Todoist is an app designed for freelancers who find it hard to focus when not out on a job. They've teamed up with us to help Freelancer Club Members stay focused and get through their to-do list every day. We've been playing with it for a couple of weeks and, my word, it feels good when you tick a task off the list. Here are their top tips when it comes to increasing productivity.

As a freelancer, your livelihood depends on a number of chargeable hours you can source on a consistent basis. That said, the number one skill that will allow you to build your business and the lifestyle you desire, is the ability to ruthlessly single-task.

Hypotheses have been tested and the results are undeniable: Multi-tasking is to your work what smoking is to your health.  Trying to do more than one thing at the same time is killing your productivity.

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Here are just a few unsettling statistics:

  • Trying to focus on more than one thing at a time reduces your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter.
  • On average, those who regularly work on computers are distracted every 10.5 minutes.
  • Being distracted by incoming calls or emails can lower your IQ by as much 10 points.

Luckily, it’s not all bad news. 44% of those work distractions are self-inflicted and another 23% come from one serial-infractor: email.

That means you have the ability to cut out (or at least drastically reduce) 67% of the productivity-killing distractions that derail your work.



Organisation is key.


Here’s why one thing at a time works better :

When you work on one thing at a time, you tend to work on the right things.

Effective single-tasking requires planning ahead. Starting your day without a plan is just asking for distraction and inefficiency. When you sit down in the morning, or better yet the night before, to plan your to-do list it forces you to prioritise and consider which tasks will have the highest impact on your work (instead of getting lost in the never-ending weeds of seemingly urgent, yet ultimately unimportant busy work).

In short, you’ll be someone who is constantly improving their freelance business.

Single-tasking helps you accomplish more in less time and with far less stress. Intentionally focusing on one task at a time has been proven to be the most efficient way to move through your to-do list.  It also lowers feelings of anxiety and frustration and increases feelings of perceived effort. The bottom line is that working through your to-do list one task at a time is an effective way to become a happier, more productive freelancer.


How to build a rock-solid single-tasking habit


There aren’t any magical shortcuts when it comes to single-tasking but there are a handful of actions that you can take to integrate single-tasking into your workflow. The following is a list of the best single-tasking strategies– they are not mutually exclusive and are actually far more effective when used together.


The Essential 4

These are the core components of effective single-tasking:

  1. Cut out distractions.
  2. Make a single-tasking plan you’ll actually stick to.
  3. Deal with unavoidable distractions efficiently.
  4. Get back on track when you’ve fallen off the single-tasking wagon.


Cutting out distractions


On average, it takes a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to your original task once you’ve been interrupted. The first step to single-tasking is to cut out as many distractions in your workday as possible.


Work offline whenever possible.

Most of the time working on our computers is spent online. That said, whenever you’re working on a task that doesn’t require the Internet, it’s to your advantage to disconnect. Whether you’re editing, writing, brainstorming or curating, if you can do it offline, you most certainly should.


Schedule your email time.


When used wisely, email can actually be a very productive tool.  When used carelessly, it’s a Pandora’s box of distractions just waiting to derail your day. But it can be tamed.

To deal with email, it’s best to schedule specific blocks of time into your day to power through your inbox. We recommend checking it just twice a day: at 11am and again 4:30pm. Although freelancers can have unpredictable schedules, you can easily adapt this strategy to the times of day that suit you best.

To achieve inbox zero, you don’t need to spend your whole day in your email inbox. Simply follow this 2 minute rule: immediately deal with any emails that will take 2-minutes or less. Add everything else to your to-do list to focus on later during your designated email time.

With Todoist, you can link your to-do list to your Gmail or Outlook account with dedicated plug-ins. No matter which to-do app you choose, an email integration should be top priority.


Making a single-tasking plan you’ll actually stick to.


In order to single-task effectively, you need to know what it is exactly that you want to be working on.  During the day, you should never have to ask yourself the question “What should I work on next?”. 


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Keep a to-do list with focused, actionable items


Make time, either first thing in the morning or at the end of the work day, to consider your current projects and identify the next concrete task you need to complete to move things forward. Add that task to your to-do list. While a daily review requires a time investment up front, you will reap the rewards throughout the day as you single-task your way through your list.



Visualize your tasks one at a time.


Create unrealistically short deadlines.


Giving yourself less time to complete tasks forces you to stay focused.

Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in organizations, was recently quoted in Harvard Business Review saying:

There’s nothing like a deadline to keep things moving. And when things are moving fast, we can’t help but focus on them. How many people run a race while texting? If you really only have 30 minutes to finish a presentation you thought would take an hour, are you really going to answer an interrupting call?


Indeed, time sensitive deadlines are great for creating tunnel vision type focus.


Keep a timer on your tasks.


Timesheets can actually be a powerful single-tasking tool whether or not you bill your time hourly.  Tracking how you spend your time at work forces you to commit to one task at a time. There are a number of great time-tracking options out there (for example Toggl, which integrates beautifully with Todoist). Realising how much time you actually spend on what can be really eye opening and a motivational boost to your productivity.


Theme your days.


Most of us have multiple projects and areas of responsibility we have to manage simultaneously. It’s difficult to stay focused when you’re constantly switching between several different kinds of tasks for any number of projects throughout the day. One way to single-task your way through multiple projects is to theme your days.

Productivity consultants themselves use this technique. Mike Vardy, a writer, public speaker, and founder of the company, Productivityist, has said:

One of the best things I ever did to make sure I stayed on top of all of what I had going on was to assign each of the days of the week a general theme. By doing this, I gave my mind clues as to what to place precedence on each day before I even have to look at my to do list. So instead of my mind asking a loaded question, “What do I have to do today?”, it now asks a question that has fewer possibilities by default, “It’s Monday, so it’s Blogging Day. What tasks do I need/want to do that fall under that theme?.


Dealing with interruptions


No matter how disciplined you are in cutting out distractions and planning your day, unexpected things are bound to come up. Here are a few strategies to make sure those interruptions don’t throw off the rest of your day.


Procrastinate on purpose.


Research shows that people handle 73% of interruptions immediately, whether the task is time-sensitive or not. While some interruptions are unavoidable, you can limit their impact on your productivity by simply adding them to your to-do list to come back to later.


Keep a “read later” and “watch later” list.


One of the great self-interruptions is videos or interesting articles that you inevitably come across while looking for something else online.

Fortunately, this type of distraction has a simple antidote. Whenever you encounter a tempting article, save it for later. There are several Chrome extensions that will you allow you to do this in a matter of seconds. Todoist also offers browser extensions for Google Chrome and Safari that will allow you to save the article or video as a task so you’ll remember to come back to it later.


Jot down your spur-of-the-moment ideas to revisit later.


Keep a “bright ideas” glossary.


Have you ever racked your brain for a solution to a tricky problem, only to have the answer pop into your head when you weren’t even thinking about it?  Our brains tend to make connections at the least likely moments, often when we’re focusing on something else. However, if we take the time to follow up on each idea the moment it occurs to us, we’ll never get anything done.

Instead of following up on your ideas immediately, keep a running list of thoughts you want to come back to later.  You can use Todoist or a pen and paper (or any number of other note taking apps) to capture thoughts and ideas to revisit later.


Set aside exploring time.


Your “read later” and “bright ideas” lists will only be effective if you actually make the time to go back and review them. Unfocused, agenda-free thinking time is essential for creativity and professional development. If we’re always in heads-down productivity mode, we may miss opportunities and lose track of the big picture.  

Intentionally delegate time for reading and inspirational research so it doesn’t turn into a distracting activity.


Getting back on track


There will inevitably be days when the temptation to multi-task gets the better of you. Don’t panic! Here are two ways to get your focus back:


Take regular breaks throughout the day.


Our brains have not evolved to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. Studies have shown that the longer we work without breaks, the more prone to distraction we become. As one article in Harvard Business Review explains, the benefits of scheduling regular breaks to refocus on the task at hand are priceless:

When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives, and, as the authors of the study report, reliably contributes to better performance.


Forgive yourself when your day doesn’t go as planned.


When your day hasn’t gone right and you’ve succumbed to the temptations of multitasking and you leave the work day with most of your to-do’s unchecked, give yourself permission to just let it go.

Ruminating on the past is one of the least productive things you can do. Research suggests that practicing self-compassion when you haven’t accomplished as much as you want to, actually corresponds with more productive behaviors on similar tasks in the future.

Even the most productive of us have less-than-productive days. Forgive yourself and redouble your resolve to put the single-tasking strategies you learned in this post into practice tomorrow.


Your single-tasking game plan summary


  • Cut out distractions. Turn off your notifications, work offline whenever possible.

  • Schedule your email time.

  • Make a daily single-tasking plan. You should never have to ask yourself, “what should I work on next?” in the middle of your work day.  

  • Create time sensitive deadlines.

  • Time your tasks.

  • Schedule separate, work-free time for inspiration.

  • Take it easy on yourself and get back on the wagon when you fall off.


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