Know what your Real Work is. (It’s not answering email.) Act accordingly.

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.


About John Pavlus

I'm a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics.
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8 Responses to Know what your Real Work is. (It’s not answering email.) Act accordingly.

  1. Good plan. Let us know how it works out for you!

  2. It just goes to show the diversity of work styles – I could not conceive of 3 hours working without pause. Even if I’m writing a feature, I need short breaks to let my mind wander. I know there’s a cost to task-switching, but… well maybe I’ll try this and see what happens.

  3. OK, I tried it, and I’m embarrassed by how much time I’ve been wasting by *not* blocking out up to 3 hours to simply get sh*t done. I just did in an hour and forty minutes (with only one moment-of-weakness interruption) what would have otherwise taken me about twice that long. I’d thought my productivity had hit a ceiling, but clearly, I was just distracting myself to death…

    • John Pavlus says:

      Wow, awesome! I’m glad to hear it made a difference for you. Even if you don’t spend the whole 3ish hours of a cell in a state of pure “flow” (I rarely do), just mentally marking out those borders can make a huge difference in stanching “attention leaks.”

      One of the key attributes of the cell is that it is long enough to ALLOW for occasional attention-drift or unplanned interruptions. 3 hours is plenty of time to focus on ONE objective (which may be made up of many overlapping tasks) while still checking in on Twitter once or twice, or answering a quick email/phone call. You have intentionally blocked out enough time that the cost of these little disruptions isn’t fatal to your productivity.

      And on the lucky days when you DO spend a whole cell in a state of flow… man, there’s nothing better than looking up and realizing the time blew by AND you put in some serious work.

  4. Pingback: Channel your attention and find flow with “cells” | Freelancer Hacks

  5. Maryn says:

    I use a dashboard widget called 3-2-1 ( to help with this. It’s a timer that, when it ticks down to zero, freezes your screen and flashes whatever message you put into it at the start. (“Stretch!” or “Yes, you may now check email!”) I’ve found I can hold off the impulse to check email etc. for, say, 50 minutes if I know the reward is coming via a 10-minute break at the end of the hour. Perhaps I could go for longer…

  6. FYI, the 3-2-1 widget to which Maryn refers above can be found here: I’m going to give it a try…

  7. Peter Bell says:

    I agree and disagree. I categorize all projects as billable or non billable and my weekly high level report focused on hours spent (total), billable hours, percentage billable and total billed amount. I agree that’s the most important metric

    However, I disagree that it is the only metric. I write articles, present at conferences, invest in developing internal software for the business, do networking, put together quotes and spend time learning new technologies. I want to track all of those activities so I can confirm I don’t spend too much time learning vs selling or the other way around. It also allows me to see how much my presentations really cost me and to estimate ROI’s on those in terms of the business it generates over time. I can also break down by article or presentation so I know how much each one cost and how much it’s likely to cost for me to create another one. I find all of that information invaluable when planning my commitments.

    How do I track it all? Mainly Pomodoros. Good for tracking, task planning, and keeping me in good, productive shape all day. In the early days I also tracked real hours in office vs tracked hours to make sure they matched (so I might be doing non-billable work but wasn’t blowing time doing no work at all).

    I’d estimate this takes me a few seconds per 25 minute pom, 5-10 minutes a day prioritizing/estimating, and maybe another half hour a week entering the poms from TextMate into Harvest. I also spend an hour a month on a retrospective reviewing what I did and what I could improve next month. That time is non billable, but to me it’s a worthwhile investment.

    Best Wishes,

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