Career Advice

The Power of Slow: How Busy Freelancers Enhance Productivity by Working Smarter

By Herbert Lui May 23rd, 2014

By nature, freelancing is feast or famine. Big projects mean less time for the “luxuries” of life, like rest and renewal. However, many of us also burn out at the end of long projects, or worse, stay stuck in the hamster wheel of unrealistic deadlines (which could potentially make us wonder why we started freelancing in the first place!).

Recently, many freelance entrepreneurs have started to recommend a strategy for success that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive: slowing down. In order to avoid burnout or submitting subpar work, slowing down allows you to work smarter and more efficiently. In a world where technology has made most things instantaneous, remember that we’re humans, not robots.

Here are a few principles designers, authors, and developers are using to be less like the hare and more like the turtle:

1. Sleep Well and Take Short Breaks

While a lot of employees try to spend more hours at work, Seattle front-end web developer Nick Cox decided the best way to increase his value to clients was to take care of himself, rather than burning the candle at both ends.

“I found that the cognitive toll of sleep deprivation was most evident when I was working closely with a coworker,” wrote Cox. “In these pair programming sessions, I struggled not only to write coherent code, but to communicate the deeper intentions of my work.”

Cox decided to incorporate eight hours of sleep into his routine and began meditating during chunks of free time during the day. “Running the automated test suite on our application’s Ruby code gave me a perfect opportunity to pull my hands away from the keyboard, place them on my knees, straighten my posture, close my eyes, and begin breathing deeply,” he added. “Anywhere I had time to check my phone, I had time to breathe.”

Taking breaks and getting an appropriate amount of sleep, although simple tasks, made a significant difference for Cox. Functioning at a high pace without renewal is like wanting to drive without stopping to fill up the fuel tank. And if meditating isn’t for you, I’ve also found walks to be extremely renewing.

2. Airplane Mode

The fact that a game called Inbox Zero legitimately exists shows how consumed we are with email. Bestselling author and Betabeat editor-at-large Ryan Holiday discovered the perfect time to escape this nagging chore was during flights, where he had an option between paying for WiFi or completing uninterrupted work in offline mode.

“Take yourself off the grid for a second—stop the bleeding—and then go through your inbox offline,” Holiday writes in Thought Catalog. “You’ll be amazed at how quickly you start banging them out [and] how many emails you’d saved for later you are now fine with deleting.”

A few years ago, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham wrote about the differences between the Maker’s and Manager’s schedules, but for freelancers, there are no differences. Figure out your peak hours and use them wisely. If you’re in a day fragmented by meetings, don’t begin “drag work” that saps your time. Studies show it takes up to 25 minutes to get back to a normal level of focus on one task after a brief interruption.

3. Matching your Ultradian Rhythm with Naps

Even though employees eat lunch at their desks and cram work between other activities, bestselling author and peak performance coach Tony Schwartz points out in the New York Times how these workers may not be the most productive or effective. Counter to mainstream thought, Schwartz suggests taking naps or breaks every 90 minutes to restore energy.

“During the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue,” he said. “Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.”

Award-winning commercial photographer and Creative Live co-founder Chase Jarvis subscribes to this method of renewal as well. As he echoed on his blog, “The theory boils down to the fact that we can’t increase the hours in the day, but we can increase the energy with which we make the most of those hours.”

4. Entertain Yourself

Studies show spending time on distracting sites can be beneficial for productivity, because you temporarily loosen your finite amount of willpower. Copywriter Deidre Rienzo regularly takes TV breaks if she’s ahead of schedule and leaves the office to go for quick walks.

Not all distractions are helpful, however. Rienzo notes in another post that she quit Facebook in order to focus for longer periods of time. Facebook, like other digital networks, is built to be more addictive the more you use it. Find your middle ground—I don’t log in to Facebook until after 6PM.

5. Switch Projects to Renew Inspiration

Creative burnout is a very real handicap. While focus is crucial to success, single-tasking and staying locked in a silo for too long could drain your creative ability.

“Like any artist who never completely finishes a painting before starting a new one, work on various projects at the same time,” wrote Kuno Creative project manager Katherine Smith. “This can keep your creative energy high, and when you are stuck, a new project will seem interesting and fresh.”

In a way, collaborating on multiple projects also leads to a tendency to procrastinate; we like to switch between tasks to avoid monotony. Structured procrastination, or productive procrastination, is a strategy used by those who tend to delay their projects but know themselves well enough to substitute another project for a TV marathon or Facebook binge.

Smith also advises surrounding yourself with creative people and starting conversations if you’re stuck in a rut. Talk out your problems.

Closing Thoughts

Although designer Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk took place a few years ago, it still has relevance today: While most people spend 25 years learning, 40 years working, and 15 years retired, Sagmeister adjusted the model to take five years out of retirement and mix them into his working years. These sabbaticals give him enough time to recharge, travel, and reassess his career.

As historian B.H. Liddell Hart once wrote: “A life spent in sowing a few grains of fruitful thought is a life spent more effectively than in hasty action that produces a crop of weeds.”

Image via tkwriteinme

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