Time management is a challenge for all of us, but we freelancers face a unique set of issues when it comes to making the most of our time. Not only are we juggling projects, we're juggling several clients and simultaneously trying to find new work. Here are some time management strategies freelancers and small business owners should have in their arsenal.
Classic time management techniques like using Pomodoro timers and nixing distractions are essential for freelancers -- just as they are for office workers and people who work remotely. Freelancing (or running your own business), however, is like having multiple jobs -- with several different bosses, priorities, and procedures. That makes time management a bit trickier, since every day -- or even every hour of the day -- might not be the same as the last. Although getting into a consistent work groove may be harder, however, it's not impossible.
Choose Your Clients Carefully
When you first start freelancing, your main concern will probably be finding clients. With luck and perseverance, though, there will come a time when you have more jobs than you can reasonably handle, and you have the "luxury" of turning down work. This is painful, but turning down projects can also be critical to your future success -- especially if projects aren't in line with where you want your career to go.
Small projects take as much administrative work -- legal setup, invoicing, general back-and-forth communications -- as big projects do. This is why some freelancers have a minimum project rate -- and why freelancers should focus on finding clients who will provide a steady stream of recurring work, rather than solely doing piecemeal jobs here and there. It's a lot easier to manage your time when you're doing familiar work and don't have to deal with as much administrative hassle.
Some clients also are more of a pain than others, so even if it's a big client with lots of potential earnings, you have to weigh how much time is wasted unnecessarily by difficult clients. For example, maybe you've got a good gig going with one client but you constantly have to resend invoices to get paid or the client always asks for multiple changes (you can specify additional fees for that in the contract, but these are still demoralising time sucks).
At the same time, you want to leave yourself enough room to accommodate interesting projects that might come along -- whether they're ones that will improve your portfolio or perhaps opportunities that just challenge you beyond what your core projects require. I like the 80/20 rule (or hara hachi bu principle) that encourages setting aside enough time for the unforeseen.
Set Your Rate High Enough
Time is money, but how much you make (i.e. charge) can also limit your time. If you don't charge enough for your services, you might end up working all day and night just to make ends meet.
If you're a freelancer, every moment you're not working is a moment you're not earning. […] Just when you think you've booked enough clients, one leaves for cheaper competition, while another sucks up your energy with constant changes and last-minute demands.
It's the "Time Treadmill." Time keeps going by, you keep working, but you never get anywhere.
Instead of asking yourself "how much should I charge per hour?" You have to start asking yourself "how much is what I'm doing really worth to this client?"
It may be intimidating, but setting and negotiating higher rates will give you more freedom to pursue and do better work, as well as give you the flexibility to turn down projects and find more time.
Estimate Your Time Generously
Picking the right projects and charging what you're worth are the foundation for your life as a freelancer. The other main part is simply scheduling.
We've recently posted tips for how to better estimate time for projects, but you might want to double that time estimate or at least add some "buffer time" (a strategy recommended by a couple of Lifehacker readers on Twitter, @justevan123 and Liam Brazier). That extra time is especially important when you're tackling a new project area or it involves something highly susceptible to Murphy's Law. For example, when writing an article about upgrading a computer, everything will go wrong.
The more generous you are with estimating your time, the better you'll be able to follow through on your commitments and follow the golden rule in business: under-promise and over-deliver.
Compartmentalise Your Time
Divvy up your time so you're not switching gears from one type of project to another too often during the day or week. Multitasking like that sabotages our brains. Instead, if you can, block out times during the day or week when you can focus on specific projects. You might not work the typical 9 to 5 office job, but even with more than a handful of clients and a chaotic schedule, you can make your workdays more routine, which saves you time and energy.
Use Digital Tools to Block Out Time and Beat Distractions
The screenshot above is my Trello weekly planning board, colour-coded by project type. You might prefer to block out your time on a calendar.
While you're focused on one thing at a time, though, distractions and thoughts of other projects will pop up. Keep a running list of ideas and such so you can quickly jot it down and get back to work, whether you use Evernote, pen and paper, or some other capture tool.
Keep in Mind Classic Time Management Tips
Here are additional tips shared on Twitter:
- Prioritise based on deadline and amount of work needed for the project, as opposed to working on too many things at once. - @samdunsiger
- Schedule snacks and breaks, and make sure you don't work through them. - @NerdHusbandry
- Never underestimate what you can get done in as little as 15 min. Over the course of a day/week, it really adds up. - @creditinfocentr. International Freelancers Academy agrees about those small pockets of time: "In 15-minutes of prepared, focused work, you can often get more done than in one hour of unprepared, unfocused work."
- Manage your energy: "When struggling, start with small and simple. When energized, tackle big assignments. When you can't concentrate, take a break" - @sarithayat
- Turn off Wi-Fi to focus. - @jspepper
- Use structured procrastination (shift to-do list tasks so the easier ones are at the top). - @TheParableMan
- Keep a running log of all current projects and the next task to be performed on each. Nothing falls through. - @MikeGriswoldATX (See screenshot below)
Finally, perhaps the hardest thing about time management -- besides never having enough time -- is battling procrastination and just getting the work done. We talk about procrastination quite a bit on Lifehacker, but some additional tips apply particularly to freelancers.
Take on a little more work. Writer and former Lifehacker intern Joshua Rivera says: "I would line up slightly more work than I was comfortable taking on. Helped light a fire under my ass."
Turn payment into the proverbial carrot stick. Glen Foster-Cooley added that he would only request full payment on delivery (rather than instalments, as is often the practice), and that motivated the hell out of him.
Have a baby. Just kidding with this one, but Tactical Newspaper reminds us that other time commitments sure can put us into crunch mode: "Having a newborn baby and trying to fit an article into three hours before the next bottle feed."
Last, but not least, don't work too much. Even when we work for ourselves, we have to learn to call it a day and go home.