A simple system to accelerate your freelance writing businessNot a week goes by that I don’t hear the same questions from fellow and aspiring freelancers:

How do I grow my freelancing biz when my day job drains all my time, focus and energy?

How do I prioritize writing, prospecting, marketing and building my online presence?

How can I build my side hustle fast, without burning out?

Last week I attended the Double Your Freelancing Conference in Norfolk, Virginia, where James Clear — an expert on the science of habits — offered a simple solution to these quandaries.

High growth and productivity, James argued, hinge on habits. Habits, in turn, drive our work systems:

“Often we put goals first and overlook the systems that take us to get there.
Goals are good for planning, but it’s systems that drive progress.”

James then outlined a simple, five-step plan for better work systems.

An important observation before we get to it:

At first glance, James’ plan seems too simple. You and I have heard much of it before, but James points out there’s a giant gap between what we know and what we do.

Common knowledge is far from common practice, and simple truths and habits have a huge impact on our progress.

With that in mind, here are those five steps:

  1. Simplify

Citing advice from Warren Buffett, James urges us to list 25 things we want to accomplish within the next five years, then whittle that list down to five. (Standard advice so far.)

The trouble is that after doing that, many of us still plan on tackling all 25 goals at some point, working on lower-priority items as time permits, or when this or that happens.

Big mistake, says James. That’s exactly how priorities derail and fall out of focus.

“Do not work on those 20 left-over goals, ever, under any circumstances,” he urged the audience. “Be ruthless about what you eliminate. It’s by pruning that you can grow.”

  1. Prioritize

Obvious, right? But how often do we practice effective prioritization?

“Do the most important thing first,” James instructed. “Don’t move on to the next item until the first item is done.”

Forget multitasking. Forget checking emails, catching up on the news, or tackling easy tasks first.

Singletasking in order of importance, day in and day out, will multiply your productivity like nothing you’ve tried before.

  1. Design Your Environment

Often, our workspace is set up in a way that facilitates bad habits, like cupcakes on your desk when you’re on a diet.

Rather, James advises adding steps between us and temptations, forcing us to go out of our way and work harder to misbehave.

For James, this means leaving his phone in another room, blocking his favorite websites from 11 p.m. to noon (he does that via Freedom.to, which I’m excited to try), and turning off social media notifications.

Bottom line: If things around you steal your focus and weaken your resolve, remove them from your environment.

  1. Measure Success Backwards

We know measuring success is crucial, but James suggests measuring it backwards. Instead of focusing on where you want to be, focus on doing better this week than you did last week.

Finding a way to beat yesterday’s metrics,” James explained, “is far more useful than looking forward.”

Metrics for writers might include pitching X prospects each day, blogging X times per month, or engaging with industry influencers on social media daily.

Whatever you measure, visual cues will help you stay on top of where you stand now, and what you need to do to improve your output and outcomes each day.

  1. Commit & Repeat

I love experimenting with my business, and can easily get distracted by the many new paths, tools and tactics that can help me grow. You too?

While experimentation is necessary for growth, we need to stick with a system long enough to measure whether it works. Finding that balance is what makes business hard, James says.

His advice? Carve out 20 percent of your time for experimentation and devote 80 percent to your system.

In all, James’ process is about aggregating marginal gains: “Relentlessly pursuing one-percent improvements that add up to a big difference.”

What one-percent improvement can you apply immediately to move your business forward?

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