Everybody wants to be more productive. Productivity translates to success, whether you’re a freelancer or an employee. Here are five powerful ways to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time.
Even if increased productivity didn’t bring extra income, people would still want to be productive because there’s just a confidence-building, make-you-feel-great kind of charm about knowing you can work fast, be efficient and get the job done without rushing.
As time management will obviously be a huge part in this post, you may also be interested in 5 Simple Time Management Techniques for Freelance Designers.
1. Sketch Out Your Project Before You Start
The first step, and the most important, is to plan out the details of your project before you start. It is absolutely amazing how much time you can save by having a clear idea of where you’re going before you start. When I’m pressed for time, I sometimes find it tempting to skip the planning stage and just get on with the work. And every single time I find that it costs me later. If you’re a designer, build those wireframes before you ever touch the computer. Developers, plan out your code with flowcharts or outlines.
The #1 rule of productivity is, ‘Be Organized’. There is something almost magical about the amount of time you can save by just writing out the steps of your project before you get started. By doing this, you can get a clearer picture of your project and see obstacles coming before you get to them. You will have a better idea of input you need from others, and you will appear more composed and professional.
2. Be on Top of Your Information
We can’t remember everything, and I’m sure everybody has experienced one of those moments where your mind goes blank, leaving you thinking, “I’ve used this command a billion times. Why can’t I remember it all of a sudden?” This is where reference sheets come in. Some call them cheat sheets, but ‘cheat sheet’ paints a bad picture in most people’s minds. Referring to a source of information is not cheating, it is being efficient. No matter what you call them, they can save you a lot of time.
Of course, everybody will have a different list of commonly used tools and technologies. The important thing is to pick a few quality reference sheets that fit you and your working style, and then use them. You could even print them out, laminate them and get them bound at your copy shop. You may already have a few cheat sheets you refer to now and then. If not, here are a couple links to get you started:
- The Ultimate WordPress Theme Developer List
- 88 Resources for Web Developers
- Cheat Sheet Round-Up: Ajax, CSS, LaTeX, Ruby…
- 30 Handy Cheat Sheets and Reference Guides for Web Professionals
- Cheat Sheets for Web Designers
Another way to stay on top of your information is keep client information handy. If you use a contact database or project management tool, good for you, but it’s still a good idea to have a client notebook where you can put down deadlines, meetings, contact info and project-specific to-do lists and have all that information on paper in one place.
3. Don’t Start from Scratch
Starting from scratch on a project is like weaving your own fabric for clothes. It’s time consuming, and — unless you have a special situation — unnecessary. Even if you can’t find an applicable template or framework made by someone else, you can still build your own and invest that time once rather than spending hours doing the same thing before each project. Plus, doing that ‘dry’ work is a huge creativity killer. Have you ever tried to run through water? Well, getting a creative urge and then engaging in dry preparatory work does to your creativity what water does to your momentum.
Many generous people have made their systems available for everyone. Steven Snell has an excellent collection of blanks over at DesignM.ag — Blank Themes, Frameworks and Templates. Of course, I don’t mean to bash on people who build from the ground up. Sometimes that really is the best way to do it. For most of us, however, starting from scratch just doesn’t make sense.
4. Know Your Tools
The ingenuity of the web community is truly amazing, and all the great tools and frameworks out there are proof of it. SEO, typography, browser testing, development, palette — you name it, somebody’s made a tool for it, and generally there’s more than one to choose from. And they save so much time! It’s great! The tricky part is that there are a lot, and I mean a lot, to choose from, plus you have new tools and new versions of old tools coming out all the time. It’s important to stay on top of your tools, without spending so much time on it that you lose your original time gains.
A strategy that has worked very well for me is to devote some time each week just to watching out for new tools, frameworks and opportunities. Most freelancers already spend time each week on continuing education and staying abreast of new developments. This makes it very easy just to keep an eye out for new tools and frameworks while you’re browsing. When you see something worth adding to your collection, bookmark it. (Remember to be discretionary with your bookmarking. If you’re like me, you have a tendency to bookmark everything ‘for later’ and then end up with 200 bookmarks, half of which you don’t even know why you saved in the first place. I speak from experience when I say, don’t do that.) These tools can really increase your productivity.
Once again, the idea is not just to have a list of tools but to get familiar with a few effective, trusted favorites and build a ‘custom toolbox’ that fits you. Here are a few great compilations to get you going:
- 5 Tools for the Lazy Web Designer
- 15 Sites Web Developers and Designers Should Know
- 19 Web Design Blogs you Should be Following
- 35 Online Tools That Make Your Freelance Career Easier
- The Online Toolbox: 100+ In-Depth Resource Collections
- Massive Compilation of Designer Tools
5. Don’t be Afraid to Take Breaks
We have a tendency to think that it’s better to keep working no matter what. “Interruptions are bad,” we tell ourselves. “They must be avoided”. Well, yes, interruptions are bad. Checking email too often, jumping back and forth between projects — these things dull our efficiency. But continuing to pound away at a project when we’ve lost our mental edge really just wastes time.
That’s why it’s important to take what I call ‘calculated breaks’. When you start to get that glazed feeling, your body is telling you it’s time to take a break. Get up, stretch, take a breath of fresh air and then come back and notice how much better you feel and how much faster you can work. I’ve found that a glass of ice water has amazing mind-clearing potential as well.
If you’re jamming, getting things done and working efficiently then for goodness sake don’t stop and lose your focus. But if your focus is already gone, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by stopping and getting your blood flowing again. Yes, it’s important to be persistent, but don’t be so locked in that you don’t take a refresher when you need it. Believe me, it makes a big difference.
Productivity isn’t just getting something done quickly. It’s using your time efficiently to produce quality work without rushing. One of the most tragic things I know is when a talented designer (or developer) has to compromise the quality of their work and not do their very best because of a deadline. You don’t have to participate in that tragedy. By adopting these five habits, you can get more done in less time, and enjoy yourself the whole time.
So tell me — have you been using these? How have they worked for you? Have you discovered other effective productivity boosters? Please share!