Effective Time Management for Freelancers in Just 4 Steps

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As a freelancer, one of the reasons you probably quit your job was so you’d have more time. However, you might still be finding yourself short on time, especially as client work piles up and competes with household chores, family/social events and even vacation time. So, how do you manage your time more effectively?

Step 1: Track your work hours.

Time is finite and is therefore even more valuable than money. When you’re employed, you typically mark the hours that you work on a daily or weekly basis and then “punch out” at the end of the day or shift.

As a freelancer, however, it’s harder to determine just what exactly constitutes work; for example, there is the time you spend on client assignments but there is also the time you devote to finding and landing new clients. Likewise, keeping up with current clients and addressing their concerns or questions, often known as client “maintenance,” also requires an investment of time.

In order to get a better grasp on your time, first track exactly what you do throughout the course of your workday and how long it takes. Get yourself a timer or stopwatch and keep close tabs on your activities for at least a period of two weeks, although a month may be necessary if you perform a lot of cyclic duties like invoicing.

Performing this step might provide you with some intriguing results: for example, you may not have noticed that playing Angry Birds on Facebook typically eats up three hours of your workweek. Likewise, you may have underestimated how much maintenance time some of your clients cost, even though they pay you a bit more than a cheaper set of clients that are maintenance-free.

Step 2: Create work goals.

Now that you have a grasp on how much time certain work activities take up, it’s time to go back to your employee days and generate a set of goals for yourself. You can start by generating a set of yearly or “macro” goals like “Learn Excel”, “Finish my Novel” or “Create and Optimize an Affiliate Website.” These goals, once set, will be used in your annual performance review.

Next, break these goals down month-by-month into what I like to call “micro” goals. For example, if one of your yearly macro goals is to finish your novel, your micro goal would be to write a finite number of words each month over the course of the next 12 months in order to finish that book.

This amount of monthly words also allows you to determine how many hours of time will be required to complete that task on a monthly basis based on the time use you calculated in Step 1.

Once your monthly mini goals are set, you should generate your “nano” goals which, barring a vacation or illness, must be completed each week. Your nano goals will be very specific, such as “Generate one product-to-product comparison article on website X” or “Call advertisers X and Y and discuss banner ads.” Again, based on what you discovered in Step 1, estimate the total number of hours required to complete your weekly nano goals.

Step 3: Be picky and lazy.

That’s right- I’m advocating that you become more choosy and actually do less. Why is this? Because psychologically, it’s in your best interest to pick several, rather than many, realistic goals and actually accomplish them rather than set your sights high and be disappointed.

Also, by being picky and lazy, you naturally weed out non-work/busywork that does nothing in terms of accomplishing your goals. This goes a long way towards increasing your efficiency.

Overall, it’s best to have three major yearly goals, with the goals divided between two work projects and one self-improvement (i.e., educational) project. Also, each specific goal, whether it be a macro, micro or nano goal, needs to have a how section attached to it; in other words, for all your goals, you should specify exactly how you plan to accomplish them.

Within each “how” specification, be sure to include a deadline so you’re not putting off starting a goal for months at a time. You can use free project management software like Asana to help you organize your thoughts and set deadlines.

One small note about self-improvement goals: It’s easy to overlook taking a class or becoming more proficient in a skill because “real” client-oriented goals can easily overwhelm your time. However, just like when you were employed, it’s imperative that you increase your knowledge and expertise in addition to completing tasks for clients because this makes you a more valuable (i.e., better paid) freelancer.

Naturally, if you’re earning more money, you don’t have to work as much or as long as before- a boon for you since you’re trying to work less through effective time management.

Step 4: Establish accountability.

As an employee, you were naturally accountable for your goals thanks to annual performance reviews that determined whether or not you’d get a raise or be fired. In the freelancing world, it’s too easy to slip away from accountability because your boss is you.

That is why you need to re-establish accountability by involving a third party, be it a friend, relative or even another freelancer. This “accountability partner” can look over your goals and determine what seems feasible and what appears imaginary. He or she can also receive weekly status reports from you, preventing you from slacking off.

Ideally, you should consider becoming an accountability partner for your partner so the both of you benefit from each other’s diligence. If you’re not sure where you might find such a partner, consider heading over to FreelanceSwitch, where many freelancers are listed on the site’s directory and will gladly help you out.

The End Result

At the end of your year, you will sit down and assess your yearly goals and how well you performed. If your goals lined up with those of your clients and were accomplished, you could even use this information to ask your clients for a raise. Likewise, if a given client took a larger share of your time than originally anticipated, you might want to negotiate for a higher rate or fewer responsibilities. Thus, taking these steps towards effective time management can not only result in more time but more money too.

5 Comments

  1. Ooh, #1 would be a serious eye-opener for me. Like Jess, I’m afraid to find out just how much time I waste on a daily basis. It’s one of my big self-improvement goals: Learning to buckle down and be more productive throughout the day.

    Great tips here for any freelancer!

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  2. Great post and spot on for any writer. I’ve done all these and finding that they truly help move me along, accomplishing those “nano” goals that keep me motivated. I’ve acquired several accountability buddies and they do help. One is always marketing and talking with editors. I compete only against myself but she challenges me to do more. I’ve learned to create those nano goals that do keep me motivated. It really does feel great to tick off a goal that’s done. Keeps my clients happy too. And #1 is essential. I started tracking time and was amazed at how much time I spent playing silly Facebook games. I’ve cut way back and wonder of wonders, I’ve accomplished more nano goals, feel better and more motivated, and have actually marketed and won new gigs.

    This is a great reminder for any writer on where to focus, what we need to constantly do, and how to do it. Truly motivational just be reading it.

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  3. I do the second one well. In the evening, I make a short list of the things I will plan to accomplish the next day. And then I wake up and get started on the hardest one and that gets me rolling for the rest of the day!

    I like annual goals too and then sub-goals that you need to do to accomplish them. Thanks for the reminder. Four months left in this year!

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  4. All great points though my biggest challenge will be implementing the goals I set. It all looks so easy on paper.. I struggle when the ‘rubber meets the road’. =) Interesting that you also list accountability as a friend of mine just mentioned the same thing and we are now accountability buddies.
    A timely list.

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  5. Regarding #1, I’m so afraid to see how much time I waste everyday. And I think #3 is great. Sometimes I find myself getting so much more done when I actually work less hours. And #4 — the times when I’ve had an accountability partner have been some of the most fun times in my career. Thanks for the great, helpful list!

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