4 Lessons that Helped Me Optimize My Workflow


Finding the right workflow can make a tremendous difference in the productivity of a freelancer, and I have been working very hard at this over the last few weeks. I have made sure that there is enough time each day and each week to accomplish all of the tasks that I’m responsible for. And I’m learning when I’m most productive and have the most energy, and I have been using those times effectively to maximize productivity. But even with careful planning and the best of intentions, managing time and workflow can be a challenge. This week has been one of those times.

I still do a bit of freelance computer support, and this week an unusual number of businesses in my area had computer problems and called me for help. There were virus problems, hardware incompatibilities, spreadsheet challenges, and a new computer that hadn’t been set up properly. This cut into my regular work time each day, and by the end of the week I decided to reschedule some of my work to the weekend.

Yesterday morning—Saturday morning—I received a panicked phone call from my sixteen-year-old daughter. She and a friend were crossing a busy road, and her friend was hit by a car. I raced to the scene of the accident, followed the ambulance to the hospital, and spent most of the day there being supportive as x-rays and other tests were being done. I arrived home exhausted, slept for a few hours, and didn’t get to my work.

Now it’s late Sunday afternoon, and I still have hours of work to do. Today we have had numbers of visitors and my son’s challenging teenage friend is staying the night. Time and workflow management won’t help—it’s time for raw determination.

Fortunately not every week is like this one. In my article How to Tweak Your Home Office to Be Productive Full-time, I talked about my intention to rethink my workflow to maximize productivity and minimize effort. In the last two weeks I have made some changes that have really helped, and learned a lot about myself. Here are the four most important important lessons I learned:

1. Boundaries and Deadlines Can Be Motivating

I haven’t been a morning person for a very long time. For many years I have felt productive late at night, and have sometimes worked into the early hours of the morning to get things done. But over the last few weeks, it was on the days I got up early that I was most productive.

In my first week of working from home full time, there were two days the kids were home from school – all five of them! They were challenging days. On the other days, I discovered that there aren’t as many hours for work as I expected. If I have a lunch break, there are only four hours or so of productive time between dropping the kids at school and picking them up again. Once the kids were home, I still had half a day’s work to plough through. As a result, I didn’t finish work much before midnight on any day that week, and it got me down.

Early in the second week, I randomly woke at 6:00 am. I decided to get up and start work. By the time I took the kids to school I had done two hours of solid work, which made a big dent into my work for that day. I finished the bulk of my day’s work before I picked them up from school. Psychologically, that made a big difference. I could enjoy my evening without having to worry about undone work. The next day I was awoken at 5:00 am by a stray phone call, got up and straight into my work, and had similar results.

I didn’t expect that rising early would make such a difference in my day. It may not make the same difference for you—we’re all different, and you may be more productive in the middle or at the end of the day. But the real lesson I learned is relevant to us all: boundaries and deadlines can be motivating. On the days I got up early, I knew there was a real chance of getting all of my work done before the kids finished school. That fact motivated me, focused my mind, and inspired me to put in the effort to achieve it.

The previous week I felt that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t be finished work before midnight. As a result, I was less focused, took longer breaks, and didn’t get finished any earlier.

2. I Can Stay Focused Longer by Pacing Myself

Many web workers suffer injury by spending too many hours at the keyboard, so I started to use the Workrave software to remind myself to take regular breaks. I find that it helps – and not just at avoiding RSI. It has been a great tool in helping me to pace myself so I don’t burn all my energy at the beginning of the day.

During my first week of web working full-time, I was putting in long hours. I hadn’t established a routine, and was still learning the best way to do my job. I discovered a new Workrave message I had never seen before: “You’ve been working too long. It’s time to finish for the day.” It would nag me mercilessly for the last few hours of each day, until I disabled that message altogether. One day I might work out the maximum number of hours I want to work in one day and re-enable the message. But if you have a deadline to meet, you just have to keep working!

But the other two things Workrave nags me about have been very helpful. Every ten minutes, Workrave gets me to have a half-minute break. This gives my fingers and eyes a much-needed break, and doing so keeps me working more effectively. And every fifty minutes, Workrave gets me to take a ten minute break from the computer, which is also a good precaution for my long-term health. But I find those messages also help in two other ways.

When I’m writing, sometimes I struggle to get started. It may be that I’m not sure of what to write about, or what to say, or how to say it. Or my mind might be weary, or distracted by something else. During those times I tend to get up from my desk fairly often and wander around the room. I’m not sure whether I’m trying to clear my head, or just escape! But with Workrave, I’m much less inclined to do that. Because I know that there is a half-minute break scheduled every ten minutes, I tend to persevere with my writing until then. My breaks are more controlled, and before I know it, there is a steady stream of ideas traveling from my mind to my fingers.

I also find the ten minute breaks very helpful. I’ve learned not to see them as breaks from work, but breaks from the computer. In those ten minutes away from my computer every hour, I have been sorting and filing boxes of miscellaneous papers, decluttering and organizing my workspace, making phone calls, brewing coffee, and jotting ideas down on paper. I wasn’t sure when I would find time for those types of tasks – I tend to put them off if I’m busy – and ten minutes or so an hour seems just about right.

3. I Must Be Ruthless Handling Interruptions

This is the main lesson I learned in my dreaded first week: lots of small breaks and interruptions add up very quickly, and mean that I probably won’t finish work until midnight. I need to maintain a certain amount of discipline if I want to get all of my work done, and still have a meaningful amount of time left to achieve my other goals in life.

During that first week, my brother-in-law dropped in to visit my wife and I. We don’t see him often, so I decided to stop working and be sociable. Before I knew it, three hours had passed! In hindsight, it would have been wiser to spend one hour catching up with him, then excuse myself and get back to work.

I’ve also noticed that the breaks I take are always trying to make themselves longer. There are so many things clamoring for our attention! It’s like a force of nature: unless I maintain real discipline, I’m sure that half the day would vanish in useless breaks that add nothing to my life. Am I alone, or do you notice the same thing in your routine?

4. I Can Effectively Utilize Spare Moments

Something I dreaded has become something I enjoy, and I have learned a lesson of using dead space in my day to get work done.

Two of my kids work at McDonalds, which is just a five minute drive from where I live, and regularly finish late at night. I used to drive to the restaurant at the time they were due to finish, and wait for them in the carpark. On busy nights, I sometimes had to wait twenty or thirty minutes until they finished their shift, which was very frustrating—especially if I had work waiting for me at home.

Now I do things differently. I leave home half an hour or an hour earlier, go into the restaurant and order a nice coffee and sometimes something to eat, and take advantage of McDonald’s free wifi to get some work done. I enjoy the change of scenery and the coffee, find that I am very productive there, and have lost all of my frustration. If the kids work a bit longer, that’s fine—I get a more work done.

That lesson has made me aware of other opportunities to be productive. I tend to carry my netbook with me everywhere, and now situations that I would have found frustrating help me.

These lessons have made a big difference in my work life. I enjoy working more, get more done, and still have time for the rest of my life. What lessons have you learned about workflow?


This author has published 17 post(s) so far at FreelanceSwitch. Their bio is coming soon!

  1. PG Freelancer Blog

    For me i can’t be focused on my work when i wake up very early in the morning. I prefer to work in the afternoon and night.
    But i agree that in the morning wont be much interruptions like phone calls or friends who come over or whatever..

  2. PG Hg

    Realistic prioritisation. Starting the day with a To Do list containing ten items inevitably means that I work on the most attractive tasks first, or end up flitting butterfly-style between different tasks in an attempt to feel that I’m making progress. I rarely complete everything and end up frustrated.

    However, a list containing just the three most important things ensures that I’m more likely to get those specific things done. And if all three are done by midday, either I’ll give myself permission to work on research & skills-building in the afternoon, or I’ll write a second three-task list.

    I suppose this is a variant of the boundaries concept, focusing on tasks/projects rather than time allocation.

  3. PG Hoover

    Make sure you do something you love!

    OK, that’s not always possible. But see how the focus and concentration comes without trying when your work is absorbing.

  4. PG Jim N.

    To your first point, I also work from home and am Mr. Mom in the AM as my wife leaves for work before the kids go to school. I’m Mr. Mom in the PM when the kids get off school (because the wife is still working), which includes making dinner. Staying up late isn’t an option.

    So I’ve been getting up at 4am for a couple months now, at my desk by 4:30. I stop for breakfast at 7, take the kids to school at 8 and exercise till 9.

    Essentially, by the time 9am comes I’ve already gotten 3-ish hours of work done. Another 3 before 12, and another 4 – 4.5 by the time dinner needs to be made, minus a quick trip to pick up the kids. I treat Fridays like an overflow day, and am having success refraining from work on weekends. If do I work on Saturday, I get up at 4 again so as not to cut into the day too much. By the time the kids are up and watching cartoons, I’ve put in another 5 hours, and whether the work is done or not I at least have a clear conscious.

    Like you, I find I can mostly relax in the evenings, which has a far greater psychological effect than putting the kids to bed at 9pm and realizing I still have several hours of work to do.

  5. PG Michel Vrana

    Here’s a break-scheduling software for Mac OS X http://www.dejal.com/timeout/

    I find it really helps, as well!

    1. PG Stacy

      Thanks…was looking for a nice mac version.

  6. PG Henning

    WorkRave reminds me of the Pomodoro technique. But 10 minutes of working before a break is barely enough for me into get into a task.

  7. PG Rob

    I find working late forces a later start to the next day and once you made a cup and sit down in front of the emails, the day started way before you and you play catch-up.

    Waking early not only has less emails to deal with, but when you send a bunch out it leaves a great impression to clients that the guy you hired is on the ball.

    Cheers, useful article.

  8. PG Doreen Pendgracs

    Excellent post. My biggest problem is dealing with the interruptions. Husband is retired & works at home, cat wants to play or be petted, sun is shining. Is indeed hard to focus during summer.

  9. PG Ali

    thank you .. it is a great article
    since i started full freelancing six months ago .. i used to work at night .. and yes i am not productive as i should be .. i need a change

  10. PG James Kurtz III

    All good points.

    For me the thing that really helped was taking large tasks and breaking them down into small manageable tasks. That way the 100 page catalog due in 2 weeks doesn’t seem as overwhelming when it’s just a matter of knocking it out one page spread at a time.

  11. PG Nathan Clendenin

    This is a great article – thanks!

    I have given up trying to be super productive in the mornings. Instead of fighting it, I use it as an opportunity to read a book, catch up on email, read blogs (like this one!) and other stuff that doesn’t require much brain power. I also try to schedule appointments in the morning (unless it’s a creative pitch kind of thing). Then around 3pm I start to really flow – and I can keep going until 6 or 7pm – when I find I’ve finished a lot of stuff!

    If I hit a wall on a particular project – I find I need to move on to something else (either another task within that project, or another project all together). Then I let my mind work in the background on solving that problem – and usually as I’m falling asleep or in the shower or something, I have the Ah-Ha! moment and the problem is solved.

    Also, if you’re a perfectionist like me – procrastination can be very tempting. I find I just have to dive in and get started with small tasks first – that will build up momentum to the larger ones.

  12. PG Mike

    Speaking from a guy who’s worked in a virtual office environment of his making for years now, I agree with your points. Well written.

  13. PG Emma

    So far my biggest lesson has been that I still need to find motivation to slog through the end of a project. I love to plan and research and time flies when I’m doing these activities. Sit down to crank it out or edit and I’m working through molasses.

    Now if I could only lighten it up to be something more… pancake-syrupy it wouldn’t be so bad!

    Looking forward to reading more about your freelance productivity progression,


  14. PG JohnM

    More like this please :)

    I too am an afternoon/evening person. Would love to be a morning person though.

    I’ve often thought that if I could get as much done in the morning as I do in the afternoon/evening I’d be a millionaire. And I would have to move to Turkey to achieve it.

  15. PG Conrad

    I have found out over the years that I am for sure a morning person and feel that I get more done before lunch than I could all day long. Not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of staying up late to finish projects. My only problem is that we live in a small house and so my 16 month old and my desk share the same room, makes things kinda tough at times. Thank goodness for my laptop.

  16. PG Annette

    You’re right, those spare moments can be amazingly productive. I’ve written blog posts and outlined articles while waiting to pick children up after school and dentist and doctor appointments, well you often wait long enough to write several articles!

  17. PG Jorge Cerda

    Adrian, i loved your article. I think this are the inspiring lessons i’ve learn about being a freelancer.

    I work 2 jobs, on full time on an advertising company, and use most of my spare time working as a freelacer from home on front-end development.

    Everyday i struggle with lack of time or enthusiasm after a long day work, I think the lesson #3 “I Must Be Ruthless Handling Interruptions” is by far the more clever of all because everyday I receive people in my home office and a 5 minutes break turns into 2 to 3 hours of not working. I mean, it’s not bad to socialize a lil’ bit but from time to time I have seen myself watching a movie and not enjoying it at all because I’m worried about that project i had to finish before midnight.

    I’ll take a test -drive with the “Workrave” software, it’s all I ever needed and din’t know it exist. :)

  18. PG Risto

    Thanks for sharing, Adrian!

    For me so many points you discussed are very true at the moment. I felt working at home, waking up late and working at nights became stressful and unproductive. So I made some changes, too.

    Firstly, I wake up 7-8 am and go to library – they have working rooms and while I don ‘t have proper office yet I still can feel I am going to office. Just change of scenery and trying to find more time to be productive instead of busy.

    Secondly, I don’t hold my mail client running all the time. I tend to open it 3-4 times a day which focuses my attention for mails when I want to not when they arrive.

    Good luck for all you guys!

  19. PG Denver Web Design

    If you freelance, deadlines are important – and it’s just as important to put deadlines on your clients. They procrastinate just as bad as designers, and you can sit for days idle waiting for them (which messes up your “flow” for the week anyway).

    If you have your clients on point, then you are always busy with work to do.

    My motivation tips – Get to the gym in the morning, and you’ll be energized all day. Try to wake up at the same exact time everyday. Coffee. Ignore distractions like email (check it 2x a day max), so you don’t interrupt your progress with a needy client that can wait till tomorrow. And coffee.

  20. PG Nikhil

    I totally agree with the first point…..
    Its really motivating to work under the time limits…..Its like…if anyone have played the strategy games like World of Warcraft, Age of Empires..in which you have certain time limit within which have to gather food. gold, wood, build empire and destroy the opponent….
    That what we do here….

  21. PG Dan

    I have never been a morning person either.
    Yet lately from reading articles here at Freelance Switch it seems the best idea is to start early.

    So over the past month I have been getting up between 6:30am and 7:30am.
    What a difference!

    I think you have a clearer mindset because happenings of the day have not weighed on your head.

    Nice article!

  22. PG Jon Follett

    I’ve found time-boxing to be a useful technique for organizing my workflow. In particular, checking e-mail, TweetDeck, and voicemail only at selected times during the day, is helpful for minimizing the distractions these communication channels can cause. I’m also desperately trying not to check e-mail too late in the evening. If there’s a message that stresses me out, I think about it too much, and have difficulty sleeping, which then makes the whole next day even more challenging. So, having some boundaries regarding communication can help provide you with the chunks of time you need to get things done. But, in our “always on” work environment, this can be a tough practice to follow.

  23. PG Candrina Bailey

    It’s great to know that I’m not alone in the struggle for productivity.

    It is funny, though…I now realize how unproductive I was as an office worker. After getting coffee, chatting with a co-worker, taking calls that are not related to the task at hand, etc, half the day is gone. But, when you’re billing out hours, it’s amazing how focused one has to be to get a full billable hour out of an hour. It’s almost impossible.

    As much as I like sleeping in, I too find that getting up a little earlier and getting the day started keeps me better focused. And, if a “fire” does break out, I know that I can handle it and still keep my evenings free to live (cause isn’t that why we do this?).

  24. PG Matt Baier

    Some really helpful advice! I particularly liked the part about turning something you dread into something you enjoy.

  25. PG Amanda G

    I agree getting up early really does help with the workload for the day. I am a believer in doing the things you least like first, so by the afternoon or night when you are tired and not so motivated – you do the things you love doing (which I find you end up doing anyway).

    1. PG Vijendra

      Ya that’s true …. morning hours are really very fruitful…

  26. PG Roxanne

    thanks for sharing this, i found it very helpful and lent me some insight into how i might deal with some of my productivity issues.

  27. PG Vijendra

    Thanks Adrian for such a great article … i really need such good advice right now.

  28. PG Eric Zentner

    Hey Adrian,

    Terrific article, and SO true. I’ve been freelancing full time now for about a year, and much to my chagrin I’ve realized the value of “WDBN” (aka. Work Done Before Noon). It’s like something “magical” happens at noon and time speeds up until before you know it it’s 8pm. Having a good early morning routine has helped, not to mention a good system. I’m reading “The Ultimate Sales Machine” and Chet Holmes 1st chapter is all about time management. (see http://www.chettime.com ).

    The hardest part REALLY, though, was just learning to admit to myself that I’m not the young, indestructible teen anymore. Plus, with marriage and (fingers-crossed) kids on the way, I know the morning will become my new favorite hangout.

    I just stumbled on http://www.tomsplanner.com/ and will give it a shot in my perpetual attempt to find a good, simple, easy to visualize, Project Management system. Seems to be a good fit.

    1 more point, then i’m done (I swear!):
    1) Buy a cheap kitchen timer (got mine @ the dollar store) and set it for 1 hour. Put it right next to your computer IN your line of site. When you sit down to start working, hit “start”. If you start wondering off to some “Non-Work” websites, or non-work phone calls, you stop it. When you get back to work, you start it again. Every time 1 hour goes by and it rings, you make a little line on your daily to-do list (mine’s on paper), then hit reset and start it again. Keep track of what I call your “Actual Work Time” for about 3 weeks and you’ll start to see an interesting trend. I quickly realized that during some 8-hour days I was only getting 3 hours of ACTUAL work done! No wonder projects take so long! Now my goal is to have (at least) 3 hours of ACTUAL Work logged BEFORE noon and ideally 4-6 after. Try it and you’ll be amazed! Such a simple item adds a good level of accountability to a job without bosses or managers.

    Good luck!

  29. PG John

    I like your suggestion of the timer – bet I’d be suprised at the actual number of productive hours too.

    1. PG Eric Zentner

      No problem John.
      Give it a try.

      Even thought it’s been almost 2 months that i’m using the timer, and I already have a good idea of my “average” work day; I like to use it anyway. It’s like having a coach standing next to me with a stopwatch shouting “Come On! 1 more hour before lunch!”…

      good luck!

  30. PG Shane

    For me, it’s been capturing those Eureka moments while driving. My best thoughts come while I’m driving to/from work. I used to forget all these great things, but I ordered a bluetooth headset, signed up for Jott’s transcription services, and have those great ideas transcribed and forwarded to Evernote.

  31. PG Darren

    If you like the traditional timer approach (Eric, John) You should give the Printable CEO series a try. They’re excellent tools for doing pretty much what you describe e.g. setting a timer and marking off time on a sheet.


  32. PG Eric Zentner

    Thanks Darren!

    I will definitely look into it!

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