There was a time in my freelance writing career where I was writing 3 articles per week for 3 different clients. On top of that, I was also publishing 3–4x per week on my blog. Managing all of these projects was pure chaos. I always met my deadlines, but my process for getting everything done was a mess. I planned my days like this: Wake up, check which deadline was coming up first, work on that thing until I was too burnt out to function, then decide what I “felt” like working on next.
My routine was purely reactive to the things I needed to get done. I rarely ever planned ahead and was always freaking out about having too much to do. It wasn’t for lack of time. I had plenty of time to get things done. I just had poor time management skills and no process in place to keep me organized.
Eventually, I realized that this pattern was not sustainable long term. I started making mental notes of the days where I felt the most productive. I’d write down what I did that day, and what made it flow so well. I also realized that much of what I was doing fell into repeatable processes. Things felt so chaotic because I was continually trying to reinvent the wheel, even though I was working on different versions of the same task.
After a few months of documenting my processes, I’d found a great rhythm that resulted in me being more productive while putting forth less effort than I was before.
Here’s a glimpse at the process I use to manage my time, exert less energy, and keep my writing schedule organized.
1. Batch your outlines
Instead of working on one piece of content all the way through, I try to batch each part of the process. I work best when I have specific outlines for each article I’m writing. Rather than creating one outline and immediately beginning to write that article, I create outlines for all of the content that I know I will work on that week. This keeps me in flow while I’m doing my research, and helps me feel a little further ahead in my process for everything I have to do.
2. Put everything you need into one document
When creating my outlines, I try to put everything I need for that piece of content into one document. In addition to outlining the sections and main points of the article, I paste any relevant links I’ll include. I also add notes I have on any important pieces of research, as well as links to other high-quality pieces of content on that topic that I can use as a reference.
If the article calls for images, I’ll make a list of all of the types of images that I want to include with detailed notes on where to find them. Many of my clients have specific processes of their own and content guidelines that I need to follow for their articles. When I create my outline, I’ll also link to their style guides, and paste important notes that I need to remember when writing their content.
Having everything I need in one place saves so much time when I start writing. As someone who gets distracted easily, not having to navigate away from the outline to find things I’m looking for keeps me focused on the task at hand and eliminates a lot of unnecessary distractions.
3. Create milestones for each article
Instead of committing to 1500 words in one sitting, I commit to 700–800 words at once, then switch to something else. Usually, around 800–100 words, I start to get topic fatigue. Getting stuck at this point ends up wasting more time. When I began to feel this way, I like to switch gears and work on the next article. This keeps me feeling fresh and excited about what I’m working on and helps me avoid getting stuck in one place for too long.
4. Set time blocks using the Pomodoro technique
I operate best when I can work within a given time constraint. Parkinson’s Law suggests that your work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This means if I only have 1 hour to do something, I can usually finish it within one hour. But if I give myself 3 hours to complete something, I’m more likely to stretch the work out to fit that 3-hour slot.
I enjoy using the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks work sessions down into 50-minute sprints, with 5–10-minute breaks in between. I don’t expect myself to finish an entire article within 50 minutes. But I’ve set smaller milestones, as I mentioned in #3. Those tasks are much more easily accomplished in 50 minutes, and they’re contributing to my overall goal.
5. Use a screen time app to limit distractions
For me, writing requires an uninterrupted flow state. While I recognize this fact, my brain tends to have other ideas. I find myself unconsciously checking social media and succumbing to a ton of distractions unless I take action to block those distractions. I use an app called Forest, which doubles as a chrome extension that blocks whichever apps you tell it to, for a given amount of time. Plus, whenever you successfully use the app, you get points that you can donate to actual deforestation charities. You can also use this app as a Pomodoro timer, and have it block certain websites while you’re working.
6. Have an SOP for your process
I use Asana to manage everything I’m working on. Within Asana, I’ve created standard operating procedures for every type of article I write, that is specific to each client I work with. For each client, I have a to-do list that includes all of their content guidelines, style preferences, and anything else that they require me to do for each piece of content. Anytime I’m working on a new article, I create a new task, and copy that checklist into my new task. This saves me time from having to search through their documents and reread their style guide to make sure that I’m following all of their guidelines.
Every time I receive feedback on a piece of content, or those style guidelines change, I make that change to my SOP so that the next time I’m working on an article, I can follow the new guidelines, even if I don’t remember what they are. I don’t have to rely on my memory to get things right, because I’ve proactively updated my process to match the current needs of the client.
I also have an SOP for the content I write on Medium and on my blog, to make sure that I’m not skipping steps or cutting corners with the content I’m publishing.
This process didn’t just help me produce more content. It reduced the amount of stress I felt thinking about looming deadlines and endless to-do lists. It helped me breathe a little bit easier knowing that accomplishing smaller, more digestible tasks now, would contribute to a better final product later.