13 Principles of Effective Time Management for Freelancers

Freelancers and independent designers have the need to achieve efficiency with their time. Effective time management does not come naturally for many of us, but to avoid working ridiculous hours and to greatly increase the chances of success in business, it is an area that needs attention. While working to improve the effectiveness of my time is an on-going journey for me, I have learned some things along the way that I think may be helpful to others. This article is written with freelance designers in mind, but the basic principles apply to many other situations as well.

1. Respect and Value Your Time

The first and most critical step towards being able to effectively manage your time is to respect and value it. As a freelancer, time is the most valuable asset you have. With your available time you can pursue various projects and determine how you want to make an income. Without any time you will be unable to do the work that produces the income.

Respecting your time is a general attitude that involves realizing the value and potential of your time, and a desire to work towards achieving greater efficiency and productivity with it. If you disrespect your own time others will do the same and you’ll wind up working harder and longer to earn the income that you need. Respecting your time will generally lead you towards an interest and a willingness to do the other things that are mentioned throughout this article.

2. Have a Plan for Your Time

If you start work in the morning with no idea how you will spend your time, chances are you will lose a lot of efficiency because of wasted time. Everyone has their own methods of planning that work for them, but generally you should either: 1) plan your work a week at a time, 2) at the end of the day plan for the next day, or 3) set a plan at plan at the very beginning of each day before you start to work.

With a plan for your time you will never sit around and wonder what you should be working on next because you will have a schedule with priorities that need to be accomplished. This way you will be able to finish one task and move on quickly to the next.

Something worth noting here is that you will not want to go too far with the planning, you should still have some flexibility, especially if that is important to your own style of work. Having some level of freedom can make the work more interesting and less taxing. My recommendation to is have a general plan with a few specific tasks that need to be accomplished, but allow yourself the freedom to make a few decisions throughout the day.

3. Be Goal-Oriented

Goals are great for helping to keep you on task. If you are working to achieve a specific goal it is much easier to stay focused until that goal is accomplished. Set minor goals for your day such as getting done with a specific task by a certain time. Without having any goals to work towards you’re likely to find that your pace of work slows down and you get less accomplished.

4. Set Deadlines

Many of the projects that you will be working on as a freelancer will have deadlines. Some clients will need you to be finished by a specific date, but others will have more flexibility. Additionally, you may be working on a personal project that has no real deadline because there is no one to report to except yourself.

While flexibility is a good thing, having a deadline to work towards can be very helpful for knowing how much you need to get done and for encouraging efficiency. For your projects that do not have set deadlines from clients, I recommend that you set your own deadlines or target dates of completion. While you shouldn’t be so rigid with this that you completely take away your flexibility, I think you will find that it helps to have something to work towards. And if you find down the road that a self-imposed deadline is not realistic, it can always be adjusted.

5. Have a Set Ending Time

One of the problems with time management for freelancers is that there is always the temptation to just keep working longer in order to get things done. While this can help in some situations (such as last minute work that needs to be done in order to meet a strict deadline), in general working more is not the answer and it can even decrease efficiency.

I’ve found in my own work that when I have a set time that I will be ending the day, I work with more focus and achieve better productivity because I know everything needs to get done before that time. When I plan to work into the evening until I get done with the things on my to-do list, I often find that my pace slows down (I know it’s going to be a long day, so why push it to get more done quickly?) and I don’t get much more accomplished than if I had ended work a few hours earlier. I’d be better off to end earlier and get some time with family and away from work.

6. Don’t Try to Overwork Yourself

Most freelancers work long hours. While this may be necessary at times and it can help for building up a client base and meeting deadlines, in terms of time management it usually isn’t effective. We all have a need for a work/life balance, and working too much can throw everything else out of whack. Additionally, trying to do too much can lead to tons of stress and a scattered focus that can make it even more difficult to accomplish the most important things. With a more realistic work schedule you will be able to focus more effectively on the issues at hand and you will have more energy for getting things done and doing so in an efficient manner.

Although there is a lot of emphasis on planning in this article, there are also benefits to keeping your planning to a minimum. What this means is that you will want to prioritize the important things that must get done, but don’t attempt to micro manage your day. Work to keep your calendar light and you will have more energy and focus for the important work, and you’ll also benefit from some added freedom that comes from being able to choose the other things that you want to work on if you have extra time.

7. Form Good Habits

Developing habits comes naturally to most of us. Unfortunately, bad habits are easier to form than good ones. Developing bad time management habits will make it hard to achieve your goals and you’ll have to work even harder just to break those bad habits, not to even mention the work that will need to be done accomplish the tasks that are at hand.

However, with the development of good habits, time management can become much easier and will be second nature. Bad habits of time management involve procrastination, any kind of lack of focus, poor organization, or lack of concern for your time. If you are willing to put in the effort now to form good habits, once they have set in you will be well on your way to becoming an efficient freelancer.

Really, just about everything that is covered in this article can be a habit. Take for example the issue of goal setting. If you make a habit to end each day by setting goals for the following day you will automatically put this into your daily routine and you’ll never lack focus because of not knowing what you should be working on.

To form good habits, consider the things that you struggle with and be consistent at working to overcome them. Find a way that seems to work well for you and do it the same way. Back to the example of goal setting, if this is something you struggle with and you want to form into a good habit, be committed to doing it at a certain time or a certain way each day. If you sometimes do it at the end of your day and sometimes at the start, it will be easier to blow off and harder to form into a habit. Consistency leads to habits.

8. Have an Activity for Stress Release

Freelancing is like any other work in that it does come with its fair share of stress. The stress is often from the pressure to meet a client’s deadline. Other times you may feel stressed because of a client that is particularly difficult to deal with, or maybe your stress is self-imposed as you’re feeling unable to come up with a design that you are happy with.

Whatever the case may be, stress is very likely to be something that you will have to deal with. Having a specific activity for helping to overcome the stress and find some peace and relaxation is important. For some people this comes in the form of exercising or going to the gym. This can be a great stress release after sitting at the computer all day. For others it will involve music, art, or it may even be to just get out of the home office and go for a walk or a drive.

9. Know Where Your Time is Going

Tracking your time is an important part of achieving efficiency. I don’t feel that it’s necessary to always be tracking your time every day, but when you are working to form habits and to see where you can improve your efficiency it is critical that you know what you are currently doing in order to be able to improve upon it.

Tracking your time can involve simply writing down what you are doing and for how long, or you can use one of many resources that are available to track your time online. Once you know how you are typically spending your time you can evaluate to see your weaknesses and areas for improvement. It’s likely that you’ll be surprised at some of the things that are eating up considerable amounts of time and how you can get more out of your days.

10. Group Tasks Together

One of the difficult parts of freelancing is that there are a lot of transitions throughout a day and many things pulling you in different directions. You have design projects that need your attention, but you also have to take care of completing quotes for potential clients, customer service, invoicing, recording of financial records, marketing, networking, and more.

With all of the different activities that you have to do throughout the course of a day and a week it can be helpful if you are able to group together similar items and do them at the same time. For example, rather than responding to client emails the moment they hit your inbox (and stopping what you are working on in order to do so), why not set aside 30 minutes, or however much time you need, each day for responding to all of your client emails at one time?

Another example is invoicing and finances. Rather than recording your income sporadically whenever it comes in or completing invoices the moment you are done with the work, why not have a time set aside to take care of these tasks once or twice per week? Additionally, there tend to be a lot of small items on daily to-do lists. My typical list of things to do each day consists of maybe two or three major items that will take the bulk of my day and maybe five little things that are important but will only take a couple of minutes each. I like to do all of the little things at once and get them out of the way rather than being distracted by them one-at-a-time throughout the day.

11. Prioritize Organization

In order to achieve maximum efficiency in your time management you will need to be organized in a number of ways. Your office should be organized so that you don’t waste time looking for things and so that you can work in a clean environment with as few distractions as possible. Your finances should be organized so that you don’t have to spend time trying to figure out which clients still owe you money. Your schedule should be organized so that there is little wasted time between activities. Your customer service should be organized so that you don’t have to waste time searching for old emails or to remember who needs to have some type of work done for them.

In general, if you make it a priority to organize your work and your life, efficiency with your time will follow as a natural result.

12. Take Quick Breaks

It’s easy to get involved in projects and find yourself working straight for long periods of time, especially when you enjoy the work that you are doing. Generally this leads to decreased efficiency and a higher risk of burnout. Just taking a quick five minute break to get some fresh air or get away from the computer can make a big difference. If you are struggling with focus and you have been working for a while, try taking a short break to see if it gives you more focus when you come back.

13. Calculate Your Per-Hour Income

One of the reasons it is so tempting for freelancers to work long hours is that more work tends to result in more money. But this is not always the case. If you are keeping accurate records of your income and expenses it is easy to look at any given month and see how much money you are making, but that only tells part of the story. If income or profit is all that you are looking at it is very tempting to increase the hours that you are working.

By tracking the time that you spend each day, week, and month working, you will be able to calculate how much you are making per hour (I’m not referring to how much you charge clients per hour, but rather the amount of money that you have made divided by the total number of hours worked). When you see how much you are making per hour it may help you to get the big picture and it may encourage you to work towards better efficiency with your time. Calculating your hourly income puts the emphasis on being more effective with your time rather than just working more hours.

What’s Your Advice?

What tips or advice do you have on the subject of time management?

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. aviko-oloo
    October 2, 2009

    that’s is highly recommended list ,i just got a brief meeting with my boss on time management and yeah! that doesn’t only apply to freelancers

  2. October 2, 2009

    It definitely shows that you’re writing from experience, Steven. With this recession, you have so many more freelancers. It can be a challenge on it’s own to land the contract job, but what good is it when you’re not using your time effectively to get the job done? I think it dates back to when we were kids doing our homework sometimes – there can be so many distractions. Maybe we already developed bad time-management skills then?

    Remember when we were told, “If you could be paid for your time, how much would that be?” Tracking your time is important, but if you could put a dollar sign next to the value of tracked time spent/lost, I think it would be used differently. So even if you gave a set price for the job, it’d still give you an incentive to see how much money was lost on wasted/inefficient time.

  3. October 2, 2009

    Very interesting article, thanks a lot!

  4. October 2, 2009

    0. Plug all of your ‘social’ connections on the net off

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  6. Pingback: 13 Principles of Effective Time Management for Freelancers | Design Newz

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  8. October 4, 2009

    Very nice and useful article.

  9. October 5, 2009

    This is something I really need help with.

    Because I try and complete extra projects on top of my full time job, it can be really difficult to motivate myself to work during the evenings.

    Once I get going I love it but for some reason getting started is the hardest bit.

    Thanks for the tips!

  10. October 6, 2009

    Very helpful, Thnx

  11. October 6, 2009

    Thanks for this thought provoking article.

    “As a freelancer, time is the most valuable asset you have.” … this was a very useful reminder right at the start of your article ….


  12. October 7, 2009

    very very useful article! and this is not only for freelancers! i will take it in my daily process!
    thanks a lot!

  13. Pingback: Consejos para manejar mejor el tiempo siendo freelance |

  14. October 9, 2009

    Ahem… Ahem…

    I think this article was created just for me 😉

    I needed this one.

  15. October 23, 2009

    As a recent full-time freelancer I cannot stress how important it is to start good habits early.
    Use time-tracking tools and take weekends off. Clients respect you more if you have clearly defined boundaries such as office hours and weekends.
    I recommend the book “The Principles of Successful Freelancing” by Miles Burke (Sitepoint book). That book helped me immensely.

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  17. Rebecca Pearson
    November 12, 2009

    Steven, I know you wrote this with freelancers in mind, but i think the same principles apply to anyone with a full-time job. Thanks for the helpful tips! There are also online resources to help people who struggle with time management, such as this one-hour course: http://www.onehourcourses.com/management.php?cid=155. I haven’t actually taken it, but I’ve heard good things about it. I know you can enter INTERVIEW as a promo code to take the interviewing courses for free through One Hour Courses, but it might work for the time management course as well.

  18. December 21, 2009

    solution for all these points is Pomodoro Technique 😉 http://www.pomodorotechnique.com

  19. January 5, 2010

    Well done, Stephen.

    I think you could even move number seven, form good habits, to the top and let all the tips develop into good habits.

    Being in the habit of grouping like tasks together, setting deadlines and making a plan for your time will likely bump out old habits you have of working “on demand” as tasks arrive (like responding to email in nanoseconds!).

    Thanks for the list!

  20. January 5, 2010

    I agree with Jan. Step #7 – Form Good Habits – basically summarizes everything Stephen is pointing out in this article. Repetition forms a habit and with it becoming second nature, you have mental room to focus on other things! 🙂

  21. January 12, 2010

    As for “Have a Plan for Your Time”, I’m currently working on a tool for just that, called Hourpatch (http://www.hourpatch.com/). It lets you make an iCal-like schedule, but integrates some time tracking features to keep track of whether you’ve planned enough time for everything. Maybe some of y’all will find it useful!

  22. Jack
    January 13, 2010

    This is an interesting piece. Thank you.

  23. March 27, 2010

    Its definitely a fruitful post. Thank you.

  24. August 9, 2010

    Its definitely a fruitful post.

  25. September 9, 2010

    Urgh being a freelancer is definately hard work at times. And it is so important to have a good activity to let you wind down after a hard day (for me it’s climbing). On the subject of useful tools for time management I would also suggest a simple bit of online software called 1DayLater ( http://1daylater.com ) – not sure how this compares to the other suggestions mind!

  26. May 16, 2011

    If you want to buy a car, you would have to get the credit loans. Moreover, my sister all the time uses a secured loan, which seems to be really firm.

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