6 essential productivity systems for freelance writers

Writing productivity for freelances is highly personal, and you’ll need to experiment and find a way that suits you. However, you do need to put systems in place, to simplify work-life balance, and prevent overwhelm. Here are some of the practical freelance productivity systems I use to keep my writing business on track.  

I find them crucial, because when things get busy, it’s easy to lose sight of jobs, forget to bill, or get stressed. It’s particularly important if you’re juggling a mixed commercial-creative portfolio.

1. Set up a writing job system

You need to build in freelance productivity systems for writing jobs from the start. One of the trickiest aspects of being a freelance writer is that mentally, you need to go deep into the writing work. At the same time, there are lots of fragment activities – phone calls, marketing, research checks – that are in an entirely different brain space. So you get hauled out of the deep work, and can find it hard to refocus. The small jobs can easily expand to fill your time, get lost in the melee, and sometimes become a reason not to sign off a completed job. So you need a tight writing productivity system to establish boundaries, and corral those activities.

How to do this

Keep a separation between deep, productive work, and small jobs. Use time blocking for deep work, and make sure you build in enough of this each day. Read Cal Newport’s Deep Work for an insight into the differences in work scale, and how to handle them.

For job or project handling, set up a job tracking system with number IDs, to create distinct boundaries round a project. My system uses XXX-000 ITEM, eg MAC-101 WEBSITE, consisting of a client ID, a running number for jobs for that client, and a slug or one-word identifier.

I use this ID in invoices, and email headers, and ask the client to use it. I prefer visual information, so I use the ID on post-it notes on a whiteboard, to track the different job stages: quote, in progress, with client, to be billed, billed, complete. You can use this process in Trello, too.

This numbering code follows the job from intake, through drafting, client reviews and through to invoicing, and has been a professional lifesaver!

2. Practise time management

Writing productivity is directly related to how you manage time, so it’s best to have a system. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing commercial or creative writing, drafting or proofing your novel or work in progress. It’s about putting in the hours on focused writing. It’s helpful here to think in terms of process, rather than output. The output will come if you devote the time. Everyone has lots of claims on their time, and ultimately your choices reflect your priorities. So if writing is important to you, honour that in how you manage your time.

How to do this

Try writing sprints or the Pomodoro technique of 25’ bursts. Try an app such as Toggl, which I’ve used for years. It’s great for capturing client hours spent, with useful reporting. It’s also a fantastic reality check about where your time really goes, and how much of it is spent on productive writing. If you have lots of demanding activities and writing has to fit in between, do what you need to to block out time. For example, a novelist friend of mine always writes in bed, with the door shut. I use industrial earmuffs. If you need to do your writing on the move, explore phone apps and dictation software such as Dictadroid.

3. Set up a money admin routine

You need a tight handle on money admin, and the secret, according to an accountant friend, is “little and often”. I’ve found a much better success rate with invoice payment since I set up reminders and didn’t let more than a week go by before chasing. However, I’m not a natural with numbers, and prefer to delegate this to a paid assistant. In the end, I decided that it was better to pay someone for their support, and leave me more time for productive writing.

How to do this

Admit what you’re not good at. I use the bookkeeping software Xero to handle invoices, bank statements and reporting such as profit and loss. When starting out, I used FreeAgent, which is great and made for freelances. But I wasn’t great at reconciling and those outstanding tiny decisions. I needed a firm hand, and decided to pay a bookkeeper. Xero is expandable with business growth, and has a clean-looking online platform. Don’t let your receipts and bill-chasing get out of hand. Do a weekly check-in to process invoices and receipts, and set aside time for it.

4. Choose productive writing jobs

What’s productive will be different for each writer. The issue is that you have finite time on this planet, and can easily fill it ten times over with ‘busy work’ that isn’t productive. This will reduce your time for more interesting and satisfying opportunities. Lots of freelances have a scarcity mindset, especially at first. You might be worried about an empty-looking work pipeline, and take on poorly paid jobs. But when you get established, you’ll have plenty of work. So choose your projects carefully.

What to do

Even as a solo freelance writer, you need a business plan. It will help to keep you on track, and filter out jobs that aren’t a good use of your limited time. They might, for example, be unpaid, or require you to learn extra skills such as SEO. Be clear about your core business.

Clients may also approach you for jobs in your area, but unwilling to pay you what you’re worth. Keep a list of other freelance leads for referring jobs that aren’t right for you. Assess jobs against the dimensions of financial, creative and professional satisfaction. Aim to hit at least two of the three targets.

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5. Set up regular progress checks

Of all the productivity systems for freelance writers, this has helped me the most. When your writing work is busy, it’s so easy to lose track of other things. This can come back to bite you when, say, you’ve been so deep in a job that you’ve forgotten to do any marketing, and your work pipeline is suddenly empty. Or you’ve forgotten an important meeting or call. I don’t find paper or digital diaries enough on their own, because my attention is pulled in different directions. So I need something more robust, to make sure everything is captured.

What to do

I hold a weekly meeting with myself. I use a weekly progress sheet and capture the week’s main events, meetings and commitments. New incoming jobs are captured. Outstanding invoices and reminders are on there, too. On Friday, I check in to see what has been checked off and whether anything needs to be urgently followed up. On Monday morning, I remind myself of last week’s achievements and what’s ahead. This small change has transformed my writing productivity. It’s not perfect, but far fewer jobs fall between the cracks.

Now that I have extra support in my business, this has become a weekly team meeting. Having this accountability system and routine in place has helped smooth the transition to scaling my business. So it’s an incredibly useful foundation.

6. Set up a self-care system

Freelance productivity systems also include your health and wellbeing. And this shouldn’t come last, as it’s the system everything else is based on. However, it’s easy to put self-care on the backburner and not notice there’s a problem, until till you experience backache or burnout from too much writing. With your health and fitness, prevention is better than cure. Choose fun and preferably sociable activities, as human company for the typical writer introvert is an important part of your wellbeing, too!

How to do this

Exercise shouldn’t be a chore. There are lots of online videos and classes which will give you a taster of what you might enjoy. During the pandemic, I discovered Broadway dance numbers and salsa-based routines, which felt like fun but are hard-core exercise classes in disguise. When I’m deep in writing, I can forget to stretch, stand and sometimes breathe, so I use the Fitbit “get moving” reminder. Seeing hard data that you haven’t budged for three hours is a useful call to action.

Overall, a freelance business is the sum of many moving parts. Time spent creating freelance productivity systems may seem an overspec for a one-person writing business, but it saves such a lot of time and stress in the long run. And if you ever need to bring someone else into the business, established systems will help them to get up and running much quicker.

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