How I (Used To) Waste Time

Right before I went on maternity leave, I was interviewed by Janelle Harris at Media Bistro, a website for writers and new media professionals. She wanted to know how I waste time. My response should have been, “How much time to you have?” But I am not that quick on my feet. Especially not at nine-months pregnant. So here is what I came up with. Enjoy! (And yes, that is a picture of Leo and his new little brother, Alex.)

Five Time Management Tips for Freelancers

Make good on your resolutions on starting this year with fresh work habits — starting right now.

By Janelle Harris

Freelance copywriter Anna Goldsmith, one half of the Boston-based duo The Hired Pens, confesses that, between churning out quality content for high-profile clients like Macy’s and American Express, she can squander time like nobody’s business. “My office is right across the street from a coffee shop. I’m always thinking of it intentionally like, ‘maybe if I go get a cup of coffee, that’ll help me buckle down,’ and it’s really just a half an hour of wasted time,” she said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I find myself researching medical conditions that I might have, like googling a possible cause if my knee hurts or googling ex-boyfriends and random people from, like, elementary school that I remember.”

Ah, the life of the self-employed. The very liberty we cherish as entrepreneurs is sometimes all the rope we need to hang ourselves professionally. The beauty of being a freelancer is having the autonomy and freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. The danger of being a freelancer? Having the autonomy and freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Break these notoriously bad habits and become a better captain of your time. Starting now.

1. Surfing social media.
Tweeting, updating your status and — aww! trolling through your friends’ and followers’ new baby pics and anniversary photos — is entertaining enough to take up as much of a chunk of time as you’ll let it. But until you can parlay that pastime into a cash-making opportunity (and let me know when you do), you’re pilfering your work hours – most of the time, anyway. “Facebook is a huge time suck,” admitted Goldsmith. “But I’ve also found some clients on there, so it kind of works both ways.”

Try This: You can incorporate guilty little pleasures like reading blogs or playing Words with Friends — and of course, scanning social media — as part of an actual schedule. Time management specialist Barbara Hemphill, founder of the Productive Environment Institute, suggests making a list of all of your responsibilities and clustering them into “zones.” “In my life, for example, there’s a zone for my prayer time, just being alone time and getting it together. There’s a zone for exercise, a zone for writing and a zone for research. Being productive is all about accomplishing your work and enjoying your life,” she adds. “If there’s a distraction that you have but you like it, turn that into a time zone.”

2. Allowing email and voicemail to take control.

Who called? Who emailed? Who the heck cares? You have work to do, and unless you’re waiting for information directly related to it, the multifaceted world of communication is proving to be a digital pain in the butt. “Minimize the distractions that you can control so you can deal with the ones that you can’t,” offered Hemphill. “A friend told me, ‘an inbox is a way to organize other people’s priorities.’ Probably 80 percent of the population starts their day by going through their inbox and figuring out what others’ priorities are instead of building their own.” That’s a pity.

Try This: “We established something called ‘quiet hours,'” Goldsmith shared. “So from 10-12 [am to pm] and 2-4 [pm], we unplug everything and just write. We don’t answer the phone and we don’t check email. It’s really amazing how much we can focus on and get done.” Having someone else around to keep you in check is really great, too, she added. Even if you don’t have a business partner, a freelancing friend or fellow editorial type can share space and help you stay on track.

3. Going to hi-my-name-is networking events.
Unless you’re a power chatter, super good at selling your services, or have been consistently successful meeting clients at a particular event, industry soirees can rob your schedule of time better used elsewhere. Be honest: don’t you tend to cling to whoever you showed up with anyway? And if you do branch out, isn’t it only to snatch appetizers from the tray of a waitress whizzing by? Freelancers can feel obligated to schmooze for the sake of snagging new business, but it can be a serious time suck (and just suck period).

Try This: “Networking can be very effective when done strategically, but I’d rather take a great person out to coffee or lunch and learn about how they did what they did than go into a room of strangers and hand out business cards,” said, Ramit Sethi author of the New York Times bestseller I Will Teach You To Be Rich. He advises freelancers to invest in building individual relationships instead. Consider that your get-out-of-the-next-networking-event-you-didn’t-really-want-to-go-to-anyway free card.

4. Failing to outline clear, quantifiable goals.
Saying “I want to write articles about something I love” or “I’d like to freelance for a Fortune 500 company” sounds nice in theory, but theory never paid anybody’s bills. (I know, I tried.) Quantifiable goals are where the money’s at. “We default to these vague goals, because we fear that by getting specific we’re going to close certain doors,” Sethi said. He teaches his readers and students to focus first on getting three paying clients within eight weeks — something he adamantly believes every freelancer can do — then trimming the fat down the line by setting their eyes on a more ambitious prize. “So you can say, ‘Now I want to get five clients in the next month and, by the way, I want to raise my rate from, let’s say, $25 an hour to maybe $50 an hour.’ Easily doable in another two months,” he insisted.

Try This: Learn when to give up. Sounds kind of harsh in this great land of “you can do anything if you put your mind and heart into it,” but we all know somebody who kept pushing towards a futile goal long after he should have surrendered. (And if you don’t know one personally, American Idol tryouts will certainly demonstrate the concept.) Chasing ideas that the market just isn’t willing to pay for is a waste of both time and energy. “Be ambitious. Do more. Get better quality clients. But also set a goal for yourself like, ‘If I try this for six months and my goal is to have 15 clients, and at the end of that time I have 12, that’s good enough,'” Sethi suggested. “If I only have one or two, I should probably change approaches.”

5. Spending valuable time on invaluable missions.
A lot of freelancers (not you or me, of course) have a special talent for creating the appearance of being busy, but really not doing much of anything at all. As the morning chugs by and the afternoon whisks past, those seemingly industrious colleagues can look up and wonder how the day got away from them. There are futile ways to spend time — posting on a blog that has not increased in hits or readership, for example, or updating a website for no other reason than to update it. Those minutes add up to hours that could’ve been invested into producing something marketable or, at the very least, finding new clients.

Try This: If you’re feeling stuck or uninspired, it may have something to do with your environment. Establish areas where you can focus on what you need to do, rather than menial tasks that won’t bring home the bacon. Keep tabs on the growth your ventures are experiencing; if they’re not blossoming after the amount of time you’ve determined for the experiment cut them. Two hours spent posting a piece that only 25 people read is not an effective use of your hours — unless, of course, you’re doing it as a hobby. And chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not.

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