Time management for freelancers

Our society has a bit of a fetish for productivity. The internet is full of tips and tricks on time management and there seems to be a never-ending supply of listicles on the topic. Well, we’ve swotted up on all the advice and put it to the test. Yes, really! Keep reading for our pick of the highlights that are most relevant to freelancers.

Man sitting at the desk covered in notes

Whether your schedule is being dictated by deadlines, family commitments or your need to sleep every so often, your time is limited. And somehow you never have time to fit everything in, right? It’s always the way! Now, you can either be hard on yourself for not being able to do it all or you can accept the situation and try to structure your schedule and prioritise the things you need to get done. This will help you stay on top of the most important and most urgent tasks at least.

Keeping track of lost time

Before you start trying to manage your time better, it might be sensible to get a clearer idea of where your time actually goes. Keeping a record of what you do is a great way of doing this. Record all your tasks and how long they take for a whole week. You could always use Excel for this:

Excel table with time schedule

If you create a ‘Category’ column, you’ll be able to filter your entries to see how much of your day was actually spent on work and how much time you used on other – equally important – things.

→ Top tip: Press Ctrl + Shift + ; to insert the current time in Excel.

By the end of the week, you’ll have a clear picture of how you use your time. Obviously, this is only a small sample of one out of 52 weeks in the year. That means there are bound to be plenty of other items on your to-do list that you couldn’t get round to this time. Speaking of to-do lists...

To-do lists – a necessary evil

Our to-do lists tend not to be very kind to us because they are a stark reminder of everything we still need to do. If you just keep on adding to your list and never see it getting shorter, you’re bound to stress yourself out. And yet it makes perfect sense to jot down the things you want to do as soon as they pop into your head. Who can honestly keep track of everything without writing it down anywhere? Not very many of us, we reckon. So how about some advice to help you use a to-do list to your advantage? Here’s just a small selection of all the top tips out there:

  1. Keep tasks small and specific. Break down bigger tasks into more manageable steps.
  2. Assign the items on your list a deadline.
  3. Give yourself a buffer between tasks.
  4. Tick off any tasks that will take you less than two minutes right away.
  5. At the end of the day, make a plan for tomorrow (build ten minutes into your schedule for this).

Business psychologist Tony Crabbe is not a fan of to-do lists. He warns us that these lists focus our attention exclusively on micro-activities that prevent us from engaging deeply or thinking properly. And yet: “To-do lists can help us lead a more fulfilling life if we use them to get things out of our head so we can come back to them at a time of our choosing.” Crabbe makes a valid point here – we need to assign every task a time frame to keep us on track.

Planning and prioritising

Once you’ve written your to-do list, you need to plan out when exactly you’re going to tick off each item, perhaps using an Outlook calendar. Start by working out how long each task is going to take you. Be overly generous, as we tend to underestimate how much time we will need to get things done. Don’t forget to build in some buffer time for delays and unexpected interruptions. Oh and breaks. And maybe a bit extra for luck.

When you’re making a plan, you should factor in your own body clock. If you’re not a morning person, you could schedule in tasks that require less concentration for first thing and then aim to tackle bigger projects and/or things you’re not looking forward to later in the morning or in the afternoon. Early birds will probably want to take the opposite approach.

Breaks – the key to being more productive

You know it, we know it – it’s important to take breaks even when we’re rushed off our feet. Our brains work better when we slow it down every now and then rather than constantly steaming ahead at full speed. “Rest is just as important to our work as the time spent actually working,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Our brains need some downtime to process and file away information and to make new connections: “A rested brain is more creative and more productive.”

One method based on the concept of frequent breaks is the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this technique involves using a timer (originally a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato) to break down work into 25-minute blocks known as pomodoros. The process couldn’t be simpler:

  1. Write down a task you’d like to get done.
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Immerse yourself in the task until the timer rings. Add a tick to a piece of paper to count the pomodoro.
  4. Take a short break of five minutes.
  5. Start the next pomodoro.
  6. Take a longer break of 15–20 minutes after every four pomodoros (every two hours).

We are being told by the experts that a series of microbreaks is more effective and calming than fewer longer breaks. But why intervals of 25 minutes? “Usually, you can afford to take 25 minutes before calling back a friend or replying to an email,” explains Cirillo. You can stay fully focused on the task at hand within those 25 minutes. That level of focus – broken up with regular breaks – is what makes us more productive.

But we also need to carefully consider what we use those breaks for and where we take them. A break will be more effective if it involves a change of scenery. Try going into another room or – even better – pop outside for some fresh air if you can. You should ideally leave your phone on your desk so you can enjoy at least a little screen-free time. If you can get some ventilation in your office during your break too, you’ll feel even more refreshed and raring to go once you’re back at your desk.

Is it really worth all the effort?

Creative types often live by this motto: “Order is for idiots, genius can handle chaos.” Now, there may be some truth in that. And yet even creative people can benefit from making their working environment more structured and ordered to give their creativity more space to breathe. At the end of the day, we all have to find out what works for us. Take a closer look at the tools and techniques out there and choose one or two to put to the test in your working day. Sure, researching and reviewing will take a bit of time and effort. But if it reduces your stress levels and boosts your productivity in the long term, it’s a worthwhile investment in your mental health and well-being as well as the success of your freelance business.

Useful links

Did you enjoy reading this post? Have you tried out any time management tools already? Send us an email to freelance@apostrophgroup.ch.

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