No matter how early you wake up, it might seem like there are never enough hours in the day to squeeze it all in. It, of course, being your job, your meals, your relationships, your sleep, and your Netflix queue.
Trust me, I know how you feel. For the past year and a half, I’ve been making around $5,000 per month from freelance writing—making me a “full-time writer” by most standards. But unlike the majority of full-time writers, I’m also a college student. That means on top of my work, I’m also balancing approximately 20 hours of class per week and 15 hours of homework and studying.
Even if you graduated many (many) years ago and even if starting a side gig is the last thing on your mind, we both have the same time management struggles in common. I don’t know a single person who can master it day in and day out.
However, balancing a thriving freelancing business with a full course load has led me to try some pretty creative time-management solutions. And all the trial and error has resulted in a few strategies that really do work.
Here are my top four techniques for beating procrastination, staying focused, and maximizing your day—no matter what you do.
1. Pick a System—and Stick to It
When I first started freelancing, I didn’t have a productivity system. I relied on a notepad to keep track of current tasks, and as I worked, I’d simply move down the list and check things off.
But of course, this set-up meant I was often tackling low-priority projects before more important or urgent ones. So I moved to my list to Todoist. This free app lets you assign deadlines and priority statuses to your to-dos, making it obvious what you should be working on at any given time.
Since making the leap, I’ve managed to turn in hundreds of articles and essays to clients and professors, respectively, without ever missing a deadline.
You definitely don’t need to use Todoist (or any app, for that matter) to be productive. However, having some sort of system is essential. It could be GTD, energy mapping (Muse CEO Kathryn Minshew’s system!), or the 1-3-5 rule—just don’t wing it, or you’ll (literally) waste your time.
2. Figure Out How You Use Your Time
Most people consider themselves fairly productive. I sure did—until I started tracking my time. I discovered I was spending hours a day reading blog posts, scrolling through LinkedIn and Twitter, and looking at designs on Behance and Dribble. Since I wasn’t on Facebook or Instagram, I didn’t feel like I was wasting time, but there’s no doubt I could’ve been putting those hours to better use.
That’s why I wholeheartedly recommend using a time-tracking tool. My favorite is RescueTime: The free version tells you exactly how much time you’re spending on individual websites and apps and grades your activity from “very productive” to “very distracting.” You can also set goals, such as, “80% of the time I spend online will be productive.”
I’ve upgraded to premium, and it’s been a fantastic decision. For $72 a year, this version lets you block distracting websites, track time spent in meetings and calls, keep a log of your daily accomplishments, and more.
Toggl is a solid alternative to RescueTime. Unlike RescueTime, which is always running, Toggl only tracks your time when you click the in-app timer. You can categorize your time by project (for example, “research for Smithsonian Magazine piece”), by tag, or both.
Plus, Toggl comes with a Pomodoro Timer, which is handy if you like working in sprints with periodic breathers.
3. Stop Going Down Internet Rabbit Holes
As time-tracking showed me, and as you probably already know, it’s incredibly easy to get off-track while doing anything online. Whenever I came across something that piques my curiosity—whether it was an interesting article, a cool site, or a piece of breaking news—I felt compelled to pause what I was doing and check it out, just for a minute, or five, or 30.
The problem? Not only was I delaying my original task, but research shows jumping between unrelated activities temporarily lowers your IQ and boosts your stress level. Not good.
So, I decided to establish a new routine. I downloaded Pocket, an app that lets you save articles, webpages, and videos to read later. (Feedly and Evernote’s web extension are also great options.) Every time I find an intriguing link, I save it to Pocket and move on with my work.
At the end of the day, when my energy reserves are basically tapped out and I just want to relax, I’ll open up Pocket and browse everything I bookmarked. And if saving links doesn’t help you stop going down that hole, think about browser extensions like StayFocusd for Chrome that allow you to block specific sites (cough Facebook cough). Oh, and if your phone serves as a similar distraction, consider taking the steps productivity writer Tristan Harris advises to become less addicted.
4. Keep a Running List of Small Tasks
For every hour I spend writing, I spend two hours doing small, fairly administrative tasks: sending invoices, answering emails, checking in with clients, and so on.
Whether you’re in a creative role or a more technical one, you’ve probably got a similar ratio of big projects to small, boring-but-necessary ones. I’ve discovered it’s more efficient to create a bank of these mini assignments and do them whenever I have a short break, rather than periodically clearing my to-do list of the small stuff.
That’s because the day is chock-full of awkward pockets of time. How many times have you had an hour-long call that wraps up seven minutes early? Sure, you could hop on to Slack and send a funny GIF to your co-workers, or you could knock out a small task. Or maybe you’re meeting someone for coffee, and you get there four minutes early. Rather than scrolling through Twitter, quickly consult your list, find a mini-project, and complete it just as your friend walks through the door.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to find a professional who doesn’t feel busy. But just because you’ve got a mile-long to-do list doesn’t mean you need to feel overwhelmed. With these strategies up your sleeve, you can accomplish what you need to—and still have time for your side gig (or some Netflix).
This post has been excerpted and lightly edited from Aja Frost’s ebook, How to Start a Freelance Writing Career From Scratch.