7 Productivity Tips From My Vacation That Freelancers Can Use All Year

Carol Tice | 42 Comments

I skipped out for a few days of lakeside vacationing last week (thanks to the readers who answered freelance writing mailbag questions for me!).

It was sort of a working vacation in that I did have a laptop along and was checking in with my freelance writing clients and Freelance Writers Den forums once or twice a day.

The sunny summer days unfolded in a daydreamy fashion. While my kids slept in, I’d get in a quick hour of checking email and deal with any emergencies.

Then, off to swim, bike, hike, dine, nap, and/or stand-up paddleboard all day.

At day’s end, I’d check in one more time, maybe answer a few Den questions and critical emails.

After a few days of this, I became fascinated by how this was working.

I seemed to be doing the bulk of what normally takes up much of an 8+ hour work day and getting it done in 2-3 hours.

I wasn’t trying to write any articles…but still. This was so much more efficient!

It led me to wonder…could my schedule be like this more of the time? Even when I’m not on vacation?

I suspect that it could.

Why work takes so long

Here’s my theory: When we have a “work day” mentality, our tasks seem to stretch out and fill that 8-hour block we think makes up the work day. After all, no rush — I know I’m going to be here all day.

When we’re on vacation but just wanting to keep up with work a bit, we have a different mentality. An “I’m only willing to give this an hour” mentality.

And what do you know — suddenly, the important stuff can get done in an hour.

How?

Here are my vacation-inspired tips for getting our freelance work done in less time:

1. Ignore your email

I don’t know about you, but in an ordinary work day I might easily check email 10 or 12 times. (OK, it’s really many more times than that but it’s too embarrassing to say how often I really check it…so let’s say 10-12 times.) I was recently impressed with Jeff Goins’ remark that he writes something first thing every day, and then he checks email. And I thought…yessss!

The thing about email is it offers so many opportunities to get sucked off your own agenda onto someone else’s — to follow that Facebook message, read someone’s blog post, respond to some random question.

Also, have you noticed how efficient it is to blast through a big stack of email rather than dealing with just a few messages at a time? And have you also noticed how few emails you ever get that are true emergencies that can’t wait a few hours for your attention?

Yeah. So. Pick. Up. Email. Less. And don’t prioritize it over other, more important tasks. It can usually wait.

On this vacation, I actually started my email bouncer a few days before I really left! This allowed me to start disengaging from email early. I loved it and plan to do this again whenever I go out. Add a day on the end to give yourself more breathing room, too.

2. Redefine what you “must” do

Ordinarily, I feel obligated to read very widely. I subscribe to a bazillion newsletters covering many topics. I usually view this as a necessary activity, as I do need story ideas for my blog and the blogs I write for clients, and the feature articles I pitch to magazines.

But…on vacation, I felt empowered to delete a lot of this lower-priority stuff without reading it. After all, I could pass on scanning this stuff for just one week, right?

Next, I took a look at whose emails I haven’t read in a while and started unsubscribing — to dozens and dozens of newsletters. This felt just radical to me…and incredibly liberating.

I’d always felt I had to read all that…but really, I didn’t. I redefined how much research is required for my job, and immediately started saving a bundle of time.

Now, I’m down from getting about 200 emails a day to more like 120, plus I’m zapping a lot more of the remaining emails unread if the subject line isn’t enticing.

3. Increase thinking time

The most important thing we do as freelance writers isn’t write. It’s think — of story ideas, of ebooks we want to write and sell, of people we should collaborate with, of new clients we should target.

If we don’t take time to review where we’re headed and where we really want to go, it’s so easy to get off track.

On vacation, we naturally have more downtime, which I find always leads to a burst of great ideas. I get clarity on what I should do next — from big-picture issues like the types of freelance markets I should target, down to small stuff such as topics for blog posts.

Does it ever fail that we come back from vacation with more thinking work done than in a typical month or three?

I came back from one conference with the idea that I had to take the plunge and start the Den, for instance. On another, I came to the conclusion I should be writing business books. More than anything else, thinking time has the power to radically transform our business and grow our freelance earnings.

So that’s what to do with the free time you liberate by cutting back your timewasters: think.

4. Keep the part-time mentality

If you’re like me, you find yourself in a desperate, endless struggle to stay on top of how new media is transforming the freelance writing world. There’s pressure to be available 24/7, to learn to use Pinterest/WordPress/whateverelse.

Somehow, over the course of the past decade, it became cool to work all the time (at least in some quarters).

When I tell people I always take one day a week off, they look at me like I’m crazy. They believe it’s not OK to turn the computer off for a day a week…so they don’t.

Our expectations shape our work schedules.

I’ve learned I can change those expectations and end up working a lot fewer hours.

During my vacation, my expectation was I’d only work maybe 2 hours a day. What do you know, that seemed to be all that was required!

We can bring those altered expectations to our regular work schedule, too.

If your expectation is that work days should only be 4 or 6 hours long and aim for that, you’re more likely to organize your work to achieve that instead of letting work expand to 8 hours or more.

So kick the overwork addiction and define a shorter work day, even after vacation ends.  You may find you’re still getting just as much writing work done.

5. Get more exercise

Let’s face it — sitting all day leads to a wide range of health problems, not to mention sluggish mental processing and slower writing.

This in turn creates a death spiral where we have to work more and more and we exercise less and less…and so on until we risk becoming a puddle of boneless goo on the floor by our computers.

On vacation, I was getting maybe three times my normal amount of exercise. I’d walk in the morning, swim in the afternoon, and bike in the evening. And I felt…amazing. Powerful. Creative. Unstoppable.

It’s hard to exercise all day during the work week, but carve out at least an hour for some kind of exercise, and you may see that your 8-hour work day can be accomplished easily in seven if you’re energized from a workout.

6. Limit social media

Yes, social media can be a great way to connect with prospects. It is also one of the most addictive ways to waste time ever invented. And there are plenty of other ways to market your business where you won’t tend to play around, such as sending marketing emails or making cold calls.

Take a critical look at what you’re doing on social media. Are you really getting prospects on Facebook and making useful new connections on Twitter — or just killing time following links and reading posts?

Be purposeful and strategic in how you use social media, and try to keep it to 20 minutes or a half-hour a day. On vacation, I probably didn’t spend 10 minutes a day here, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

Even if you’re new at LinkedIn or Twitter and trying to learn it, that’s OK — work on it for 20 minutes or a half-hour a day. Then stop.

Use schedulers if you really feel your presence needs to be felt in a social-media channel all day long. Set up your messages and you’re done.

7. Learn new tricks

One thing I always try to do on vacation is experience something new, whether it’s a food or an activity. This time, stand-up paddleboarding. (It rocks!)

It’s hard to get to those “wish I had time to learn” type activities — but it’s worth it.

Each month, prioritize just one new action — learn to use a new tool, take one class, hit one new networking group, or try one new kind of marketing. See how those new skills and connections might help you earn more.

How are you saving time in your freelance schedule? Leave a comment and share your tips.

42 comments on “7 Productivity Tips From My Vacation That Freelancers Can Use All Year

  1. Marianne on

    The beauty of being a freelancer is that you get to dictate your working relationships and hours. So as long as you learn how to prioritize you should be able to accomplish a lot during each day. Of course that only works with the aforementioned just do it attitude obviously 🙂

  2. Daza, Gabbrielle on

    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    We’ve got this mentality that when it’s work day, we think of it as a long and hard day. Negativity might also be one of the reasons why we sometimes get stuck with our ideas. And I guess if we’re on vacation and we sneak a little bit of work, we’re not pressured to get things done, we just go with the flow and finish what we could with that amount of time.
    And yes, personally, exercise is the number one secret to greater productivity. Even Richard Branson, one of the most respected entrepreneur in the planet, thinks that exercise and getting fit improves focus and concentration.

  3. Susan on

    Wonderful, wonderful tips — thank you! I feel like productivity is a constant struggle, especially since I am working a full-time job and writing on the side. I am definitely going to implement some of these strategies in my day-to-day.

  4. Rob Schneider on

    I was going to skip commenting on this one because commenting can be a waste of valuable time as much as anything else. However, a couple of comments compel me to come to my clients’ defense. Most of them email me on a “need to know” basis only and are very clear and concise when they do so. This eliminates the need for endless email clarifications or a Skype call. I have one regular who never emails me. I just get one email from the accounting department informing me when a payment has been made. Perfect.

    My worst time waster has been following “informational” newsletters and LinkedIn discussion groups in hopes of gleaning information of value. I culled 10 just this week and it is saving me tons of time. This blog is an exception, because it’s consistently informative. On the other hand, the blog posts and comments are interesting and I like to join in on the discussion. That can take a good chunk of an hour out of my day, so I’ll close now and get back to work.

    • Carol Tice on

      Well, thrilled to know I’ve made the cut, Rob!

      I have been on an unsubscribe tear myself…can’t believe how many lists I seemed to be on. I’m excited to see my email load shrinking steadily now.

  5. LeAnn Barker on

    I so need this article. I have been very terrible lately as far as being unfocused. When I was an hourly employee, I got paid the same no matter how productive or unproductive I was. I am so glad I have the accountability of getting paid according to the results I produce instead of the hours I work. It is amazing how many bad habits I acquired while working for someone else… ex. thinking that attending to my emails for a couple hours everyday was somehow being productive.

  6. Angie Tucker on

    Thank you so much for pointing out what should be obvious to us! I, like you, tend to think that I must read extensiely to educate myself and unfortunately, I end up spending less time actually doing. I think I needed to hear what you wrote here…I just jointed the Freelance Writer’s Den AND signed up for the Marketing audit class. I was wondering how in the world I was going to get it all done, especially since writing very long blog posts for my first client seem to take up all my time!

    • Carol Tice on

      I think my over-researching habit goes back to the fact that I’m self taught and a college dropout. I always have that feeling in the back of my head that I need to study harder than anybody else to make up for my lack of a relevant degree.

      But at this point, it’s time to say, I know enough! If I find one good idea, I can run with it and delete the 20 other newsletters I was planning to scan before I concluded what the best topics would be for that blog post.

  7. Kirsten McCulloch on

    What a fantastic post. And I think so much of it is true not just for writers but for most professions (though obviously on an hourly wage your flexibility is far more limited).

    I struggle with limiting my work hours because I have my paid day job (which is the most easily limited actually), then my unpaid home & parenting job, and then my slightly paid writing & editing, which I try to fit in around the others. And because I try to fit it in whenever I have a little time (like now, checking my emails on the phone while I’m musing my youngest daughter to sleep), it’s easy to let it expand to fit every little bit of spare time.

    I’ve tried before having a day a week where I don’t turn on the computer – I think it’s time I had another go at that.

    Thanks for an inspiring post.

  8. Carolyn Stevens on

    The further I’ve got into my business, the more I realise how much “work” I’m making for myself. Like you, I check my emails far too often and I think it’s because if someone has a question, I want to be seen to answer it as quickly as possible. In reality, when this happens, the reader quite often doesn’t pick up the reply until much later in the day or even the next day.
    I’m due to take my first vacation in a year. Where we go, there’s no internet connection at all, so its enforced rest and relaxation. I’ve made an agreement that we drive into the town 3 times a week so that I can visit the library to check my emails. I’ve also pre-written my weekly blog post so that I can still post as regularly as I would if I was at home. I suspect that no-one is going to see anything any different and that it’s going to be a very valuable lesson in slowing down to achieve the same result.

    • Carol Tice on

      It’s worse than that we’re just making work for ourselves — when you answer emails very quickly, you create the expectation that you do that. Then it’s hard to kick the habit and train your clients that it will take a few hours for you to get back. This is an area I’m really working on now. I so admire people who have the permanent bouncer that lets people know they only pick up twice a day or whatever, and they’ll get back to them in a while.

  9. Carrie Smith on

    I really like your idea of the “part-time mentality”. That’s a really good productivity tip for freelancers and people who work from home (or from anywhere). I definitely plan to implement that in my everyday work. As a long time reader, I’m always inspired and helped by your advice Carol. Thanks for continuing to share your knowledge.

  10. Joyce on

    Thank you for the post, Carol. It was very inspiring, especially the part about having time to think. I believe that for us beginning writers, we tend to get caught up in the idea of making money with our writing and try to grab every opportunity so that we lose sight of our vision or goal. After reading your post, I have decided that I need to write a business plan that will guide my efforts. I have something in my head, but it needs to be on paper that I will follow. This is where the thinking comes in for me, just sitting down and deciding what I want to focus on instead of blinding following every opportunity.

    • Carol Tice on

      Great idea, Joyce!

      Writers need to be in charge of their careers, rather than being like a leaf floating downstream, grabbing whatever jobs come your way or are posted on free job sites.

      If you don’t take the time to ask yourself where you want your business to be in a year or two, and then take concrete steps to steer your career in that direction, you won’t end up there.

      I don’t know many writers who just sort of accidentally ended up with great-paying clients and interesting niches where they’re known as the expert — you make a deliberate plan to get there.

  11. Kristen on

    On multiple occasions I’ve joined family members for a last minute day trip or or otherwise found the need to take a day off without much advance planning – every time I’ve been surprised that I didn’t get further behind on work or miss anything of great importance.

    Even so, there’s often this little nagging sense of guilt that I should have spent that day working and I’m being irresponsible.

    I think something important your post gets at is how much more valuable it is to judge our progress by how much we accomplish vs how much time we spend doing tasks that feel like work.

    • Carol Tice on

      Right on! I’ve always been very results-oriented — it’s what drove me out of secretarial work. I could never get rewarded for being efficient as I had to warm that chair until 5 pm no matter what.

      We do need to focus on results in freelancing — am I earning what I want? Doing the marketing I should? Taking assignments that grow my skills?

      The rest of it we can cut way back on.

      To me the challenge is you feel needed by clients, and that you need to be working your business…and we have to remember that our life and our families need us even more, and we need them.

      We’re not called human doings, but human beings 😉

  12. Rebecca on

    I am starting this today. I’ve been switching gears a little bit with my freelancing focus, and I’ve been feeling like my work-life never ends. Never, never ends. Now, with the kids going back to school, it’s a great time to refocus on priority tasks, and plug up the brain-leaks. Thank you for this post!

    • Carol Tice on

      Ugh..that’s the worst when it’s summer and you wish you were out playing with the kids.

      I’m taking 3 short vacations this summer (4 counting a staycation where relatives visited with us), and next year my goal is to only work 1-2 days each week of summer and then be outta there.

  13. Halina on

    This is great advice, Carol! I recall reading much along the same line with Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek”- especially how you should trim back on email time (although his answering his email once a week dumbfounds me). And yes, if you have but a few hours to work versus an entire day, you do value your time more and become more efficient as a result. Thanks for this “chewy” post!

  14. Kinya on

    One of the great things about freelancing is you can keep your job stress-free if you just remain low-key about things. Prioritize, yes. Please do. But don’t let your day get too cluttered with unnecessary things. When you eliminate what isn’t important, it is absolutely amazing how much time you have leftover to yourself.

    I’m bookmarking this so I can come back to it whenever I feel overwhelmed, to remind myself that I need to maintain that part-time approach to my career.

  15. Linda H on

    I must admit I have this part-time work attitude all the time, but it really works. And all your suggestions are right on for various reasons.

    I find that if I get up and review emails I do get sucked into the social media trap and get little accomplished. However, if I get up and read a few things, then perhaps work on a project or write a blog I get things done faster and feel accomplished. Then I can step away from the desk to attend a networking meeting and not feel guilty because I wasn’t working–even though the networking meeting IS working, just in a different format. I can clean house to get more exercise, but it results in a more relaxing environment in which I can work. And I can feel less stressed when I go for a walk for an hour because I’m getting mental exercise as well. So I get so much more done because I’m not stretching myself.

    I also find that when I review the work I need to do and step away, I think on it. Suddenly, I get a brainstorm and if I’m home can rush to the computer to write what I’ve thought. The words flow freely and smoothly and the task gets done with much better content. It’s not forced, it’s thought through. If I’m out, I always have pen and paper so I can jot down notes to remind myself of key phrases. Then once home, I can begin work and incorporate that information, which again creates a well thought out article, blog and project with much stronger content.

    Perhaps the best thing of all, though, is that I’ve learned when I’m reading I’m working. When I’m exercising, I’m working because I’m allowing my brain to relax and process information. Then when I get to the desk the work isn’t as forced, it flows better.

    I’m glad you wrote this today, Carol. It really puts things into perspective and focus and allows one to see how to create better processes to write better content that serves one’s audiences. Writing is work–emotionally and mentally draining–but when we learn to incorporate different ways of approaching it, we tap into our creative juices and become better at our craft. And that often pleases everyone.

  16. Katherine Swarts on

    JUST what I needed! With the possible exception of social media (which I more than make up for in the e-mail department), every one of these items points up a major issue in my current life. Particularly since, having no “employer” to set the schedule for me and still struggling to find my own ideal (read “high-earning”) work focus, I’m easy prey for advisers whose mantra is, “The only way to approach any kind of job hunt is to put in the same number of hours you’d be REQUIRED to put in at a full-time salaried job.” (I thought one major appeal of freelancing was not having to be squeezed into the “working stiff” mode?)

    I would add that some people are natural “by-the-hour” workers (find it easy to quit “at the bell”) and others are natural “by-the-task” workers (have to end every work day by checking off a finished item). I’m a “tasker,” which can be either a help or a hurt, depending on how often the “should-dos” reach an unmanageable level!

  17. J. Delancy on

    I just came off vacation two weeks ago (still on the vacation mentality) and have started reading, “The Power of Full Engagement” which teaches that managing energy not time leads to high performance. Tim Ferris’ book “The Four Hour Workweek” also explains how to cut out much of our temporal clutter.
    Increasing thinking time and decreasing pointless social media play needs to be on the agenda of every writer freelance or not.

    Thanks again Carol

    • Carol Tice on

      I’m still waiting to meet someone who’s got that 4-hr workweek thing happening, and I’m sort of not a fan of his philosophy, especially the whole “outsource everything to the Philippines” kind of solution.

      But we can all do more to be focused and just get the important stuff done, and let go of much of the rest. That’s MY new mantra.

      I’ll be trying it out starting Wednesday, when I’m going to be cutting my afternoon work time back to meet kids’ school buses after a 2-year period of working ’til 5…so that should provide some discipline to cut timewasters for me!

  18. Page on

    We’ve had a lot of visitors this summer which has included using my office as an extra bedroom. Instead of trying to get all of my work done before their arrivals, or putting it off and getting stressed about it, I set a precedent (without announcing it–just doing it) that I’d be doing work first thing in the morning on my laptop in the living room. This still allowed me to be part of the morning coffee conversations, but it was also understood that I was working so if a friend or child saw me working intently, they could go to someone else for what they needed.

    Granted, I wasn’t writing really meaty stuff, but it was important work with deadlines. Taking this approach allowed me to enjoy their visits without the usual stresses that putting off work brings.

    Some good tips in this post–I’ll evernote this one for sure!

    • Carol Tice on

      My solution to your scenario, Page, was a $14 subscription to GotoMyPC. That allowed me to leave the computer on in the bedroom guests were in while we had in-laws visiting, and access it remotely from a laptop elsewhere. I never had to disturb them, or to feel stressed or put out that they were in my office, and kept total control of my own work hours.

      I did a lot of early-a.m. work sessions that way before people got up, and then by the time they all ate breakfast, I was ready to head out on a family hike or canoeing trip with them. Worked out great!

  19. Barbara on

    Carol, I’m doing a version of this with my writing. I belong to a motivational group for freelancers and our group’s founder was on vacation. She felt the need to spend more of her “work-cation” relaxing and touring the area, so she “compressed” her writing, networking and forum time down to just a few hours per day. She found that it worked beautifully, so now more of us in the group are doing this.

    It works wonders for our productivity, even if, at the end of the work day, our brains are melted puddles at our feet.

  20. Lisa Baker on

    Love this. It’s definitely how I live! As a mom with young kids and minimal outside childcare, I have to work freelancing into the nooks and crannies — naps, night, preschool, and even bits and minutes throughout the day. It’s truly amazing how productive I am in those little minutes. I found an expert to interview for my next query this morning while my kids were eating breakfast. Going to write a couple of things right now during morning nap. Once preschool starts up again next week, I’ll be back to writing 3 blog posts on Monday and a couple of queries on Tuesday — all between playing with my baby. I used to need time to settle in and get in the groove every time I sat down to write, but not anymore! Every second that I get to sit at my computer, I accomplish something. I plan to carry this mindset over once my kids are older — I think I’ll be blown away at how much I can get done in small bits of time.

    • Carol Tice on

      There’s nothing to focus the mind for writers like having a young child or two underfoot. I used to get a ton done during my first son’s afternoon naps — probably a whole day’s work for most people in 3-4 hours!

    • Anita on

      I was thinking the same thing, Lisa. Many of these vacation-inspired tips are how I have to work in order to get any writing accomplished. “Redefine what you must do” has been my modus operandi ever since my children were born.

  21. Cathie Ericson on

    Love this! I have been telling people I feel like I am working “full time” this summer, but I have come to realize it’s only full time when I am home….which has only been about 4 days a week and even then, only parts of the days.

    Last week I was wrapping up vacation Monday, worked long days T – Th, then Friday morning and then I headed out for an adventure with the kids.

    Today I am taking care of some client business this morning (and I will admit, this column distracted and sucked me in!) and then out for the rest of the day.

    What has suffered? My house (oh well!), my reading (like you, I read widely as I find it to be a value add for my clients, plus I am never sure what industry my NEXT client will be in!), and my Twitter (which I am relatively new to anyway, and not sure it’s for me. As someone who feels anxious when things are “not complete,” Twitter is never complete. And I haven’t missed it.)

    Having plenty of work is a blessing but so is doing all the other things life has to offer!

  22. Ken on

    This is a great advice, Carol. Actually, I also want this kind of lifestyle, only if I could pay my bills by 4 hours of work daily.

    For starters like me, who needs a lot of learning, writing practices, making lots of connections, and creating our own space and identity in this industry, I think we will need more time than you do. Another thing is, your rate is surely way higher than ours that your rate per article could be our rate for the whole month of workload, which gives you the luxury to work for small amount of time and still pay the bills.

    But still, this post is very useful, about the email and social media. Do you have advice or previous posts for beginners like me? = )

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Ken —

      I think beginners can also be more productive with their time and cut their hours. It starts with not taking super-low paid gigs — that’s a model where you must work many, many hours to earn. Instead, proactively target legit magazines and businesses big enough to have a marketing budget.

      Remember that every writer who started longer ago than about 10 years started without content mills or bid sites — they didn’t exist! We wrote query letters and letters of introduction and marketed to find clients — and starting earning fairly well pretty quick as a result.

      You may think it’s more efficient for me, and on the freelance writing side it probably is. But on the learn how to run a blog-based business side, I still consider myself a beginner, and need to read voraciously about conversion/marketing/design/usability/product design/tools etc etc…and I have to put limits on that or I can easily spend 18 hrs a day on it! I currently have a cache of nearly 200 relevant newsletters in these areas that I’d love to be reading…but I can only get to a few a day to keep my hours under control.

      • Ken on

        You’re right about easily spending 18 hours a day. If I’m not controlled… er, reminded by my wife, I could spend the entire day and evening in front of the computer, hehe. Thanx for the advice! = )

  23. John Soares on

    And learning “new tricks” has been very useful to me. I’ve been teaching myself Spanish, which really helps my brain and cognitive ability, and I also recently played pickle ball for the first time. (Pickle ball is a combination of tennis and racketball played on a smaller version of a tennis court.)

  24. John Soares on

    Carol, I have that “part-time mentality” much of the time. Hiking, exercising, learning, traveling, and spending time with my family are very important to me, and it’s not that often that I actually work a string of 8-hour days on my freelance writing projects.

    During the warmer months I frequently go camping by myself in the mountains. I find that with no Internet connection at all, and thus no e-mail to check or social media to fool around with, I get a full day’s work done by noon or 1, and then I’m off for a long hike, with time in the evening for reading and looking at the stars.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi John — right on. One of my vacations was on Mt. Rainier this year and there was no access. I didn’t even try to work at all — and that is a kind of vacation every writer should take, in my view!

      I was surprised at how the working vacation went — I thought I’d be pissed off at having to check in, but instead I loved how the work became just a small part of my day, and most of it could be spent with family doing outdoor activities I enjoy. Makes me want to see how I can make that my norm instead of my vacation schedule!

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