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What's the hardest thing about being a freelancer? In my humble opinion, the answer is: managing your time...
What’s the hardest thing about being a freelancer?
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tricky clients, challenging briefs, or a lack of day-to-day interaction with colleagues.
In my humble opinion, the answer is: Managing your time.
Time management is the single hardest thing to get on top of - particularly when you first start out as a freelancer or online business owner.
There’s no limit to the amount of hours you could work. No one to tell you to get up from your desk and go take a break (except perhaps a long-suffering partner or housemate).
It takes practice and discipline to become great at time management. And it also takes a serious mindset shift. From thinking that you can only be successful if you work every hour under the sun, to recognising that maximising your time is what leads to more profit and the ability to scale your business.
That’s why this article will focus on key time management tips for freelancers and online business owners. If you can implement even some of these, you will be on the road to more money, more freedom, and increased happiness - sooner.
The wonderful thing about working for yourself is that you have much more control over the hours you work.
A night owl? No problem. Early bird? Easy peasy. As long as you meet deadlines and turn up to important client meetings, when you get the bulk of your work done is up to you. At last you can capitalize on when you feel most productive - instead of being at the mercy of the typical 9-6.
However, in the beginning, many freelancers don’t communicate these hours to clients. And if you’re not up front early on, clients will expect you to respond to emails and show up to meetings at various times throughout the day.
This leads to many freelancers and online business owners working all the time. The life you dreamed of - waking up late, having time to go for a walk, or logging off early because your day began at 7am - is nowhere in sight and you wonder why and how you suddenly became a slave to clients once again.
Before you find yourself in that all too familiar position, take stock of your calendar and decide your working hours. Then, when you take on a new client, be clear about your business hours and response times.
It might feel like a bold thing to do at first, but clients will respect your boundaries - if you set them. 😉
I’ve talked about calendar blocking before in this article about the things I wish I’d known before freelancing. Take it from this former to-do list lover, calendar blocking is one of the best ways for freelancers and online business owners to manage their time effectively.
Why? Because the human brain needs parameters within which to work. Otherwise we fall victim to Parkinson’s Law:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
☝️If you’ve been a lover of to-do lists until now, then this will resonate hard. How many times have you got to the end of the work day only to look down at your to-do list and wonder: how have I still got things left on the list?!
This is the problem with to-do lists. Calendar blocking, on the other hand, allows you to focus. By scheduling every minute of your week, you protect against distraction and increase your focus.
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, a book designed to help people stay focused in a distracted world, writes:
“Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
Here are some things to consider when calendar blocking:
Take it from Seth Godin, the key to success is setting goals. He writes:
“The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run. It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow and who make an impact … those people have goals.”
But what’s goal-setting got to do with time management? Well, when you know what you’re working towards, you can design a schedule that aims to achieve that.
For example, let’s say your goal next month is to increase your salary by 25%. Whatever that equates to in $$, figure out how many projects you need to take on to achieve that.
Do you need to increase your rates? Most likely, otherwise you’ll be working yourself into the ground to generate the additional income. Not to mention the fact that being self-employed, you need to factor in time off for illness or holidays that you won’t be paid for.
There’s lots of handy tools online - like this freelancer rate calculator - to help you out. You can input your desired salary (minus expenses) plus how many days and hours you want to work each week to give you your freelancer rate.
4. Track your time
It’s difficult to properly manage your time if you have no idea where your time is going.
To take back control of your calendar - and stop it controlling you - use a tracking tool like RescueTime or Clockify to see where you’re most distracted, what time of day you’re most productive, and set goals around time spent on email, social media, or personal development.
We’re bad at estimating how long tasks will take to complete - we have a tendency to be very over optimistic with how much we can get done in a day. This is what is known as the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. They claimed that:
“Scientists and writers are notoriously prone to underestimate the time required to complete a project, even when they have considerable experience of past failures to live up to planned schedules.”
Feeling constantly behind on your schedule is overwhelming and counter-productive. The first step in tackling this is to understand how long individual tasks take you - based on data, not gut instinct.
How much time do you spend managing your emails each day? I bet it’s more than you think. What starts off as a quick “check” can easily turn into one hour of reading, drafting, editing, and sending emails - many of which don’t need to be dealt with immediately.
This is why having a strategy for managing your inbox is one of the best time management tips I can give you. Here are some easy changes to implement if you feel like emails are taking over your life:
One of the biggest time-sucks when freelancing is communicating back-and-forth with clients (and potential clients) about meetings. So, rather than losing ounces of your precious creativity energy trying to decide between that day - or that time - I recommend exploring solutions like Acuity or Calendly.
Both of these appointment scheduling softwares take the headache out of booking appointments. You plug in your availability - particularly important for setting boundaries with clients right from the get-go - and share that calendar link with the relevant people so that they can self-schedule. It almost feels like you have a personal assistant!
If you’re just getting started, I recommend using Calendly. It’s free and simple to use. If you have a little more budget to use and/or want something with a few more bells and whistles, Acuity is an excellent choice. No matter which you choose, your inbox - and patience - will thank you.
As well as setting up filters and creating email templates, one of my favourite time management tips for freelancers is to remove emails from your phone. Or at the very least, turn off push notifications.
Trying not to look at your phone multiple times a day - particularly when you work in social media - is virtually impossible. So instead of resorting to locking your phone in another room, remove the email app and/or notifications. It’s amazing how much more productive you can be when you’re not being (constantly) distracted by an intriguing subject line lighting up your phone.
Bonus tip: I’ve also turned off Whatsapp notifications on my phone. The amount of time I’ve saved not getting caught up in multiple group chats has helped me power through daily tasks so much faster.
8. Hire additional help
If you’re struggling to keep up with client work, it might be time to hire some freelancers or a part-time employee to help you out.
The first thing to do is decide what you want help with. Tracking your time will give you the data to see what tasks are consuming most of your day. Now write out your tasks and categorise them into: Strengths, Competencies, and Chores (shout out to Shannon from The Social Bungalow for first opening my eyes to these):
Those “Chores”? You don’t have to be doing them, especially if they’re taking up a considerable amount of time. Instead, when the time is right, you could hire additional support to help you. After all, you should be leaning into your strengths. Performing the tasks that you excel at, are efficient in, or bring in the money.
So, when you’re ready to create a job description for that additional support, here’s some things to be aware of:
I’ve talked about some of my favourite tools in my guide to becoming a social media manager, but one thing that I want to mention again here is project management software.
Applications like ClickUp or Asana are vital at helping you stay on top of projects. They’re essentially digital planners that allow you to set due dates, subtasks, and assign work to others for review or completion.
It’s so handy having everything in one place - all of your tasks, docs, goals and chats between collaborators or co-workers. And the best part is, you can keep an eye on your deadlines for the week ahead and move things accordingly.
Here are some other project/content management tools I love:
10. Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
I used to believe that sitting down and powering through a piece of work - uninterrupted and without pause - was the best way to get through my to do list. In reality, I’d lose focus because staring at a screen for hours at a time is the fastest route to procrastination.
11. Have a change of scenery
Sitting at the same desk, in the same room, staring at the same four walls day-after-day is not conducive to productivity or effective time management.
During the pandemic, it was more challenging to get a change of scenery. But as life slowly returns to normal, consider getting a membership to a local co-working space or working from a cafe one morning a week. Even a little bit of time outside the home will inject some much needed stimulation into your day.
For those times when you can’t get out of the house, small changes to your at-home set up can make a big difference. Try a standing desk or moving to a different place in your home to switch up your surroundings.
12. Schedule in a holiday
Part of time management is recognising when you need to schedule in time for a proper break. I’m not talking about two hours here and two hours there.
I’m talking about a proper vacation from work - one that’s longer than “a long weekend”. Taking time for yourself isn’t just about having fun. Of course, that’s part of it! But taking time away from your laptop, away from deadlines and client expectations, is an essential part of work-life balance.
Working long hours all the time increases stress and reduces creativity. Yes, taking a vacation requires forward planning and a bit of budgeting, but it’s so worth it. You’ll come back to work with a new lease of life, buzzing with ideas and ready to work on new projects.
13. Give yourself rewards
Now, I’m not necessarily saying that treating yourself with chocolate is a long-term time management strategy, but hear me out.
Treating yourself to a piece of chocolate, a cup of tea, or a walk round the block if and when you finish a piece of work can be really effective. On those days when I’m not feeling my most productive self, I’ll whip out my Pomodoro app and promise myself a treat once I get through a couple of 25-minute sessions.
This is a great incentive to crack on with my daily tasks and overcome procrastination. And if you want to be a little healthier than me (and avoid the chocolate!), your treat could be a 10-minute (crazy) dance routine, a walk to your local cafe for a takeaway coffee, or some cuddle time with your dog.
14. Learn to say no
Last but definitely not least, is a vital time management tip for any freelancer or online business owner that wants to grow: drawing boundaries around your time and learning how to say no.
Don’t be afraid to push back against out-of-scope requests from clients or turn down work you don’t have time to do. Even if you do have the time, if it isn’t work that lights you up or adds to your portfolio - you don’t need to do it. Especially if you’re unable to negotiate terms that work for you.
The huge benefit of being your own boss is that you are in full control of your day. Nobody can tell you what to do. Yet all too often - for fear of passing on an opportunity (trust me, another one will come along) - we say “yes” to everything. Before you know it, your diary is jam-packed and you’re working late (again) or over the weekend.
So, take back control of your time. Don’t give it all away for fear of saying “no”. You’re the boss. You make the rules.
Time management - much like your preferred working hours - is a very personal thing. Not all of the approaches above will work for you, but hopefully they’ve inspired you to be more intentional with the time you’re using to build your career.
Try different approaches, keep track of when you feel most productive and energetic, and you’ll soon get into the habit of effective time management.
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