When you’re freelancing, the words “on your own” take on a whole new meaning. There’s no boss standing over your shoulder (or even standing at a distance) making sure you’re on track. Instead, each client is like a mini-boss who’s given you tasks and deadlines and it’s entirely up to you to get them done on time.
This is why freelancers typically need better time management skills than traditional employees: our only chance for staying on track is ourselves. How do you manage your time so you can hit all your deadlines without getting overwhelmed or burnt out?
As with just about every part of freelancing, the key is to find a system that works for you and stick to it. Start with these tips and see what sticks.
1. Practice Time-Blocking
Time-blocking is the top technique I use for balancing all my freelance clients and their needs, and let me tell you, it’s a game-changer. I maintain a planner where I keep track of what I need to do each day. At the end of every workday, I look at my tasks and meetings for the following day and write out a distinct, detailed schedule for the following day.
For instance, I might plan to catch up with emails from 8-8:15, then work on one blog from 8:15-10, then a different article from 10-11:15, and so on. This has a few great benefits.
First, it takes the guesswork out of the day. I don’t have to stop between tasks to figure out what my next priority needs to be in order to meet my deadlines – all I have to do is follow the plan. Second, it shows me exactly what I’ll get done in the course of the day if I stay on track, making it easy to see how I’m progressing toward my week-long or month-long goals.
Third, it helps me focus. It’s easy to start working on something, lose track of time, and end up spending far longer on it than you should. With a start and end time decided, I have a goal to work toward so I don’t leave myself open to those time-sucking black holes.
2. Schedule and Break Down Each Deadline ASAP
Chances are that your client work comes in the form of large projects rather than short, one-off tasks. When that happens, you need a clear idea of what you need to get done and when. In fact, I’d suggest that you break down the to-do list before you accept the project.
As soon as the client proposes the project, take it and break it down into a to-do list of smaller tasks. Then, divide up those tasks across each day and see how long you can expect the project to take. Make sure to leave room for other client projects that may pop up.
With a large project, it can be impossible to know if a client’s long-term deadline is practical. When you break it down and schedule it out, it becomes far clearer whether you can work with their deadline or whether you need to suggest a longer timeline.
When you’ve agreed to the project, this strategy also helps you stay on track so you can know that if you stick to this schedule, you’ll finish the project on time.
3. Try a Time-Tracking Tool
Developing excellent time management habits starts with knowing where you’re spending your time, and a time-tracking tool makes that easy. If you charge by the hour, a time-tracker is even more important because it gives you a distinct record of your time and takes the manual tracking out of your hand.
It also helps to use this time-tracker for non-billable business management tasks like invoicing, emails, and so on. This way, you’ll be able to see where all your time is going so you can see which tasks to automate.
4. Plan Your Day Accordingly
We all have distractions and struggles, especially in the COVID-19 era. That’s left most freelancers asking, “How can I manage my time when my kids are distance-learning or while my spouse is working at home?”
As you’re working out your schedule for the day, think about what parts of the day tend to be the most productive or the most distraction-heavy. Plan the most thought-intensive tasks for the time of the day when you’re typically the most productive.
For instance, you might find that you’re more productive in the morning. Or, perhaps you have kids at home during the morning but your partner is available to watch them in the afternoon, so schedule the brain-heavy tasks for the afternoon.
5. Learn to Say “No”
If you’re an organization nerd like me, you’ve heard the saying that the best way to organize too much stuff is to have less stuff. The same is true in your schedule: the best way to balance an over-full schedule is to have fewer tasks to do.
This is why you need to be able to say “no.” Turn down projects that aren’t as productive or profitable, or those that don’t align with your current goals for your business. No one knows your schedule better than you do, so you need to be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t fit in.
Finding Your Own Creative Time Management Ideas
Time management is a personal thing. Some people work better with one strategy while others are more effective with different strategies. When it comes down to it, how do you manage your time as a freelancer? In any way that works for you.
If you haven’t found that system yet, try my tips above and see which ones fit best. For more handy tips about your thriving freelance business, check out more articles on our blog.