Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

8 Rules to Stay Productive When You Work for Yourself

Most corporate employees complain about the endless meetings and work protocols that stand in the way of their productivity. But anyone who works for herself will tell you that, even when all the corporate noise is stripped away, it’s still hard to get things done. Maybe even harder.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs often spend years trying to establish organization systems to stay on track and on task. And while no one approach works for everyone, I’ve learned there are a few universal tactics and rules that you can’t go wrong with.

Here are eight that are sure to save you time and get results.

1. Save the Favors for Off Hours

You probably have scores of friends and family who can’t wait to cash in on your flexible schedule. If you don’t have a boss, you should have time for midday lunches, instant airport chauffeuring, or a quick brainstorm, right? Many entrepreneurs soon find themselves to be quite popular—and quite unproductive. While you don’t have to say no to everything, commit to doing favors outside of work hours only. I guarantee, when it’s precious after-hours time on the line, you’ll be much more judicious about overextending yourself.

2. Give Yourself a Hard Stop

Try giving yourself an official end to the workday. If you’re tempted to burn the midnight oil, try working with your computer unplugged—when your battery is dead, you’re done. Know that there is a real “deadline” will help keep you on track and prevent you from doing “just one more thing” until the wee hours of the morning.

3. Put Everything on Your Calendar

Make appointments with yourself for the items on your to-do list. Not only will it force you to budget the amount of time each task should take, but it will also help you plan a more realistic day for yourself. There’s nothing more discouraging than overestimating what’s possible, only to end the day with an even bigger list of things that need your attention.

4. Stick to Your Call Schedule

When you don’t have true meetings—just phone calls—it can be tempting to want to reschedule them if something more pressing comes up. But do so only as a true last resort! It always takes more time to go back and forth on email than it does to just have that call in the first place—plus, it’s not particularly polite to treat calls like an optional commitment. Feel free to shift around any appointments you have with yourself, but don’t mess with those that involve others.

5. Start Close to the Money

It’s easy to get lost in your to-do list—where do you begin when everything seems important, and no one is telling you what to prioritize? Here’s where: Start with the items that are closest to the money—like invoices, bills, and follow-up sales calls. Lots of things can wait, but cash flow can’t.

6. Give Yourself a Visual Checklist

Post a list of your broad responsibilities above your desk (i.e., Marketing, Sales, Social Media, Writing, Consultations, Ordering, Designing). Make a habit of taking 20 minutes at the start of the week to have status meeting with yourself. Looking at each category, ask yourself what needs to be done. What’s outstanding? What’s most important? Build your schedule that week accordingly.

7. Take a One-A-Day Approach

In addition to your regular maintenance tasks (email, Twitter, bills), assign just one project task to each day of the coming weeks. This way, instead of feeling like you’re battling an ever-expanding to-do list, you can approach each day with clarity of focus, and end each day with a sense of accomplishment and progress. In any given day, it’s better to go deeper with one project than move several things only incrementally forward.

8. Know Your Warning Signs

Most of us tend to devolve into an unproductive zone rather predictably. Maybe your trigger is online—Facebook or a sale email from J.Crew—or maybe it’s the unfolded basket of laundry. Either way, we get off track and we become entranced, only to “wake up” 40 minutes later having accomplished nothing. Take stock of the common culprits that lead you astray and do what you must to enforce boundaries. If you have to, use a timer to keep yourself in check!

Like most things, improved productivity comes from increased awareness. Paying attention to your own patterns and employing even just a few of these tricks is bound to make a significant impact—and make your days more productive.

Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.