How to Improve Your Time Management Skills as a Freelancer

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Everybody knows the phrase, “time is money,” but nobody understands the importance of time management skills more than a freelancer. The freedom to work for yourself comes with the need to be self-disciplined so that you can earn the most money in your available time. Whether you freelance as a side hustle or full-time, knowing how to budget hours to complete your assigned tasks while maintaining that elusive work-life balance is an ongoing challenge we all face. Luckily, there are ways to easily improve this skill set using calendars, time tracking apps, and concrete data to better manage your time.

Understanding Time Management is Also Energy Management

Your time availability and energy levels are two separate fuel tanks. It’s easy to deplete one or both if you aren’t careful. Calendars can be deceiving because they visually show our time availability, but they don’t account for the amount of energy each task on the calendar requires. A massage appointment and a gym workout may both take up an hour on your calendar, but consider how much you feel like working after you’re done with each of those tasks. 

Understand that while we can track time concretely, our energy and mood will always be unpredictable and harder to measure. The goal is to manage your time and plan ahead to give yourself the best shot at showing up with enough time and energy to want to joyfully do your assignments. I call it setting yourself up for success. 

Determine How Much Time You Have For Freelance Work Right Now

When you introduce yourself to a client as a freelancer, you need to feel confident about your skillset, rate, and bandwidth – I’ll only use that word once, I swear – in order to successfully sell yourself. Whether you are currently buried in deadlines or considering taking on your first project (congrats!), the first step to take in improving your time management is figuring out how much available time you have right now for freelancing and then bridging the gap to where you want to be in the short and long term. 

Time management isn’t about guesstimating. Open up a calendar and accurately assess the situation. Ask yourself:

What does your routine currently look like? 

Online calendars make it easy to visually lay out your schedule. Open your email calendar (i.e. Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar) and create recurring events for each daily or weekly routine task, both personal and professional. This may include:

  • Daily Recurring Tasks
  • Weekly/Monthly Recurring Appointments

Don’t overthink it. If you work a 9 to 5 job, your Monday through Friday routine may look something like this:

  • Morning Routine 7:00 AM – 8:15 AM
  • Morning Commute 8:15 AM – 9:00 AM
  • Work 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Evening Commute 5:00 PM – 5:45 PM
  • Walk the Dog 5:45 PM – 6:15 PM
  • Dinner/Relax 6:15 PM – 7:00 PM
  • Gym (Tues/Thurs) 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Where can I free up time?

Once you have a visual of your routine schedule, look for pockets of time you can free up, a.k.a. “time sucks.” Look at how your spend your morning and late evening time. Often times those are the opportunities for freelance work. It could mean waking up an hour earlier or getting out of the habit of scrolling on social media for an hour before bed each night. That’s two hours a day for freelance work right there!

How to Block Off Time for Freelance Work

Once you have a general view of what your schedule looks like and have considered ways to get rid of time sucks, you can see the remaining hours available to freelance. Make it official by reserving recurring Working Sessions on your calendar. For the same schedule as above, my working sessions might look like this when I first start freelancing:

  • Monday 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
  • Wednesday 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
  • Saturday 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM

This method of structuring your schedule is called time blocking and sets aside chunks of your time each day or week to accomplish a specific task or goal. This can be helpful as you develop habits because it holds you accountable for showing up and completing the work. Soon your working session will feel like a ritual, and that’s where the fun begins. 

Less is More When Scheduling Working Sessions

Parkinson’s Law1 concludes that, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if you give yourself six hours to complete a one-hour project, that’s how long it will take you. Therefore, start by blocking off smaller, two-hour working sessions, and go into each one knowing exactly what you want to accomplish. Blocking off these small chunks of time is also more realistic than reserving your entire Saturday for freelance work, especially when you are just starting out or juggling freelance work on top of a full or part-time job.

For some freelancers, knowing when to stop working is the problem. If that sounds like you,  use the end of your working session as a hard deadline to stop each day. Otherwise, there’s no shame in going past the scheduled time if you’re in a groove. One of the best parts of freelancing is deciding when and how to work for yourself!

Book More Time Than Necessary To Complete Projects

Remember, time and energy are two different hurdles. While you should commit to sticking to the scheduled sessions on your calendar, life will always bring unexpected distractions. Contingency planning makes it easier to recover when your schedule changes or you don’t have the energy to do what you wanted to. This can also be helpful when what you thought was a two-hour project ends up taking you three hours, or four, or…

Go Easy on Yourself

If you miss a working session, or spend the entire time staring at a blank screen, don’t be too hard on yourself. Every freelancer goes through growing pains when learning their own limits. It’s part of the process when deciding if freelancing is right for you. Over time, it gets easier to know what you are capable of producing, your work sessions will get longer, and soon you’ll have so much work you’ll need to repeat this process all over again!

toggl time tracker for improving time management skills as a freelancer
Source: Toggl

Using an Online Time Management App to Track Freelance Work

Calendars are great for blocking time, but let’s talk about how to track the time you spend using online time-tracking apps, which will provide you with concrete data about your work speed and output. This is an invaluable way to begin understanding your own capabilities and finding new ways to tweak and improve your time management skills.  

Benefits of Using an Online Time Tracker

  • Automate the time-tracking process
  • Get accurate data on how much time you spend freelancing
  • Leave notes for yourself, your team, or your client
  • Accurately bill hourly clients for your work

The biggest challenge I faced when choosing a time-tracking app was finding one I enjoyed using. I’ve used complicated apps that don’t sync properly with desktop tabs, had too many touchpoints to get to the start/stop timer, or had frustrating limitations on how many clients, projects, or time I could track. When looking for a time tracker app, find one that:

  • Is user-friendly for desktop and mobile devices
  • Has a simple, one-click Start/Stop timer
  • Allows for simple note-taking and task assignment
  • Allows for collaboration within teams
  • Provides invoicing templates and payment records
  • Has exportable reporting/analysis features

There are many time management apps out there, I like Harvest or Toggl, that provide the above benefits for free. 

Review Your New Time Management Process and Revise

Once you have found the right time management system that works for you, including scheduled working sessions on your calendar that you love showing up to and time tracking tools you like using, follow that routine for two weeks. Set a calendar reminder to check in after you have had a chance to get adjusted. Pull some reports from your time tracker app and ask yourself:

  • Did you consistently show up to your Working Sessions?
  • Did projects take more or less time than you thought? 
  • Were you successful in tracking your time via the tracker consistently?
  • Where can you adjust your routine to support your future freelancing goals?

Time management is an ongoing process that never really ends. With some dedicated effort, you’ll gain the skills to manage your hours and live that fantastic freelancer lifestyle you keep hearing about.

Enjoy the Journey of Freelancing!

There’s no time like the present to improve your time management skills to maximize your productivity and keep stress and burnout risks at a minimum. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to operate a calendar, so set the reminders and deadlines in a method that works for you. Follow Freelance Theory for more ways to level up your skills, and join our online community as we learn from each other. 

Source1 https://www.economist.com/news/1955/11/19/parkinsons-law

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Andy Meholick

Andy Meholick is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter and content creator with more than ten years of professional experience. A detail-oriented problem solver, Andy believes in delivering converting creative content that builds community and brand awareness and takes pride in effectively communicating with his clients during the entire collaborative process.

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Andy Meholick

Andy Meholick is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter and content creator with more than ten years of professional experience. A detail-oriented problem solver, Andy believes in delivering converting creative content that builds community and brand awareness and takes pride in effectively communicating with his clients during the entire collaborative process.

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