Everyone will occasionally try to delay tasks they don’t enjoy. But if you’re self-employed and have a regular habit of putting off important jobs, it can cause real problems. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you learn how to manage chronic freelance procrastination, it can actually work in your favour.
Many articles will explain how to fight, battle, crush, destroy and kill procrastination. But that assumes you have the drive to overcome your levels of resistance, while also still delivering your current work. Seeing your tendency to put things off as a habit which can be managed, and sometimes be beneficial, can make it a lot easier to cope with.
We’ve talked about some of the benefits of procrastination in a previous article. It can be a sign that you’re working on the wrong things, finding work too difficult, or you need to give yourself time to come up with a different approach. So, while you might benefit from some of the tips on how to manage procrastination, the important first step is to stop feeling guilty and beating yourself up over it.
And understanding the reasons why you might be prone to procrastination will show that it’s not down to laziness, as some people assume.
Why do freelancers find themselves procrastinating?
Most freelancers are paid on an hourly rate or delivery of projects. Which means we’re encouraged to aim for constant productivity. And that’s compounded by a constant flood of articles and social media posts filled with messages that slowing down or putting off tasks is a mortal sin for the self-employed.
But have you ever considered why you might be procrastinating? The typical cause is more likely to be perfectionism rather than laziness. Many freelancers can suffer from imposter syndrome, and the worry that you’re not good enough, the work will be rubbish, and you’ll be criticised and seen as a failure. Especially if it’s an important client or project and the stakes are high.
You might be putting off doing the work to research the topic just a little more. Or because there’s a particularly difficult element involved, which might require you to learn or practise a new skill.
Ironically, you can also find yourself procrastinating if you’ve underestimated the timescale for a project. Rather than doing what you can early on, your worries about the impending deadline can take over. And leave you thinking you need to take an all-or-nothing approach by just working flat out for the final few days or hours to hammer through everything in one big final effort.
The other, more manageable and mundane reason for procrastination can be that some tasks are just dull and boring. So, you’ll tend to put them off, especially if you don’t have a set routine.
The next time you feel like procrastination is causing a problem, see if you can pinpoint the cause.
- The task is dull or boring
- A lack of a regular routine or work habits
- Part of the task is daunting or difficult
- You’re focusing too much on research and preparation
- Worry about the high stakes involved for a piece of work
- You’ve underestimated the timescale
- Thinking you need to either work flat out on a single task or not bother starting.
The good news is that all of these factors can be tackled fairly easily. And by learning how to manage chronic freelance procrastination, you can actually benefit from putting things off in a less problematic way.
How procrastinating can benefit you as a freelancer
If you’re struggling to get on with boring tasks, then you can use it as inspiration to automate as much of the work as possible. That can mean investing in some simple software, a virtual assistant, or even coming up with your own solution. Depending on the way you’ve reduced or removed the mundane elements, that could even become something you can share or sell to help promote or fund your business!
Many large companies started by solving a relatively small and boring problem, so your procrastination could end up making you rich.
It can also be a sign that you’re not planning adequate time for projects and allowing for delays. Or that you need to invest some time and money in developing your learning and skills to build up your confidence in delivering high quality projects.
And if you’re constantly procrastinating as a way of avoiding your freelance work, then it could be a sign that you need to change direction. One of the big benefits of being self-employed is that you can choose your own career path. If you’re sick of writing, designing, or photography, there’s nothing to stop you switching to different work temporarily, or permanently. You might find you rush to work every day as a baker, gardener or motor mechanic instead.
When it’s manageable, procrastination can also be a great help for creativity and problem solving. Many of the greatest ideas can come from our minds working on problems subconsciously, while we’re busy doing something else.
The key is to try and do something fairly mindless, to allow your brain to think through your problem at the same time. You might be showering, cleaning or exercising when inspiration hits. And you get the benefit of a clean and sparkling kitchen or bathroom, as well as the perfect headline for an article or the right way to make a logo stand out. So you get two advantages by knowing how to manage chronic freelance procrastination. Especially if you enjoy a tidy house!
- Automate or outsource dull tasks you keep putting off. Or create your own solution and potentially sell it to others
- Appreciate the sign that you may be underestimating timescales for projects. Or if you need to invest some time and money in learning and developing your skills more to improve your abilities and self-confidence.
- Constant procrastination may be a sign it’s time for a break or change in career, which is a lot easier if you’re self-employed.
- Manageable procrastination allows your brain to have ‘eureka’ moments while you’re doing something else. Your most creative ideas and solutions can happen while you’re cleaning or exercising.
Ways to manage chronic freelance procrastination
The level and effect of procrastination will be different for each of us. And not every tip may work for your individual situation. But by having a range of techniques available, you can try various solutions until you come across the most effective combination for your personality and career.
1. Planning and prioritisation
It’s easy to procrastinate when you feel overwhelmed and lost in a mass of work. But spending five minutes listing out your tasks, and choosing 2-3 key deliverables for each day, will make everything a lot more manageable.
As long as you get the most important things done, you can relax or procrastinate without stress for guilt. And by putting everything else onto a ‘to do when you can be bothered’ list, you can make the most of days when you’re motivated to work more.
2. Daily habits and routines
Flexibility is one of the big attractions of freelancing. You can choose to start work at 9am or 9pm if you like. But it’s easy to lose the separation between your career and personal life. Or to let bad habits start having a big impact.
Building good habits and routines might seem a bit boring. But it helps get you into a work mindset, and ensure that you’re getting things done. Some famous authors, inventors and freelancers use tricks like getting dressed up for working at home. Or going for a walk and then returning ready to get started, after their morning ‘commute’.
Even small things can change your focus. If you watch famous sportspeople before a game, they’ll always follow the same procedure as a way to settle their nerves and put themselves in competitive mode.
For most people, it will be better to start by introducing small new habits, rather than trying to overhaul your entire daily schedule. It can be as easy as making sure you have a clean desk, fresh coffee and a pastry before starting for the day.
3. Set limits and rewards for getting things done
It’s easy to believe the only way to become successful is to work productively 24 hours a day, only pausing to share the occasional motivational image on social media. But that’s an unsustainable recipe for burnout, and illnesses.
Lots of studies have shown that most people are only productive for a few hours each day, and this time needs to be spent in deep, focused work for the best results. And there’s no difference in the output between someone working 50-55 hours each week, and someone putting in 70 hours.
If you know there are two or three important things you need to get done, set yourself some time limits using one of the various methods available (for example, the Pomodoro Technique). Then use the rest of your day for less vital tasks, including meetings, research, creative thinking.
Time limits such as Pomodoro also help you to break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable, chunks. Not only does this stop you from being overwhelmed, but humans are better at remembering and finishing incomplete tasks than if something hasn’t been started.
And set yourself rewards for doing the hard work. It can be anything you enjoy, from ice cream to exercise. Just be careful you don’t get carried away if your reward involves television or videogames.
4. Do the most difficult thing first
Often referred to as the ‘Eat the Frog’ method, doing your hardest task first makes use of the focus and concentration you have at the start of the working day. When that’s become sustainable, you can always build up the number, but it’s more important to succeed with a single deliverable than fail to complete two or three.
Like eating your vegetables first, it means you can look forward to more enjoyable tasks later in the day, boosted by the satisfaction of having tackled the biggest challenge. And it also means you can’t keep putting off anything intimidating, which has a tendency to let the imagined difficulty spiral out of proportion.
In many cases you’ll find that by getting started on that ‘difficult’ job, it’ll actually turn out to be easier and more enjoyable than you imagined.
5. Optimise your working environment
It’s always better to work in a pleasant environment. Some freelancers prefer coffee shops or co-working spaces, and you can switch between different venues to mix things up and get a creative boost.
You may prefer the solitude of a home office, or even move between the two during each week. In any case, it’s important to find what makes for your best working environment.
This means investing in good quality equipment, from laptops, headphones and webcams, to desks and chairs. If you’re spending hours at a keyboard and screen, it’s important to set things up ergonomically to protect your health and income.
Access to good natural light and a nice view can make a big difference to your workspace. Along with plants, inspirational art or posters, family photos, or easy access to useful paperwork. Whether you prefer a small, uncluttered space, or somewhere filled with keepsakes is entirely down to you, as long as it’s how you work best.
6. Set your ideal level of distractions
Most advice on freelance productivity recommends shutting down internet browsers and social media, hiding your mobile phone, and working away in peace and quiet. And this might be ideal for you.
You can switch your phone to silent, turn off notifications, or set office hours when you let clients know you won’t be checking or responding to emails.
But this isn’t the best way of working for everyone. You might find you are more productive with a soundtrack of ambient noise, or a playlist of familiar songs. Or you may find the occasional trip into a Wikipedia rabbit hole leads to a new angle for a piece of work.
If you struggle to focus for any length of time, no matter what steps you take, it might be worth getting professional advice. But you can also improve your concentration by taking up a hobby such as reading books in print, learning a language or starting to play an instrument. Just as going to the gym can build your muscles, exercising your mind in the right way can build your ability to focus.
As with many of the tips on managing procrastination, it’s about finding the right way for you to achieve your best work.
7. Make sure to escape the office, and to be sociable away from work
If you’re a lone freelancer working from home and juggling a busy workload, it can be easy to become chained to your desk. And that’s fine for short periods while you’re meeting last-minute deadlines, but over time it will contribute to the risk of burnout and isolation.
While many freelancers may also be introverts, it’s a mistake to think this means constantly wanting to be working alone. Spending time with friends and family will let you escape from thinking about work for a bit, and can sometimes give you valuable insights and inspiration. But it’s also useful to meet up with other freelancers or business owners (even if you’re introverted).
Along with new clients or collaborators, it’s a valuable chance to vent any frustrations. Or to get ideas and feedback on new projects. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, as you’ll often find plenty of other freelancers struggle with similar issues. Even those you might assume are just effortlessly successful.
Online communities can be a great way to be social when you don’t have time to meet offline. If you don’t have any friends or family with experience of being self-employed, groups like our own Creative Freelancers UK can provide you with a supportive and welcoming network who can understand the situation you’re in.
You might prefer to go for a nature walk with a close friend, or head to the local coffee shop or pub to meet up with more people. But getting away from your laptop or desk doesn’t just give you something to look forward to. It also provides a set time for work to stop. Which can motivate you to get things done, rather than assuming you can procrastinate now and then make up the time later in the evening.
8. Find accountability partners to support getting things done
Ultimately every freelancer is accountable to their clients. But if you’re prone to procrastination, it generally means there’s little time for feedback once you’ve let a deadline creep up on you.
It also means any non-client tasks like invoicing and business admin can be endlessly postponed, leaving you with problems when tax returns are due, or missing out on other opportunities.
One solution is to find an accountability partner. This could be another freelancer in a similar situation, or with a little more experience. As long as they’re happy to check in regularly on your progress. And give you some encouragement to continue forging ahead.
The flip side is agreeing to consequences if you’re not making progress. You don’t want to force your accountability partner to always be playing ‘bad cop’, as they’re volunteering to help you. From the start, you should offer some kind of punishment for yourself if you miss agreed milestones on tasks
And make sure any incentives or negative consequences are significant enough to make a difference (without being too professionally or financially painful!).
9. Reign in your perfectionism to beat procrastination
Not only are perfectionism and procrastination more closely linked than you might imagine, they also combine to make a vicious circle. You delay getting started because you’re worried about creating something good enough, and start to miss deadlines. And then you take even longer to produce something of an even higher standard. All because you’re trying to make up for missing the earlier dates.
It’s important to find a balance between striving for a high quality of work, and making sure you’re reliably delivering projects. And the earlier you can start sharing drafts or finished items with clients, the easier it is to accommodate any feedback. So you can ensure you’ve met their brief on time.
Otherwise, you can find yourself discovering issues or trying to interpret vague instructions at the last minute and still deliver a perfect piece of work on your first attempt.
As you gain experience with more clients, you’ll also realise that perfection is an impossible target to hit. Clients are unpredictable and often fall in love with work that you might have been a little disappointed with. And those pieces you felt were perfectly crafted may be sent back for revisions.
Always remember that your client will have a different perspective of quality, based on their own objectives and experiences. You might be tempted to compare your work unfavourably to examples produced by the best freelancers in your industry. But your client would have hired them instead if that’s what they wanted (or had the budget for).
Aim to produce your best work for your clients, but don’t strive endlessly for perfection at the expense of delivery.
10. Remember successes, and record your achievements
If you’re worrying and procrastinating about your current projects, it can be really motivating to look back at your previous successes.
When you’ve produced some great work, it’s important to add it to your website or portfolio as a way to attract future clients and to try and secure reviews and testimonials. It’s also a great way to help keep imposter syndrome and self-doubt at bay.
Studies of marriages and workplaces all suggest that negative comments and criticism have a bigger impact than compliments and praise. The ratio can be as big as five positive outcomes balancing just one negative response. And it’s easy to internalise relatively cold responses from clients as being more critical when you’re dealing with people remotely.
Having a record of your previous successes and achievements on projects can be a useful counterbalance if you’re questioning your skills and abilities. And it can help to motivate you in action rather than procrastinating.
Ultimately, learning how to manage chronic freelance procrastination doesn’t mean you need to completely reinvent yourself, your business and your lifestyle.
By spending a little time thinking about your strengths, and experimenting with the techniques which work best for your individual situation, you can find ways that procrastination can help you with creative breakthroughs, rather than holding you back.