Article by Jess Gately
Time management is one of the most important factors of freelance work. There’s a lot to consider when you’ve got to juggle the endless need to pitch your work, find new clients, follow up, invoice, update your portfolio, produce content for your website and social media, interviews, meetings, researching, along with all of the actual writing part of your work. It’s also likely you’ll be managing multiple jobs and clients all at once.
And somewhere amongst all that you’ve still got to have a life! After all, many people choose the freelance lifestyle because it gives them flexibility. So how do you actually do all this?
1. Know your budget
Earlier in this series we talked about setting your rates and part of that was understanding your own needs. If you haven’t done it yet, you really need to do it now because this will help you identify just how much work you need to take on and, therefore, how you are going to manage your time.
When considering your budget, break down all of your expenses into a weekly cost and think about:
- Your household bills, e.g. water, gas, energy, internet, phone, council rates or rent, insurance, loans, and car licencing
- Your living costs, e.g. groceries, petrol, travel expenses, parking, subscriptions (like Netflix), car servicing, and doctors’ appointments
- Extras, e.g. dining out, holidays, entertainment, hosting parties, and all the things you like to spend your spare money on.
You may find it useful to go back through your bank records to look at how you spend your money and how much you spend to get an idea of your average expenses.
Now that you know how much you spend, you know how much you need to earn and, therefore, how much work you need to take on.
2. Treat it like work
Now that there’s no colleagues to see you and you don’t have to leave the house, you can turn up for work in your pyjamas and sit on the couch to work, right? You can go out for coffee any time and work happens when it happens, right?
Here’s the thing, you are going to be way more productive with your time if you treat work time like work time.
a) Dress for work
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to dress up in a suit to work, but it does mean that, most of the time, you should at least get dressed.
b) Make a workspace
Where possible, try to have a specific workspace that is designated for your work. Rather than using the kitchen table or the couch, it’s better if you can have a work desk or better still, a spare room that acts as an office where you can keep all your work materials together. That way, your work doesn’t have to be cleared for dinner each night and you always know where to find it.
c) Don’t compromise on work time
One thing a lot of freelancers complain about is how friends and family assume that because they’re home it means they’re always available. Don’t be afraid to turn off your phone, ignore the doorbell, and tell your mum that you’re not available for coffee because you’re working. Just because you don’t have a traditional office job doesn’t mean you don’t have a job. The more you respect your work time, the more others will too.
3. Make a schedule
Many freelancers who are just starting out make the mistake of enjoying the flexibility of their role a little too much which can often end in last minute stress and missed deadlines.
You’ll find that your brain will adapt to work mode quicker if you have a regular schedule that you can keep. Although your schedule may change a little from week to week, if you can have a semi-regular structure to your work, you’ll find it easier to manage the many things you need to do.
To understand the best schedule for you it’s important to consider a few things:
a) When will your clients be available?
It’s common for new freelancers to forget that just because you get to choose your hours, your clients usually don’t. That means that you need to be available during those common work hours (9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday) otherwise you risk missing valuable work.
b) When are you most productive?
Are you a night owl or an early riser? Do you need to go for a run or a surf in the morning before your brain is ready to go? Most people working at a computer will tell you that they’re most productive in the morning, and they’re really sluggish after lunch. If that’s the case for you, think about what work you’re doing and what requires the most brain power.
For example, if you’re most productive in the morning, you may decide to start work at 6 or 7am and sit straight down to do your research and writing work early. Then, as you get towards lunch time, you can do quoting and invoicing for new jobs. Finally, after lunch, you can take care of more mechanical work like answering emails.
c) What other commitments do you have?
Do you have kids that need dropping and picking up from school? Do you have regular appointments with a doctor, physio, or psychologist? Do you have a housework/shopping day? Or do you regularly visit a friend or family member?
Remember to account for any other commitments you have. Write them all down on a calendar and look at how they will interrupt your schedule. Can you move them or do you have to work your schedule around them?
d) When will you have days off?
This one is really important as it’s very easy to fall into the trap of working every day. Scheduling your days off allows you time when you don’t have to think about work; vital to avoiding burnout.
If you’re sticking to your schedule and working effectively you shouldn’t need to work every single day. It’s not good for your health either. A day off can make all the difference in reducing stress levels and keeping your productivity higher.
4. Manage your tasks
There are lots of working parts to any project and then on top of that you have all your own business management to consider. You need to understand just how much there is for you to do and how much time it takes.
a) Break it down
Start by writing down all the tasks you need to undertake each week just for managing your business. We listed some of them above. Under each heading, now break down the individual tasks involved and how long you think it will take you to complete.
Now do the same thing for whatever projects or work you’ve taken on. What are the small individual tasks that make up each project and how long will each task take you to complete?
You can now start slotting these tasks into your schedule.
b) Batch your work
It’s easier to get into the right mind set when you’re already in it. Rather than trying to complete one project at a time, you may find it easier to batch similar types of work.
For example, if you need to leave the house for research, you might want to do a single trip and research several projects at once rather than wasting time on travel across multiple days. If you’ve got to have meetings with your clients, you might try and schedule them all on the same day so that you’re not trying to bounce from a writing head space to a meeting and collaboration head space.
c) Prioritise your work
There are multiple ways you can consider prioritising your work that all depend on what you’re trying to achieve:
- Deadlines – the most popular way to prioritise; work that is due earlier should be done first!
- Income – a client who is paying you more for your service may deserve priority over a client paying you less for the same service. Likewise, a paying client should almost always come before any pro bono work.
- Repeat work – a client who contributes a large portion of your annual income with multiple projects is often more important to keep a relationship with than someone you know will be a one-off client.
- Work type – potentially contrary to point 3, a client whose work is more in line with what you want to do more of, may be more important than a client whose work you aren’t enjoying.
- Relationship – the relationship you have with your client may also determine which work you prioritise. It may be that you know them well and they won’t mind you pushing back a deadline for another client who may provide future opportunities.
Which priority you choose to take will differ depending on the situation but it’s useful to keep these things in mind when you’re deciding which work to do each day.
d) Create to-do lists
You may wish to have multiple to-do lists or just one but either way, your lists should be manageable and achievable. If a to-do list is a list of goals you wish to achieve (i.e. tasks to complete) then think about SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely).
Most freelancers keep multiple to-do lists: perhaps a weekly and a daily one that shows overall the projects that need to be completed each week, and then having those projects broken down into specific tasks to be completed each day (like we did above when considering the schedule).
e) Use a diary
Using a diary not only gives you space to create a daily to-do list but also to manage the time in which you do it! Get a diary that has a single day on each page and ideally one that breaks down the hours in the day so that you can not only create a list of things to do that day, but also break down the time you’re going to do it in.
5. Manage your time
Managing your time requires you to understand how much time your work takes and then making the most of the scheduled time you have. So, first things first you need to:
a) Track your time
There are multiple apps you can use to do this. Toggl is one popular option that just uses a simple stop and start button but there are many automatic apps that you can load to your desktop which will automatically track the time you spend working in a particular program or document.
Tracking your time not only helps keep you on track, but it also means you can ensure you’re quoting correctly for the amount of time jobs are taking you and that you are allowing enough time in your schedule for them.
b) Minimise distractions
If you have a door on your office, USE IT! Close it, put a sign on it, have rules about who can enter and when.
Shut down your social media, remove notifications from your desktop, or use social-media blocking tools if you find yourself straying there too often.
Close your email and turn of notifications. It’s far too easy to find yourself answering emails all day long and not getting any other work done.
6. Invoice regularly
Put time aside each week or each day to update invoices and send them out. While you may have organised to invoice a client monthly, keeping your invoice updated as you go makes it easier to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
If you have regular weekly work with a client, you should organise to invoice them weekly where possible to ensure regular payments are coming in to cover your own expenses.
7. Remember that it’s ok to say ‘no’
Whether you’ve already got too much work on, a client has requested more work on a project than was initially quoted, or any number of situations that may come up, it’s ok to say ‘no’.
While you may be willing to go above and beyond for your clients, remember that there’s a difference between you offering and them expecting certain perks and there’s a difference between them asking you and them telling you. If you find a client is pushing for too much too often, don’t be afraid to turn them down.
At the end of the day, you need to value your time if you want to make the most of it and you need to value yourself if you want your clients to value you.