#012: How to Stay Productive (and Sane!) When You Work in a Deadline-Driven Business

Summary: In this episode of Smarter freelancing podcast Ed will speak with Erik Fisher on how to stay productive (and Sane!) When you Work in a Deadline-Driven Business.

Many of my traditionally employed friends are surprised when I tell them that it's challenging to stay productive as a work-at-home freelancer.

They automatically assume that being in control over your schedule is a solution to the productivity dilemma they face in the cubicle world.

Not so. In fact, I'd argue that having more freedom and flexibility can be a curse. Especially when your work is deadline-driven.

In this episode, I talk with , a productivity junkie and host of Beyond the To Do List, a podcast that focuses on productivity. Erik shares some very practical tools and ideas for getting good work done in our deadline-driven world.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Tell us about yourself

Erik Fisher is host of Beyond the To Do List, a podcast that focuses on productivity. In addition to his podcast, he also does contract work for Social Media Examiner.

While Erik has been self-employed for the past three or four month, before that he was traditionally employed—so he’s experienced both sides.

What are some of the productivity challenges of being self-employed?

When you’re self-employed, no one tells you when to do your work. It’s entirely on your shoulders, and it can be a struggle to get done what needs to get done.

When you work from home, you’re working in a place you normally associate with leisure, and this can make it even more challenging.

How do we create some sanity around our schedules? Where do we start?

Recognize that there is never enough time to do everything. You have to treat your time like money and budget it. And to do that, you have to know where you’re spending your time.

Erik uses Pocket, a free app that allows you to save articles, audio and video for later. Erik combines Pocket with IFTTT (“if this, then that”), an app that allows you to create connections and actions between different channels, with a Gmail account.

Often, when he goes back to review the saved articles, they don’t seem as important or interesting.

You can use RescueTime to track the time you spend on applications and websites.

It’s okay to spend time reading and consuming fun things but not at the expense of getting important things done.

Flow is also important. Multitasking doesn’t work. Switching from task to task fragments your attention and detracts from your productivity.

How should we schedule our day to maximize productivity?

You have to know your rhythm. When are you most productive with different tasks? When do you need to take a break to keep productivity high?

When you leave a task, make it easy for yourself to get back into it. You’re passing a baton from yourself to yourself at different times of the day as well as day-to-day and week-to-week.

There is no right or wrong way to structure your day. Figure out what works best for you.

We’re easily distracted. Sometimes we simply forget what we need to do next. Plan in advance the path you need to follow to get work done.

What are your thoughts on setting work hours?

Erik emphasizes focus over number of work hours. When he works on something, he gives it his full attention.

We have the ability to work anywhere with our cell phones and laptops. It can be very efficient to take a few minutes, wherever you are, and do a quick email triage.

Do you have any tips for managing email?

Erik takes a “blitz” approach to email. When you have 200 emails to process, you work faster and more efficiently. When have only four, you tend to take your time and get distracted.

Email tip: Go into Gmail and search “unsubscribe.” It will pull up all the newsletters you subscribe to. Go through them and decide which ones you want to keep and which ones you want to unsubscribe.

The app Mailbox allows you to quickly triage your email to see what you need to reply to immediately, what you can delete and what you can have return to your mailbox later, automatically.

The Dispatch app makes it easier to take action on your email from your cell phone. It allows you to send email to your to-do lists, calendar and other plugins.

Simply setting a timer can be a huge productivity tool. It helps you regulate the amount of time you spend on a task.

Focus at Will plays music that's scientifically proven to boost focus. It also comes with a timer.

Any parting thoughts?

When you need a break, jump on a Google Hangout to find people who’re doing similar work. It’s like having a digital water cooler.

Where can listeners learn more about you?

Erik’s website is Beyondthetodolist.com. The site has links to Erik’s show and social media accounts.


  • Maria

    Hi Ed!

    I'm totally with you on “so much noise” surrounding us, most of it a distraction. I find that if I don't read or view or do something right away, I probably won't do it at all; so with all the messages I get (and I avoid social media and still get a ton), I go back to the tried-and-true mantra of “Do it, dump it, delegate it” immediately. As a solopreneur, I can't delegate, so I find myself keeping emails, for example, as new for about a week. If they don't fit in with what I'm currently doing, I archive them for ready access in case they become useful. Of course, purging the archives later on gets to be a tedious task. As a result, I find myself doing a lot more dumping these days, not to speak of unsubscribing – But never from you, Ed, never from you! (-:


    • edgandia

      Hi Maria -- good to hear from you! I do something similar with much of the content I receive. A lot ends ends up in a "To Read / Watch" folder, and I then make time to go through it a couple of times a month. I find that by letting it incubate for a while, that helps me feel less FOMO (fear of missing out).

      Thanks for keeping me on your A List!! 😉

  • Kathryn

    Hi Ed,

    Great podcast! What resonated with me was your
    thought on how we manage our day when we actually have some of that coveted free
    time (such as being in-between client projects and hard deadlines). As a very busy freelancer, this available free
    time is golden to me. However, when it presents itself, I find that I often don’t
    use it as wisely as I should.

    For example, after working for weeks on 2-3
    technical white papers (we all know the elation that comes from finishing a
    large project and hitting that send button) there is often some down time that
    allows me some flexibility in what is typically a very regimented schedule. While
    wrapping up client projects, I find myself thinking about how great it will be
    to finally have that extra time to listen to some writing podcasts, take an
    online content marketing class to improve my craft, get back to some of my
    creative writing interests that inspire me, or even organize my home office a
    bit. Unfortunately, what would happen is that I’d be pulled in so many
    different directions that would rarely complete any of these available options.
    I would be so focused on hitting every task on my list that by the end of the
    day I would have accomplished next to nothing. This may sound strange being
    that I’m a solo professional I have complete control over what I do during the
    day, but just as I manage my client work schedule as a freelancer, I found out
    that I needed to be just as scheduled with my downtime during the week if I
    truly wanted to pursue some other interests.

    I’m not saying that as work at home freelancers we
    have to become these inflexible drones. But for me, I found it helpful to keep
    a list of things I wanted to do during the work week if I had some additional
    free time in-between client projects. I’m
    a paper and pencil kind of gal so for me, keeping a legal pad handy works
    really well for this purpose. So when I have some time, I simply pick a few
    things off the list and focus on those tasks/projects rather than try and hit
    them all. By the end of the week/day, I can visually see the items crossed off
    my list, allowing me to focus on what I actually accomplished…rather that what
    I have left. This helps me get things done, as well as providing me with a
    mental boost of accomplishment.

    The key for me is to manage to stay focused during
    the week even if I have some downtime. This allows me to enjoy extra-curricular
    projects that can either help me in my business or permit me the time to take a
    much needed, guilt-free break from business writing.

    Thanks Ed!

    • edgandia

      I know exactly what you mean, Kathryn! I have to keep a similar list as well. And what I found is that when that opportunity finally came, I couldn't decide which of the 4 items to work on. So I would stall, which is not good. So these days I make it a polity to just PICK SOMETHING! I have to do that, otherwise I'll waste time trying to make a decision.

      The other thing I realized I need is permission to do nothing. Like you, I have so much going on that sometimes I just need to escape from it all. So even if I have those 4 or 5 backburner projects or tasks waiting for me, sometimes the best option is to take a break and do nothing. By that I mean take a nap, watch a movie, go for a hike, that sort of thing. Something for myself. And I give myself permission to do it without the guilt. Not always easy, but much needed!

      Thanks for your great comment!