Article: How to Manage Time as a Freelancer

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So you’re a freelancer. Maybe you do some side work, maybe it’s a full-time gig for you. Maybe you’re the entrepreneur behind a small startup, still functioning like a freelancer.

In these and many other cases (I’m looking at you, workaholics who don’t stop when you get home), people often have trouble managing time.

This article looks at some of the main time management challenges freelancers (and others) have to face, and considers some practical solutions.

What, Exactly, is "Work"?

It’s important to understand the difference between work and leisure.

You sit at your desk flipping through Twitter; or skimming articles as you research a topic; or maybe note-taking; or contributing to an open-source project; or helping a colleague with a problem.

These activities can look like leisure activities—not only to outsiders, but even to yourself. Of course, in some cases they are! But often, they help to further your skills or career goals, and aren’t simply for entertainment.

Redefine Your Concept of Work

If your activities help to boost your online presence or portfolio, or enhance your ability to make money or generate leads, then they’re related to work. They are work. So treat them like work.

Maintaining a Discipline

Of course, you still have to prioritize. Do these activities have a higher priority than other work? Than leisure activities? Than family time? You need to work out a realistic balance between all these.

juggling many tasks

It’s a difficult balance, as a freelancer or other working professional, because these “grey area” activities creep into your life. With social networking applications, news and email on our mobile devices, we can literally be working anywhere, at any time, in one way or another.

Setting clear boundaries of what is work, and then stopping work when it’s time to do so—for however long you intended—is very important. Give yourself a mental break before returning your nose to the proverbial grindstone.

The Elusive Work-life Balance

This leads into a topic that many of us know and love—the elusive “work-life balance”. In the United States, a 2014 Gallup Poll says that the average work-week is 47 hours. That, unfortunately, is not including the random, off-the-clock work done at home. And it definitely isn’t the norm for freelancers or entrepreneurs, who may work many more hours than that! So how do you balance these things?

Don't Confuse Work for Leisure

Firstly, define what your work involves. Be clear about this, so that you don’t fall into the trap of working when you’re supposed to be relaxing with the family etc. (Are you sure you’re relaxing with that phone in your hand?)

Schedule It

Secondly, plan ahead. If you want to have a bowling night, movie outing or date, schedule it. It makes it more real to you, and the time really seems blocked off, preventing you from filling it with other stuff.

Saying No

Thirdly, learn to say no. This is an age-old adage, but it’s a good one to remember. And it applies, most of all, to yourself.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs are often constantly busy—either because it’s in their nature to be, or because it’s in the nature of self-employment.

Say no. Set aside time to manage the other areas of your life, and don’t put any more tasks on this day’s list. Say no to yourself, and to others, and begin filling another day.

Task Management Systems

It’s crucial that freelancers and entrepreneurs manage tasks effectively. Yet many of us don’t, or at least don’t do so effectively.

When tackling the exciting—but daunting—adventure of working for yourself, or starting your own business, you may find yourself with much less free time than you previously had. It can help to manage all of the various things on your plate—both work-related and not—using a task-based rather than time-based approach.

I recommend that you use a task management system to organize your schedule. Examples of these include Todoist, Wunderlist, OmniFocus, Trello, Asana. I currently use a combination of Todoist and Trello.

If apps aren’t your thing, at least use a pen and paper system to organize yourself. Either way, take some time to assess the options and choose one or more that work for you. And once you’ve make your decision, try to stick with it, at least for a while.

Of course, once you’ve chosen a system, you can adapt it to your way of working. Decide when you’d like to organize yourself—be it first thing in the morning, or last thing before bed—and start doing it.

To get the most value out of a task management system, create tasks for everything, including work, online activities, family things, chores, and overhead for your business.

Also, limit your tasks in a day. At some point, draw a cutoff and stop adding more things to your plate. You can only do so many things in a day!

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