A Freelance Time Management Guide That Doesn’t Suck

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My husband has been bugging me to make a time management post for a while now because he has no idea how I work from home and stay on task. He’s a procrastinating perfectionist, which makes for a very difficult combo for time management. He’s either avoiding doing tasks by watching TEDtalks or other “teaching” videos, or he’s taking three hours on a task that should take thirty minutes because he’s started over five times because it wasn’t “good enough” the first four times.

Time management has always come naturally to me. There were only about five times in my entire high school and college career that I was late on an assignment. And no, that’s not hyperbole. So, I’m going to pluck out things I do in my daily work routine and explain them here in the hopes that they will help someone.

But I’m going to try and avoid all the lame shit that you see listed over and over again in short little SEO-laden blips on sites like Buzzfeed. AKA:  Get off social media, Make a list, Take a break. Whoop de doo! Thanks for the five minute procrastination break, Buzzfeed.  Yeah, I’m going to talk about lists, but I’m not going to just tell you to make one, I’m going to tell you how to make an effective one.

Make the Workday a Routine

Routine and scheduling create habits. Habits keep you on task. Always set your alarm for the same time every weekday morning, and get up as soon as it goes off. It’s so easy to hit snooze and say, “I have all day.” Don’t do it! Those little snooze breaks only make you sleepier and set a procrastinating tone for the whole day. I don’t care how you do it—put the alarm in the hall and make it cluck like a chicken on crack if you have to—just make yourself get up when it goes off.

Eat lunch at the same time. Take all your breaks at the same time. My first break of the day is walking my dog, and the last one of the day is taking my dog to the park to play with her buddies. Since I created a routine for her as a puppy (to inhibit potty accidents as much as possible), she now knows what time we do those things, and she whines to go at the same time everyday, keeping me on schedule. Habits stick once you make them. Now, if doing the same thing for a break everyday sounds terribly monotonous to you, mix it up, I don’t care. It will still work so long as you take the breaks at the same time. The point is that once you’ve created the routine, your brain subconsciously knows how much time you have to complete tasks. It also begins to associate those times with working and will be less likely to wander or constantly whine for a break.

Give yourself thirty minute windows for when you start those breaks so that if you’re booking it through a task, you don’t just have to stop and move onto break time like a pre-programmed robot.

Have a cut-off time for your workday. Mine is six o’clock. That’s when my husband gets off work and I start making dinner. After that, I’m done. Now, I’m a freelancer, so the work isn’t ever actually done. For instance, I answer emails all throughout the day, but I don’t do any heavy lifting after six. If you don’t have a cut off, you’ll burn out. It also gives you a deadline for completing the day’s tasks. If you procrastinated in the morning, you will have to bust your butt in the afternoon to meet your cutoff. After a few times of sweating it out that way, you’ll begin to learn your lesson and readjust.

Make a To-Do List You Actually Use

You can make to-do lists for each day, for your annual goals, for the week, or for the month, but they only produce results if you use them correctly.

First, put the to-do list somewhere that you see it all the time. Mine is in the journal I use to keep all of my business things organized. A list of my sent and followed-up on pitches are in there. Outlines for articles I’m writing are in there. Notes from my recent book editor certification course are in there. The point is, I open that journal multiple times a day. You can put yours next to your computer or on your computer. I work best with handwritten lists. I don’t like having tons of documents pulled up at once on my desktop or having to search through files whenever I want to pull up a to-do list. I’d rather just pull it across the table, but that’s me.

Create a consistent visual way of marking off completed tasks. Sounds simple, but so effective. I create check boxes on my handwritten lists. There is a sense of accomplishment when I put checks in those boxes. If that sounds terribly boring, use Pokemon stickers or multicolored pens when you make yours, just do something that makes the list look more complete by completing tasks. Unchecked boxes haunt me. Maybe you really want to use that Squirtle sticker. But ha! Can’t do it until you complete that task.

Just make sure you aren’t spending more time on crafting your list than doing the tasks. Don’t sit there and wrack your brain trying to think of all the things you could possibly need to do today and write them out in painstakingly neat handwriting where every letter is written in a different color pen. Jot down the main tasks you need to complete for client’s first, and then scribble out anything else that pops into your head throughout the day as it comes to you. A list shouldn’t be another way to procrastinate.

Birds of a Feather

Good time management is all about manipulating your brain into being its most productive. One way to do that is not to make it juke from one type of task to the next.

At the moment I’m writing this, I have two long term clients who are giving me lots of consistent work each week. Client A needs 15-20 product reviews written and proofread. Client B needs a 200 page book ghostwritten and proofread, along with blog posts that need copyediting. So, both clients require writing and editing.

Your brain works better if you keep it on one task until it’s complete, especially in writing. Any writer knows that it takes a few minutes to get in gear when you first sit down at the computer. Then, once you get cooking with grease, the words fly out of the keyboard. Why stop in the middle of that process and make your brain readjust to an editing task or even a different writing task that requires a different style? It slows you down big time.

Sometimes I complete Client A’s writing and then move to Client B’s writing. Other times I complete Client A’s writing and editing before I move to Client B’s writing and editing. It just depends on how fried my brain is. Sometimes I can’t write two different pieces right after each other. But I still keep birds of a feather together by staying within the same client’s work. However, if I do this, I usually take a break before I edit the piece I just wrote so that I can get some distance from it. That’s why I prefer the method of writing both, taking a break, and then editing both.

Do the Math

Let’s stick with my current clients as examples. Client A has set deadlines. Each batch of reviews must be done in one week. Client B has let me take the deadline reins entirely, so I’ve created my own deadline of a chapter a week (just the rough draft right now). Really, they’re pretty short and I can do them in three days, not five, but I have allotted some extra time for the client to send me the necessary materials because he’s very busy.

Setting your own deadlines can be difficult when you’re first starting because it requires you to estimate how long each task will take you. If you get a client who has no set deadline, though, it usually means they are more laid back. That means you can set a longer deadline that you know you can make without the client freaking out. Then, if you turn things in earlier, the client thinks you’re a badass. They have no idea you miscalculated; they just think you work super fast.

So why am I jabbering on about deadlines? Because they help you determine how much progress you have to make on each assignment every day. If Client A sends me a batch of fifteen products to review, I have to do at least three a day. I prefer to do more earlier in the week so that the last day can be allotted entirely to editing the reviews. If Client B still hasn’t sent me his notes for the chapter by Tuesday afternoon, I know I need to email him a reminder because I need three days to write and edit the chapter. If I have a client who needs a manuscript edited in two weeks, I have to divide the number of manuscript pages by the number of days I have to complete it to figure out how many pages I have to edit per day.

See where this is going? It’s not rocket science. It’s simple arithmetic, but it’s the single most important time management tip, in my opinion. Knowing the minimum amount of work you have to do for each client each day let’s you know if you are behind or ahead of schedule, so you can adjust accordingly. Sometimes shit happens and you get behind. If that happens, just recalculate your daily task. If you’re ahead of schedule, that means you’re going to have a little free time on Friday. I would suggest not taking that “free time” until the last day. Start your weekend early rather than taking a longer break during the week. Longer breaks put a crack in your schedule and can incite a downward spiral in the day’s progress.

If You Made It This Far …

Thanks for reading! I think I’ve gone on long enough. I hope I told you at least one thing you haven’t heard a million times. Let me know which tip was the most helpful to you. Do you have any time management tricks that I didn’t mention here? Let me know in the comments.

Hopefully tomorrow you can go kick Monday’s butt.

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