Can’t Get Organized? Try These 5 Writing Productivity Breakthroughs

Carol Tice

Try These Writing Productivity Breakthroughs. Makealivingwriting.comHave you been trying in vain to get more writing or freelance marketing done?

If you want to earn more as a freelancer, improving your writing productivity can be huge. I’ve recently coached two different writers who told me they doubled their income, just by getting more efficient with their work day.

Productivity gains can be truly transformative for your career.

But what if you’ve tried the apps, used the checklists, gotten up earlier…and still nothing? You spend much of the day in a fog, trying to get focused and take action.

I have a confession to make: Often, that used to be me.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some contrarian approaches to productivity out of necessity, as a staff writer who *had* to file 3-4 stories a week or lose my job.

If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, and it takes all day to get one tiny thing accomplished, I have five ideas for you to try out:

1. Kill your list

Recently, a writer posted their goals for the month, for my review. They included:

  1. Get on and learn about LinkedIn
  2. Get on and learn about Twitter
  3. Finish my writer website
  4. Start a blog
  5. Send out queries
  6. Attend in-person networking
  7. Learn about Pinterest maybe?

Does that sound realistic to you, on top of writing for current freelance clients? Of course not.

There’s a ton to know about mastering each social media platform, not to mention the effort involved in conceptualizing and launching a blog. Which is apparently going to happen while you also pitch editors and do in-person networking?

Come on. I am the queen of having unrealistic expectations of how much I can get done, but that even sounded crazy to me.

In my coaching, I’ve discovered short lists are much more powerful and effective. Challenge yourself to pare down your ‘priority’ list of weekly or monthly goals to only your three top goals, or even just one. Try simplifying — it can leave you less overwhelmed and help you get more done.

Another way to quickly prioritize without getting bogged down ordering a long list is to call a friend and talk about what you need to get done. In conversation, you will naturally put the most important things first. Take notes, and you’ll have your priorities.

2. Stop organizing

Do you wake up every day frantic to get to your ‘top priorities’ — but at the end of the day, find you haven’t managed to get any of them done?

Here’s a tip: Stop making it a priority to figure out the priorities.

Let it go! And simply take action. Sometimes the task of organizing is simply another way of procrastinating.

If you make something a top priority on your list but it truly isn’t that important, your subconscious mind will rebel. You’ll find yourself poking around Facebook, watering the plants…anything but get to that supposedly urgent item.

Also, the act of prioritizing takes time — often, completely wasted time. Because in the end, we do what seems doable to us in the given moment, rather than being able to slavishly follow a priority list.

I’ve wasted too many hours on way too many days, because I felt compelled to prioritize, and then to be sure I’m doing things in order of importance. On days when I skip this and dive in, I get tons done. This has led me to declare my independence from the tyranny of compulsive prioritizing.

Instead of worrying about whether what you’re about to do is the ‘top’ goal, grab the thing most at hand. What could you do and put behind you, right now, that feels urgent?

Do it. Then, take the next thing that bubbles up into your consciousness, and knock it out. As you take things off our to-do list, your stress level goes down, and it becomes easier to keep on rolling and do more.

3. Ask one question

One of the reasons freelance writing is a difficult career to pursue is that there are so many possibilities. It’s easy to get bogged down.

If you’re confronted by a long list of options, ask yourself one important question:

Which of these choices is most likely to be my fastest route to more income?

We’ve all got ‘wanna-do’ lists, but you can cut through the clutter by asking yourself which of these is the most direct path to earning. That should clarify your top priority. Do what will most help your business first.

4. Go with your natural flow

Once, years ago, my husband worked on a documentary about chronobiology. Learning about this concept made a deep impression on me, because I knew I had times of day when I was naturally far more creative and able to write. At last, a productivity key that made sense!

Some of us can write the Great American Novel in the hour before the kids get up, or while riding the bus home from work. Others are on fire from 9 p.m. to midnight. Personally, I often feel like my head is stuffed with cotton balls around 2-3 pm.

As freelancers, we’re able to set our own schedules. We can work according to our chronobiology. For me, the ideal schedule these days includes getting up fairly early, taking a 15-minute nap in the early afternoon (impossible at most day jobs!), getting some exercise nearly every day, and trying to quit writing by 4 p.m.

Efforts to squeeze in more work while my kids are around, and as evening falls, tend to go nowhere. I want my couple time, so my mind fights against evening writing sessions. And at this point, I’m old enough that late nights no longer work for me.

If you can tune into your natural rhythm and use it, you may cut a ton of inefficiency out of your day. Put your writing time where it happens most easily, do marketing at other times, and you’ll get a lot more done.

5. Stop comparing

If there’s one time-wasting thing freelance writers are obsessed with, it’s how other freelance writers do things, and how long it takes them to get it done.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had people ask me:

  • How long it takes me to send 100 query letters out
  • How long it takes me to write an article
  • What percentage of my queries get a response

The list goes on. Know what the sad part is? The answers to these productivity questions will not help you.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes me, or the writer down the street, to write something. All that matters is how long it takes you to do it — and what you can do to cut your time down.

Stop worrying about how fast others are, and compete with your past level of efficiency. Look to improve it. Lather, rinse, repeat on that, and you will become more efficient. That’s all that matters.

Your mileage may vary

Our culture is currently obsessed with productivity. From what we read, you’d think all the other moms are decluttering for an hour daily and competing in triathlons while homeschooling their children and volunteering at the soup kitchen. It makes you feel like everyone else is getting 10 times more done than you do.

I suspect it’s a lie.

The fact is, all of us have ‘fallow’ days, weeks, or even months, when we’re less productive than our norm. We’re not machines, and we can’t just crank out great writing around the clock.

I wish I had a dime for every day I told my husband, “I feel like I didn’t manage to DO anything today!”

I must be getting something done sometime — for instance, I wrote a new, 100-page e-book and launched a mastermind program for bloggers earlier this year. But don’t ask me when or how!

My point is, even a small effort each day adds up over time, even if we ‘feel’ unproductive.

If you’re in a slack period, the best thing to do may be to simply forgive yourself for needing the down time. Then, try to use it to sow seeds for future projects.

Have you ever taken a trip, and suddenly found yourself jotting down tons of great ideas? Shaking up our norm and taking breaks can unleash a lot of creativity.

Remember, we don’t always know what may grow from ideas we have during down time. So don’t beat yourself up about it!

Sometimes, our bodies and minds need to recharge. Don’t fight that. Take the time you need, and you may soon find yourself more productive than ever.

What’s made you more productive? Share your tips in the comments.



  1. Mary Rose

    I love this advice! Basically: (1) get into a flow, and (2) take action each day. Right on!

    • Carol Tice

      Well, if that’s what spoke to you, then yes!

      I’m just throwing these out there because they’ve worked for me, and some of them run counter to most of the advice I see out there.

      I’m a HUGE fan of using your chronobiology to be more productive — if you haven’t tuned into that, definitely recommend trying it.

      • Ryan Armstrong

        Thank you for this great advice. It is exactly what I need right now to get back track with my writing. I absolutely know the benefit of using your personal chronobiology to be more productive. I find that I am more of a morning person than most people I know and work with on a daily basis. I need to remember also that I cannot always operate above or at 100%. Have a great day. Happy writing.

  2. Amy Tufano-Moran

    Hi Carol, thank you so much for this post! I’m just getting started and I’m really worried about making the transition from having a “regular job” to being a freelancer. I fear spending too much time on facebook or developing an overwhelming desire to clean cabinets. I feel like this is the no-nonsense advice I needed to remind me of what I already know—stop thinking and just get to work. Your blog, your books, and the Den have all been great resources to help reassure me that I can do this! I don’t have any advice for others yet—but hopefully soon!

    • Carol Tice

      Glad this helped you, Amy! I have hard-and-fast rules about doing NO household chores or recreational social media during business hours. I was fortunate in that I worked from home for two different full-time jobs, where editors expected me to be available to them and working a regular work day. That discipline has served me well when I went out on my own.

      • Amy Tufano-Moran

        I totally agree Carol!! I think to start I’m going to get myself out of the house–coffee shops and the library—just to help reduce the temptation to clean (which interestingly only hits when I should be doing something else). I’m pretty good about staying off of social media while I’m at work now, so I just need to stick to it. I feel like if I remind myself to stick to these “rules” and really focus on getting something done in my allotted time increments—writing, pitching, studying—success will come. I’m also feeling I need to remind myself to be realistic. Success is going to take time. I’m not going to recoup my salary for a while—but steady progress needs to be celebrated and built upon.

        • Carol Tice

          I love coworking spots — fewer distractions than the coffeeshop, and good networking, too.

          Why say, “I’m not going to recoup my salary for a while.”? Maybe if you market actively, you CAN. See how that unfolds. Speaking as someone who ended up making about 40% MORE than my old salary when I got into freelance writing… 😉

          • Amy Tufano-Moran

            Coworking spots…? Tell me more!!!

            As far as salary goes—just trying to be patient and realistic with myself. However, I intend to make much more than my current salary. I have set up a goal sheet for what I would like to earn each month in order to get me to, then past my current salary. I’m hoping this will help me stay focused. I would welcome anyone’s feedback on using this approach, if they found it helpful, a better alternative, etc.

          • Amy Tufano-Moran

            I should really just google before asking questions! I found 2 great coworking spots very close to my house. Very cool–will check them out! These seem to offer a great sense of community and support for those who are self-employed. Maybe I’ll pitch a post about my experience. 🙂

          • Carol Tice

            Ooh, that’s awesome!

          • Carol Tice

            Here’s my alternative, Amy —

            I think WeWork is the biggest coworking chain, but just Google that and your city and hopefully there are some options. I spent several summers going to coworking full time, when my kids were littler.

      • Effie

        Hi Carol
        How do you find stay-at-home production jobs such as the two you describe?

        • Carol Tice

          I’m not sure what sort of ‘production’ jobs you mean, Effie — I’m a freelance writer, and writing coach. If you mean how do you find THOSE gigs…there are 800 free posts on here about that, and check out my ebooks tab as well.

  3. Steve Szubert

    Carol, you are so right! I’ve just done the math…

    The simple aim of writing just one page a day adds up to a full book in less than one year. But wirh a To Do list like the one in your example? It just never gets done.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly, Steve.

      I’m as guilty as the next person of fantasizing that I can do 11 things today…but I became much more productive when I started saying, today the focus is ONE client. ONE set of marketing. ONE activity.

      For instance, today my one activity is presenting online — I’m actually doing a Den 2X Income Accelerator Office Hours Q&A, followed by presenting Bryan Cohen’s author copywriting training, followed by my kickoff mastermind for Small Blog, Big Income! So that’s essentially the day. To try to pretend I’ll get any other big projects tackled today would just lead to feeling like a failure later.

      And I think that’s actually a big part of the problem. We load up the to-dos, can’t get to many of them, and then feel like, “I’m falling behind.” or “I’m not very productive.” Which starts a negative thought spiral.

      Instead, big a big goal and go for the win! And do it again tomorrow. 😉

  4. Marcie

    I reduced my list to 3 things to accomplish per week. This helped me to better manage my time and my schedule. And it made me feel better about not trying to complete 10 things per week (yes, my list looked like the one in tip #1).

    Also, I started going with my flow. I work best between 6 am and 12 p.m. So, I make sure I’m up within the 5 a.m. hour and working by 6.

    • Carol Tice

      Love how that’s working for you, Marcie! For me the golden hours are about 8-1. Then I need a break and if I’m lucky can catch a second wind 4-6 pm, if kids are out doing activities.

  5. Amy Hardison

    Thank you, Carol! This post is so timely. My task list is almost the same as the person you used as the example, except that I haven’t gotten as far as Twitter and Pinterest. I have also been battling the fact that I only have about 15 hours of child-free working time, and I just need to let it go and do what I can in that time. Thank you for the reminder!

    • Carol Tice

      When your work hours are limited, you DEFINITELY have to be realistic and go for your top priority. 😉

      And…forgive yourself if this isn’t moving as fast as you’d hope it would. That’s just not very many hours! One thing I’d be looking at is how you can sneak more hours in. Could a partner, relative, or babysitting swap deal give you another half-day somewhere? I used to be very clever about that. My point of view is kids need alone-daddy time, too, and supportive partners should be willing to take a block of Saturday or Sunday time so you can get this writing thing rolling. 😉

      • Amy Hardison

        Carol, that is a great idea! Thank you. I will try it out this weekend. 🙂

  6. Patricia Trebe

    I needed this today. Funny how that happens! Thanks for posting.

  7. Anthony Metivier

    Killing down the to-do list is definitely critical for getting more done.

    I’ve always liked the Dan Sullivan philosophy of getting 3 good things done per day. Obviously, most of us have to get more than that done before quitting time, but it’s still a nice way of framing it.

    You can also place a value on each of those tasks, ranking them in order of importance and making sure the most valuable one gets done with the best of your energy first. This has helped with my writing a great deal.

    • Carol Tice

      Well…I find I bog down at the whole ‘prioritize these tasks first,’ so I tend to go on intuition rather than waste hours trying to figure that out.

      I find the important stuff tends to get done. Also, if you work your chronobiology and seize on that blog post when you have an itch to write it, instead of pushing that creative urge aside and waiting until it hits your #1 priority, that post is easier, better, and faster to write, I find.

      • Katherine Swarts

        I used to approach work with a “get the easy stuff out of the way first” mentality–but my own chronobiology, which much prefers the morning for “thinking” work, rebelled. The important stuff got done, but usually with me struggling to concentrate and finishing exhausted.

        For me, it now works to do a LITTLE prioritizing–assign recurring tasks or task types to each day of the week, usually no more than 2 per day, and do those first without worrying which one goes before the other. (If I don’t know that instinctively, it’s not worth worrying about.) Then, I answer the important e-mails (I do still have a little trouble with “priority-judgment thinking” choosing which ones qualify); and everything else, which requires less attention and can be rolled to the next day where necessary, comes LAST.

  8. Nicole Gregory

    No need for me to be long winded today. Great advice in every word and I shall put it into action today, thanks!

  9. Brenda Zimmerman

    Thank you for this great reminder! Gotta start. That’s all there is to it.

  10. Emily

    All great tips! I think a lot of productivity advice makes things more complicated, but as you’ve pointed out, simplicity is key. If you just do less, less prioritizing, less listing, less comparing and take on fewer tasks, you’re going to get more done. I’ve found that the biggest thing to boost my productivity is just practicing minimalism in all aspects of my life!

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for showing me the common theme in many of my points, Emily — they all do really point to LESS. 😉

      Especially, less beating yourself up about what you’re NOT doing. Instead, celebrate the wins! And set few, realistic goals.

  11. Kurt Buss

    Great advice as always, Carol. I can relate to each of your breakthroughs. I spend a lot of time organizing my little work area and poring over lists and notes, etc. I have to admit it satiates my desire for orderliness (but not more than my desire to start earning). What intrigued me most was chronobiology. I’ll have to look it up for specifics, but I imagine it refers to our body clock. I recently worked a swing shift (2pm-10:30 pm) and it completely changed my life – for the worse. You can’t fight your body. Gotta go with the flow.
    Thanks again!

    • Carol Tice

      Kurt, my husband developed a seizure disorder after working late nights at a movie theater, so I am with you 100% on that.

      Poring over lists and notes…satisfies our need to PROCRASTINATE, mostly. I say, just bag it and start getting S*t done, and see if it doesn’t work better than worrying about what’s ‘top priority.’

  12. Lauren Steinheimer

    Solid advice!
    I love the line about the tyranny of compulsive prioritizing.
    A couple months ago, I caught myself adding “Make task list” to my task list. Looking at that made me realize how much time I wasted in the process of organizing my day every morning, only to have those plans go out the window once I started working.
    Now, I rely on daily freewriting to let my priorities bubble to the surface before I dive in to work. It helps declutter my mind so I can focus on the most important tasks. I guess this is similar to talking to a friend!
    I get a lot more done this way and don’t need to face the major bummer of an unfinished task list at the end of the day.
    Also- turning off phone notifications and only checking email at certain times of the day really helps me devote my full attention to creative work. Otherwise, it’s so easy for me to feel overwhelmed and pulled in too many different directions at once.

    • Carol Tice

      Love these tips — thanks for adding!

      Most of us have life stuff that happens, and having a rigid priority list only makes you feel like you failed.

      Instead, I come in and say, “What am I on fire to write, right now?” and do it — and more gets done.

  13. Nora King

    Hi Carol,
    This article hits home.
    Since I have chosen the writer’s lifestyle and since I live alone, I find it very difficult to create the structure I need to be successful. I used to resent my boss standing over me (literally at times). The case was that his priorities were different than mine.
    I would likely do better if I did have someone else here in the house with me on a daily basis to hold me accountable for the use of my time.

    • Carol Tice

      Not really…I have someone else, but they’re not going to hold you accountable for what YOU need to do. That’s up to you.

      This is where the rubber meets the road in freelancing vs having a j o b. You need to BUILD the structure and accountability you need. That’s why we have a Writer Accountability Buddies forum in Freelance Writers Den. 😉

  14. Barb

    I am a good writer with a poor attention span. Every 20 minutes or so I have to move and as long as I think of myself as a metronome I can get stuff done. Ya know – swing left, then right but spend most of the time in the middle.

    I recently had a room mate who is a freelance writer transitioning to a creative writer. Awesome girl, very inspirational, but her work ethic left me for dead and that discouraged me somewhat. She seemed to write day and night solidly for a few days then go out and party hard. I thought to myself if I have to work that hard to make a living perhaps I am pursuing the wrong dream. Following your blog and reading how other writers get stuff done has pulled me back in the magic of writing again. Thank you.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah…stop comparing! That’s how she rolls. We all do it differently. My days of writing around the clock are LONG over…and I still do OK. 😉

  15. Amy Beardsley

    GUILTY! I spend so much time prioritizing and organizing that I often don’t get anything done! And that is frustrating. When that happens, I tell myself “Just pick what’s on top and go through everything one at a time.” And that usually does the trick!

    Great article, thanks Carol!

  16. Katherine Swarts

    Ouch. I am guilty of violating all of the above, including personally adding one of the “straws” to the comparison-questions pile referenced in #5, but live and learn.

  17. Judith Docken

    Chronobiology – exactly! I started out trying to stick with a set schedule, and was wearing out, just like when I was working in an office. I have started honoring my own internal clock and working when my brain is “in the zone” as it were, and am getting way more done. I didn’t know there was a word for it but there is – chronobiology! I love it. I also like the concept of paring down The List to three things. I find I’m easily overwhelmed with a list that says “DO ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW”. Three items is better. Thank you so much for this great post!

  18. Margie

    My work days at home are bookended with family responsibilities (and even then, family and home life can seep into my work day). Oftentimes I have to sit there and figure out, “OK, I’ve got X amount of time–what can I realistically get done in that time frame that gets me closer to finishing this project, landing a client, etc.?”

    I’ve also learned that I can’t constantly “produce.” I can work on one writing project per day and finish it up the next and *maybe* partly work on a second project in the same day, but that’s it. It helps to be realistic and not overbook myself. Rolling with less time than I thought I’d have and allowing for a little bit of disorder so I can focus on the task at hand is the only way I can get things done at times.

    • Carol Tice

      Sometimes, knowing time is very short can really concentrate the mind, vs feeling like, ‘Oh, I have all day to get to this…’

      I learned from Ed Gandia to challenge myself when I see I’ve only got 15-20 minutes to not give up at that point and find SOMETHING I can get done. For me, I like to write blog posts in a sitting…but I’ve learned I might be able to write 80% of one in that brief time, if I’m willing to let go of that internal ‘rule.’

  19. EJ Phillips

    Thanks for this Carol. I really needed this right now. After going non-stop for years, writing, event production, pitching, PR, the business end of things, sitting on boards of directors, running, networking …I’m in a bit slow down and it feels strange, like I’m lost.
    It’s hard not being so productive at this time yet the to do lists still seem never ending. I know I should embrace the downtime, my brain feels so foggy and there’s no one to talk to about this.

  20. Gill Fernley

    Love this, Carol :). I really relate to the bit about feeling like ‘I didn’t DO anything today’ so instead of writing a To Do list, I’ve started writing a Did list. Every time I get something done, I write that down and then when I look back at the end of the day, I feel good for having proof that I did do things that day, and it makes me feel like doing more :).

    • Carol Tice

      I LOVE it! I’m all about celebrating the wins, rather than beating ourselves up for what we didn’t do.

  21. Maya

    I have a perpetual daily list of THINGS TO DO TODAY:
    1. Kill the to-do list
    2. JGSD – just get s**t done!
    It has made huge difference to my sanity 🙂
    By the way, I am now curious about this doco on chronobiology.
    Is it available yet?
    Cheers from Australia

    • Carol Tice

      It was a PBS documentary, many years ago, Maya.

  22. Heather A. Thomas

    Somedays my to-do-list is one item long:
    * Do something – Anything!

    I suspect that has more to do with fighting off depression symptoms than being super productive. I really like this post, and I can see the advice applying not just to work, but also to other things in my life (namely dealing with chronic illnesses).
    A word on the “I didn’t get anything done” thought: it’s possible to set yourself up on a perpetual negative feedback loop. I.E. Didn’t get anything done today > feel guilty > decreased motivation the next day > didn’t get anything done today.
    I guess that was actually a few words…

  23. Helen

    Hello Carol,
    Thank you! This is just what I needed to read today, as I’ve always thought intuitively that I know how to schedule my day’s work, but felt that I should be following some sort of more rigid, ‘organised’ schedule. Like you, I’m one to go against the grain of accepted knowledge, so this has truly helped me and put me in a really great mood, to boot! I’m a journalist who has always worked full-time for a media outlet – though now in PR for quite a number of years – working towards the freedom of a full-time freelance writing career.

    • Carol Tice

      If you’ve been a staff journalist, you know how to prioritize and get things done by instinct, at this point.

      I once had a therapist who was listening to yet another of my endless complaints about deadline stress ask me, “So, do you ever miss these deadlines?” I had to admit I didn’t.

      And that means we’re getting it done, and don’t have to stress out about prioritizing what to do when!

  24. Dennis Muigai

    I feel like this post is what I need most in my life right now. I have been having a very crammed to-do list. But this must change starting tomorrow.
    Thanks for this great post.

  25. Sona Mathews

    Your tips are really helpful when I feel boring or need something more to motivate myself. There are times when i cant get organized and I believe these breakthroughs are effective.

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