I'm not naturally the most organized person. So to keep myself organized and productive at work, I rely on a set of productivity tools and techniques that help me keep everything organized, from freelance writing projects to new site development and manuscripts. Today I'd like to share one of the most important tools in my arsenal: time-based task lists.
I'm a huge fan of to-do lists in general and have a variety active at any given time (daily, weekly, and project-specific ones at the very least).
There's something incredibly motivating -- for me at least -- about checking something off a list.
It's about the little wins.
But to-do lists aren't perfect. They don't always motivate us to get started, especially when we have big projects ahead of us. They can sometimes feel daunting.
If you ever feel like this, why not break those big projects down into more manageable parts? For some writers, having no more than a few tasks on their lists -- even big ones -- works best. But when you're the type who's motivated by those little wins every time you mark a task as complete, micro-tasks can be more effective.
One option is to create a five-minute list -- a list of projects you can complete in five minutes or less. Because, really, who can't find five minutes?
That's a good way to get the ball rolling. Five minutes gives you that first little win. You get to check something off your list. And it can motivate you to keep going.
Not everything can be broken down into five-minute increments though. And those five-minute task lists can then become a distraction -- encouraging you to focus on quick, easy tasks while bigger things get pushed back.
Take 5-Minute Lists to the Next Level
In another post, I talked about how I use Todoist.
One feature I like about that app is "labels," where I can group tasks together in any way I please, even if they're entered under completely different projects.
For example, I could add the "five minute task" label to short tasks in any project, then pull up a list of those tasks based on that label whenever I wanted to knock something out quickly.
Now that I'm back to juggling more websites alongside my freelance writing work, I needed to improve this system. And it was simple:
Break everything down into time-based task lists.
Again, I use Todoist's label feature for this. But you can simply write up a list if you prefer.
These are the groups I'm now using:
- 5-minute tasks
- 15-minute tasks
- 30-minute tasks
- 1-hour tasks
- 1-day tasks
Not everything will fit within one of these groups, but most things on my to-do lists do.
Why create time-based task lists?
They allow you to break down larger tasks, even if those can't be broken into micro-tasks. But, more importantly, it saves you from the procrastination that can stem from "what should I do next?" moments.
If you know you have a few minutes to kill, you can pull up your five-minute task list and knock out the first item there instead of spending those five minutes deciding what to do.
If you have 30 minutes before your planned lunch break or before a scheduled client call, you pull up your 30-minute task list and get started on something.
For me, the one-day task list has had the biggest effect.
It comes in handy for big projects like blog development or site audits (my own, or ones I conduct for freelance clients). Where I might otherwise keep pushing something off because the task never fits in a day with other things going on, I know I can dedicate one day to that task and be done with it.
What to Put in Your Time-Based Task Lists
I have to manage more than just the freelance side of my business, so time-based task lists are proving to be incredibly helpful in managing it all. But even if freelancing is your sole business model, there are plenty of tasks you can break down into these time-constrained lists.
Here are some examples from my past lists (only freelance-related tasks):
- Quick email checks (clearing out junk, noting if something needs a response later that day, etc.)
- Basic site admin (approve comments on your client-focused blog, see if plugins need to be updated, or run a backup of your professional site)
- Write up your work plan or schedule for the following day.
- Quick social media checks to see if you've heard from prospects who need a response.
- Straighten up your desk.
- Read an article about something you want to learn and apply to your business.
- Schedule some tweets or other social media updates for the day.
- Brainstorm post ideas for your client-focused blog.
- Outline a blog post or two.
- Send a pitch email to someone from your prospect list. (This one's not from my list actually, but if you rely on querying, you should have a list ready for pitches. Spread them out if you need to; don't wait until you have a big block of time to send them all.)
- Respond to client emails and / or quote requests.
- Write a short blog post.
- Research a competitor. (What are they writing about? Who are they working for? What are they currently charging? How do they seem to be attracting clients?)
- Short client calls or consultations.
- Email -- if you know from a quick check that you have several needing detailed responses.
- Short client projects -- proofreading, minor copyedits for a page or two, quick edits based on client feedback, etc.
- Write a longer blog post for your business blog
- Other types of client projects such as drafting a blog post, press release, or short copywriting project
- Proofread a larger client project you've drafted already
- Longer client consultations
- Any marketing activity you can do in this time (again, that might be querying, or putting together a prospect list or schedule a few days' worth of social media updates -- you can work marketing into any of these time blocks though)
- Start reading a book about your specialty area (or writing or business in general) to learn something that might help you professionally.
- Drafting all of your (or a client's) blog posts for a week -- or month, depending on how often you post
- Researching or drafting a long-form client project like a short report or case study
- Drafting all copy for a small client website
- Doing a content audit of your professional website
- Auditing a client's existing website if you also consult on content strategy
If, like me, your work involves more than taking on freelance writing jobs, you can use this same tactic to break everything down -- from taking a day trip to conduct research for your next book to scheduling blocks of time for brainstorming blog post topics.
In the end, time-based task lists become part of my larger strategy of task batching. When I know how long everything should take, I can shuffle things around and more easily group similar tasks together. And it's the combination that allows me to get more done, no matter how many distractions I face (and these days there are plenty of those to go around).
The next time you feel overwhelmed by marketing or freelance projects or anything else in your business, give time-based task lists a try. If nothing else, they might help you knock out some smaller tasks you've been putting off.
This post was originally published on January 31, 2017 at All Freelance Writing. It has since been updated for Freelance Writing Pros readers.