Are “Quicksand” Activities Stalling Your Success?

Freelancers wear a lot of hats.

As a freelance web writer, you are a consultant, an administrator, an analyst, an interviewer, a researcher, a marketer, a strategist, and of course, a writer.

These roles — and all they require — can sometimes be overwhelming. This is especially true when you’re about to do something big like launch your business, focus on a new niche, or try a new marketing strategy.

What I see happening with a lot of freelancers is that when you get overwhelmed, it becomes easy to bury yourself in activity without making any real progress.

Freelancers find comfort in activity. Movement means something is happening. You’re not wasting time. And with any luck, all your activity will move you forward.

But if you’re active just for the sake of activity, you’re probably using it as an excuse for not doing what you really need to be doing.

To reach your goals, you need to take meaningful action. This week and next, I'm going to show you how to do that. To get started, let’s look different kinds of activity and their “busywork” danger factor.

“Quicksand” Activities

“Quicksand” activities tend to suck you in. If you start them without a clear goal in mind, you may find yourself spending a lot of time “working” without really accomplishing anything. That’s not to say that these activities can’t serve a purpose. Each of them has value when done as a deliberate undertaking. But these are also the favorite activities to hide behind when you should be doing something else.

Reading: As a web writer, it’s important for you to stay on top of trends. So spending some time skimming e-letters and reading blogs is important. But reading is easy to get sucked into. It feels like you’re doing something valuable — and you are. It’s just that after a certain point, reading is no longer the most valuable thing you could be doing.

Social Media: Web writers need to understand and use social media. Social media can play an important role in every bit of online writing you do, from helping you come up with ideas to helping you understand your audience to helping you spread the word about what you’re doing. It also is a good tool for your own self-promotion. But again, control the time you spend and have clear goals, so social media isn’t cutting into other important work.

Organizing: The clutter in your office or in your house makes for a great excuse not to do the work you know you ought to be doing. Set aside a block of time each week to keep on top of clutter. Do not start organizing your office when you should be working on the Big Idea for your next landing page.

Planning: This is my favorite stalling strategy. If I’m not sure what to do next, you’ll find me planning something. You can get stuck in the planning stage forever … so many different options, ideas, and approaches to parse through. So many different “someday” projects to plan for. When you land a project, that’s the time to do your planning. When you have a new idea for a “someday” project, jot down your key thoughts, but save the planning for when you’re actually going to start the project. No matter what project you’re working on, come up with a plan once, and then start executing it. Tweak your plan as you go. Don’t start planning a someday project when you should be working on the headlines and leads for a 7-part autoresponder series a paying client is waiting for. That kind of planning can wait.

“Thin Ice” Activities

Some activities are crucial to your success, but they can also be your downfall if you overdo them. I know a lot of writers — myself included — who have fallen prey to the “If I just do this one thing, then I’ll be ready to launch my business,” trap. There will always be just one more thing. If you catch yourself thinking that, pause and take a good hard look at what you’re really doing. Be honest with yourself. Chances are, you’re putting off meaningful action.

Studying: This is my favorite “thin ice” activity. A certain amount of study and practice is important. You need to hone your skills and keep them sharp. But if you’re studying as an excuse not to start putting what you know into practice, then that’s a problem.

Preparing: Have you ever written every page of a website, only to write them all over again because they weren’t quite perfect? Or written them all, and then decided to delay launching your website because you weren’t ready to commit to regular blogging? Or you didn’t have a special report to offer yet?

In the restaurant industry, where I worked for years, we have a phrase: Clean as you go. That means you’re always cleaning. You don’t wait till the end of the night when the mess has grown into a mountain to start your cleaning. You clean as you go. In the freelancing world, think of this concept as “Build as you go.” You don’t have to prepare every last marketing piece you might ever use to launch your business. Build as you go. Your website is ready? Great, put it up. Your e-letter, blog, special report, social media, and whatever else can be your next step. But don’t wait. Build as you go.

“Solid Ground” Activities

These are the activities that move you forward consistently. They are the things you should spend about 80% of your time on. They’ll help you steadily grow your business, reach your goals, and increase your satisfaction. Put most of your focus on these things and you won’t find yourself wondering at the end of the day what you actually accomplished.

Paid Projects: The bread and butter of any web-writing business. Time spent doing good work on projects your clients are paying you for will always help you build your business. You get a ton of benefits from this activity. You hone your skills and practice your craft. You learn new things as you need them and you get to put them into action immediately — this helps you remember them much longer than learning them and not using them right away. You gain a sample for your portfolio. And you gain a potential source of repeat and referral business … the easiest kinds of business to land. Plus, plus, you get paid! You can’t go wrong dedicating time to doing good work for a client.

Deliberate Marketing: The key word here is deliberate. A lot of freelancers do scattershot marketing. They maybe have a flurry of activity on LinkedIn one week. Then they don’t do anything the following week. Then they start sending out guest blog posts for a couple of days only to turn their attention to making direct contact with prospects the week after that. This “all over the board” approach does not deliver good results.

A better approach is to sit down and come up with a marketing plan. Give yourself an hour or two of planning time — any more than that and you’re slipping into quicksand and stalling out. Once your plan is formulated, follow through on it for three to six months to see how it works for you. If it’s not working, change it up. But start with a plan and follow through. Haphazard marketing is almost always activity without progress.

Building Connections: You can’t spend all of your time making connections, but this is definitely something you want to dedicate time to on a regular basis. Find out who people are and what they do. Get to know them. Comment on their blogs. Give them a shout-out on Twitter. Ask them a question. Offer an answer when they ask a question. Meet with people face-to-face at a networking event.

You might be wondering how this is different from social media. It isn’t. This is social media at its very best. When you make deliberate use of social media to build real connections with people, that is a solid use of your social media time.

Next week, I’ll share a smart action plan for 2014, one that will help you take more meaningful action toward achieving what’s really important to you. For now, keep these key points in mind:

  • Activity and progress aren’t equal.
  • For an activity to be a valuable use of your time, it should be moving you toward your goals in a significant way.
  • The key to meaningful action is to be deliberate. Know what you want to do and what you hope to achieve before getting started.
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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: December 11, 2013

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