I used to slice and dice my freelance to-do’s into all kinds of abstract categories: writing, researching, pre-production, postproduction, rewriting, dealing with email, tracking invoices, “brand building,” ad infinitum. I’d try to batch similar tasks across categories, track time on a granular level, and generally attempt to make a perfect info-map of my average workday in hopes of Organization-Man-ing it into perfect efficient submission.
Then I realized (recently) that there are actually only two task-categories that are meaningful to a freelance businessperson:
- Your Real Work
- all the other bullsh*t
Unlike salaried stiffs, we only get paid for Item #1. I don’t have to list examples of Item #2 — we all know what they are — so why do we spend so much time on them? And what about Item #1? Do we really know what that is, in intuitive, concrete terms that we can put into action on a daily basis?
I suffer from this problem. Here’s a mind hack for simplifying the solution.
It’s simple. Simply call a spade a spade. Define your to-dos in these terms: Your Real Work (YRB) and all the other bullshit (aob). Use non-profane versions if you like, but resist the urge to use any other more specific categories. And then just see what happens.
Because what is “being productive,” other than the art of maximizing the time you spend on the former and minimizing the time you spend on the latter?
Of course, the trouble with aob is that it’s got a real talent for masquerading as YRW. But you can get off on the right foot by calling it what it is. Every day, if necessary. I do. Literally, in my to-do app, I end up with a list of Real Work and a list of bullshit. It clarifies things.
The real mind hack here, though, is that this is not a moral distinction. Both kinds of work need to get done in some fashion or another. The key is being smart about it: knowing what’s necessary and sufficient for each kind of work.
Here’s what I do:
- I try to do Real Work in uninterrupted blocks of 3ish hours called “cells.”
- I use software to automate/auto-schedule as much of the bullshit as possible and push whatever’s left into the cracks/spare time I have between the cells.
- If too much bullshit piles up in the cracks, I dump as much of it as possible into its own cell and deal with it en masse. (This one is a work in progress. Eventually I’ll auto-schedule this “overflow” as well.)
- If it’ll take 2 minutes or less to do, skip the categories and just do it now.
Why operate like this? Well, as author and productive freelancer Neil Stephenson explains, YRW requires concentration and flow — which cannot be achieved without avoiding interruption for kind of a long time. Simple fact. Whereas aob, being mostly monkey tasks, can be started/finished/autopiloted later/whenever, and it’ll still just be the same old aob (even the so-called “important” kind). So you might as well shove it aside and squeeze it into whatever spare time-fragments you have here and there; in almost all cases in my experience thus far, there’s no practical penalty for that. (Worst case scenario, you get some minor negative reinforcement that self-corrects in the future.)
The details of what apps and tools and blahblah I use to help me define cells of YRW and spackle the cracks between them with aob is neither here nor there. (Short version: Harvest, Things, Gcal, TextEdit/my whiteboard.) And sometimes I lapse and lose entire mindless afternoons on email or doing other “urgent”, “important” crap. But whatever. The overall mind hack makes it easy to avoid kidding myself about where my time goes, and snap my priorities back into line if necessary.
And that’s the more important tool, in my opinion, which only exists in your head: making a clear daily distinction between … well, you know.