Freelance tips: 7 techniques to stay focused

First it was Andy Murray at Wimbledon, then it was the London Olympics, now it’s … that must-have bargain on ebay? Magpies may be attracted to shiny things, but freelancers can be distracted by all sorts.

If you’re half-way through a big project and you’re browsing this website instead of finishing it off, then this is the article for you.

1/ Switch off your alerts

Nothing derails a train of thought like the bleep-bloop of a new email, Twitter mention or text message. The distraction, added to the time spent reading the message, added to the time taken to get back up to the speed you were working at before, takes longer than you realise. Some experts figure every distraction sets you back 15 minutes. So switch it all off.

Have you ever had an email that was so urgent in needed an immediate response? Maybe you have, but I’ll bet it’s a very small percentage of all the emails you check there and then. Emails are so easy to send these days that people do so without a second thought and, in truth, the world won’t end if you wait an hour or two to respond.

2/ Break your work up into smaller pieces

Motivation can be tough when the mountain of work ahead of you seems insurmountable. It feels like there’s no point even getting going.

The answer to this is a nifty little trick I was taught some time ago: sit down and promise yourself you’ll do an hour’s solid work. An hour’s manageable, it doesn’t seem too daunting. And even if it’s a thoroughly boring hour, you can at least check your watch and know that you’re due a break soon.

But the secret? By the time the hour’s up, you’ll find you’re into your work. The hardest part is getting started, and that struggle will be behind you. You’ll be working full speed and often won’t even want to stop once your hour’s done.

3/ Reward yourself

So your hour’s up or, even better, you’ve finished the project. Treat yourself. A glass of wine at the end of the day, a cupcake halfway through the day or an episode of Jeremy Kyle at 3pm.

If you’ve got something to look forward to, it’ll make the work in between seem less painful. And you should always take time out to recognise how much you’ve achieved.

All work and no play makes you forget why you’re doing what you do in the first place.

4/ Get fresh air

Of course, as much as the promise of a cupcake or a measure of something a little stronger in your drink may help get you through the day, there’s always the basics to bear in mind: Fresh air and stretching your legs.

Sitting in a chair and staring at a screen for hours upon end is not what our bodies were designed to do. Experts say the most we should attempt is an hour at a time before looking away from the screen to rest our eyes, going for a walk to get the blood circulating, and preferably taking in some fresh air to blow away the cobwebs.

5/ Shut the door and pin up some rules

Maybe the reason you’re struggling to stick to the task in hand is other people. The phone might be off the hook and all your alerts switched off, but if your kids, better half or parents are knocking on your office door asking you to nip down to the shops or to hoover up a little bit, then you may have to get tough.

It’s easy for people who’ve never worked for themselves to misunderstand the effort it takes to do so. If you need to put some solid hours in, use a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door. And if this isn’t enough, explain to everyone why you need a bit of peace and how important it is. Failing this, get out the house and head to a library, coffee or shared office.

6/ Finish the work you start

Whilst we’re on the topic of telling people ‘no’, this applies to clients, too. It might seem scary, but if a customer calls up and needs something doing ‘yesterday’, this can detract from all the work you were happily getting on with already.

It’s ok to ask for longer to do work, and it’s ok to say no all together if you simply haven’t got enough time in the day. If answering one customer’s emergency call means you miss deadlines for two others, then you have to ask whether it was worth saying yes and accommodating them at all.

7/ Love what you do

When all’s said and done, nothing will make you want to get up in the morning and get stuck into a piece of work like really loving what you do. And nothing is more likely to have you hitting the snooze button and pulling the duvet over your head than doing something you don’t enjoy.

Every freelancer has days when they’re resigned to doing the bits they wish they didn’t have to – paperwork, invoicing, cold calling, paying tax – and that’s just part of life. But if the day ever comes where there’s more of these days than enjoyable days, it’s time to have a rethink.

You’re the boss, after all, you’re the one who decides what the day’s work will involve.