Time Management for Freelancers

I am the first to tell you that when it comes to time management, I fail. Hard. I have never been able to manage my time wisely. I am an avid procrastinator (on homework and my own projects – great clients motivate me enough to get their designs done) and, what with Spring bringing lots of sunny weather, I find it hard to sit at my computer and focus on the screen. But with the coming of Summer and the economy on the rise again, I find myself with more and more projects to take care of. This means that I am at my computer more and more even on the sunniest days (much to the disappointment of my girlfriend – I miss you, baby!) so when I do go outside into the sun, my skin begins to melt off and the paleness of my skin blinds those within a three mile radius. Trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

But persist I must, and therefore, I have come up with several tips to help myself focus on getting stuff done (giving me more free time to go outside and remind my family every once in awhile that I love them).

The Power of Musical Persuasion

It might not come as a surprise that I find music to be a great way to keep me tied to my desk. I listen to music constantly, and if there’s no sound in the room, I find myself distracted by the tiniest things (including the ants that keep me constant company – they come in from the window and say hi every now and again). With music going, even if it’s quiet and in the background, my brain just seems to work better.

If it’s good music especially, I hate constantly having to pause it or get up and miss a good song. Having music going pretty much cements the fact that I plan on spending all day at my desk. While this is a great thing for getting work done, there are other elements that still play a part in dragging my attention away from work. And while it doesn’t do much for actually scheduling my time, music is the first step for me. I’m now sitting at my computer with little chance of leaving.

Yes, We’re Open!

On my desk above my laptop I have a sign that I drew up that says:

Design Coyote
Hours of Business:
Monday – Thursday: 10am – 6pm
Friday: 11am – 5pm
Closed Saturday & Sunday

By actually having set hours that I buckle down and get REAL WORK finished, I’m giving myself permission to use all other hours for personal time. I can’t guarantee that this will work, however; Ash pointed out at some point that one of the reasons I freelance is so I can be spontaneous at times and not have set hours. I’m pretty sure she only said this for one day only to get me to do something with her, but in my head I generalized it and have kind of let myself slip on these set hours. Especially since these hours are now prime Sunshine hours and the outdoors call…

Creating a Daily Schedule

If you’re anything like me, you like to take one day at a time. Starting a few days ago, I started making daily lists for myself as soon as I woke up. I try to break these lists up in regards to their priorities, but the drawback with doing this is that the items on my list that are marked as of low-importance tend to stay there until they are suddenly and without warning jumped to high-priority and I find myself scrambling to get them done. Perhaps this is simply showing off my inadequacies with updating my to-do lists each day, but I think it also has to do with labels. Instead of low-importance, I’m going to be splitting my list even further to include things with no deadlines at all: The Time Wasters (sounds like a baseball team, huh?)!

I’ll let you know how this goes.

Ah the Rewards that We Earn

Rewards. Ha ha, your eyes just lit up didn’t you? This is probably one of the best ways I can get myself to focus and do something productive. I promise myself a reward.

Now this reward can be any shape. It can be a time-for-a-snack time reward. It can be a play-outside-in-the-sun reward. It can be as simple as a kiss from my girlfriend or it can be as long-lasting as a … trip to the movie theater (you perverts). Knowledge that I’ll be getting something out of my work will sit in the back of my mind, constantly nagging me to hurry and finish so I can go on to something better. Generally what I do is set a time limit for myself. If I have this coding project done by 1pm, I can go get a bowl of ice cream and strawberries. If I finish this design within two hours, I can go outside and feed the geese. If I just write a few paragraphs of this blog post then I can go play Polar Bowling.

Of course, I also have to remind myself that I not only have to get things done on time, but I also have to produce quality work. Quality > quantity always. No matter how fast I get it done, it has to be good. Only then do I deserve whatever reward I get.

Know Your Time Preferences

What time do you feel the most energized? Chances are that’s when you’ll get the most work done. For me, it’s early in the morning and the evening onward. During the day, I tend to fall into a slump, get tired, and procrastinate more. This probably has to do with the whole sun thing, but in any case, giving myself a few hours to play during this time actually gives me the energy I need afterward to sit at my computer and focus! This large “lunch break” as I like to call it is kind of a sacrifice of a few hours in order to get more quality work in. A break, for me, means even more hours later that I can work! Figure out what time of the day (or night) you work best at. It helps.

Problems, Drawbacks, and Disappearing Hours

I know it’s happened to you. You were on a roll and then something distracts you. An email. A tweet. And there goes four hours of what was suppose to be a productive afternoon. Don’t be too hard on yourself – it happens to all of us. It’s the domino effect – one thing leads to another and when you were first writing a post on HTML 4.0 vs (X)HTML, you’re now staring at pictures of pygmy hippos (I totally see the connection). Don’t beat yourself up about it. You can pick those hours up tomorrow. Make a reminder to yourself that you want more time for a particular project in the next few days. Just as Ash told me, I’ll tell you. You’re a freelancer for a reason: you don’t need set hours (just don’t let this go to your head like it does for me).

There are drawbacks though. And this is where my issues with time management really begin to show. I don’t really have the problem of getting the work done; no, instead, I tend to work too much. I work past my hours, work through the day, forget that I promised my girlfriend we’d watch a movie because I’m trying to figure out why coding a sidebar is taking four hours instead of fifteen minutes. Sometimes all it takes is for me to shut off my music. Sometimes I have to be physically pried from my computer to protests that all I want is five more minutes. This is something I’m constantly trying to remedy. It’s hard to stop when you’re on a roll or feel like you’re finally making progress or that you NEED to get this done NOW on pain of DEATH. It’s tough. Most of the time, a good pout from Ash will get me out of my office, but other times I’m so zoned that I forget there are other living beings in the same house. It’s a mental state of being that I think all designers have experienced time and again. Is there a cure? Yes. Persistence. Tell yourself that NOT being on the computer is a reward. That work can wait. That there are people who love you and miss you. And that you miss them.

Working too much is just as big a problem as not working enough. I’m still attempting to find a balance, and I hope that these tips will help you as much as they help me. We’re in this together. Connected by the countless seams and wires of a large, global network of computers. We can do it. Let’s focus!

Other Time Management Resources

Time Management Articles on Woopidoo
6 Small Things You Can Do When You Lack Discipline from Zen Habits
How to Avoid Designer Burnout from My Ink Blog
Best Free Project/Time Management Tools from 3.7 Designs
Freelancing and Time Management from Graphic Design Blog
14 Applications for Project Management and Collaboration from Web Designer Depot
Time Management and Settling Deadlines from I Design Studios
200+ Resources for Freelance Designers from DesignM.ag

5 responses to “Time Management for Freelancers”

  1. Joshua says:

    I totally read “You can pick those hours up tomorrow.” as “you can pickup those hippos tomorrow.” Good read, I need to get off my ass and jam.

  2. Greate article, Nikki!
    I can really relate to your problems. I work as a freelancer myself now, and find it really hard to get trough those tuff hours when your not 100% focused and inspired. I really liked youre idea about the opening hours sign. I tend to work all hours of the day, specially when an e-mail from a client dumps in my inbox. I almost feel like they know that I’ve seen their e-mail, and that I really should do something with the task that has been sent me. But eventhough we are freelancers we should be able to award ourselves with some time off! Thanks for reminding me!

    Your site will definitly go in my google reader : )

  3. I use many of the suggestions above. I have music playing, I have office hours, and I use my Outlook Calendar religiously to block out all hours of my work day. It keeps me organized and stress-free! 😀

    Cheryl

  4. mom says:

    Don’t work to hard. Be able to soak up the sun…

  5. J.D. Meier says:

    What’s helped me is setting boundaries in different buckets … mind, body, emotions, career, financial, relationships and fun. For example, a min of 3 hrs a week on body, a max of 40 hrs a week on career, a min of 3 hrs fun …. etc.

    Then I schedule things I need time for during the week and each week I work on increasing my number of power hours and number of creative hours.

    This helps with balance and I think of it as investing across my portfolio.

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