It’s a struggle for a lot of people, and it can be extra tough when you’re a freelancer.
When you work in an office, there’s some pressure to at least look productive. You have a boss and coworkers. You have a job to do, and your colleagues expect you to do it.
When you’re a freelancer, you’re the boss. And there’s nobody to raise an eyebrow if you spend an hour surfing social media or playing online games. And, believe me, when you’re trying to write something, and the words aren’t coming easily, the allure of social media and online games (not to mention chores, reading, going for a walk, taking a nap) is high.
In my years of freelancing, I’ve found it invaluable to have some go-to tools and techniques to help me out when I’m having a hard time focusing.
Now, before we dig in, I should preface by saying these tips and tools aren’t magic. They won’t make you sit down at your desk. They won’t make you a better writer.
But, if you show up and use the tools, they can clear a path for you to do your best work.
All right… let’s get to those tools and techniques.
My Personal Favorites
Focus at Will
As far as focusing tools go, my most-used is FocusatWill.com. This tool uses instrumental music crafted with the help of neuroscientists. The music is designed to keep you from getting distracted, and it also keeps you from getting bored with what you’re doing. In their own studies, Focus at Will has found regular users see a 200 to 400 percent increase in their productivity.
It works for me.
They have several different types of music, and I often switch between styles depending on the type of task I’m doing. The music makes it noticeably easier for me to ignore distractions and stay focused on what I’m doing.
There’s a free version and a paid version. The paid version is five bucks a month, which I happily fork over.
All or Nothing
This is a technique, not a tool. It comes in handy when I’m facing a deadline, but still finding ways to procrastinate.
For this, I make an agreement with myself that I’ll either work on the project I need to be working on or I’ll stare at the wall. Nothing else is allowed. With this technique, it’s 100% guilt-free and acceptable to stare at the wall. But doing laundry, texting a friend, taking five minutes to stretch… that’s all off the table. It doesn’t take long for boredom to kick in, and then the project I’m putting off starts looking pretty darn good.
Usually, this technique yields a good result inside a half hour… so, if you have something that needs your attention now, I recommend this as the go-to.
A Simple Timer
Nothing ground-breaking about writing to a timer, I know. But, if it’s a habit you haven’t cultivated — or one you’ve let fall by the wayside — I suggest picking it back up.
Setting a timer, working while the timer runs, and then taking a break has multiple benefits.
First, the timer gives you some incentive to focus and do as much as you can. I don’t know what it is about the threat of a buzzer, but it’s one of those things that can light a fire under you.
Second, the regular breaks give you a chance to stretch and walk around. Getting up and moving periodically throughout the day is good for you. And it can refresh your mind, so when you sit down again, you’re ready to go.
The timer-break combination is a good one when you have a lot of things to get done during the day. I find this approach maximizes productivity during a day… which is key when your to-do list is full.
Figuring out your ideal work-break ratio might take some practice. You’ll find all sorts of recommendations online. There’s the pomodoro method, where you work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. Then after three cycles, you take a longer break.
Ed Gandia recommends working for 50 minutes followed by a 20-minute break and then a second 50-minute session on the same project.
I like to work for 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute break.
Do a little trial and error to find your own best fit.
Set an Intention
Another useful technique for promoting better focus is to set an intention regarding what you plan to work on.
It’s so easy to sit down at your desk with the intention to work on something, and then you get pulled away by social media, news sites, your favorite blog, or what have you.
If, before you open your computer or even sit down at your desk, you remind yourself what you plan to do, it’s much easier to start out focused… and, if you start out focused, it’s easier to stay focused.
Finally, daily meditation has made a huge difference in how successful I am at using any focusing tool or technique. If you do a basic meditation each day, where you quiet your mind and try to think of nothing — recognizing, acknowledging, and letting your thoughts go as they occur to you — a wonderful thing happens during your workday.
You start to notice when you’re losing focus on something.
Let me ask you this… have you ever been on social media and suddenly realized you don’t actually remember making the decision to stop working and start scrolling?
Meditation makes for fewer of those moments.
These are my five — admittedly simple, but highly effective — tools and techniques for focusing faster and staying focused longer. But, there are plenty of other tools available, including a few I’m looking forward to putting to the test…
A Few Cool Tools I’m Planning to Try
Flow State is an app designed to help you enter your writing flow state — that creative space where the words just effortlessly come to you. You can buy it and install it on your phone, an iPad, or on your desktop.
Using Flow State begins with choosing the length of your writing session. Then, you start writing. Once you start writing, you can’t stop during your session for any more than a few seconds. If you stop typing or exit your session before the time is up, everything you’ve written to that point will be deleted.
The goal of Flow State is to get you writing without worrying about what you’re writing… so you can tap into the ideas that are just over the horizon of your awareness, so to speak.
I’m a big believer in separating writing from editing. One is a creative process, and the other is analytical. They don’t play well together.
A couple of quick hacks that mimic the Flow State experience without the stress of potentially losing what you’ve written:
- Type with your eyes closed. It reduces the temptation to read and fix what you’ve just written.
- Set a timer and write using pen and paper. Don’t let the pen stop moving or leave the paper for the duration of the timer.
Is your smartphone your number one productivity killer?
You sit down to work, and after a few minutes you’re checking your phone, responding to texts, and seeing what’s happening on social media. If that’s the case, Forest might be just what you need to break your smartphone habit.
In the Forest app, you choose a tree that will grow while you’re focused on other tasks. If you leave your phone alone, the tree will grow. But, if you use your phone when you’re not supposed to, your tree will die.
If visualizing your productivity sounds like a great idea, this app will be worth a try.
If you like the idea of having an incentive to leave your phone alone but are thinking it doesn’t go far enough, then 1Focus might be more your speed.
With 1Focus you can block websites, apps, programs, even all of the Internet.
If you’re planning to put in some serious writing time, and you want to stay off social media and email during your writing session, you just select the sites and programs you want to block and how long you want to block them.
Once you start your session, you won’t be able to access anything you’ve blocked until the session ends. There’s no bypass built into the app, so once you choose to block your access, you have no choice but to wait until the time is up.
This is a browser extension that works in a similar way to 1Focus, but with a little more flexibility on some fronts (and admittedly less on others).
With LeechBlock NG, you can cut off access to your favorite time-wasting sites. You can block sites for a specified time during the day. Or, you can set a limit on the amount of time you can spend on those sites, after which LeechBlock NG will stop allowing you to access them… which is a handy way of indulging without over-indulging.
LeechBlock NG works on your browser, so you can’t block programs like you can with 1Focus. And, technically, you could hop over to another browser to work around LeechBlock NG, but… you know, don’t do that.
This is another Chrome extension. When you install Momentum, each time you open a new tab on your browser, it will remind you of your most important task for the day.
With this extension, you begin each day by entering your most important task or goal for that day. Then, every time you open a new tab on your browser, you’ll see a screen with an inspirational quote along with your most important task.
It looks like a lovely way to gently nudge yourself toward staying on task and doing the thing you most need to do.
There you have it, ten tools and tricks you can use to improve your focus, get more things done, meet your deadlines, and make progress on what’s important to you.
What about you? What are your favorite ways of finding and keeping your focus? Share in the comments below.