Find or create systems
Some people digitise their lives, and others prefer a good old paper calendar and to-do list. Having a reliable way to schedule your time and tasks – and here’s the real trick – sticking to it, that’s the basis of managing your workload and therefore managing your time.
You might want to try out a few free tools that help you with scheduling, organisation and project management and find one that works for you. Don’t be afraid to admit something isn’t built the way you want it and try another option.
Work with your strengths
One of the major benefits of freelancing is being free from the 9-5 life. Not a morning person? Not a problem. Use mornings to get your household chores done, grocery shop or exercise, and free yourself up to work later in the day when all your synapses are firing at full speed.
Early birds may find it easier to work in the wee hours before everyone else gets up and schedule meetings later in the day. If that works for you and helps you feel productive – lean into it.
Set your work hours
When you’re your own boss, it’s easy to get stuck in the 24/7 loop, which can be so much more taxing than closing your laptop at 5pm and keeping weekends free. That’s why it’s important to figure out a way to give yourself some work-free headspace.
If you thrive on routine, create your daily schedule and stop working at a certain time each day. If you prefer more variety in your days, make a point of scheduling time for non-work activities every day – gym, yoga, reading time, retail therapy, coffee with friends – whatever it is, make sure you’ve planned a time to switch off and fill your cup. It can be a different activity at a different time each day, but plan for it and make sure you give yourself those moments.
Let your clients know when you’ll be available to them, as well as how to get hold of you in an emergency and then try to be disciplined around that. If you don’t have a separate work phone, use your phone’s “focus” or “do not disturb” setting so that you won’t see those Slack notifications during your off hours. If you do decide to work outside of the hours you’ve agreed upon, you can schedule emails to send later, so you don’t create expectations of after-hours work or replies.
No really, just don’t. There is science that says we can never truly multitask; we just switch really fast from one task to another. All that switching is exhausting and less productive than it feels. Give yourself permission to work slowly and deliberately. The sense of calm that comes as a payoff will convince you to keep it up.
Block and schedule time in your calendar
Once you have committed to your working hours – whatever those are – divide your time and assign specific activities to those slots.
Emails are a classic time-suck. You see the mail come in, you read it, you want to quickly reply before you forget, and before you know it, you’re doing something totally unrelated to what you had planned. Put 30 minutes into your calendar twice a day to check emails, and make sure notifications are off outside of those hours.
When you have tasks you dread (looking at you, invoicing), set up a recurring weekly meeting with yourself to get that done. Maybe you do it first thing on a Monday morning and Mondays suck a tiny bit more, but then the rest of the week is smooth sailing.
For deep work, make sure to give yourself two or three hours uninterrupted to really get into it and not feel rushed. Don’t forget to give yourself gaps between tasks to give yourself breaks, as well as proper meal breaks. And keep some of your time unscheduled to fill your creative cup. Often solutions and ideas come to us when we’re daydreaming.
Batch your tasks
Like with the invoicing example earlier, if you must do the same task multiple times, even for different clients, try and bundle those tasks together. Maybe it’s research, copy editing or deep-etching. It can be energising to get into “the zone” and complete a whole batch at once.
Prioritise non-work zones and activities
There are some life things you can let mingle with your work. My personal favourites are meal prep or laundry-folding on a long conference call – made possible by that team’s “camera off” allowance. Don’t mistake this for multitasking – this is combining one physical task that you’re already very good at with a mental task.
But you do need to reserve some tasks just for after hours. If you walk your dog with your partner in the afternoon, that could be an opportunity for a no-work-talk zone, or plan a luxurious bath with no devices that can ping at you.
When you work from home, there’s no harm in taking the occasional meeting for your couch. But in an ideal world, you’d have an office with a door or a contained desk area where you keep all your work-related things and try not to let them creep into the rest of your home. That way, when you physically leave your designated work area, your brain knows it’s allowed to relax.
Let go of expectations
Last but certainly not least, try and let go of the idea of being a “perfect” freelancer. We’re not machines. We can’t optimise for efficiency all the time. We’re allowed to zone out, procrastinate and make mistakes. Be kind to yourself and do the best you can.