Since beginning work as a freelance designer I have found managing my time effectively to be one of the biggest challenges. In previous fulltime jobs I had the luxury of project managers who established timelines and made sure that projects were delivered under budget and on schedule. These days I am responsible for those aspects of my business, as well as winning pitches, meeting with clients, doing the books, paying the bills, and manning the phone. And that’s not to mention actually doing the design work! Fortunately I’ve discovered several time management techniques that help me keep my business – and life – on track.
Work the hours that work for you
One of the great benefits of freelancing is being able to define your own hours. You might do your best work early in the morning before the phone starts ringing off the hook. Maybe you’re a night owl who cranks out great design during the wee hours. Or perhaps you prefer to start and end work an hour later than everyone else to avoid the rush hour. Just because the “wage slaves” work from 9 to 5 don’t feel like you have to too! Stipulate work hours that suit your lifestyle and you’ll likely be more productive as a result. But whatever hours you decide upon, try and keep a regular schedule. It is difficult to plan your time if you don’t even know when you’ll be in the office, or how many hours you will spend working on any given day.
Keep a “to-do” list
Keeping a “to-do” list is a great way to get an overview of your business and tackle tasks in a timely fashion. There is also a sense of achievement that comes with ticking off each task. Every morning I write out a pen-and-paper list of tasks for the day, and assign a block of time for each. I try to be as realistic as possible and not bite off more than I can chew. I assign a priority to each task on the list to ensure that urgent jobs get done before ones that can afford to wait. As I complete each task I cross it out and move down the list. I also keep a separate list of upcoming tasks to make sure I don’t lose track of less urgent projects. My method is about as low-tech as you can get, but very effective. If you want to get more upmarket than the traditional pen-and-paper approach there are plenty of PIMs and electronic “to-do” list apps to help you wrangle your tasks.
I perform best when I can hunker down and do some undisturbed work. I find it useful to assign blocks of time to each job I am working on, during which I devote myself to that task, and ONLY that task. While I’m working on a project, if I receive a phone call from another client asking me to work on a new task I will enter the new job into my calendar, and let the client know that I have assigned some time to address their request. The important thing is not to drop what you are doing every time a client clicks their fingers.
Another major concentration killer is email. Every time I notice Thunderbird’s “new email” icon appear in my taskbar, I have to resist the urge to stop whatever I’m doing, read the incoming message, and switch to the task to which it pertains. I’ve read a couple of magazine articles on this topic recently and they all advise checking your email only twice per working day, and certainly no more frequently than once an hour. Switching back and forth between Thunderbird and Photoshop every five minutes certainly doesn’t help me get in “the zone”, so I try to minimize the frequency with which I check my email.
Do the hardest jobs first
I confess to a talent for putting off unpleasant tasks – I’m the kind of person who writes the same item on my “to-do” list every single day for a month, but always manages to find something more “important” to do instead. My advise is to work on the task you’ve been dreading at the very start of your work day. You don’t have to complete the task in one go, and in fact breaking it into smaller chunks will make it easier to tackle. As every procrastinator knows, the hardest step to take is the first one. Once you start a job you’ve been dreading it suddenly seems much less daunting.
Keep track of time
For every billable job I work on I keep a running tally of how many hours I have spent. For larger projects I will break it down into several categories such as “administration”, “design” and “development”. I use a great web app called Slim Timer for my time tracking, but there are plenty of other available too.
Keeping track of the hours you work doesn’t just help you allocate time more efficiently, it can also make you money. At the close of a project I run a report to see how many hours I spent on the job. If I under quoted then I will know to quote more realistically the next time a similar job comes my way. If I over quoted then I will laugh maniacally all the way to the bank!
For jobs on which I charge an hourly rate, I find it easy to overlook smaller tasks (5 to 30 minutes in length) and forget to bill for them, but tracking my billable hours ensures I remember to charge for every single minute I’m working.
Uh-oh, I missed my deadline
When it all turns to custard and you find you’re not making the deadlines you set for yourself, or promised to your clients, it’s time to do some damage control. Rather than burying your head in the sand it is important to keep your project stakeholders informed of the difficulties you are encountering. Clients are usually understanding if you are running behind schedule, but they like to know what’s going on rather than be left dangling. If you find that you are regularly behind schedule then it might be that you need to take on additional staff or hire contractors to help you handle the workload.
A special note about home offices
Working out of a home office is a whole other kettle of fish when it comes to time management. Not only can it be quite depressing being stuck in the same building day and night, but there are a whole host of domestic distractions waiting to steal your attention. Housework, pets, partners, and children all vie for your time, and extra self discipline is required to stay focussed on work. To assist in keeping your work and private lives separate your home office should be separate to your living area. Sticking to a rigid work schedule helps too. That way you won’t be tempted to sneak in a bit of work in the evenings, or perform domestic chores during the office hours.
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, good time management is something I have to work hard at rather than a natural gift. If you’re at all like me then you will probably benefit from following a few of the tips I’ve shared here. If you have your own time management tips or experiences to share, please post a comment.Tweet