Stay Productive in an Unproductive Environment

Freelancing techniques for the office hours

Image licensed from Canva

Today again, it is one of those days when I cannot help it, I need to go to the office. I carefully organized my day with each party that I am working with, I have 4 consecutive meetings at the same company from 9 to 4, including a lunch break meeting for maxing out my time — once I’m already there.

I planned it so carefully. And then everything goes south.

My first meeting gets cancelled. As I had arrived half an hour earlier to be prepared mentally too, I had been fumbling around with my things, not wanting to jump into anything, as the meeting will start soon. Only it doesn’t and it gets cancelled 5 minutes after the scheduled time. I lost 35 minutes. I go and get a coffee, chat with the girls over it, we gossip and complain about colleagues and life.

I have almost an hour until the next meeting starts. It would be enough to do some work, only people start to talk to me, asking me about status updates and asking for my opinion on random things. So nothing gets done. Again. Another hour is lost as for the remaining 15 minutes the best thing I can do is… Facebook, Instagram, Medium. Feels irritating.

Especially that this second meeting starts 15 minutes later, thanks to one colleague who is late, but indispensable. Resulting in losing another hour timeslot, as it is reduced to 35 minutes only. I manage to read my emails, in a rush. Ticking a few checkboxes only and adding countless things to the list.

The lunch meeting goes okay. It should be about work, but instead, we queue for the food, struggle to find a place to sit down and then chat the whole time away, only to leave 15 minutes for the otherwise highly important topic. We will need to schedule another meeting to finish it, as we are heading out to arrive on time to the next meeting — across town.

I am late, thanks to the traffic jam at 1 pm. I wonder why all these people are on the street, I’m sure they should be at work or at home or having lunch. But the road is jam-packed.

The last meeting of the day goes on for four hours instead of the planned two. By the time we finish, my to-do list becomes endless and I know I will need to make up for the 9 hours I lost — probably during the night.

I’m so frustrated I could cry. Not because I have to work overtime to make up for all the lost time, but because out of the 10 hours I spent with travelling, waiting, being cancelled on, chatting, having coffee — there were less than 2 hours that I spent productively.

And it is all about people and work-ethics.

As a freelancer, 3–4 days out of 5, I work alone, and I manage to work from home. I can arrange my day however I want, I schedule my tasks carefully to meet my most productive hours, I have my routine of switching off everything around me when it comes to writing an article for work or to craft a strategic presentation.

While meeting my clients is necessary, it is killing my productivity and my mood as well. I suddenly don’t feel like writing, I am too tired to work out. And I don’t feel strong enough mentally to spend quality time with my kids.

I usually have freelancer’s guilt, that some days I work only a few hours — and I am still doing fine, making enough money, having time for other things too.

Today, it all makes sense, and my guilt is gone.

Why you shouldn’t have freelancer’s guilt:

As a freelancer, working from home…

  • you don’t waste precious time sitting in traffic,
  • you don’t lose time chatting by the coffee machine or queuing for lunch,
  • you don’t lose time and you don’t get annoyed by waiting for others to arrive at a meeting or cancel on you,
  • you know exactly when you are doing something and when you are procrastinating — and it is your my choice,
  • you can choose to work in your most productive hours — without being restricted to follow the schedule of others,
  • you are not interrupted if you don’t allow it.

But what can you do if you can’t work from home, either because you have a 9–5 job, or you need to be at the office as a freelancer?

Identify your most productive hours and respect them

Some of us work better in the morning, others during the afternoon or night. It depends on many things. You need to identify the best time for yourself. There are time management online courses and tons of articles about it, but the best way to start is to log your activities for a couple of weeks — to look for clues. The mere fact that you are logging it makes you more attentive to your highs and ups. You need to log what type of activity you are engaged in, how important it is to be immersed in it, how easy it is for you to do it, and how enjoyable it feels.

And while answering quickly some emails and giving feedback can be done without getting too engaged in it, writing an article, creating a strategy, doing research, putting together something more in-depth will need more of your concentration.

The key is to find which time of the day you work best in concentration heavy tasks. The rest can be scheduled around it.

Block out your high-time in your calendar

Whenever you can, block out time slots in your calendar for the times when you are most productive.

Make others respect it, and try to respect it yourself too. Sometimes it won’t be possible, due to deadlines or ad-hoc requests, but without at least trying it, you will never have your precious time dedicated to the in-depth work.

Make a habit of it, get people used to it — and keep yourself to it as much as possible. You might need weeks to make it accepted and respected, but start it, and in a short time, it will work.

Be nice to people and say no

One of the biggest challenges is to switch off distractions. Never forget your headphones (my trick for that is to listen to one song on repeat) and don’t be shy about finding a quiet space in the office. Don’t apologize for removing yourself from the office chatter — start to say no to things that you wouldn’t want to participate in any way. Saying no doesn’t have to be rude, you can say no and still be nice. One of my favourite lessons was a “how to say no” exercise.

  1. Think of a usual question or request that you hear frequently.
  2. Come up with a list of at least 10 ways of saying no to it.
  3. Use different styles of saying no, starting from very rude to overly sweet.
  4. Get inspired by your colleagues, take notes about how they do it.
  5. Find your own style and start using it frequently.

My biggest challenge was to refuse to help someone who asked my assistance. I realized that I was always trying to be too nice with everyone, so I said yes to everything, even when I had no time and it was at the expense of my own projects. Out of this exercise, my preferred way of saying no was “to say yes, but link it to conditions” or take it on in a timeframe that was already too late.

“Of course I can help, can you just send me everything that was already done, collected in a folder and named properly?” [the conditions I demanded here are already half the job]
“Sure, but I can only start with it when I finished this presentation and handed it in on Friday. Will Monday EOB work?” [respecting your own time and make others respect it too can be linked to deadlines]

Make peace with time being wasted

You cannot avoid your colleagues, you cannot always refuse the chit-chat with your boss without appearing rude or arrogant — and you shouldn’t. It is part of the work culture, it is part of being human. Use these instants to get to know them better, instead of being annoyed that they hinder you in your job. Make peace with it that there will be minutes or even hours that will go wasted in the office — the coffee breaks, the cancelled meetings, the rescheduling. You cannot change it, but you can avoid the frustration — and that is already good for both your productivity and your mood.

Make use of empty time

When you are commuting to work, it is usually empty time, you won’t get productive, you won’t really get anything major done. You can reply to some emails, or check your social media, but it won’t help you feel better.

Find a useful or pleasant way to spend your traffic jam time to avoid frustration. You can make it into me-time, just thinking about what to write, musing about your ideas, gathering inspiration from the people around you — but do it consciously.

Or you can listen to a podcast or audiobook, that you didn’t have time to listen to — not having enough time in one sitting.

Or take this time deliberately to mindlessly scroll your social media accounts, read all the Medium articles that you bookmarked, retweet your peers’ posts, or call your mum — and save yourself from needing to do these at times when you could do something more productive.

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Writer. Dreamer. Hopeless romantic. Newsletter: Email me: zitafontaine (at) gmail

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