According to a 2019 report, 57 million Americans work as freelancers. It’s a lifestyle that comes with lots of flexibility and, with a median hourly wage of $28, the potential to outearn 70% of non-freelancers.
However, being consistently productive outside a traditional 9-to-5 office setting doesn’t happen automatically. You must learn how to manage your time effectively.
After all, as your own boss, you work on multiple projects and deal with several clients at once. In addition, you’re also continually hustling to find and secure more work.
It’s easy to see that, if you can’t make efficient use of your time, you’ll be unable to maximize your professional output and, as a result, your earning power will be limited. For any freelance struggling with time management, here are seven tips for making the most of your workday.
1. Build Detailed To-Do Lists
Arguably the most valuable tool for managing your time as a freelancer is creating to-do lists. Some best practices for creating these lists include:
- Include specific project notes and technical requirements from different clients.
- If your list is all-digital, link to in-progress documents.
- Use color-coding to help visually organize your work.
To-do lists are polarizing in and of themselves. Some studies claim that these lists can be a graveyard for non-urgent tasks. But, with time being such a finite resource for so many freelancers, it’s almost never a good idea to “wing it.”
The reality is that your to-do list setup only has to work for one person: you. Whether you use apps like Evernote or Google Keep, or simply jot information down by hand, knowing exactly what you need to work on is an indispensable part of strong time management for freelancers.
Just make sure there’s enough information in your to-do list, not just titles or jumbles of words. Everything, including important links or comments from clients, needs to be at your fingertips.
2. Create a Realistic Schedule (and Stick to It)
Once you’ve got a to-do list up and running, the next logical step is to break your day or week up into time blocks by creating a schedule.
How long those individual time blocks are, and how many you fit into a single day, will vary depending on your preferences. The key is understanding how much you can realistically get done in a given amount of time.
Some time constraints are scientifically unavoidable. The general rule of thumb is that the human mind can only focus on any given task for 90 to 120 minutes at a time.
With that in mind, listen to your body’s natural rhythms and maximize what you can do in those shorter spurts. Once you find that sweet spot, stick to it by establishing a routine.
Don’t forget—you’ll also need to make time to hunt down new projects and clients, creative brainstorming, marketing, networking, and much more.
3. Find an Optimal Work Environment
Now that you’ve got the “what” and the “when” figured out, it’s time to tackle the “where.”
Your work environment, just like your to-do list and schedule, should cater to your strengths as a freelancer. Some professionals need absolute silence to do their best work. Others prefer working to the hum of a crowd in a cafe or communal workspace.
That said, some universal environmental elements, regardless of the location, must help your productivity rather than hinder it. Here are some important ones to keep in mind:
- Make sure your chair is comfortable. These days, most freelance work involves sitting in front of a computer or mobile device for several hours a day. Back pain, leg numbness, or any other physical discomfort can be distracting and needless to say, impede your productivity.
- Invest in a good pair of headphones. If you prefer working in public places, noise-canceling headphones are a must. They give you the ability to filter out most ambient noise if you need to.
- Find good lighting. Working in a room that lacks natural daylight can be fatiguing, as can working next to the wrong kind of desk lamp. This may also mean investing in a computer monitor with a decent color spectrum and viewing angle.
4. Go Offline to Minimize Distractions
Even the most self-disciplined freelancer can be jarred by a sudden notification or buzz from their phone. And if they occur frequently enough, these distractions may drain several productive hours from your day.
One solution: going offline during your work hours.
Of course, setting aside time during your day to manage your various inboxes is important. But, when it’s time to settle in and knock items off your to-do list, avoiding notification pop-ups or incoming message alerts is paramount.
If you can’t help but peek at your emails or scrolling through social media, try one of these apps:
- Freedom is the best-known option, although the features in its free version are limited.
- Hocus Focus is a great free tool for Mac users that only lets you view one window at a time.
- Other effective free alternatives to Freedom include FocusMe and SelfControl.
Let’s face it—any device connected to the internet hosts dozens of websites and applications that compete for your attention. Nip that timesuck in the bud and go offline when you work.
If you don’t, managing your time around all of those distractions will be nothing short of impossible.
5. Break Larger Projects Down into Smaller Tasks
Another crucial time management challenge for freelancers is mastering the art of breaking up larger projects into smaller tasks.
This practice, also called “chunking,” adds another layer of time management depth to your existing to-do list and schedule. Trying to tackle a project that’s too big or time-consuming as a whole can diminish your focus and drive.
A common misconception about freelancers is that they’re multitaskers. But multitasking implies simultaneous work, often with mediocre or average results. Productive freelancers who are efficient with their time don’t try and work on everything all at once. It’s not feasible.
Instead, here are some ways you can break your projects down into manageable pieces:
- Create a work plan. A work plan breaks a big project into smaller objectives and deliverables, helping keep you on track when something requires more attention to detail.
- Devote all your attention to one task at a time. Sometimes, solving your productivity issues is really that simple. By focusing on a singular task, you have far more control over the speed and accuracy of your work.
- Avoid switching tasks often. If you fall into the trap of “task hopping,” you’re really just multitasking in a fragmented fashion. Once you begin a task, try and complete it before starting another one—or, in some cases, at least finish a rough draft.
- Work with self-imposed deadlines. You’ve married your to-do list with a schedule for a reason: you have client-imposed deadlines. Within those timeframes, use self-imposed micro-deadlines to keep the clock ticking and your attention on point.
Once your projects become collections of bite-sized tasks, you’ll be amazing at how much you can get done in a day or week.
6. Take Enough Breaks
One of the downsides of working your own hours is that, unlike a standard 9-to-5 job, there are no built-in breaks. Instead, it’s on you to remember to take them every day.
When you get into a good rhythm, the idea of breaking away from your work can feel counterintuitive. However, stepping away from your task actually helps you consistently perform at a higher level.
In fact, even 30-second microbreaks can increase your productivity by up to 13%. Everyone can spare at least half-a-minute.
Here are just a few examples of how you can get the most out of that break time:
- Take a walk. Getting the blood pumping for 20 minutes can increase blood flow to the brain, which brings about a surge in creative thought.
- Eat. It should go without saying but please, don’t skip your snack time, never mind entire meals because you’re working.
- Listen to music. Focusing on your favorite music can drastically improve your motor and reasoning skills, among other health benefits.
- Read. If you dip into a fiction book, even better. Studies have shown those who do are better able to understand people.
Leave workaholic tendencies at the door and ensure that you pencil enough breaks into your time management strategy.
7. Avoid taking on more work than you can handle
Let’s end this post off with the most uncomfortable of these time management tips for freelancers: saying no.
By its very nature, freelancing involves dealing with the ebb and flow of available work. Sometimes saying no to a project or client is scary because you don’t know when that next call or email will come your way.
Despite this, in ideal circumstances, you owe it to yourself to say no. To bad projects that won’t pay you what you’re worth. To bad clients who don’t value your time or skills. To anything that won’t be worth your time.
This also encompasses projects that don’t align with your goals as a professional. Every piece of freelance work you produce should eventually become part of a portfolio that helps you get the next job. In that sense, projects need to help you advance your career, not just get paid.
For those who have a difficult time saying no to new projects, consider making a decision tree. This visual can help guide you in the decision-making process for each new opportunity that arises. For instance, you might want to ask yourself:
- Do you have time to take on additional work?
- Does this project align with your skills and/or interests?
- Will it benefit your portfolio?
- Does the project offer fair compensation?
Don’t just jump at every paying customer who waltzes into your inbox. Otherwise, your to-do list and calendar will be clogged with work you don’t care about. That, above all else, is a huge waste of your time as a freelancer.