Now that we’re clear on what productivity isn’t, let’s lay the foundation for what it really is. When you learn the basics of cooking, you discover a whole new world beyond microwave meals and restaurant take-out. I hope the same can be true with productivity: your freelance workflow is about to expand exponentially.
Mastering a few basic productivity skills can transform what you accomplish each day. It’s not about looking for a step-by-step guide that you can follow to the letter. Rather, the goal here is to look for the spirit behind the words, so that you can walk away with the same values and priorities, not the exact same techniques. Productivity is not a religion; it is a mentality. It isn’t a recipe; it’s culinary training.
That’s what productivity is really all about.
Why does productivity matter? Because you run a business built on the idea of performing services for your clients in exchange for money. If you do it right, they’ll come back for more, or tell their colleagues. Or both.
That means making the clients happy, which only comes from delivering the goods. To do that, you need a firm grasp on what the “goods” are for each client. Drop that ball, and the whole act crumbles to pieces right before the audience.
If you leave a client dissatisfied, things can go downhill quickly. Unhappy clients will tell their colleagues about you. You’ll start to get less and less business. Before you know it, you’re working part-time at the GAP. Do you really want to fold khakis every night? I’ve done it. It sucks.
Productivity isn’t optional. It’s an essential element to freelancing success. If you can’t get things done, then you can’t stay in business. Free spirit or not, when you decide to hang your shingle and take on clients, you have an obligation to build a system around yourself so that you can do your job well and delight your clients.
With that said, there’s a flip side to the productivity coin: overdoing it. Some people are helpless without a system. They can’t think for themselves, and disruption to the system can cause the whole thing to crash down around them. I’m not advocating that you put yourself on life support and hand all of your control over to an artificial system. That’s just as bad as having no system at all.
If you have kids, then chances are good you’ve helped them get dressed once or twice. My oldest has always been wildly independent, and so for a very long time, getting clothes on her was quite a challenge. She had this tendency to fight against me. If I could get the shirt over her head, she would inevitably try to force her face into a sleeve. Or jam her fist into the armpit while she grunted with all her might.
I always did my best to guide her motions, but honestly, all that fighting just got in the way of what I was trying to do. She took something that
should be a one-minute task and turned it into a five-minute struggle for the fate of humanity.
Do you know what I always told her?
“Honey, if you would just hold still, we could get this shirt on faster and
I get it: you’re a busy person. I know you are because I am too. I’ve done the freelance dance for many years and each year is busier than the past. Perhaps you’re a seasoned developer managing dozens of projects at the same time. Or a freelance writer trying to build a portfolio while working for The Man.
Whatever it is that you do, I can safely bet that your days are as busy as a Waffle House on a Saturday morning at 9:00 AM. You finish each day more and more frustrated about the things that you wanted to get done, but didn’t. I’ve been there. I think it’s safe to say that we all have.
What you do the next day is also pretty typical. You work harder. You decide that today, of all the days in the history of days, you are going to swing hard and true and knock everything out of the ballpark. You multitask, you caffeinate, and you shut out the rest of the world to focus on all those things that you want to accomplish.
And then you fail.
All that “try harder” stuff is pretty much the same as my three year-old trying as hard as she can to pull her left shirt sleeve down over her head. All that busyness and rushing and flailing about is actually working against you. In fact, multitasking has the wonderful benefit of allowing you to accomplish less work than before while investing more time to do it.
But see, now you know what to do, right? Just stop trying.
Stop. Seriously. More energy and more time and more effort will not conquer your problems. What you need is to stop, slow down, focus and remember the basics. Because there are basics to productivity, just like any science or profession has basics. And everything else is just friction.
When you try too hard and multitask and lose focus because you are rushing, those are the moments when you allow friction into your process. That friction is actually going to keep you from achieving your goals. My daughter experiences this every time she fights my help and guidance when I’m trying to put a shirt on her. She adds friction, and that makes the goal more difficult to attain. There’s a lot of crying involved and a sizable amount of panic as well, something we can all relate to whether you’re a little girl or a freelancer.
Freelancing shouldn’t involve crying or panic. But I hear story after story about freelancers who just can’t seem to get ahead. They are more than busy, yet deeply frustrated that they can’t catch up. With the ultimate goal of earning more money from these freelance jobs, all this friction feels like a chain holding that back.
The Basics vs. Performance
When I was in high school, I took Tae Kwon Do. If you’ve never learned a martial art you have missed out. Not because self-defense is important or kicking above your own head is an amazing feeling, but because there are so many deep lessons within the training that have applications outside of the dojo. For those of you who have never taken a martial arts lesson, here’s a brief rundown of the teaching system.
New students are taught the basics. There are a variety of kicks and punches, and you must learn each of them. You learn their names, their forms and how to improve them over time. The basics of Tae Kwon Do, like any other martial art, are the building blocks of more complex system of movements and techniques. A front snap kick looks and feels different than a roundhouse kick, and each has their place in the larger system of techniques.
You also learn forms. These are essentially a sequence of kicks, punches and movements that must be memorized and performed the same way each and every time, by each and every student. Forms are strings of the basic building blocks that combine to create something more.
When a student has learned enough of the basics, they are allowed to spar with other students. Sparring is a controlled fight, with pads and rules for scoring points. It’s not a street fight, but it’s also not predictable. Your opponent might kick, or they might punch. And you have to rely on other basic techniques such as blocking or counterpunching to defend yourself. You can’t fall into a rote form and expect it to work. Sparring matches are organic and fluid; forms are rigid.
Productivity is not about robotically following prescribed forms. Productivity is about mastering the basic elements. Running a freelance business is like stepping into the ring to spar. Depend too heavily on soup-to-nuts productivity systems and you’ll be too inflexible for the chaos of the job. Eschew all training and techniques, and you’ll be overwhelmed and underprepared for challenges.
The key to success is to learn the basics and to know them so well that you can defend yourself from whatever your freelancing business throws at you. Knowing the basics helps you respond in a way that feels instinctive and natural, not forced and clumsy.
Back to the Basics
The basics need your attention. Stick with the basics of productivity and you will eliminate the friction from your system and get more done. So, I’ll assume you are asking another question at this point. “What are the basics? For the love of all that is holy and decent in this world, won’t you please just tell me?!”
Sure. If you must know, there are three things that you, the Frustrated Freelancer, must absolutely master before you can get rid of that friction: capture, collect, and plan. That’s it. Everything else is just fluff.
Before we move on to cover the basics in more detail, let me give you a hint: each one is more difficult than the last. It’s easy to write down ideas and action steps for projects. It’s a little bit harder to plan out a day where it all fits in and flows well. But focusing long enough to accomplish the day’s list is the hardest of all.
Capture, plan and focus. It’s the mantra that sits at the center of true productivity. It’s also the path to frictionless freelancing. So let’s break it down piece by piece, shall we?