today’s question: “how you keep focused?”

when i am freelancing from home i usually get distracted. i try putting the tv on for background noise but then i end up watching it. or i’ll go to check one thing in my google reader and i’ll get sucked in. the one trick i have found to work the best is to schedule out the entire time i want to devote to working. ex: 9:30: breakfast in bed. 10:00: research for new project. 10:30: sketches for new project. 11:30: break for a snack/explore pinterest. 12:00: more sketching. 1:30: lunch. 2:00: check and respond to emails.

if i’m structured and reward myself with a “treat”, i’m more productive. it’s a trick that I play on myself and it always works. a friend of mine that works from home plays Mad Men in the background. she says it makes her feel like she is working in an office with other creatives.

i wish i could say that scheduling my day hour by hour worked for me. but i tend to rebel against myself if i do that. something that has really helped me remain focused is to create daily deadlines. one of the reasons i have columns on my blog is to add discipline in my schedule. if i know that the next day i need to have a DIY post up, then I give myself a deadline of the night before. if i end up designing it early, great…as long as it’s up by friday morning at 6am.

what we have been doing around here is having HOTLISTS and SEMI-HOT lists using wunderlist & google calendars. the items on the hotlist must be finished that day. it’s up to us when we want to finish the tasks throughout the day. the semi-hot list is ongoing items or lower priority tasks. if i give myself TOO much structure i get anxious and feel like there is a ticking timer about to explode at 2pm. I design well under pressure, but not minute by minute pressure. and let’s be honest, some of our best ideas come at strange times and cannot be calculated a week early into our schedules.

my favorite process would be a morning hotlist and an afternoon hotlist and trying to stick to that as much as possible. i don’t really listen to music or watch tv (i like to design in quiet places) so that eliminates that distraction. if i know it’s going to be a really intense to-do list day, then i work at home. i save the office days for when i have a little more time to chat. i also work best early in the morning because people aren’t at work yet, which means my inbox isn’t dinging like crazy. sometimes i just turn off the email for an hour or two so that little red inbox number doesn’t stare at me.

some days you just have to play hooky and get distracted. it’s good for you. everyone has their method to the madness. what’s yours?

(illustration by katie evans. read more freelance advice posts are over here!)


Add your own

    Ida says:

    My last, quite crazy method to finish the tasks on time is… my favourite TV series Scrubs! which is here in Italy at 8 p.m.in TV. Sounds strange but it’s super easy… if I finish everything before that hour I can relax and watch it and ’cause I really love it I do everything to finish on time and have the evening with the crazy doctors:)

    Amber says:

    If I have a million things to work on in one day, I try and only work on something for one hour to keep myself focused and devoted to that hour. I convince myself that I only have 1 hour to get it finished.

    Then I move on to the next project, and so on. If I didn’t get something done I’ll work on it when I have worked on everything else, that way I have gotten a little bit of everything done.

    Especially if its a project that I feel like I just can’t focus on or I sit and stare at the computer screen…at least I had only wasted an hour!

    Brittany says:

    Great advice like always! I’m like Amber, I give myself a time limit for each project when I want to stay focused and get a lot done. And on another note, holy postapalooza! You really did fall down the rabbit hole last night, bri! But i like all of the unexpected posts.

    Caytlyn says:

    I’m a list person, I work an 8-5 job and try to; workout, run a blog, do a ton of diys, cook, laundry…well you know the list goes on and on haha. I keep a little notebook and make a list of my day, with important stuff that has to get done after work, and then a rollover list that I can get to the next day. It works well for me and I always feel accomplished when I get to cross things off.

    I have tried to use wunderlist but when everything is hidden within an app on my phone it’s easier to ignore or forget about it.

    Anni says:

    Bri, I’m the exact same way. If I tell myself that I have to stick to a schedule, I find some way to rationalize not doing anything at all. So I set tasks that absolutely must be finished that day, and others that I have a little more time with.

    My biggest help in being productive, strangely, is leaving the apartment. I don’t work from coffee shops or anything because I need my desktop to edit, but I take the dog for a walk, grab a coffee, etc, and it helps me refocus.

    Sister Disco says:

    Lately, I’ve started to use the HOTLIST idea myself. It works pretty well although I often put some “warmer” items on it, and end up carrying them over from day to day. Either way, the process of starting the day with an aspirational list does help me organize my thoughts and intent for the day.

    Chick Tyler says:

    I also work from home and totally have HGTV on in the background for noise. It makes me feel extra creative!

    Kate says:

    The comment about Mad Men in the background is priceless. Loved this post…hits real close to home 🙂



    Caitlin says:

    Oh I loved both of your answers so much. The Mad Men comment is so adorable and pretty ingenious!

    I like how Bri said that she would rebel against herself, that makes me feel better as I find myself doing that too if I am trying to eat too restrictive of a diet or trying to squeeze too much into one day – I thought i was crazy!

    I think having deadlines is important for me and just trying to be more realistic about what I can actually do in a day 🙂

    Edie says:

    I make my To Do lists in Evernote. I keep a “work” list and a “home” list – all within the daily note, but it’s really easy to make it every day – because I can simply copy and paste and edit. I have Evernote on my MacBook at work and at home, on my iPad (which is what I use to take notes in during meetings) and my iPhone. I have my notes and my lists with me everywhere – and it’s seriously just magically works. Great post! -e

    Noor says:

    Bri I am a lot like you. I can not work with scheduling my day or a lot of noise bc I am easily distracted. For me one of the best things is going to bed at a decent hour and waking up early and refreshed, I work the best then.

    Little Pink Strawberries

    valerie says:

    I set 3 priorities for each day, and schedule everything with Google calendars. Routine us key for me, so I always know what’s next. I like the idea of a reward! I guess my reward is just getting done by 5 every day, and spending the evening with my friends and family. And the occasional shopping trip or manicure!

    Cori Magee says:

    I love hearing how other creatives work… great post! The problem is I’m a mix between the two of you…. so complicated. Boo

    Toxie says:

    Guys guys! This is all really great advice 🙂 I think it’s so cool how different people approach a situation in such unique ways.

    Another great app for TO-DO’s is Orchestra: http://www.orchestra.com/
    I really like how it sends me email reminders and even without an iPhone 4S I can speak and it’ll record my To-do. Rad.

    Louise says:

    I am a publication designer, and so my life is ruled by deadlines, but also controlled by the ad sales deadlines. So I try to be flexible, even though in the back of my mind I am worried about more ads selling and having to redesign and shift around what’s already on the page.

    I work in an office but we don’t have tons of meetings, and I can sort of work on what I want to first thing in the morning — usually story layout and photo editing are good morning things. In the afternoon, I prefer more tedious, repetitive stuff like formatting schedules and things like that.

    I hate starting projects on Friday afternoon, but it seems to be happening a lot lately. I try to at least get the layout to a place where I can pick it up fast on Monday morning and knock things out.

    I love structure and deadlines, but in my personal life I hate feeling like my personal time is full of scheduled events I have to attend at certain times. I’ve had to start saying no a lot more because I was getting overwhelmed and fun things started to feel like work. Sometimes I just want to get my laundry done and not put any makeup on.

    Anna says:

    My 9-5 is in PR, and I also write (and just started a blog) as a side gig. I find that a combo of both strategies works best for me. Chunking time for specific projects helps me stay on task, while making to-do lists helps me stay organized and keep my mind wrapped around everything I have to do! My key difference though? I love keeping lists on notepads – there is nothing more satisfying than physically crossing off an item!

    Jaclyn says:

    It’s so hard to stay focused some days. I only work on my own projects part time ,but I definitely practice Katie’s methods for my work day and my personal work after the day is over. Listing everything in a calendar and the amount of time it will take seems to make the day flow smoother and helps me get items finished on time.

    Michelle says:

    Holy moly! I have Mad Men playing in the background when I’m studying because it’s such smart writing I feel like it helps me. I don’t find it distracting at all….unless I look up and see the beautiful Jon Hamm.

    This is a tough one! I agree, I can’t do serious work with the tv on. I can’t even have the tv in the same room, it’s too tempting.

    Becky says:

    This is one of my favorites in the series. Great tips. I read Four Hour Work Week and Tim Ferris says he only checks email twice a day. Never ever in the morning. I did this for a couple weeks — it was hard but so so rewarding. Ideally this is how I’d always do it but old habits die hard.

    rachael says:

    good ideas, ladies! i’ll keep this in mind when i have work to do!


    Eliza says:

    I love love love Wunderlist. It is like my own personal organizer. xoxo

    Kacie says:

    I find it really helpful if I make a list first thing… BEFORE I turn on the computer and get sucked in. I have my tea and make my list on paper (on a format I’ve made up and printed out). It helps me make a manageable and doable list for the day.


    Latrina says:

    As much as I like to & WANT to work by scheduling & to-do lists… it makes me extremely anxious. And I hate it. It’s something that use to work well for me… i.e. when I was in school. But now it just does the opposite — I find that deadlines, like you Bri, work best for me now. Setting goals and days (not an hour) to finish a project works helps motivate me and also keeps me on track. Scheduling is still something I’m perfecting…

    Latrina says:

    By the way — so many helpful suggestions here in the comments as well! Thanks, guys. 🙂 I’m anxious to try some of these!

    Daphne van Drenth says:

    Great post! I’m curious about your sketch books.

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