Life as a freelancer can look pretty attractive. You can set your own schedule, work from home – or the beach or local pub – and you can even fire clients if they ruffle your feathers. But for creative professionals who work their own hours, managing time becomes a whole new ballgame. When you consider multiple projects for even a handful of clients, navigating the political atmosphere of each client culture, while keeping the books, complying with tax filings, implementing your own marketing strategy and staying current with industry trends and continuing education, there’s little wonder why your time gets eaten up.
As a creative professional, your time is your most valuable and limited asset. Without the ability to structure your time effectively, you will sooner or later succumb to burnout, ineffectiveness, mediocrity – or all three. But inserting a little clarity and focus into your workday is actually not difficult, and doing so can help your chances at a long, prosperous, and even brilliant career. So, let’s become prosperous and brilliant! Ready?
Before We Begin …
I’m sure you’ve heard this recently, but because it is such a lethal poison to your effectiveness, I feel I must emphasize it here: multitasking doesn’t work. In fact, it’s been shown again and again that it actually makes you slower, lowers the quality of your output, and can increase your feeling of being overwhelmed – all while fooling you into believing that you’re being more productive. So resolve now to never employ multitasking, or you are doomed to suffer a substandard career!
Categorizing Your Tasks
Gaining a clear idea of how you spend you time will help you understand whether you’re dedicating yourself to the right tasks. I operate a small design firm, so I can broadly categorize my time as client work, marketing, bookkeeping, continuing education and general housekeeping. These, of course can be further broken into smaller categories, for example, marketing could include adding landing pages to our website, blogging, or creating clever drip-feed email campaigns like this one and I could assign various levels of urgency and importance to different tasks. Client work, for example has a high level of urgency since project schedules need to be met, and a high level of importance because it pays the bills. Marketing is important, but usually not urgent, and being chatty on Facebook is urgent, but not important. You will probably notice, however, that something important that isn’t urgent now, if left unattended long enough, will someday become urgent!
Structuring Your Day
Our brains love structure. Even the most talented and driven individuals can find themselves distracted and unfocused when in a solo environment, and the missing ingredient is structure. While the creative process requires some amount of freedom, a complete lack of structure can be as immobilizing as an empty canvas. Knowing this, I like to break my day into predefined chunks of time, and this gives an added motivator by introducing mini-deadlines throughout the day. Here’s how it looks for me:
I find that if I allocate a one-hour time slot to an activity, I can accomplish about the same amount in that time as I would in half a day of unstructured time. Knowing that there’s a limit to how much time I can spend on something makes me work with a more-directed focus as there is now a sense of urgency. At the end of that hour, I’m ready to freshen my mind with a different activity. If I’m working on a particularly challenging project that requires significant ramp-up time, I can schedule in a second one-hour time slot immediately following, but the important thing is to have those predefined time slots which prevent me from aimlessly wandering from activity to activity. When I reach the completion of a block of client work, I email a status update to my client telling them exactly where their project is – my clients love me for this!
Since client work is often unpredictable, some tasks taking longer than anticipated, I’ve found it useful to schedule some time for client work towards the end of the day, without assigning specific tasks to that time slot. This gives me a chance to address anything that I wasn’t able to complete during the assigned times. I also know that I need to dedicate about 10% of my work week to marketing and about 2% (or roughly one hour per week) to bookkeeping, and if I don’t set aside dedicated time slots to these activities, they’ll get neglected and eventually pile up and become unwieldy. For me, the middle of the day is a good time for these, because that’s when most of my clients might be at lunch, so I’m often not required to be available during this time. I try and schedule formal continuing education for the slow times of year, but I also consider it an ongoing activity which I engage in constantly, reading articles or textbooks while in transit, listening to lectures on my iPhone at the gym, and so on.
I try to take care of general housekeeping tasks like clearing out my email inbox, checking in with my favorite design and business blogs, or telling thousands of my closest friends on Twitter what I plan to have for lunch before the workday begins, as these are the tasks that tend to eat away at the day if you let them.
Ok – that’s my day! It took me a few years to find this groove, but when I finally did, it made all the difference in the world! Have you found yours? Tell us about it in the comments.