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Raise Your Flagging Productivity

Photography: Sarah G…

Productivity is never stable. Some days are more productive — and profitable — than others, and there are always periods when even the most productive of freelancers find that the amount of work they produce each day drops and just won’t seem to rise.

Everything in the day seems to be the same — except for the amount of work they’re completing and the amount of money they’re earning.

When it happens to you, there are a number of possible reasons:

Your Current Workload is Too Heavy

When taking on more work means an opportunity to earn more money — and especially when you can’t be certain what the next few months are going to bring, a constant problem for freelancers — there’s a strong temptation to accept every project on offer now and multitask your way through the overload.

So at the same time that you’re designing a website for one client, you could be researching a logo for another, creating App Store icons for a third, and thinking about the look and feel of a brand redesign for a fourth. It feels like you’re getting a lot done but it might be that you’re actually doing far less than if you were focusing on just one task at a time.

According to William Klemm, a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, multitasking is actually more like “multiplexing.” Instead of doing more than one thing at a time, the brain switches from one thing to another, retaining less information than if it stuck to a single event. One study in 2004 even found that employees spend an average of just eleven minutes on a task before being interrupted — and that it would take them 25 minutes to return to that task.

In taking on too much in too short a time then, you might well be introducing too many distractions into your work day.

The best solution is to arrange your work calendar better so that one task follows another instead of piling on top of each other in the same day (or even the same hour.) When that’s not possible, plan the day so that you’re focusing on one project at a time to minimize distractions, perhaps by working on one job in the morning and another in the afternoon. (And a third at night, and the fourth during the weekend.) Clear distinct time for each project and you should be able remove at least some of the distractions caused by different demands.

The Current Workload is Too Light

But don’t overdo it. Work has a habit of filling the time available so taking on too little work, or giving yourself deadlines that are too loose, may remove pressure that can help you to stay focused.

That’s a factor that’s harder to control. Just as the speed at which you work can change, so the rate at which work flows in can change too. At some point, regular clients who all have a habit of demanding your attention at the same time can suddenly find that they have all they need, leaving you with spare hours in the day. When that happens, those hours tend to fill up with distracted time instead of productive time.

While the best solution is try to control the workflow so that you’re always busy — but not too busy — that’s not always in a freelancer’s power. One option then is to keep in mind a project that you want to do but haven’t had the time to think about, such as blogging for profit or selling your own Photoshop brushes, and use those spare moments to develop it. Even if it doesn’t pay back immediately, it may still be productive and profitable in the long run.

Events Are Distracting

According to a survey carried out at the end of 2009 by ASSOCHAM, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, as Indian businesses try to catch up with Western firms, they’re losing as much as 12.5 percent of their work hours to young employees surfing social media sites. In effect, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and even MySpace are reducing the work day from eight hours to seven.

Social media always has the potential to hit productivity but it shouldn’t lower productivity more than usual. There was little in the survey to suggest than Indian employees were using social media more on some days than on others.

In practice though, that might well be the case, and social media usage is one place to look when you find that your productivity has fallen below its usual levels. Tracking a major news story on Twitter will add another of those distractions that can do all the harm of multitasking, and even adding comments to a friend’s Facebook feed can deliver a steady series of distracting nudges if you’re opted in to receive a notification when a comment you liked is commented on.

Adjusting your Facebook email notifications is always a good idea if you want to stay productive, but when a major story is in the news, whether it’s another uprising in some distant part of the world, or the latest sports news, the best way to beat the distraction is probably to lock yourself away in a place that the Internet just can’t reach. Knowing that you can’t surf until you’re done might even give you a useful false deadline.

You’ve Changed Your Routine

If distractions damage productivity then a steady routine should be a useful way of maintaining a good work rate. But routines have a habit of changing. Children move from pre-school to primary school, changing the times at which you start and finish your day. A new project can force research into the morning when you’re usually doing hands-on development. Even a partner’s new job can alter your work day in subtle ways that stop you doing your best work at the best time.

Only you know at which hours of the day you’re most productive so it’s up to you to make sure that you’re doing the work that requires the most focus during the hours that deliver your closest attention. If your productivity has changed with your routine, you’ll need to adjust your day once again.

Productivity is unpredictable but it’s not uncontrollable. If you can isolate the factors that have hit your work rate, you can improve your results — and your earnings.

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