I was a pretty haphazard writer when I started writing freelance. For one thing, I was writing around a day job and a 100-minute commute, so any spare moment at lunch or waiting-room-time at the doctor’s office became time for work.
And by “work,” I usually don’t mean writing. Even though writing is what I was paid to do. I did do writing, eventually, but those tasks tended to be only a portion of the work, and had to be done when I had a longer chunk of evening or weekend time.
When I had built up enough clients to feel comfortable quitting my day job and moving into full-time freelance, I was surprised: despite gaining a ton of hours of time, I only modestly increased my output. It bummed me out, since I’d had visions of being ultra-productive and thus able to generate extreme amounts of income.
(LOL. Extreme amounts as a writer. A new writer. Amusing!)
But seriously, what I had missed was that, by having to fit my work in around something, I’d automatically created systems to deal with the “Other Tasks” of the writing job. With all my time freed up, I had to learn how to do this more efficiently even without a bunch of artificial urgency.
My Writing Wall
In my day job, I’d had a variety of tasks to accomplish: lots of email, some teaching of in-person workshops and classes, some paperwork, some payroll, some supervision and mentoring.
It was easy to fill an 8 hour day, and while I was tired at the end of some days, I was able to achieve all my tasks.
What I found as a full-time freelancer, however, is that I have a writing wall: there are only so many hours of writing in me each day.
Some great days (or scary days with looming deadlines), those hours might be great, 5 or 6 full hours of typing. Others, I seem to fizzle and get super unproductive after only 2 or 3.
What I realized, early on, was that I had to harness the hours for writing that I could, but then use the rest of my 8ish hours a day on other tasks, the variety and spice that had made my day job pass quickly and without feeling burned out.
The Seven Buckets
What I ended up realizing, ultimately, is that there are a bunch of other work elements that most writers do. By recognizing that these seven elements use different parts of my brain than writing itself does, I was able to start budgeting and time blocking more accurately, and with a better eye to what really needed to be done. The buckets are:
- Finding work: For me, this means a bunch of things. It could be searching my email inbox for “Pitch” and seeing who I haven’t pitched in a while. It could mean visiting a few different online agencies and seeing if they’ve posted new needs. It could also mean delving into writer’s job listings online or checking careers websites for some of my most-sought-after brands. Searching for work is an ultra-low-energy task for me, so I can do it almost any time.
- Applying for work: Applying is harder — this could mean a full-on application, but usually it is pitching. Pitching is a high-energy task for me, requiring a lot of chops to make sure I don’t sound odd or bad at writing (the style of the pitch is an audition too!). I tend to pitch when I’m in my most high-energy hours but either lack work or (realistically) am procrastinating on boring or tedious writing.
- Researching topics: Researching is one of my favorite low-energy tasks. I pull a bunch of articles or other research documents into a single HTML file and have my computer make them into a spoken track that plays a little robot voice, reading me those articles. I can do dishes, care for my kid, or make food all while “researching,” basically listening to the articles I need to read. I do some reading, but I learn well aurally, so this is a great way to spend a semi-brain-dead day.
- Rereading work: This is a medium energy task, since rereading what I’ve written with no energy can mean just missing all of my mistakes. Still, nothing really beats reading my work aloud for figuring out whether it’s truly ready to send.
- Fiddly SEO elements: These days, many of my clients have a variety of needs beyond a well-written story or article: they want links added, photos included, a meta description or a certain keyword featured. These elements are too distracting for me to do them perfectly while I’m writing, so I go back and revise, making sure they are organically incorporated in.
- Communicating clearly with clients: Beyond the initial pitch, emailing is its own task. Telling my clients if a snag has meant I need to change a deadline, or checking in to see if work is moving forward or not, all require very little energy but need to be done in a timely manner. Communicating can even take the form of phone calls, if needed, though I tend to avoid them unless someone really wants one.
- Getting paid: Sometimes this means submitting direct deposits and contracts, and often it involves invoicing accurately. Learning so many different people’s ways of invoicing is easier to stomach when I think of it as a separate task, and a fairly low energy one.
There is another category that I consider “easy writing.” When I can find reasonably paid work that looks like this, I try to take on some jobs that just aren’t that difficult, requiring very little research or very little linguistic wizardry. Sometimes, it’s developing bulleted lists or calendars for a magazine, for instance; they don’t care if the calendar is obsessively wordsmithed, so I can work on it in a fairly low-energy state.
By recognizing that these categories of work dramatically impact my bottom line and my schedule, I’ve been able to start noticing when I work on writing best and when I can slot in everything else. I don’t always have, for instance, a pile of invoices that need submitting on the same day that I don’t feel like writing a lot, but I usually have something from the low energy buckets that I can pour into that space.
Recognizing this has allowed me to put off some of the non-writing tasks during the mornings, when I should be writing and not get too distracted. Afternoons fill up with all the little smaller things or a nice, relaxing walk while I listen to details of the latest topic I’m researching. It’s increased the productivity of my days while flowing with my natural rhythms, and I’m very grateful.