10 Tips To Help Freelancers Prioritize Tasks

Being a freelance designer brings a lot of challenges to the daily work aside from the expected design-related issues. Running your own business means that you’ll have to deal with finances, customer service, marketing and every other aspect of the business on top of the design or development work that produces an income. For many freelancers this juggling act is the hardest part of the being a freelance designer.

With so many things that always need to be done, and limited time to dedicate to these tasks, effectively prioritizing tasks is essential in order to achieve efficiency and productivity. If you’ve been working on your own for a while you are probably aware of the challenges that you face in this area, and maybe you are interested in working to improve your ability to effectively prioritize. If you are new to freelancing or just considering making the jump, this is a topic that demands attention.

With the right approach you will be able to get the most important and most pressing tasks completed, although if you are like me you will never be able to get as much done as you would like. However, without giving much thought to the priority of the things that you need to get done, you’re likely to miss deadlines or unnecessarily delay important things while you are spending time on tasks with less urgency.

In this post I’ll share some things that I have learned from my own experience over the past few years and hopefully it will be of help to you. Feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions for prioritizing.

The familiar situation for a freelancer or independent designer is to have a busy day ahead of you with a list of things that need to be done, much more than you will have time for. How do you decide what should get your attention?

1. Consider Deadlines

The first and most obvious factor that will help you to prioritize the tasks at hand is the deadline attached to each. Most of your projects will involve a deadline of some kind. Some of those deadlines absolutely must be met, and others are more of a target date with some flexibility built in. Whether the deadline at hand is for the completion of the project or just a milestone date for completing a certain portion or stage of the project, meeting deadlines is an important part of keeping clients happy.

As you are attempting to prioritize your work, those with pressing deadlines will usually take priority. Another thing to consider is that just because the deadline is not quickly approaching does not mean that you are in good shape to meet it. Give yourself your own deadlines for getting certain things done, which will help to put you in position to meet the overall deadline that you agreed to with the client.

2. Consider Payment Terms

Another factor that you will want to consider is when and how you will be getting paid. Does the project involve several payments that are due at various stages of completion? If this is the case, you may want to give added priority to this project so that you can get to one of the milestones quicker and invoice the client.

If you prioritize this project and get it done quicker, will it make a difference as to when and how much payment you receive? Basing your work on how fast you will get paid may seem like a poor reason to assign priority, but especially in today’s economy, keeping the cash flowing in to your business is essential.

3. Emphasize Finishing Tasks

One of the biggest factors that I use to prioritize my tasks is how much time it will take until I can complete the project or the task. If I have a list of ten things that need to be done, two are bigger tasks that will take considerable time and eight are very minor things that can be done quickly (such as responding to an email, completing and sending an invoice, etc.), I will usually prioritize the quick tasks and get them out of the way. Once I’m finished with those small tasks I know only have two things to take care of, and it’s a little easier to focus without so many different things that can be distracting.

By prioritizing the tasks that are close to completion you will always be working to keep a manageable number of tasks on your plate at once. If you get in the habit of always starting something new before finishing other things, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and have cluttered thinking.

4. How Much Time Will it Take?

This factor is also pretty obvious, but it’s important to consider. You will have tasks that need to be done which will require huge amounts of time, and others that may just take a few minutes, and of course everything in between. If you only have an hour left to work in the day it’s best to focus on things you can complete in that amount of time.

5. Consider the Relationship with the Client

You’ll probably be working with some clients on an on-going basis, and these clients will be a great source of consistent income (and the are often more likely to send referrals). Taking care of the clients who keep you in business is generally a good way to help prioritize your tasks.

In addition to just evaluating how much you have to gain financially from a client, you may have a stronger relationship with a client or know them well enough to know that they won’t mind if something gets pushed back a little bit when you are extremely busy. As you get to work with clients you will get to know them in a way that can help you to know how you should prioritize.

6. Keep a To-Do List

With so many things that need to be done, it’s difficult and unreliable to just keep all of that information in your head. It’s a good practice to always have a to-do list of what needs to be done, and you may even want to have a few different lists. I tend to set a weekly to-do list before I start a new week, and then I’ll break it down into a daily list. That way the weekly list helps me to get a big picture look at the things I need to get done, and the daily list breaks it down and helps to keep things in to perspective and to avoid feelings of being overwhelmed.

A few weeks ago I published a post that linked to some of the best options for managing a to-do list online. Each one has slightly different features. Regardless of what resource you use, or if you just keep a to-do list on paper, having a set list of things that need your attention will help you to stay focused on the most important tasks and it will help you to see the progress that you are making as you cross things off.

7. Honor Your Commitments to Clients

One of the most important aspects of giving your clients a positive experience is to simply keep your word and do what you say you will do for clients. Regardless of whether a task carries a specific deadline or not, it’s always a good practice to make every attempt possible to get it done when you say you will. If clients are counting on you and you come through, they will remember your service and will likely continue to use you whenever they need the services that you offer.

8. Consider How Much Time it Will Free Up

If you can get a particular task or project completed and off of your to-do list, how much time will it free up for you to spend on other things? Being able to move on, take new projects, or work on finishing other things will help you to be able to get more done and keep the income flowing.

9. How Much Can You Do Without Needing More from the Client?

All designers have faced plenty of situations where they have been unable to get their work done because something was needed from a client. Many times it will be content for the site, such as text and/or photos, and other times it may even be that the client hasn’t given the feedback that is needed to move forward. This can easily be one of the biggest headaches for designers (or for anyone who works with clients) because it can cripple your ability to do your job and can have serious impacts on the deadlines of the project.

If you are trying to prioritize your work, don’t forget to consider how much you will be able to do on your own. There have been many times when I started working on something only to get to a point where I realized that I couldn’t go any further without something from the client. This can be a big waste of time, as you then have to stop and find something else to work on in the meantime. Focus your efforts on tasks and projects where you can do you work without the need to stop in 10 minutes because you’re waiting on the client.

10. Consider the Stage of Completion

Another thing you will want to take into consideration is how far along you are in the project. If you’re close to completion you may want to just dedicate the needed time to finish it off. If you’re not close to being finished but you are close to a milestone of some type in the project, you may also want to give it priority. If you’ve been putting it off and you haven’t even gotten started yet, you may want to dedicate some time and make progress so that you are not pressed to meet the deadline later.

What’s Your Experience?

What have you learned through your own experience about prioritizing your tasks? What methods do you use to determine what you should work on and when?

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Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
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  2. September 10, 2009

    Very nice article! I definitely agree, I myself may order a pad to write down tasks or perhaps just use another notebook. Keeps tabs on what you’re doing and when it needs to get finished will keep it in your mind and that will help you push through. I find that keeping the client in the loop and continuously making improvements is a good way to keep yourself from putting it off. As easy as it may seem, doing stuff on your own without a boss can make so bring on so many distractions….

  3. September 10, 2009

    Heh, i use simple Google to-do -list 🙂 Thanks for inspiration post.

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  6. September 13, 2009

    Great practical tips. Even though you wrote this for designers many of the tips are applicable to any freelance type of person.

    As a Virtual Assistant myself I find that keeping the to do list is probably one of the greatest tools for freeing up my “physic RAM” so that I can effectively focus on the task at hand.

    Michelle @mmangen

  7. September 14, 2009

    dangerously organised – thats me

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  9. September 16, 2009

    It’s always a good idea to prioritize your tasks and make the best use of your time. Great post.

  10. September 20, 2009

    Ta-da list forces you to work in one list and not make things more complicated than they need to be. It might force too much simplicity for some, but we have found it great for quick projects. Backpack is the big-brother to Ta-da, we use this one for slightly more advanced project management. Clients like to work in this format with us. It’s a big one-page solution for a small team.

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  14. October 6, 2009

    It’s interesting how often people say that they get far more distracted working from home. I’ve always found the opposite, that I get straight into the zone, and don’t have the multiple interruptions and distractions of working in a conventional office.

  15. October 6, 2009

    I tend to be the same way as long as I have a clear purpose of what I need to accomplish on any given day. When you have a boss who is telling you what to do this is not usually an issue, but working independently it’s all up to you. Like you, I think I benefit from not having the typical office distractions, but I need to make sure I know what needs to be done, otherwise I wind up spending time on things that aren’t that important and I’m much less productive.

  16. May 20, 2010

    i like almost all what you mentioned.,lucy

  17. August 6, 2010

    don’t have the multiple interruptions and distractions of working in a conventional office.

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