The Attention-Challenged Freelancer’s Toolkit

When I first started freelancing, I was terrified. I don’t have ADD, but I sometimes act like I do. I have always had real issues with distraction–particularly noise–as well as a tendency to put off things I just don’t want to do. So, I thought I’d have a really hard time keeping on top of my work without a boss breathing down my neck or a humming office full of productive people peer pressuring me to stay on task. But surprisingly, I was able to get down to business and stay on task and meet deadlines, even while sitting at home.  According to Gretchen Rubin (whose excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life I highly recommend), I’m an obliger: I work because I am obligated to work.  Put simply, I work because if I don’t, I won’t get paid. I’m obligated to bill hours. My obliger tendency is also the reason that I don’t really tend to this blog very often: there’s no deadline, no client, no payoff. So I put it off. And put it off (did you miss me?).

Anyway, in a world full of distraction, I’ve found that working at home is, suprisingly, less difficult than working in an office full of interesting and entertaining people was. But that’s not to say that I still don’t get distracted. Working is not fun, and other things are, and nobody is looking. The internet is shiny. There are treats in the refrigerator. There’s laundry to be folded. There is a beach right down the block. And one of my biggest and most ironic time wasters (and I use the term lovingly) is the time I’ve spent over the years researching productivity methods and tools to make me less distracted.  I’ve been at this for almost 15 years now, and so I thought it might be nice to share the fruits of my labors, the tools that I use to work with my tendencies and stay productive (and in stay in business).  So, here, in no particular order, are some of the tools in this distraction-prone freelancer’s tookit.

Freedom. That probably sounds like a smug self-employed person talking about the perks of the gig economy. But no, I’m talking about Mac Freedom, a simple program that shuts down your Internet for a given period of time. You click it, and it asks how much Freedom you want; you set the clock and that’s it. The Internet is out of reach, and you can write/edit/work like it’s 1991. When I’m in full-on procrastination mode, or have to deal with a piece of manuscript that is just really difficult, I set freedom for an hour and suddenly, there are no pinging emails or going off on random Google tangents. I’m suddenly alone with nothing but the words. I usually only need to do an hour or two on Freedom to get myself started; once I’m into the project, I tend to keep going. With any project, getting started is the worst part. Mac Freedom helps me to tune out all the shiny distractions so I can get started.

I was an early adopter of Mac Freedom; it was still a free app back then, for Mac only, when I first stumbled upon it via Lifehacker.  I liked it so much I made a donation then, and I have repurchased for new machines a few times since. It’s available now for Windows as well, and while it’s not free, it’s only $10. If you’re writing for a living, it pays for itself rather quickly. And if your tired of finding your kid killing virtual zombies instead of writing that English essay, it can help them stay focused, too. Can it be hacked? Sure. But it’s a pain, and if you set your intervals short enough, you’ll keep working knowing that your treat awaits in just XX minutes.

Anti-Social. I can’t mention Freedom with out giving a shout out to its sister app, anti-social. Sometimes your work requires the Internet. This is especially true for homework: Kids do all their research online, so it’s not really possible for them to work like it’s 1999. Anti-social blocks specific apps–starting with sites obvious distractions like Facebook and Twitter, but you can customize to remove your own specific temptations. You can purchase it for $15, or bundle it with Freedom for $20. I use it to block Facebook, Twitter, various news sites I like to crawl, Amazon, and yes, WordPress.

A desktop timer. I’m a huge fan of the pomodoro productivity method, which involves setting work and break intervals using a timer. A typical interval (referred to as a “pomodoro” in honor of the classic, tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is 30 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. Because I require longer intervals to get more deeply involved (and because I bill my work by the hour), I set my pomodoros at 1 hour and give myself 10 minute breaks between. I fiddled with various pomorodo apps on my iPhone and on chrome, and found them all over complicated and clunky, so I just use a timer. I have had a different ones over the years, but I finally found this bad boy, and I’ll never go back:

Marathon Count Up/Count Down Timer

It’s big enough that I can always find it on my disaster of a desk, which is probably the most important thing. It also it has a super simple interface with a big STOP/START button, which makes it easy to pause instantly if I need to stop working for a moment to tend to the kid or answer the door. I set it for an hour, hunker down on work, and when the bell goes off I take a break for ten minutes to stretch, eat, pee, etc., before settling down for another hour.

A distraction bucket. Even if I turn off the Internet, I sometimes find my mind wandering. Sometimes that wandering takes me to interesting, creative places–but when I’m on a deadline, such distractions don’t pay the bills. So, I keep a special notebook open on my desk, on which I write any fleeting thoughts that occur to me, that might prompt me to stop what I’m doing and research a product on Amazon, check Twitter, see if there’s a better productivity tool out there that I”m somehow missing. I call it the Distraction Bucket, even though it’s not a bucket (I just think “Bucket” is a fun word to say, and it doesn’t come up in my day-to-day life nearly enough). Each day I write the date at the top of the page, and then just punk down any thought that threatens my concentration. While I’m working, I find that the simple act of writing down something to think about later helps me to just let go of it and get back to the matter at hand. When my pomodoro timer goes off, I can look at the list, and tend to anything that had distracted me during my working hour. Tellingly, 99 percent of the things that had distracted me during my work hour are not nearly as interesting when I’m off the clock. Sometimes it just says “Twitter,” or “defrost chicken” or “Mets game” or even “pee.”

Google Calendar. I’m still searching for that perfect online planner, one that will integrate a task list and not only show “to-dos” but also “dones” (as in, show a list of the tasks I completed each day right on the calendar, indicating the date they were due and the date they were done). I had this mythical program on a PowerPC Mac clone I used on the job in 1997, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was called, or why it has not been replicated by any calendar program that I can find since. But I’ve settled down and realized the Google Calendar is my best bet for now. I love that I can add events right out of Gmail and that I can see the spousal unit’s calendar and he can se mine. My teenage son is just starting to use it, too, so we all know when he’s working and when he’s off. And every morning, it emails me an agenda, which helps me plan my day and has prevented me from forgetting appointments. I’ve even started putting in recurring tasks, like changing the sheets or sweeping the sidewalk, so they become a regular habit rather than just another item to bump down on the to-do list when I’m busy. Google Calendar is definitely one of those things that becomes more useful the more you use it: Go in deep, or go home. We don’t even use the paper calendar in the kitchen anymore. Google Calendar is free, but I highly recommend pairing it with the phone app  Fantastical, which lets you make appointments verbally, using natural language, a big plus when you’re making appointments on the go.

ETA: I neglected to mention in my initial post one app that has become such a part of my routine that I don’t even notice how much I rely on it anymore. The Dayboard Chrome extension is a simple add on that allows you to put your five most pressing tasks into a to-to list. The key is that every time you open a window on Chrome, you’ll see your list first. It’s designed for teams, but I find that it’s great for helping a lone gun like myself to task. I try to keep my list limited to things I can actually accomplish in a single day; what I don’t do get’s bumped to the top of the list tomorrow.  So, if I’m in the midst of a big edit, the only thing on my list might be “Five hours on chapter 12.” I don’t limit it to work stuff, though. It’s great for reminding myself to do little things like make dentist appointments. Today’s list, as you see, is not all that daunting:

Today's pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

Today’s pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

A planner that is not a planner.  I still keep a good old fashioned desk diary, but  I don’t use it as a planner. I use it to log my hours and keep track of  what I’ve done–not to plan what I have to do. After a lot of trial and error (why are so few planners set up in columns?), I settled on the MyAgenda from MomAgenda, which has the best page layout: It shows a full week at a time–including full columns for Saturday and Sunday–and allows me to track hours by project with ease. I use the “kids” columns to track each project, and tally up my hours each Sunday; the top “my day” section is where I list specific completed tasks.

Lovely column page layout planner, from Mom Agenda.

It’s made with nice quality paper, and it’s very pretty. Pet peeves: I can (and do) do without the ridiculous “lists” they put in the extra pages in the back (seriously, a bunch of blank pages would be so much more useful than empty lists of vacations, wines, and books (and I like two out of three of those things a lot, fwiw), and the oh-so-pretty design might be a little too twee for some users (manly men need agendas, too, after all).  I prefer the spiral version, which is cheaper and easier to customize (it’s a sixteen month calendar, so I just rip out the redundant months when I start my new one each January). I trick mine out with Post-it tabs so I can easily find the current week and the frequently-used lists I made in the back (deductible expenses, invoices out/in, etc).

Earmuffs. Ok, I don’t really use them anymore, but when my kids were little and my office was on the main floor of the house and it was just noisy as all hell after school, I would put these bad boys on and ignore everyone and anything that wasn’t work.  I had even painted the words “GO AWAY” on the side with white out to remind them that MOMMY IS WORKING. They got a little hot during the summer, but as God is my witness, there are books out there today that would never have been published without them.


3M Peltor H10A Optime 105 Earmuff 


An Ode to the A Train (or: Why I miss my morning commute)

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

There’s an interesting experiment going on over at WNYC’s New Tech City. This week’s podcast (which you should totally subscribe to, by the way) talks about the value of boredom, and invites listeners to put away their phones, and just allow themselves to zone out for a bit. Various experts say that being bored from time to time may have benefits, and that by filling every moment of our day with texts and emails and Facebook and Candy Crush, we’re starving our brains. Brains, apparently, need time to wander and ponder aimlessly. Thinking about nothing at all, it turns out, is an important step in thinking creatively.

It got me thinking about how much time I used to spend trapped in subway cars, just killing time doing nothing. And  how much I miss it.

I spent a solid ten years commuting into the city, most of them from Rockaway Beach (1.5 hours each way on the A Train) with stints from Forest Hills, Queens (25 minutes on the E or F) and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (about 25 minutes on the F from the other direction). But since 2001, I’ve been freelancing from home, and my commute amounts to the time it takes me to walk from my bedroom down to the basement.

But you know what?  I miss it.

No, you didn’t misread that. I really miss the A Train.

More specifically: I miss my morning commute on the A train. You see, the one benefit of a long commute is that it usually means you’re at the end of the line, so you catch the train on schedule every day, and usually get a seat. I preferred the 7:40am. A Express from Rock Park, front end, corner seat by the window, on the east side of the aisle. From there, I could enjoy the morning sunshine and views of  Jamaica Bay before the train headed underground, at which point I’d let the monotonous roll of the train on the tracks rock me into a trance. (The evening commute? Not so much. The train back to Rockaway is crowded for most of the ride, and there is often a connection that must be made, outside on a freezing cold, wind-swept platform. It takes forever and is generally pretty miserable.)

But in either direction, commute time was time that I had entirely to myself, even as I sat (or stood) in a sardine can packed with strangers. For the whole of the 1990s, I spent in excess of 15 hours each week in that corner seat—or tethered to a pole on the way home—during which time I devoured novels,  listened to albums (Entire albums! On CD!), or just stared into space. And looking back, despite all the stalled trains, funky smells, “sick passengers,” and subterranean preachers expressing concern for my eternal soul (and let’s not forget the occasional grope), I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Once you’ve got a family and a house and even just a part-time job at the same time, spending three hours a day sitting still, alone with one’s thoughts (or one’s Sony Discman) seems positively decadent. And today, when we are never far away from a pinging text or email, it seems completely impossible.

While I don’t think I’m overly attached to my cell phone , I do find that the intertwining of life and technology does make it difficult for me to just NOT BE DOING for a little while each day. I guess that’s what I miss about the commute: It was a time when I had an excuse to zone out and let my mind wander, or indulge in something that might, on its face, seem unproductive, like reading a novel or listening to music. These days, I spend much of my time just absorbing information—Important information! Things I should know! Keys to becoming more productive! Info I can use on the job!—that I  sometimes neglect to take proper time to ponder and process it all. Thinking and reading and learning all great, but it’s  pretty hard to hold that stuff up at the end of the day and say to yourself: Look at what I accomplished!

I never felt guilty that I wasn’t Getting Things Done on the train. I mean, what could I do, really, other than read and reread and re-reread advertisements for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor? But as a work-at-home freelancer (and a parent, and a less-than-enthusiastic home manager), the thought of sitting on my couch for an hour staring into space, or even just taking the dog for an hour long walk to nowhere, seems almost irresponsible. I should be working! Or cleaning the house! Or tending to that neglected project! Or reading that Important Book by that Important Person about that Important Thing! 

Why do I feel like every hour of my day is supposed to be devoted to Getting Things Done? Maybe a ride to nowhere on the city’s longest, coolest line every day would straighten me out.

I’m sure my romantic feelings about the A Train are colored a little bit, at least, by nostalgia. After all, one reason why I freelance is that the thought of going back to an 11+ hour work day (factoring in a minimum of 8 hours at the office plus the commute) sends shivers down my spine. I’d also wager that,  were I commuting every day, I’d quickly evolve into one of those people who can’t go for a second without checking her phone. But for now, when I do head into the city for a meeting or to meet up with friends, I still find myself sitting in that corner seat by the window, taking in the view and letting my mind wander.

I know a lot of people hate the A Train. Yes, it could be better (and I, like every other Rockaway local, do have some thoughts on that).  But I just wanted to tell all the haters out there that  there’s still a few of us who really love to Take the A Train.

Just ask Duke Ellington.