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How to Set and Manage Priorities: Tips for Freelancers

Feb 24, 2021
(updated: Dec 6, 2022)
Max 5 min read

As a freelancer, almost everything can feel like a top priority. When you’re faced with deciding what takes priority - doing client work from multiple clients, managing business development, handling internal billing/invoicing, or any number of other issues vying for your attention - how do you decide where you'll dive in first?

Wait! Define Your “Why” First

You became a freelancer for a reason, and now it’s time to get back to basics. Sure, freelancing has plenty of advantages, but what was the key idea that made you take the leap?

Maybe you wanted the freedom of being self-employed. Maybe you wanted to spend less time working and more time with your loved ones. Maybe you wanted the power to grow your income or create a business empire.

Define the “why” for you: the top benefit you want to get from freelancing. Write it down and use this to keep the big picture in mind while you’re goal setting and prioritizing.

The Urgent-Important Matrix and How It Helps You Prioritize

Before we get into the nitty-gritty tips for prioritizing on a daily basis, let’s talk about the Eisenhower Principle. This is a concept that people in all lines of work have used to help them establish and manage their priorities, and it’s named after none other than the United States’ 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The so-called Eisenhower Principle is based on this quote from Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."

The Eisenhower Principle forces adherents to think systematically about their responsibilities, separating out urgent and important tasks from those that are either:

  • Important but not urgent
  • Neither important nor urgent

How Can the Eisenhower Principle Impact Your Freelance Success? 

As mentioned, freelancers have a full plate at almost all times. It’s truly impossible to stay on top of every responsibility. Even taking one or two unexpected phone calls can throw an entire workday off its trajectory.

By using the Eisenhower Principle, you can start each day with an understanding of which items are critical, which ones would be worthwhile achievements, and which ones should either be pushed to the back burner, delegated, or ignored altogether. 

Start your morning with a to-do list, where you divide tasks into important and urgent activities, those that are less important but urgent, and those that are important activities but don’t have a set timeline.

If that process sounds daunting, don’t worry - your organization and prioritizing skills don’t have to immediately be on par with a World War II general and brilliant military tactician who just happened to become the United States’ 34th president.

Fortunately for you, another one of the world’s most highly effective people found a way to make this process more accessible, so you can spend less time organizing and start spending more time finishing tasks and achieving your goals.

How Steven Covey Modified the Eisenhower Principle

If you’ve been in business for any period of time, you’ve heard of Stephen Covey’s management principles and training programs. His “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is a business professional’s must-read -- a guide to successfully achieving both short-term and long-term goals in business.

Covey made the Eisenhower Principle more accessible by using it to define his 4 Quadrants (also sometimes referred to as an Eisenhower Matrix or as an Urgent-Important Matrix).

This matrix is a powerful tool for visualizing your must-do list and sifting through competing priorities. Its quadrants are arranged based on the effort required and level of importance, with each quadrant representing some combination of high or low effort and high or low importance. You categorize tasks within the four quadrants of the matrix and use this to establish your priorities.

How You Can Put The Eisenhower Principle and the Urgent-Important Matrix Into Practice 

Let's get started applying these strategies from a practical perspective. Get out your notebook, or log into your task tracking tool, then use it to list all your must-do items.

You can start by just jotting or keying in notes via stream of consciousness; you’ll organize them later. After you feel confident that you’ve got a handle on your upcoming responsibilities and action items, start sorting them.

You can key them in a digital tracker with tags for important/not important and urgent/not urgent. Or, on paper, you can draw out your X and Y axis (with one axis representing urgency and the other representing importance) and start filling in each task where it’s appropriate.

While laying out your matrix on paper may make it easier to visualize the first few times, plugging it into an online tool makes adding, editing, or maintaining a list over time easier, so re-working it each week is not necessary.

You should easily be able to figure out which items deserve your time and brainpower - the ones that are both urgent and important. Then, you can dedicate yourself accordingly.

It’s likely you’ll also start to see some interesting trends regarding your project management and time allocation. For example, if you start mapping out your tasks and tracking the time associated with them, you may find you’re spending all your resources in quadrant “urgent but not important.” You should probably find a way to offload some of those tasks.

It might mean changing your daily routine/schedule or finding a person to whom you can outsource some of these arduous, unfulfilling tasks. The biggest benefit you’ll gain from utilizing an urgent important matrix? Feeling like you have greater control over your time/resources.

Actionable Tips for Prioritizing Your Tasks

For some, the Urgent-Important Matrix is a simple and methodical way to categorize their tasks. For others, it’s a process that isn’t as easy to grasp right away. Whether or not that matrix and the Eisenhower Principle are working for you, try these tips to set and manage your priorities.

Start with a List

Open your preferred productivity software or grab pen and paper and get started on your task list. Write down everything that’s floating around your mind - quick emails, deadlines, long term goals, everything. Making a master list will free up your brain space and help you focus on getting the important work done. The less you are worried about remembering everything you need to do, the easier it will be to prioritize your work.

Evaluate Each Task One by One

Now that you have a list of all your to-dos, large and small, go down your list to individually evaluate each one. You can evaluate it by using the Urgent-Important Matrix, by considering where each task falls in its project or who might be waiting for that task to be complete, or through whatever means make sense for you.

Ultimately, the goal is to come up with a neat, ordered list so that your priorities are clearly laid out. The way you reach that list is up to you.

Create a Priority-Based Schedule

Creating a daily routine is critical to success when prioritizing tasks. Time blocking is the method of setting a certain amount of time to dedicate solely to each item on your task list.

Starting with the first items on your ordered list, work out a schedule based on how long you expect each task to take. Creating a schedule and blocking out hours to work on one task at a time will help you put uninterrupted time into the projects that need to be completed. 

Schedule in Time for Yourself

When stress levels get too high - think burnout or overwhelm with work - productivity levels go way down. Work-life balance is not just a suggestion, it’s a requirement for a healthy life. Including your own self-care time in your prioritized schedule is an important way to make sure your work and your wellbeing don’t suffer.

Go for a walk, socialize with friends, journal, spend time on hobbies or creative projects, take time to do something you enjoy. It’s important to make time for activities that help you relax and will help you be productive during working hours. 

Consider the Amount of Time Required

Another criterion to consider as you prioritize your tasks is the time each task requires. More extensive projects might need to be broken up into segments and distributed throughout your week or month. This way, you can effectively and efficiently work on longer projects and more immediate projects simultaneously.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might have a five-minute task that doesn’t seem as urgent as a five-hour task, but it makes more sense to do the five-minute task right away rather than to delay it for most of the workday. When you plan your day/week/month, be realistic about how much time each project or task will take and how much time you have available to do it.

Use Your Desire Level as a Tie-Breaker

It could be challenging to decide what to do when you have two or more equally important or urgent tasks. As a tie-breaker, think about which one is most appealing to you.

Depending on what motivates you, you could take the route of least resistance (do whichever is more appealing to you). You are more likely to complete the project faster if it is something that you enjoy doing or that you know you can complete successfully in a short amount of time. There is some level of satisfaction in crossing things off of your to-do list. Take advantage of that good feeling and ride that wave into ticking off the next project while you are at it.

Some people are motivated in the opposite way, though: they prefer to do the least appealing task first to “get it done with.” This gives them the motivation to push through and get it done more quickly.

Include Non-Billable Work Among Your Priorities

Why is setting priorities important? Because you aren’t just doing your “production work,” you’re managing a business. You need to make time for business housekeeping like invoicing and emailing on top of your production work and taking steps to grow your business. How do you fit it all in?

Start by taking those three tasks and deciding how much time to devote to them each day, giving each one a percentage. Then, use that percentage to create a time-blocked schedule.

Let’s say you want to spend 70% of your time on production work, 20% on business growth like courting new clients, and 10% on business housekeeping like invoicing. If you want to work an 8-hour day, this works out to about 5.75 hours in production work, 1.5 hours in business growth, and 45 minutes in housekeeping.

From there, create an actual schedule for each day by fitting the tasks from your prioritized list into each of those windows. Maybe 8 am – 8:15 am is for housekeeping, then you spend three hours in production work before doing more housekeeping from 11:30 to 11:45, moving on to business growth after lunch from 12:45-2:15, and so on. This ensures that you’re truly making time for all the critical aspects of your business on a daily basis.

Schedule Regular Task-Prioritizing Sessions

To-do lists are my jam. I always have a task list to turn to so I can keep up with my projects and responsibilities for each client. The problem is that it can be overwhelming to look at that list and try to figure out which task to tackle next.

That’s why you need to plan time into your schedule to re-prioritize your to-do list. Once every week or so, take 15-30 minutes to go down the list and re-order it based on what needs to be done first. This might depend on your clients’ deadlines, your income goals, or other factors.

Continuously re-evaluating your priorities for your to-do list makes it easy to always know your next step, and it accommodates for changes like rush jobs or schedule shifts. When you finish one task, you just move on to the next task on the list because you know it’s the next highest priority. No more analysis paralysis is trying to figure out your next project.

Mastering How to Set Priorities in Freelancing

Often, the reason people choose to go into freelance work is so they can manage themselves, enjoy flexibility, and achieve long term goals. When you’re able to identify what’s really a priority to you, you’ll feel more in charge of your own work and destiny and more empowered to succeed.

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