While it’s commonplace to hear people say they work best on a tight deadline, it’s something I prefer not to do. However, freelancing means sometimes (often), it’s necessary. So you have a rush job.
Tight deadlines happen for lots of reasons. Working with many different clients means you can have overlapping schedules. Often these schedules slip, and usually the index is one of the last pieces of the puzzle — so it gets squeezed.
Freelancers are also prey to feast or famine fears — we’re tempted to take all the work we can get when we can get it, to store up for a future slow period. Publishing cycles also mean work picks up at certain points during the year, as clients prepare their seasonal catalogs, so there’s not always a lot you can do to prevent a rush job.
Hopefully, you’ve negotiated a rush rate, so you are being well compensated for the long hours. Even so, you’d probably like to make the best use of those hours, and for that, you need laser-like focus.
My number-one, all-time favorite trick is to use a ritual. Parents and teachers know rituals are like gold when dealing with little kids, not known for their equanimity when faced with transitions. Bath and a book tell their little minds and bodies it’s time for bed. Singing the cleanup song signals the end of one activity and the preparation for another. Rituals work, no matter how old we are.
I love children’s literature; one of my favorite authors is E. L. Konigsburg, the author of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about two children who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a more recent novel, The View from Saturday, there’s a beautiful passage about rituals and the idea that getting ready to work is actually part of working itself.
Tillie said, “There are pens that come with ink in a cartridge, Noah, but I will have nothing to do with them.” So when we were back at her condo, Tillie taught me how to fill a pen, or, as she said, “How to properly fill a pen.”One: Turn the filling plunger counterclockwise as far as it will go. Two: Dip the nib completely into the ink. Three: Turn the filling plunger clockwise until it stops. Four: Hold the nib above the ink bottle and turn the plunger counterclockwise again until three drops of ink fall back into the bottle. Five: Turn the plunger clockwise to stop the drops. Six: Wipe the excess ink completely from pen and nib.When I told Tillie that six steps seemed like a lot to have to do before you begin, she said, “You must think of those six steps not as preparation for the beginning but as the beginning itself.”
A good ritual is like filling the pen — short, thoughtful, and purposeful. My basic one is just making a cup of tea or coffee, putting my phone away, and setting out a notebook and checklist. If you need more drastic measures (and we’ve all been there), here are a few more suggestions.
Use music or white noise I like Focus@Will, and my colleagues at PI also recommend Noisli and RainyCafe. Focus@Will and Noisli both have a timer feature. Some people are able to concentrate while listening to more complex music, but I find anything with vocals or even complicated instrumentation is too distracting.
Use headphones to block out ambient noise. Especially when working outside of our offices — at swim lessons or while waiting for a family member to finish a doctor’s appointment. They don’t have to be noise canceling, and when used with music or white noise.
Use scents. Are you seeing a pattern here? Setting up your environment to signal, “This is a place where I work, and now it’s time to work,” is key to a ritual. Additionally, some research shows citrus and mint may help improve focus and attention. Even if they don’t, at least your office will smell nice!
Use a timer. The well-known Pomodoro technique recommends working for 25 minutes and taking a 5-minute break. After two of these chunks, called “pomodoros,” you can take a longer break. Experiment to see what intervals work best for you, but I find once I’ve spent 15 or 20 minutes fighting to keep focus, I break through what I call the boredom barrier and can ignore the timer. Of course, you may need the timer to force you to take breaks!
I like the 30/30 app for setting up custom intervals, especially if I am trying to tackle two projects in the same day, but do caution against using an app if you find your phone too much of a distraction.
Kill the internet. Do whatever it takes — turn off your wireless, your router, or use an internet blocker like Freedom.
Go analog. Use a notebook or postits or something for jotting down stray thoughts — you’ll be able to make sure you don’t forget those tasks later, but not feel the urge to jump up and take care of them right away.
Make a checklist so you can mark off chapters or sets of pages as you go. This is so simple, but so effective. I also make checklists for my breaks so I don’t end up mindlessly wandering the house (or the internet) in search of things to do, wasting more time than I planned.
Finally, reframe stress. A study from the University of Wisconsin shows it’s your perception of stress that affects you, not the stress itself. So think of it as something that gives you the energy you need to get through; it’s making you stronger, not harming your health.
Of course, if you’re really too busy, PI’s team of experienced indexers and associates would be happy to help out! Contact us here.