One of the biggest problems I face as a home-working freelancer is maintaining my motivation levels. I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is to ensure I feel organised, productive and ultimately, on top of things. But believe it or not(!), this is something I have to work very, very hard at. Flagging energy is probably something all workers face, but there’s nothing like having your income based on your output to ensure that it’s not something that gets swept under the carpet for too long.
I’m certain that my situation is not helped by a natural tendency towards ill-discipline and blissful chaos 🙂 However, given the proliferation of personal productivity blogs maintained by home-working marketeers, writers and techies of every programming persuasion, I’m inclined to think that dips in output are common to many home-workers.
Luckily, I learned ways of keeping my scattered side more or less in check long before I went freelance. Working part-time while also studying part-time for my Masters was a great exercise in self-management. Once I got into the swing of things, I found I thrived on the demands of these very different environments. (In fact, I consider this to be one of the most productive portfolio periods of my life.)
But I have the short-term memory of a goldfish, and if I don’t record it, I don’t remember it. That’s a lot of recording, and it’s probably why I’m such a sucker for anything promising personal-productivity nirvana. And if the stairs to heaven are paved with a limited number of easy-to-follow steps, then all the better. So, here’s my list of some of the personal productivity tools I have tried and discarded, either wholly or partially, over the last year alone.*
- Microsoft Office Outlook: my default organisation system for some time now, a legacy from my office-working days. Undoubtedly a one-stop-shop, but long overdue a change, not least because I’m tired of looking at its dull interface and overflowing inbox. More cubicle-dweller than freelancer, I’m afraid.
- 37 Signal’s Backpack: a free web-based information manager. I’m enjoying this a lot at the moment. I use it with InfiniteNIL’s Packrat for offline working too. Nice to look at, which is always a bonus, but you need a system of some kind to get the most from it.
- MindjetMindManager: a mind-mapping application. I loved the idea of this, but my mind just doesn’t work in this way so it never felt intuitive. And I really don’t need another excuse for not being organised – one for the more visually-stimulated amongst us.
- Blackberry Pearl 8100: I normally prefer my phone without the whistles and bells, but I really like getting my emails on my phone. It means I can go about my day without worrying about missing a job offer if I’m not in front of the computer. This year I set up filters so I only receive my clients’ work-offer emails (everything else I check from my regular email programme), and it’s even better!
- Tiddlywiki: a free, non-linear personal web notebook. This is an amazing tool and I’m sure it will be perfect for something I do, some day. For now though, it’s just not what I’m looking for – again, I just don’t seem to organise my thoughts in this way. But I had some pretty geeky fun playing around with it for a couple of days! It’s true what they say, the best things in life are free.
- Omni Group’s OmniOutliner: this application came free with my Mac. It’s offers what the outline view of Microsoft Word offers, only more features, more easily organisable and more pleasing to the eye. Guess what – this does seem to suit the way my mind works, and I’m hooked.
- Russell and Hazel‘s 3-ring binder planner system: a stationary marvel, really and truly, and a joy to use, but it’s just too bulky to carry around with me. I need to have my info to hand if I’m working out of office. Plus, I prefer something a little further along the electronic spectrum for easy updating.
- Moleskin 18 month pocket-sized calendar: currently my favourite calendar. Can’t beat it for portability AND ease of use. And I’m a sucker for the soft covers, mmmm.
- Black’n’Red A5 wirebound notebooks: I started using these in a former office job and they’re still my favourite for general notes and lists. They’re just the right size, the wire means the cover folds back neatly and I like the paper quality too.
And for variety, here’s a selection of some of the books I’ve read on the topic.
- Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, by Mark Forster: This gets my productivity book of 2007 award, and it was the best value too at only £2.97 on Amazon. It has some very realistic but thought-provoking ideas on effectively managing your workload, including how to decide what kind of tasks to take on in the first place. Most of these ideas are particularly suited to being freelance. Best of all, it’s the ONLY book I’ve read that clearly states that there is only finite number of hours in the day, and if you’re not getting everything done then you may just be doing too much. Revolutionary!!
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, by David Allen: I’d heard a lot about this book before I actually read it. It’s essential reading in the sphere of life hacks and personal productivity, but I’m suspicious of systems with as many fanatical followers as this. The full GTD system is not for me, but there are some useful techniques in there, all the same. If nothing else, you’ll at least understand the lengths people are prepared to go to get organised.
- Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life, by Julie Morgenstern: Lots of common sense, of course, but I really liked some of the ideas. For example, the idea of organising your spaces into specific work or task-based zones, rather than trying to make your tasks fit your space. This one is definitely a case of not judging a book by its cover.
- The Simplicity Survival Handbook: 32 Ways to Do Less and Accomplish More, by Bill Jensen: I bought this on a recommendation I saw on another blog, but it wasn’t for me. The author is a strong proponent of keeping things simple (which we like), but this book verged very heavily on the side of complete dumbing down. I found the whacky use of different font sizes really annoying, and it’s clearly aimed at people building their careers in hierarchical, corporate companies. I’d say give it a miss.
- Cut to the Chase: And 99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time, by Stuart R. Levine: I guess this might be useful if you had a system
you were happy with and were just looking for a few tweaks, or were happy to dip and and out of a selection of tips. Otherwise, nothing very special here.
Finally, some blogs on personal productivity from my RSS reader. These are especially relevant to freelance workers.
- 43 Folders: based around David Allen’s GTD system
- David Seah: has developed his own productivity system called the Printable CEO System. Oh yes, forgot to mention I’ve dabbled with this too 😉
- GoogleTutor: productivity 101 – ensure you are using your most frequently referred-to tools as efficiently as possible.
- Lifehacker: making computers more productive. Because let’s face it, they’re not really.
- Pimp Your Work: mostly, I love the name, but it has some fun tips too.
- Adventures in home working: even I find productivity boring after a while, but this blogger keeps me coming back for more as he covers that and so much more. Plus, he’s based on this side of the pond, which is always refreshing.
- Tim Ferriss’s blog: this guy is a bit of a productivity ninja, the ultimate portfolio worker and the author of a book called The Four-Hour Workweek. His book has a lot of buzz about at it the moment (inciting controversy and compliments in not-so-equal measure). Love him or hate him, he seems to be doing something right.
- WebWorkerDaily: good for a heads-up on new (and often free) bits of software, which are often relevant to freelance workers.
- Contract Worker: The blurb sums it up nicely and is also pretty funny: “A lot of people still have a wrong impression of contract work or freelancing, thinking it only involves selling your skills to the highest bidder; in short, turning your expertise into a prostitute for money (thus the F-word). I’ll show why this isn’t so, by presenting freelancing as a legitimately lucrative career option that allows improvement and growth.”
Who knows, one day I may stumble across the holy grail of personal productivity (you’ll be the first to hear about it if I do). Until then, I’ll continue to spend more time revving up my motivation levels by testing the latest hair-brained tools than actually Getting Anything Done.
*disclaimer: I receive no incentives for any of these links