As freelancers, we need all the time management tips we can get. Recently, I was talking with a friend who manages productivity for a major publication and was describing how I stay on top of a heavy workload. I explained that everything that’s a distraction is turned off, from my phone to social media. I wear headphones and play music designed to make you more productive on Brain.fm. Each task is laid out in a daily grid, and I use 25-minute Pomodoro sprints — measured by TomatoTimer — to stay moving throughout the day.
She declared it “fascinating,” which we both know is code for “weird.” But looking at a freelancer’s day through this lens underscored a key point: Staying profitable, meeting customer expectations and growing your business requires relentless time management. Here are seven strategies that can help you rein in work when it gets overwhelming.
1. Know How Long Things Take You
A successful freelancer who retired when I was just getting started gave me great advice: You’ll tackle similar types of projects over and over again. If you’re a designer, learn how long it takes you to design a simple logo, and how long it takes you to code a new website design. If you’re a writer, learn how long it takes you to write a 700-word blog post with no sources, and a 2,000 word feature with three interviews. From there, you’ll always know how many hours you have to work in a week or a month, and you’ll be able to balance your workload accordingly. Putting this into practice starts with three steps:
Outline the total time you have to work each week. Let’s say it’s 40 hours.
Determine how much time you need for administrative work like invoicing and emails. Not every hour will be billable. In our theoretical week, we’ll say this takes 10 hours.
In the remaining 30 hours on your calendar, slot in the pieces that you have to complete and block out the time it’ll take. If there’s an overage, you can adjust deadlines, make extra time in your schedule and understand those trade-offs for the future.
2. Outsource Administrative Tasks
Are there billable hours you’re not thinking about? Freelancers often spend large portions of their day attending meetings, answering client emails, running social media accounts and conducting other administrative tasks. Consider hiring a virtual assistant. By outsourcing your administrative and marketing work, you can free up more time in your week, giving you breathing room in your schedule and allowing you to add to your bottom line. If you’re constantly running from one meeting to the next, you may even want to consider billing prospective clients for this time.
3. Maximize Your Work Time
With a heavy workload, you can’t afford to lose focus or get distracted — especially since every hour that goes over what you’ve budgeted cuts into family time, fun activities and decompressing from demanding schedules. Find strategies that maximize your work time.
Implement a distraction lockdown. Figure out what distracts you and block it out to the fullest extent possible. Turn off your phone and use a software tool designed to block certain sites for specific amounts of time, like SelfControl, Freedom and StayFocusd.
Make a time-focused list. Since you know how long each step takes, look at the available time you have and slot each project or activity into your calendar. Manage time in increments that make sense to you. Hourly is fine, but if you’re really limited, go down to 15-minute blocks.
Embrace the Pomodoro. The Pomodoro method invites you to focus on one thing exclusively for 25 minutes and go as hard as you can. Take a five-minute break, and then repeat.
4. Decide What to Work On
Triage work overload like a hospital ER. Look at the endless possibilities of your workload and figure out what’s most important now. Create a to-do list organized by deadline. If there are conflicts, you can consider who the client is and if they’d be open to a deadline change, how urgent the input is and if any financial factors come into play.
5. Increase Productivity With Support at Home
Look at whether your current work-life balance is sustainable. When you’re working at maximum capacity, it’s important to have support for the other major aspects of your life. The Harvard Business Review reports the diminishing returns in working long hours: Productivity drops, health issues increase and stress levels skyrocket. Is time what you need the most? Getting takeout, hiring someone to help with cleaning or mowing the lawn, using delivery services instead of grocery shopping and leaning on your partner can help free up time in the short-term to get through a busy period. Make sure you’re watching for signs of burnout and stress, and making time in your life for things that are important to you besides work, like friends, hobbies and fitness.
6. Take Care of Your Body
Speaking of fitness, it’s important to prioritize your health. Getting plenty of sleep, eating well and finding time for mindfulness activities can be low on your priority list when you’re up against a deadline. But in reality, it’s what helps you keep going. The Atlantic reports that stress makes you sick, anywhere from messing up digestion to making it easier for you to catch the flu. Determine what you need to be well and schedule it like a client priority.
7. Set Yourself up for a Better Future
Once you’re through the work overload, take a step back. Evaluate your financial goals and your workload. Maybe the goal is unreasonable, or there are easier ways to get there. Think about the lifestyle that you want to live. Could you keep going at the same pace if you had more support in your personal life or strategically outsourced parts of your business? There’s no single answer on how to embrace better habits, but try:
Defining what you’re trying to achieve.
Understanding the hours it’ll take to achieve that.
Creating space and support in your business and personal life.
Using the right time management tips to optimize your time.
We all take on too much at one point or another. With the right planning and focus, it’s possible to get everything done and get yourself on a healthier path for the future.