How to stay focused on a long-term independent work project?
August 1, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

I am a freelancer and currently have a big, long-term (several months') project to work on. How do I stay focused?

I have a freelance project to do (I am a freelancer). This is the biggest project I have had to do. There's no strict deadline, but I want to finish it before I run out of the partial advance given to me.

I'm having a hard time getting focused! I know I should make a work schedule and set an amount as a goal each day.

I often have trouble staying focused, find the chair uncomfortable, or feel physically otherwise uncomfortable. I get distracted by the internet.

I would really appreciate ideas on how to do this and stay focused ! Any and all ideas.

Other info: I exercise almost every day, I try to go to bed early, and I usually feel most focused in the morning.
posted by bearette to Work & Money (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Chairs are uncomfortable. Have you thought about changing your desk so that it is a standing desk with a barstool for seating? Alternatively, you can take your laptop and work with it sitting on an exercise ball, lying on the couch/in bed, kneeling on meditation bench with laptop on a chair, using a seating disk, etc. A major change in position once an hour can help.

You need to take frequent breaks, with a couple of major breaks away from the computer during the day. I have breaks built in for lunch, walk dog, clean up kitchen, do exercises. Putting the breaks into the work day and then returning to the computer afterwards helps with focus.

Getting distracted by the internet is a problem. I have a designated work computer and I am not supposed to go to "play" sites from there. I am typing this from the family recreational computer. It's an imperfect system (and yes I do cheat) but it does help to have separate devices.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:16 PM on August 1, 2014

How excited are you for the project? I find that that's what really gets me through big projects. Excitement. I don't know the nature of the work, but can you somehow artificially generate some enthusiasm for a specific aspect of the project? Maybe it sounds nuts, but the awesomeness of really nailing some part of a project tends to give me energy and momentum elsewhere. I don't know what you're doing, but for me "I'll start by making the report formatting so beautiful angels will cry" puts me in the head space to win.

I also--and maybe this is more practical advice--make myself a reasonably detailed outline of project steps. That keeps me working instead of trying to figure out what to work on.

Can you tell us what kind of project you're working on? People might have specific advice for certain categories of work!
posted by zibra at 5:31 PM on August 1, 2014

When I had a really big freelance project, I put it off until drafts were due, and then I crammed weeks of work into like two days, because I am a moron. The best thing would be setting benchmarks and deadlines for portions of it, and then communicating them to whoever is in charge to force you to deliver on your promises.

As far as distractions, if you can go to a library and work on it without an internet connection and tell yourself you have to stay for x hours, it might force you to use your time wisely.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:33 PM on August 1, 2014

Report in at least weekly to the folks that hired you.

Explain what you did that week, and if there's anything that you can show as partial progress, send it/point them to it etc.

Maybe they weren't expecting regular updates from you, but you are actively trying to cultivate those expectations. This shows them that you're conscientious, and it also helps keep you that way.
posted by mattu at 5:34 PM on August 1, 2014

When I had to do this - a project that required a long work day every day before the deadline (although that was only a few weeks in my case) what I did was go out and buy office clothes (at that time I was all jeans and t-shirts all the time) - in my case black trousers, long-sleeved shirt and tie - and forced myself at pain of terror to be at my computer every morning by 9:30 in my office uniform, even though it was just me in the flat.

As it happens, I still dress like that. It turned out to be quite an empowering uniform for me. But if there's a way you can put together a set of clothes that feels different - this is the way I dress when I'm on - that can help. You sort of feel it physically, and that kind of thing exerts a surprising amount of influence. It's also quite important to change out of those clothes when you clock off, for the same reason.
posted by Grangousier at 5:35 PM on August 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I work from home I consider walking my dog my "commute" in the morning and when I get back from that, I'm at work. I write out a todo list the night before and I go straight to it - no checking email first or making the 10th cup of coffee - I walk in and start on something on a todo item. I have a friend who always walks to a coffee shop and does her morning emails during that ONE cup of coffee and then heads to her studio to get things done. Similar to wearing a "uniform", I think it helps to just have some sort of routine that separates personal from work time, even if it's just walking around the block or taking a shower and putting on a new set of clothes.

I mean I like waking up at 11am and sitting at my desk with no pants on, but if I have actual shit with a deadline to do that won't work for me. I find that if I can just get started then I can do my distraction/procrastination routine at lunch or something (make more coffee, respond to emails, check the blogs, etc.) while I eat a sandwich or something and it's not the morning waster it usually is for me.
posted by bradbane at 6:21 PM on August 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I did enough project management as a tech lead before starting freelancing that I pretty much organize freelance projects the same way. Yes, with milestones and requirements and even change tickets. So, start from the proposal or contract, drill out the main components, scope them out into milestones, then break out as tasks as necessary. But then I'm a checklist kind of person, and I love checking off to do items or closing out tickets. The advantage is that it makes it really easy to tie work to billing, which clients seem to like. I actually usually do a lot of the scoping work during the proposal phase, so it easily rolls into tasks and milestones once I start working.
posted by instamatic at 6:46 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I write an end of day report at 4pm every day. It helps keep me focused without letting me get too twisted in documenting every minute of my time- I just write down completed tasks and tasks still in progress and whatever's next in priority.
posted by annathea at 8:24 PM on August 1, 2014

Internet blocking apps are your friend. I like Self-Control because it works across all browsers, so you can't cheat.

Set a reasonable schedule of x amount of hours a day you need to get the project done. Set the app to block all distractions for 60-90 minutes. When it's done, give yourself a break, and then turn it back on until you have met your amount of time you need for that day.

I work from home, and this is the only thing that's worked for me. A routine also helps immensely, but it's the internet that can kill it, especially when there isn't a hard deadline.

Also, I've asked clients to give me a deadline. It really helps.
posted by ohisee at 9:32 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, as far as feeling physically uncomfortable, I spent an unreasonable amount of money on a fancy chair and it has been the single best thing I have done for myself in the last three years. I researched a lot of really high-end ones to see which ones I liked, and then found one used for half price. It was still more money than I ever thought I would spend on a chair, but I spend my life in this thing and I love it to pieces.

Other people find the standing desk works better. There are neat standing desk stools and non-chairs that might be more your speed. The important thing is not to skimp more than you have to. You will spend a lot of time at your desk and it needs to be comfortable. This is even more important when you are at home and trying not to be distracted.
posted by ohisee at 9:48 PM on August 1, 2014

Agree you have to prioritize the project, so it has to be the first thing you do in the morning before anything else. This is the one thing that made the biggest difference for me, a hardened procrastinator.

I use Freedom to block the entire internet for up to eight hours. I love this program.

I agree, chart out the necessary milestones to get it done. You need a road map. There are programs online that can hold you accountable to your roadmap. I forget what they're called but you can browse a bunch of apps here. They're called goal setting, task master or hold me accountable apps.

Good luck!
posted by lillian.elmtree at 3:42 AM on August 2, 2014

Nthing website blockers. I use Focal Filter. Makes a huge difference.

Also n-thing get dressed up. You don't even have to wear "office" clothes, just as long as you get out of your pajamas into actual clothing. I just wear jeans. But like, nice jeans.

As far as making a work schedule, well.... do exactly what you said. Set a goal for the end of the day, end of the week, end of the month and don't deviate from it. If it helps you reach your goal, set a reward- like you get to binge watch your favorite show at the end of the week, or let yourself get a Starbucks coffee, or [pick your poison].

Good luck!
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 4:55 AM on August 2, 2014

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