Increase Your Effectiveness: Identify And Focus on the Essential
By Leo Babauta
Freelancers, more than regular employees, must be effective in order to survive. Whether you are freelancing on the side of a normal job, or working completely for yourself, you don’t have the luxury of taking on wasted jobs or doing the unnecessary.
You can’t afford it.
To increase your effectiveness, you need to take everything you do — from projects and assignments to everyday tasks to emails and IMs — and identify the most essential. And then put your focus on those things, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
If you can do that, you will not only free up more of your time, you will be able to make more money and advance your freelance career. Let’s look at how to do it.
1. Projects and assignments. If you’re lucky, you’ve got more assignments than you can handle. That’s better than not having enough to pay the bills, of course, but it also creates the problem of not having enough time to do everything. And if you commit to more projects than you can possibly complete on time, you are decreasing your effectiveness, stressing yourself out, and hurting yourself in the long run. Clients will realize that you are overworked, and that either your quality is suffering or you’re missing deadlines.
Instead, focus only on the essential projects. That’ll be hard to do at first, especially if you’re overcommitted, but the key is to make it a habit to identify which projects are essential, and renegotiate the rest.
What’s essential? That will vary depending on your situation, of course, but the key question is: which project has the most long-term benefit for me? If you get more money writing an article for a small publication, but get more publicity though less money for writing for the New York Times (for example), I’d take the Times article. A little less money now is overshadowed by the huge boost in visibility and reputation that a higher-profile article will get you.
Focusing on essential projects will allow you to get the most benefit for the time you spend. It will eventually get you more money for each project, and reduce the number of projects you have to do. By focusing on essential projects, and not on the less important ones, you’ll also cut a lot of headaches and wasted time.
2. Routine tasks. The same concept applies to all the tasks you do. What other tasks do you do each day? Make a list, and put an asterisk next to the most essential tasks. Eliminate the rest if possible.
3. Emails. How many emails do you receive a day? How many do you send? If you’re not really sure, track it for a day (or look at your sent and received folders) to get a better idea. Now evaluate whether all those emails received are really essential. Are there ways to reduce the junk and non-essential emails? Then evaluate whether the emails you send are essential. If you can cut back on writing and responding to emails, so that you’re only sending the essential emails every day, you’re making much better use of your time.
4. Other communication. What other communication tools do you use? Phone, cell phone, Blackberry, IM, Skype, Twitter, forums? How many of those are essential? Can you cut the rest? You might save a lot of time here.
5. Tools. Think about all the tools you use for work, both offline (notebooks, office supplies, stuff on your desk, gadgets and gear) and online (different web apps, desktop applications, etc.). How many of those are essential? Can you cut back on them, combine some, eliminate others? It’ll make things much simpler if you can.
6. Clients. This may seem counterintuitive for some, but not every client is essential. Some of them are just a drag on your time, some are more trouble than they’re worth, some have expectations that are just unrealistic. Identify which of your clients are essential — really worth your time, and probably give you the most money for your efforts — and find ways to focus on them. Give them your best quality work, pamper them, give them the best follow-up service. See if you can phase out the rest. If you need to, eliminate the trouble clients and find other good ones to replace them.
7. The rest of your life. What else do you do besides the above tasks and projects? Whether it’s for a day job, or personal life, or hobbies, or errands or chores, reconsider everything you do. What do you do that’s essential, and what can be cut out? Essential means that you love doing it, that it gives you the most value for your time, and that it has long-term benefits. The rest are just more trouble than they’re worth. If you can free up time from eliminating or reducing the non-essential, you’ll have more time for either more freelance work, or for doing other things you love to do.