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Five Tips For More Productive Monotasking When You Work Alone

When you’re the only one making choices about your schedule, staying on track can be tough. Here’s what the experts suggest.

Five Tips For More Productive Monotasking When You Work Alone
[Photo: clownbusiness/iStock; App Photo: Warner Bros. Music (Prince - Parade, 1986)]

If you’re a connoisseur of productivity methods–and even if you aren’t–you’ve likely heard about “monotasking,” the alternative to multitasking in which the name of the game is to stop juggling multiple tasks and instead focus deeply on one thing at a time. There are a handful of different ways to monotask, but one of them is a technique sometimes called “batching” or “mode-based scheduling,” which author and productivity expert Michael Hyatt describes as “setting aside an intentional amount of time for intentional tasks and making an intentional effort to not allow the distractions or interjections of others break that focus.”

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Sounds great, right? If you’re a freelancer, though, you may already be rolling your eyes. When you work independently, it’s up to you and you alone to wrangle your ordinary workday–and ultimately, your whole workweek–into some sort of structure. Since there’s nothing but your own personal decision-making that actually holds you to that structure, though, it’s especially liable to come crashing down at any time.

But some freelancers and productivity experts have found a few ways to make batching work for them–not just on a daily basis but week after week, too. Here are a few ways to stick with monotasking if you’re a freelancer fighting an onslaught of distractions on a regular basis.

1. Different Days For Different Types Of Focus

Many freelancers use mode-based scheduling to organize their entire workweeks, not just individual workdays. To do that, start by looking at your calendar at the beginning of the week and assigning a specific focus or task to individual days. For example, Mondays might be just for administrative work while Fridays are saved for making headway on a client project.

If that sounds like a pipe-dream, keep this in mind: Whenever an interruption threatens to break the focus you’ve set for a particular day, you can always trade that day’s focus with whatever you’d earmarked for a different day.

“In the case of daily batching, if something comes up, you have the ability to swap days,” says business writer and professional blogger Jennifer Mattern. “For example, if a client delays a major project you planned to work on, you might be able to move your admin day up a few days to account for the change without losing work time overall that week.”

2. “Batch” Your Days Instead Of Your Weeks

If batching your entire week doesn’t offer quite enough flexibility for you, there’s no harm in breaking up individual days into smaller chunks of time. These focused periods will still keep you zeroed in on a given task, but you’ll have a little more wiggle room to adapt when unexpected needs arise.

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“Rather than having a complete mode-based day, maybe have the morning or afternoon block for certain activities, so as things crop up you can schedule them in for the corresponding open time,” suggests freelance writer and online business marketing consultant Gina Horkey. “If you wake up and start writing–ignoring your inbox, Facebook, and the world at large–and write for two to four hours,” she points out, “it’s so much easier to get the rest of your tasks done that don’t include focused writing.”

The key is still to carve out a big part of your day to get just one thing done–then do that every day, week after week.

3. Experiment With Different Modes

Mike Vardy, writer, speaker, and founder of productivityist.com, says mode-based scheduling doesn’t have to be restricted to just hours or days. Freelancers don’t necessarily have to monotask on a timed basis, though, where a given day or chunk of hours is set aside for just one task. They can also batch work according to their energy levels, or even the amount and quality of resources on hand at a given time. In other words, there are multiple reasons to pick multiple modes, just so long as you’re only adopting one of them at a time.

How do you know which one to go with? “You tap into one of the types of modes by asking yourself some questions,” says Vardy, “things like, ‘How energized am I right now?’ or ‘How much time do I have between now and my next appointment?’” This way you can hang onto your focus when you need it and fend off distractions in the process.

4. Use Tools To Keep You On Track

If batching can help you monotask productively when you’re the only one responsible for your work schedule, you may need to lean on some tools to help you stick with it. Luckily, there are browser extensions, apps, and simple software programs designed expressly to help you maintain your focus on individual tasks.

“When facing interruptions during the day, like phone calls or texts,” author and writing coach Jim Woods suggests using free extensions like Momentum to block out the daily barrage of distractions. It’s a personal dashboard built for Google Chrome to help users stay productive, and it also offers a dose of motivation.

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But low-tech tools can work just as well for monotasking freelancers. “Another way to stay on task,” says Woods, “is to have a physical reminder like a piece of paper or calendar with your focus for the day on it.” Sometimes a good old-fashioned to-do list can still pack a punch.

5. Catch Yourself When You’re Over-Scheduling

Easier said than done, right? Not necessarily. If you work alone and are trying to adopt any of these methods in order to monotask consistently–even if it’s a rocky transition–you’re already well positioned to catch yourself overcommitting.

Why? Because simply by trying to look at your work in terms of batches of tasks you focus on individually rather than simultaneously, you’ll be able to watch your workday (and ultimately your workweek) fill up–and stop it before it does. When you’re picking a mode or batching session, simply leaving blank times open in your schedule can leave you the flexibility to handle unexpected tasks or overflow projects.

Sometimes avoiding over-scheduling just means sticking with what you already know works. “If your admin days tend to be light, for example, keep them that way. Don’t schedule other things for those days,” suggests Mattern. “It might help to schedule your lightest day at the end of the week as well, when you could use any extra time to complete tasks you didn’t get to earlier in the week.”

It’s true that monotasking–and most of the mode-based methods that support it–may seem too rigid for some freelancers. But maintaining a single focus doesn’t mean dispensing with flexibility. Instead, Vardy says it can add just the right amount of structure to stay consistently focused and on track all week long.

And that includes knowing when to temporarily scrap batching. “When you have no need or desire to focus exclusively on a project, working by mode can help you achieve without feeling as if you’ve accomplished random items on your to-do list,” Vardy adds. It just takes practice. “Once you recognize the power of working by mode, and do it over an extended stretch, you’ll find how powerful and effective it can be.”

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Bree Brouwer is a professional B2B blogger, copywriter, and content marketer who specializes in online video and digital media. Follower her on Twitter at @BreeBrouwer.