recognizing A) what that “frog” task is and B) when is the best time to throw your mental resources at it. After lunch, before dinner, late at night – just tackle it without distractions.    

* As an English major, I’m morally obligated to say that the quote about eating a frog is grossly misattributed to Mark Twain.

3) Find the Log Jam

Warning – this will be a painful strategy to adopt.

I bet you already know which task in your queue is your “600-pound gorilla in the room.” Oh yes, the one that’s weighing you down on your nerves even as you’re doing your best to avoid it. Chances are it’s either a big, complicated project or one that’s moved beyond the frog stage and turned into a bear.

Take a deep breath and face that beast of a project. To free a log jam, you need to make real progress on it. But the benefits outweigh the discomfort. You’ll alleviate stress, boost productivity, banish guilt, and get the creative juices flowing. Every minute working on your log jam is a minute toward getting it off your plate.

These are just a handful of tactics to help you slog through your to-do list! Which time management techniques do you use?

Jennie Morton

Jennie Morton

Jennie Morton is an engineering writer and owner of Herringbone Freelance. She loves getting inside the heads of subject matter experts and helping them share their valuable knowledge. When she’s not writing, Jennie is a passionate architecture nerd and champion of historic building preservation. Connect with her at herringbonefreelance@gmail.com.

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